Microorganisms, commonly known as microbes, are organisms that are so small they can rarely be seen without the aid of a microscope. Bacteria, fungi, green algae, archaea, protists and some animals such as plankton are all considered microbes. Microbes are essential in helping nutrients rotate through the world’s ecosystems. While certain microbes can make our food inedible through spoilage, microbes are a crucial component in food production and can be found in many common foods.
Bacteria is used to produce lactic acid through the ripening process. This is essential in curdling milk and turning a liquid into a solid food product. Cheese also gains its particular flavor in the ripening process through the addition of bacteria. Each cheese has a different bacteria, which enhances the cheese with flavor compounds. Mesophilic bacteria is used for cheeses like cheddar, colby and feta, while thermophilic bacteria is used for camembert, gouda and baby swiss.
Yeast causes the dough of the bread to rise in a fermentation process through which the yeast converts sugars in the dough into water and carbon dioxide. This makes the dough fill up with air bubbles that force the batter to rise.
Cucumbers undergo a fermentation process with bacteria that produces lactic acid. The bacteria involved in the process include Enterobacter aerogenes, Lactobacillus brevis and L. plantarum, Leuconostoc mesenteroides, Pediococcus cerevisiae, and Enterococcus faecalis. The bacteria involved prevent dangerous bacteria from attaching to the cucumbers and also give the pickles their distinct, sour taste.
Olives can't be eaten until they undergo a fermentation process with microbes. Olives are steeped in a live active brine solution, which includes Lactobacillus brevis, Lactobacillus plantarum and Leuconostoc. This begins a curing (or fermentation) process.
Lactobacillus bulgaricus (or Lactobacillus acidophilus) and Streptococcus thermophilus are used to create lactic acid, which begins fermentation similar to the cheese-making process. The microbial bacteria creates the yogurt’s sour flavor and breaks down some of the milk’s lactose.
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Damin Chu is a freelance writer, whose writing has taken her down a number of avenues. In 2008, she returned from Shanghai, China, where she served as the managing editor of a China travel guide, in addition to writing travel features for the local newspaper. Her other projects have included writing for a Shanghai expat guide, a education documentary, and an environmental NGO.