There are thousands of molecules in the food we eat, but most have yet to be identified. This is especially true in the world of fermentation.
“Lactic acid is not the only byproduct of lactic acid fermentation,” says Suzanne Johanningsmeier, a research food technologist with USDA-ARS. During a TFA webinar, Johanningsmeier presented her research into health-promoting pickled vegetables. “There could be hundreds or thousands of byproducts of this lactic fermentation. As an analytical chemist and someone who is very interested in the composition of foods, I find that fascinating and exciting and a world to explore.”
Johanningsmeier, a leading expert on the chemical and sensory properties of fermented food and veggies, notes that fermentation is a trending food technique. Consumers today want food that is plant-based, enhances gut health, introduces new flavors, made with simple labels and returns to tradition.
“All these things have aligned and intersected for a fermented foods megatrend. It’s exciting to see so much momentum in the Americas rolling for fermented foods,” she says. “All of these trends are based on the belief that these are health promoting foods for consumption.”
The USDA-ARS office in North Carolina State University is staffed by five research scientists, and there are an additional 2,000 more affiliated scientists across the country. Their mission is to deliver scientific solutions to national and global agricultural challenges.
“My long-term goal is to develop science-based technologies that enable the sustainable preservation of fruits and vegetables for production of high-quality, health-promoting consumer products,” Johanningsmeier says.
The most recent USDA-ARS study explored the potential health benefits of fermented cucumbers. Cucumbers are one of the top five vegetables preserved in the U.S. but the only one that’s not canned or frozen. The USDA-ARS found that fermented and pickled cucumbers include many beneficial by-products, including proline, bioactive peptides and GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, which works as a neurotransmitter in the brain).
“Food processing has a negative connotation. But, actually, fermentation is processing and, as you can see, processing can be good. Processing can add things and certainly make food available to people year round,” Johanningsmeier says. “I think the idea here is how do we preserve [food] so we retain or enhance those inherent, health-promoting properties? The abilities we have now to more comprehensively look at composition are going to help us understand that in the future.”
Maria Marco, professor of food science and technology at University of California, Davis (and TFA Advisory Board member), moderated the discussion. Marco praised Johanningsmeier’s use of analytical techniques to implement fermentation technologies.
“These are exciting compounds, and we know that they have neuroreactive properties or antihypertensive properties,” Marco says.