Changing the food industry, one microorganism at a time

It’s been a long, hard day at work. Throughout the day, you’ve continuously thought about that delicious bowl of leftover Thai chicken salad laying in the fridge, your mouth salivating at the thought of that salad. Work is finally over for the day; you go home to your beloved chicken salad and finally satisfied. However, you are sick to your stomach a few hours later! Is it Covid-19? Are you possibly getting the flu? Well, the symptom shows that you might have a bad case of food poisoning. But what could possibly be the cause of it? Bacteria, the friendly (or not so friendly) microorganism!

In this article, we will explore the role of microorganisms in the food industry.

Food-borne pathogens

Remember that delicious bowl of chicken salad that caused your upset tummy? Well, I am sure by now you know that there is a direct link between the foods that we consume and human illness. Microorganisms are the ones that are responsible for causing food-borne illnesses. This happens when you consume contaminated food. These contaminated foods usually have disease-causing pathogens which, in return, produce a toxin in foods. These toxins are then ingested by humans, thus causing us illness. There are a host of microorganisms that are naturally found in food products with bacteria being the most predominant organism, followed by a close second with fungi.

Food microbiology deals with a whole host of microorganisms and a wide range of environmental factors such as temperature, pH, and the likes that can significantly impact the growth and survival of microbes. The growth of these organisms contributes to the changes that happen within the food products. They may have a favourable or harmful effect on food safety and quality. These effects in return may be concerning to the health of the public.

Ever wondered what gives a wine that fruity delicious taste? Or perhaps you’ve seen a rotten vegetable or have found nasty mould growing on that last slice of bread you were planning to consume. The growth found in those food items causes undesirable changes to the food product in terms of flavour, texture, and appearance, and, ultimately, can make you ill if consumed.

Microbiology and food security

Producing the maximum amount of food in a sustainable manner poses a challenge, especially with the land that we currently have available. It is a known fact that microorganisms are found everywhere. They play a crucial role in increasing food production. Microorganisms have been exploited for years for the production of various types of food. These foods are often deemed to be spoilage resistant and highly nutritious.

Microorganisms are often used in the biotechnology sector to preserve food, such as the delicious bottle of jalapeños you have in your fridge. Microorganisms are also used to produce many valuable products, such as microbial cultures, vitamins, enzymes and food ingredients, to name a few.

The choice and exploitation of microorganisms can lead to the manufacture of food products with improvements in yields obtained, improved safety and quality, and processing. The remarkable qualities that microorganisms can display show us that bioprocessing can contribute to food security by providing food elements, in addition to minimizing loss in the food supply chain.

Innovative food products that are created through the use of microorganisms are grouped into three categories:

  • Viable microorganisms that are usually genetically modified. For example, the use of genetically modified lactic acid bacteria that is commonly found in fermented foods.
  • Foods that are produced from but do not contain genetically modified microorganisms. For example, some of the vitamins you may consume daily.
  • Lastly, food products that are isolated from microorganisms. For example, kefir with lactic acid bacteria in it.

Microbes to the rescue

Currently, the food industry has many challenges to deal with. Novel solutions to tackle these challenges are continually developing and evolving, but, one such solution that holds much promise is the use of microbes. It is a known fact that microbes have a direct effect on soil and plant growth. Scientists are able to manipulate microorganisms to benefit the number of crops produced. This includes tolerance to harsh weather conditions, enhanced resistance to pests and an overall improvement in plant growth. Another important advantage of using our superheroes, microbes, in agriculture, is that it is an environmentally friendly method too.

These microbial-based solutions used in agriculture have the potential to turn the world upside-down. In a good way, of course! An excellent point to note about microbiology and science at large is that new discoveries and innovations are being made every day. With new innovations to come, a sustainable future for the food industry holds much promise and delight for billions of people around the world.

As more and more discoveries are being made along with the improvements in technology, the use of microorganisms to aid a sustainable food production system for future generations to come is endless!

Perhaps one day you'll be able to eat that mould-covered week-old bread, and maybe, just maybe, it'll taste good while providing you with much-needed vitamins and energy. No? Well, that was just an afterthought. Let us see what the future holds for the food microbiology industry; after all, we may not have a future without it.

We hope this article was an interesting read in the field of microbiology for our audience. For more interesting articles, keep checking our space.

By Melissa Naidu | 16 August 2022

Bacteria, fungi, petri-plates and the likes. Those are just a few words that brings joy to any scientist, right? Melissa Naidoo is a qualified Biotechnologist with a focus area in the microbiology sector. She is based in the sunny city of Durban, South Africa. She is currently a microbiology content creator for Lab Associates B.V in the Netherlands and an academic in the private higher education sector in SA.