August 1, 2006

Seven foods made using microbes

Years ago I took a microbiology class to fulfill the requirements for a degree. It was specifically designed for students like me, arts majors who needed those crucial science credits. As such, it stayed away from “serious” biology and focused more on the societal impact of microbiology. From infectious diseases to the misuse of antibiotics and anti-bacterial soap, it was an interesting, if somewhat frightening class. We also discussed the more benign and beneficial aspects of microbes, chief among them their ability to aid in the production of various food and beverages. It made me realize how indebted we are to these little critters, and how many of my favorite edibles and imbibables would not exist without their help. A few examples:

  1. Cheese: Bacteria produce lactic acid, which initially thickens the milk; bacteria also determine the flavor of the cheese later in the ripening process. For examples of the types of bacteria used to make different cheeses, go here.
  2. Beer: Yeast (Saccharomyces cerevisiae), once added to the wort, a liquid made of barley, hops, sugar and water, converts the sugar in the wort to alcohol and carbon dioxide (creating bubbles in the beer)
  3. Bread (leavened): Also made using yeast, although the byproducts of the yeast’s fermentation of the dough are water and carbon dioxide (not alcohol), which fills the dough with air bubbles that make it rise
  4. Wine: Like beer, wine is made using yeast, but instead of hops and barley, the starter material is obviously grapes
  5. Pickles: Cucumbers are fermented using lactic acid producing bacteria, giving pickles their sour taste and also preventing harmful strains of bacteria from taking hold. Microbes used: Enterobacter aerogenes, Lactobacillus brevis and L. plantarum, Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Pediococcus cerevisiae, Enterococcus faecalis
  6. Olives: Basically inedible until they are fermented, olives are also fermented using lactic acid producing bacteria, including Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus plantarum. and Leuconostoc
  7. Yogurt: Bacteria added to milk produce lactic acid that makes the yogurt sour and partially breaks down the lactose in the milk. Microbes used: Lactobacillus bulgaricus and/or acidophilus & Streptococcus thermophilus

19 Responses to “Seven foods made using microbes”

  1. crisf said:


  2. Zachary said:

    I would like to elaborate on List Number Seven, Yogurt, and add its Microbial Grandfather Kefir. Don’t bother with USA store-bought! See: and Dominic Anfiteatro’s page.

  3. Zachary said:

    I would like to add on List Number eight, MISO. From a recent article “The Chinese have prized the soybean for thousands of years as a fertilizer, a “green manure,” but it wasn’t until they learned to ferment it around 500 B.C. that they considered it suitable for human consumption. Fermenting the bean into foods like miso, tempeh and natto removed toxins and phytic acid (which can interfere with the absorption of minerals) and made soy more easily digestible — all benefits that ordinary cooking could not accomplish. These “traditional” fermented soy foods, along with (unfermented) tofu, spread throughout Asia and still constitute about 90 percent of the soybeans consumed in Asia today.”

  4. Joe Kissell said:

    Zachary: Thanks for your comments and additions. Kefir is a particularly good one—I wrote an article about that for Interesting Thing of the Day.

  5. x-tiffany-x said:

    gd list but aren’t beer and wine drinks not food? see i am smart xxx

  6. Clarke Nattress said:

    A nice list for sure, but why not edit “Bread (leavened)” to be “Bread (sourdough)” and include Candida humilis and Lactobacillus sanfrancisco – lactofermentation goes way beyond Fleishmann’s for flavor and quality. I have been using the same starter for around 25 years, and it only seems to get better. By the way, there is some alcohol in there, not that it doesn’t “cook off”. I read a comment once by a French baker where he called his bread “solid beer”.

  7. Clarke Nattress said:

    “Other foods” would include some familiar and unfamiliar to you; sauerkraut, kimchi, coffee, chocolate, tea (black teas) and the original versions of ginger ale/beer (as were brewed pre Prohibition era). But there are many more, which are only now starting to be naturally fermented again, try; ham, corned beef, any link sausage type of sandwich meats. These are all now “preserved” with chemicals, whereas in the not too distant past they were cured in a salt brine, allowing naturally occurring lactic acid bacteria to “pickle” and thereby preserve the food. Somehow, noting all our new ailments and disorders of the gut, I think we’ve gone backwards instead of ahead when it comes to eating dead versus live foods.

  8. Gracie said:

    Thank you, great website. helped me with my biology homework!! =]

  9. gwen said:

    thank you… this website was great, it helped students in their study.

  10. elly said:

    thank you so much great list and great comments helped me with my biology coursework =D

  11. errrrr said:

    this website really help me on my project on microorganisms

  12. Beth said:

    thx, u just gave me all the answers to my science homework!!!

  13. Lalia said:

    helped me soooo much with my health project

  14. abcdef said:

    You perople above are all nerds!!!!

  15. abcdef said:

    All you above are NERDS!!! GET A LIFE

  16. ******** said:

    thanks this reaally helped with my science homework :)x.

  17. Kristen said:

    thankyou! but i have to come up with the most creative food that contains microbes for a class party!

  18. yo mama. said:

    wanna like give me some answers? Kthnx♥ ur all nerds instead of doing this and playing video games,get a job,make some babies,kissa a girl!!!

  19. jAccAt24 said:

    hi thanks helped with my GCSE revising