The Future Is Fermentation

Fermentation can do more than make food taste better and last longer—it may hold the key to building a more resilient, sustainable global food system.

AsianScientist (Apr. 13, 2023) – Kimchi, kombucha and kefir come from different corners of the globe but are all tasty, fermented foods widely known for their health benefits. An age-old food preservation method embedded in many cultures, fermentation extends the shelf life of foods and even gives them a unique flavor profile while improving their nutritional value.

Now, the process also goes hand in hand with food security—turning otherwise inedible food waste into a nutritional and healthy food source like alternative proteins. Against the backdrop of increasing population and depleting resources, fermentation has come into the limelight as a sustainable way to feed more mouths and strengthen our global food security.

As fermentation uses a concoction of microorganisms such as bacteria and fungi to increase the bioavailability of nutrients as well as the digestibility of proteins, the process can serve as an alternative to many common food and ingredient manufacturing techniques.

There are three categories of fermentation that can be used to derive alternative proteins—traditional fermentation, biomass fermentation, and precision fermentation. Traditional fermentation uses live microorganisms to alter flavor and texture, as well as improve the protein profile of food. Biomass fermentation uses fast-growth and high protein content microorganisms to produce protein biomass in bioreactors. The time it takes to grow these microorganisms can be just hours, while conventional meat takes a much longer time to produce. In precision fermentation, production of specific functional ingredients is done by microorganisms with genes modified through various genetic engineering techniques like CRISPR to turn them into ‘cell factories’.

Fermentation can also be carried out using two different techniques – solid-state fermentation and submerged fermentation. Solid-state fermentation consumes much less water compared to submerged fermentation. The former has a lower operating cost and energy requirement, in addition to being less exposed to contamination. On the other hand, submerged fermentation has a shorter production cycle and allows for better monitoring of process parameters, which makes the method more suitable and consistent for large scale application.

In line with Singapore’s ‘30 by 30’ plan to locally produce 30 per cent of the city-state’s nutritional needs by 2030, coupled with increasing consumer awareness for healthier food products, fermentation could be a crucial catalyst in revolutionising how we produce and consume foods.

Boosting the appeal of foods

A staple in most Asian countries, soy plays a significant role in Asian diets, serving as the star ingredient in many delectable dishes ranging from bean curd soup to stir-fried tofu. The processing of soy also produces okara, an often-overlooked by-product. In Singapore, more than 30 tonnes of okara is produced daily—discarded as food waste or used as animal feed. Though packed with nutrients, okara contains a high amount of indigestible fibre and is unpleasant to the palate, making it unpopular for human consumption.

Innovated in Singapore, a cost-effective fermentation technique modifies the fibre composition of okara while preserving its nutrients. As a result, the plant-based functional ingredient, derived from soy waste, can be incorporated into other food products like bread and soy cheese to improve their nutritional and fibre content, while satisfying the taste buds of consumers.

Encouraging a healthier and more diverse gut microbiome, which improves one’s defences against diseases, is one of the hallmarks of fermented foods. Singaporean researchers have also introduced a probiotic dairy-free beverage with bioactive properties—perfect for those who are lactose-intolerant but would like to enjoy the benefits of a stronger gut. During the fermentation process, bioactive compounds are released from plant-based feedstock, delivering high levels of efficacious probiotics that have been proven to survive prolonged storage.

Transforming waste into food

According to reports, approximately one-third of food is wasted when it goes from farm to fork, which could otherwise feed more than a billion hungry people every year. In an effort to tackle food loss, researchers in Singapore have developed an efficient and sustainable method to convert agricultural waste into edible food.

Rich in cellulose, agri-food waste is fed into the biomass fermentation system, as a feedstock for the rapid growth of microorganisms that churn out single-cell proteins with a high nutritional value. Loaded with proteins, fats, carbohydrates and certain essential amino acids, these products can constitute the building blocks of alternative proteins—ideal for human or animal consumption.

Upcycling agricultural waste not only creates value-added proteins but also solves myriad challenges posed by different streams of industrial waste, thus optimizing the pathway for a circular economy in the sectors involved.

Targeting specific applications

Apart from creating foods that encompass a broad spectrum of nutrition, fermentation is also used to manufacture specific ingredients that serve a specific purpose. For example, fungi-based precision fermentation is used to produce next-generation, sustainable food dyes. The resultant dye has a stronger coloring power than natural colorants, making it more cost-effective since a lower dosing concentration is required to achieve a similar coloring effect. The process also has a lower carbon footprint since its water and land usage are lower than traditional methods of synthesizing food coloring.

Apart from adding appealing colors to food, an Israel-based innovation harnesses precision fermentation to manufacture proteins that can act as an effective, green antifungal and antimicrobial agent for foods and beverages that perish easily. Biodegradable, non-toxic, and easily digestible, the versatile protein can take the form of a powder or a liquid, used in a wide range of applications from preserving plant-based meat alternatives to coating post-harvest crops and keeping fruits and vegetables fresh for a longer period.

Eco-friendly and cost-effective, fermentation is beneficial for human well-being, the environment and food security—all of which are paramount to creating a more sustainable future. Innovators in the region are working to take an active role in food sustainability by harnessing the power of fermentation. To find out more about sustainable food technologies and other innovations, contact us at [email protected].

Asian Scientist Magazine is a content partner of IPI.

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