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MICROORGANISMS

destined as foods for humans and animals grow in soil surrounded and covered with microorganisms ready to invade any organic matter and recycle it (essentially con- sume the organic matter and return it to compost utiliz- able by new seeds and plants). When the plant materials—seeds, nuts, leaves, tubers, stems, roots—are harvested, they are contaminated or infected with the types of microbes present in the soil; the microbes im- mediately start to grow on any susceptible organic mat- ter that is available, as long as there is sufficient moisture to allow growth. Dry seeds and leaves are resistant to overgrowth by microorganisms, but as soon as they ab- sorb enough moisture, they become susceptible to mi- crobial growth. If the products of the microbial growth have desirable or attractive aromas and flavors and if they are nontoxic and do not cause disease when consumed, they can be described as “fermented foods” and can be- come an accepted food in the diet. If they have unpleas- ant aromas or bad flavors or if they cause food poisoning or death when consumed, they are considered to be spoiled and become garbage on their way to compost or soil. From the earliest times, our food supply has been strongly affected by fermentation.

Alcoholic beverages. The earliest sweet food on earth was likely honey, produced by honeybees and stored for their future use. Humans, in competition with animals such as bears, have always striven to collect honey for their own consumption. Honey is very resistant to spoilage in its concentrated form (about eighty percent sugars), but if it is collected and stored in a container and becomes diluted by rain water, yeasts present in the en- vironment ferment the sugar in the honey to ethyl alco- hol (ethanol). The products are called mead or honey wine, one of the earliest alcoholic beverages known to humans and still consumed today.

Similarly when humans started collecting sweet fruits and berries in containers, the juices as well as the fruits and berries themselves were quickly invaded by yeasts on the surfaces of the fruits that ferment the sugars to alco- hol (actually a step in recycling), producing a primitive wine. For better or worse, humans have prized alcoholic beverages and they are still consumed in large quantities throughout the world except in those populations that avoid alcohol because of religious restrictions. In some religions, wines are a component of the religious services. Humans discovered ways of producing other alcoholic beverages. For example, early man probably discovered that chewed corn when mixed with water and stored in a container produces an alcoholic beverage. The process occurs because saliva contains an enzyme, diastase, that converts starch in the corn to sugars; then yeasts in the environment ferment the sugars to alcohol. The bever- age thus produced is called chicha in the Andes region of South America. In ancient times, an emperor in that re- gion could hold office only as long as he delivered suffi- cient chicha to the citizens to keep them happy. Even today, among families in the Andes region, husbands will

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get drunk one weekend and wives will get drunk the next, ensuring that at least one parent is sober and able to look after the children.

Juices from palm trees are collected by cutting the flowers and allowing the sap to flow through bamboo tubes into a container. As the juices flow through the tubes, they become infected with yeasts and other mi- croorganisms. The sugars are fermented to alcohol and the product, palm wine, is produced in large quantities in the tropics. It is very rich in vitamins valuable to the consumer.

When cereal grains such as rice, barley, wheat, and corn are collected and soaked, or if they become wet from rain, they start to germinate, and starch in the seeds is changed to fermentable sugars that are fermented by yeasts in the environment, yielding an alcoholic beer. It has been suggested by anthropologists that this process was an early cause of fundamental social change. To en- sure the continuity of supply of fermentable sugars, peo- ple settled in permanent locations. Agriculture, in turn, was a way of ensuring the regularity of production of fer- mentable cereal grains.

Alcoholic beverages are major fermented foods in the diet of humans. The yeast fermentation not only leads to a highly accepted beverage, it is a safe method of pre- serving fruit and berry juices until they can be consumed. The yeasts also enrich the beverages with B-vitamins.

As long as the wine or beer is kept anaerobic (air is excluded), it is preserved, but if there is access to air, there is a second fermentation by bacteria (Acetobacter) in the environment that transforms the alcohol to acetic acid (vinegar), which is even more preservative than ethyl al- cohol. Many primitive wines and beers contain both al- cohol and acetic acid. The vinegar fermentation is an ancient process that is still very important today. Vine- gar is used to preserve cucumbers and other vegetables as pickles, which make an important contribution to the food supply of people around the world.

Milk products. As soon as humans started milking cows, they found that milk held a few hours at room temperature became sour. They did not know why, but it was, in fact, the streptococci and lactobacilli in the en- vironment that produce lactic acid from lactose in the milk. This is the basis for yogurts, and the souring process as practiced in the early days also led to the de- velopment of cheeses.

The principal early milks were those from sheep or goats. Milk was often collected and stored in animal stomachs or hides, which allowed for the souring process to occur, the butter to be removed, and the milk curds to accumulate. The skin of a sheep or goat was carefully removed undamaged. The openings of the limbs and neck and the natural openings were tied. The hair was removed and the skin bag was used to collect the milk. During souring, the curds separate from the whey. The curds

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