Food Microbiology

microbiome by Michael DeForge

Food microbiology is the study of the microorganisms that inhabit, create, or contaminate food. Including the study of microorganisms causing food spoilage. ‘Good’ bacteria, however, such as probiotics, are becoming increasingly important in food science. In addition, microorganisms are essential for the production of foods such as cheese, yogurt, other fermented foods, bread, beer and wine. Food safety is a major focus of food microbiology. Pathogenic bacteria, viruses, and toxins produced by microorganisms are all possible contaminants of food.

However, microorganisms and their products can also be used to combat these pathogenic microbes. Probiotic bacteria, including those that produce bacteriocins (toxins created by bacteria to kill rival bacteria), can inhibit pathogens. Alternatively, purified bacteriocins such as nisin can be added directly to food products. Finally, bacteriophages, viruses that only infect bacteria, can be used to kill bacterial pathogens. Thorough preparation of food, including proper cooking, eliminates most bacteria and viruses. However, toxins produced by contaminants may not be heat-labile, and some are not eliminated by cooking

Fermentation is one way microorganisms can change a food. Yeast is used to leaven bread, brew beer, and make wine. Certain bacteria, including lactic acid bacteria, are used to make yogurt, cheese, hot sauce, pickles, fermented sausages, and dishes such as kimchi. A common effect of these fermentations is that the food product is less hospitable to other microorganisms, including pathogens and spoilage-causing microorganisms, thus extending the food’s shelf-life. Food fermentations are ancient technologies that harness microorganisms and their enzymes to improve the human diet. Fermented foods keep better, have enhanced flavors  textures and aromas, and may also possess certain health benefits, including superior digestibility. For vegetarians, fermented foods serve as palatable, protein-rich meat substitutes. Some cheese varieties also require molds to ripen and develop their characteristic flavors.

Asian cuisines rely on a large repertoire of fermented foods. In particular, koji molds, are employed in many ways. Their hydrolytic enzymes suit them for growth on starch and other carbohydrate-rich substrates. In the koji process, fungal enzymes perform the same function as the malting enzymes used in the beer fermentations of western cultures. The koji molds release amylases (enzymes) that break down rice starch, which in turn can be fermented to make rice wine. Fermented rice beverages have numerous local variations and names, depending on country and region. Rice wine is called ‘shaoshing’ in parts of China, ‘sake’ in Japan, ‘takj’ or ‘yakju’ in Korea, as well as by many other names across Asia. The koji molds are also effective in a variety of legume fermentations, of which miso and soy sauce are best known. Miso is a mixture of soybeans and cereals usually used to flavor soups. Soy sauce is a flavorful  salty liquid sauce made from soybeans that have been fermented by koji molds, yeasts, as well as several halophilic (salt loving) bacteria.

Probiotics are living organisms that, when consumed, have beneficial health benefits outside their inherent nutritional effects. There is a growing body of evidence for the role of probiotics in gastrointestinal infections, irritable bowel syndrome, and inflammatory bowel disease. Lactobacillus species are used for the production of yogurt, cheese, sauerkraut, pickles, beer, wine, cider, kimchi, chocolate, and other fermented foods, as well as animal feeds such as silage. Bifidobacteria are considered as important probiotics, and are used in the food industry to relieve and treat many intestinal disorders. They exert a range of beneficial health effects, including the regulation of intestinal microbial homeostasis, the inhibition of pathogens and harmful bacteria that colonize and/or infect the gut mucosa, the modulation of local and systemic immune responses, the repression of procarcinogenic enzymatic activities within the microbiota, the production of vitamins, and the bioconversion of a number of dietary compounds into bioactive molecules.

A variety of biopolymers, such as polysaccharides, polyesters and polyamides, are naturally produced by microorganisms. Several microbially-produced polymers are used in the food industry such as xanthan, alginate, and cellulose. Plant-pathogenic bacteria of the genus Xanthomonas are able to produce the acidic exopolysaccharide xanthan gum. Because of its physical properties, it is widely used as a viscosifer, thickener, emulsifier, or stabilizer in the food industry. Alginates can also be used as thickening agents. Although listed under the category ‘Microbial polysaccharides,’ commercial alginates are currently only produced by extraction from brown seaweeds. Currently, the key genes involved in cellulose biosynthesis and regulation are known in a number of bacteria, but many details of the biochemistry of its biosynthesis are still not clear. In spite of the enormous abundance of cellulose in plants, bacterial celluloses are being investigated for industrial exploitation. Levan, a homopolysaccharide, has great potential as a functional biopolymer in foods, feeds, cosmetics, and the pharmaceutical and chemical industries. Levan can be used as food or a feed additive with prebiotic and hypocholesterolemic effects.

Food and waterborne viruses contribute to a substantial number of illnesses throughout the world. Among those most commonly known are hepatitis A virus, rotavirus, astrovirus, enteric adenovirus, hepatitis E virus, and the human caliciviruses consisting of the noroviruses and the Sapporo viruses. This diverse group is transmitted by the fecal-oral route, often by ingestion of contaminated water and food. Protozoan parasites associated with food and water can cause illness in humans. Although parasites are more commonly found in developing countries, developed countries have also experienced several foodborne outbreaks. Contaminants may be inadvertently introduced to the foods by inadequate handling practices, either on the farm or during processing of foods. Protozoan parasites can be found worldwide, either infecting wild animals or in water and contaminating crops grown for human consumption. The disease can be much more severe and prolonged in immunocompromissed individuals.

Molds produce mycotoxins, which are secondary metabolites that can cause acute or chronic diseases in humans when ingested from contaminated foods. Potential diseases include cancers and tumors in different organs, gastrointestinal disturbances, alteration of the immune system, and reproductive problems. Mycotoxins occur mainly in cereal grains (barley, maize, rye, wheat), coffee, dairy products, fruits, nuts and spices. Control of mycotoxins in foods has focused on minimizing mycotoxin production in the field, during storage or destruction once produced. Aflatoxins are still recognized as the most important mycotoxins. They are synthesized by only a few Aspergillus species, of which A. flavus and A. parasiticus are the most problematic. The expression of aflatoxin-related diseases is influenced by factors such as age, nutrition, sex, species and the possibility of concurrent exposure to other toxins. The main target organ in mammals is the liver, so aflatoxicosis is primarily a hepatic disease. Conditions increasing the likelihood of aflatoxicosis in humans include limited availability of food, environmental conditions that favor mold growth on foodstuffs, and lack of regulatory systems for aflatoxin monitoring and control.

Yersinia enterocolitica includes pathogens and environmental strains that are ubiquitous in terrestrial and fresh water ecosystems. Evidence from large outbreaks of yersiniosis and from epidemiological studies of sporadic cases has shown that Y. enterocolitica is a foodborne pathogen. Pork is often implicated as the source of infection. The pig is the only animal consumed by man that regularly harbors pathogenic Y. enterocolitica. An important property of the bacterium is its ability to multiply at temperatures near 0°C, and therefore in many chilled foods. Vibrio species are prevalent in estuarine and marine environments, and seven species can cause foodborne infections associated with seafood. Some strains of these species produce known toxins, but the pathogenic mechanism is largely not understood. The ecology of and detection and control methods for all seafoodborne Vibrio pathogens are essentially similar. Staphylococcus aureus is a common cause of bacterial foodborne disease worldwide. Symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea that occur shortly after ingestion of S. aureus toxin-contaminated food. The symptoms arise from ingestion of preformed enterotoxin, which accounts for the short incubation time. Staphylococcal enterotoxins are superantigens and, as such, have adverse effects on the immune system. The enterotoxin genes are accessory genetic elements in S. aureus, meaning not all strains of this organism are enterotoxin-producing.

Listeria monocytogenes is Gram-positive foodborne bacterial pathogen and the causative agent of human listeriosis. Listeria infections are acquired primarily through the consumption of contaminated foods, including soft cheese, raw milk, deli salads, and ready-to-eat foods such as luncheon meats and frankfurters. Although L. monocytogenes infection is usually limited to individuals that are immunocompromised, the high mortality rate associated with human listeriosis makes it the leading cause of death among foodborne bacterial pathogens. As a result, tremendous effort has been made to develop methods for the isolation, detection and control of L. monocytogenes in foods. Salmonella serotypes continue to be a prominent threat to food safety worldwide. Infections are commonly acquired by animal to human transmission though consumption of undercooked food products derived from livestock or domestic fowl. The second half of the 20th century saw the emergence of Salmonella serotypes that became associated with new food sources (i.e. chicken eggs) and the emergence of Salmonella serotypes with resistance against multiple antibiotics. Shigella species are members of the family Enterobacteriaceae and are Gram negative, nonmotile rods. Symptoms include mild to severe diarrhea with or without blood, fever, tenesmus and abdominal pain. Further complications of the disease may be seizures, toxic megacolon, reactive arthritis and hemolytic uremic syndrome. Transmission of the pathogen is by the fecal-oral route, commonly through food and water.

More information is available concerning Escherichia coli than any other organism, thus making E. coli the most thoroughly studied species in the microbial world. For many years, E. coli was considered a commensal of human and animal intestinal tracts with low virulence potential. It is now known that many strains of E. coli act as pathogens, inducing serious gastrointestinal diseases and even death in humans.

Clostridium botulinum produces extremely potent neurotoxins that result in the severe neuroparalytic disease, botulism. The enterotoxin produced by C. perfringens during sporulation of vegetative cells in the host intestine results in debilitating acute diarrhea and abdominal pain. Sales of refrigerated, processed foods of extended durability including sous-vide foods, chilled ready-to-eat meals, and cook-chill foods have increased over recent years. Anaerobic spore-formers have been identified as the primary microbiological concerns in these foods. Heightened awareness over intentional food source tampering with botulinum neurotoxin has arisen with respect to genes encoding the toxins that are capable of transfer to nontoxigenic clostridia.

4 Comments to “Food Microbiology”

  1. Yes. Sometimes a person can know too much! I just tossed a jar of sundried tomatoes with suspect little white globules throughout the oil. Better safe than sorry :)

  2. Hey. Why are you not crediting your artists, or your photographers? I found this site via a google image search for an uncredited comic, and I see you’ve put some real effort into removing an artist’s name from his art.

    Don’t do that. And if you see an artwork or a photo you like, and can’t find the creator, use a google image search to find and credit the creator, or make a note that you want to be informed if anyone can find the creator, and that you will take it away immediately if someone with the copyright wants it taken away.

    It will also save you some potential economic problems, if you should happen to pick on the wrong person. The fees for illegal use are generally at least 3 times the fees for legal use.

    • Listen, I agree with you. But, first, this is a noncommercial blog that trades heavily in education and satire, so I have a pretty solid fair use argument. Plus, most of the images I use are only 300x300px, which is practically thumbnail size.

      Second, I only came to understand the need for proper accreditation in the past few years. This is an older post. I’ve been making a concerted effort to go back and credit all the older ones, but it’s taking some time. Thanks for the input, though.

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