In my last article, I introduced you to the world of microorganisms, what they are, where they are found, how close to us they are, the roles they play in the body and why we must pay attention to them. In case you missed it, you can read here.
For the second and final part, I will be going a step further, to talk about another aspect of microorganisms that some are not aware of. This is the role microorganisms play in food production, consumption, contamination, and spoilage.
It may come as a big surprise to you, to learn that you have most likely been eating microorganisms and the products of their activities for a very long time… Let that sink for a minute. You don’t agree? Then read to the end of this post, what you will learn may shock you.
Microorganisms in Food Production
What if I told you that cheese, bread (leavened), yogurt, locust beans, wine, beer, cakes and other confectionery products, Kefir, garri, sauerkraut, and ogi (pap) will not exist without microorganisms? It is true. All of these foods and much more belonging to different locales cannot be made without the action of microorganisms. A study of the many processes of producing these food items shows that most involve a process known as fermentation. This fermentation is carried out majorly by microorganisms. The popular baker’s yeast that is used by bakers, and caterers worldwide, is made from Yeast, a type of Fungi, a microorganism. Mushrooms are also mciroorganisms!
In general, two major classes of microorganisms are used in food production. These are bacteria and fungi. Many types of bacteria are used, but in Fungi, only Moulds and Yeast are used in production. Examples of bacteria that take part in food production include the Lactobacillus, Bifidobacterium, Lactococcus, and Streptococcus species.
These microorganisms, all things being equal, do not cause any harm or disease to humans as a result of consuming them. In fact, it is advised that we include a daily dose of microorganisms in our diets deliberately. This leads to talking about a special class of microorganisms known as Probiotics.
Probiotics are a class of microorganisms known as good bacteria. Remember in my last post when I mentioned that there are thousands, even millions, of microorganisms in the body, and most of them are good? I also mentioned that the ratio of good to bad bacteria in the body must be higher at all times. Over time, due to indiscriminate use of antibiotics, or being ill which leads to us being immunocompromised, the bad bacteria could outgrow the good bacteria. This is referred to as dysbiosis.
To neutralise the effect of these bad bacteria and restore the equilibrium of good bacteria to bad bacteria, probiotics are recommended for consumption/use.
The benefits of probiotics are numerous and includes:
1. They help fight urinogenital infections;
2. They facilitate the process of digestion, leading to better absorption of nutrients from food;
3. They help to fight diseases such as irritable bowel disease;
4. Probiotics also help fight vaginal infection
Sources of Probiotics
Including probiotics in our diet is not so difficult, as they are easily available to us. A common example is Yoghurt. Mind you, I do not mean the chilled ones sold in paper or plastic containers in traffic or stores. Rather I mean fresh, raw yoghurt. Remember that probiotics are living organisms, who are affected by factors such as a change in temperature, moisture, etc. As such too high or too low temperatures affect them. Having them as close to room temperature as possible is the best. Frozen or chilled yoghurts contain very little live microorganisms, which makes them not as effective as organic yoghurts at room temperatures. Other sources of probiotics are Sauerkraut and Kefir milk (these are not common to our locale).
An easy alternative is using probiotic supplements. There are a number of supplements sold in drugstores. What matters though is the mix of microorganisms used in making these supplements. A key microorganism to look out for is Lactobacillus sp. I personally have a favorite type of probiotic supplement I can recommend, but it is always advisable to consult your doctor first.
Microorganisms in Food Contamination
Have you ever suffered a bout of diarrhoea, you know stooling and vomiting, after eating a particular food or drink? Sure you must have thought the person that prepared the food (if not you), most likely poisoned it, or that the food was not properly prepared. While I will not discount any of the above reasons, there is however a more tenable cause for this event that involves the action of microorganisms. This is known as food contamination.
Food contamination is the infection of food by microorganisms, most likely bacteria, leading to a number of reactions, including vomiting and stooling. Food contamination by bacteria could be from a number of sources. They include the transfer of pathogens from the food handler/cook; use of cooking utensils that contain microorganisms; use of ingredients that have been colonised by microorganisms, etc. Since microorganisms reproduce asexually, they are able to multiply into millions within a matter of minutes and produce pathogenic reactions in the body of whoever consumes such a contaminated food. While people survive the effects of food contamination, there are however high cases of death resulting from food contamination/poisoning.
The class of microorganisms that is responsible for food contamination is largely bacteria, since fungi like moulds and yeast, require dry surfaces to grow.
Some bacteria that cause food contamination include Salmonella, Clostridium, Diphtheria, and Streptococcus sp.
Preventing Food Contamination
Guarding against food contamination includes paying attention to the processes, ingredients, and utensils to be used in cooking. It is possible for a food handler to carry pathogenic bacteria without showing symptoms of being sick. That is why it is advised that persons that cook for a large group of people, or even personal cooks, undergo a mandatory food handlers test as long as they remain in your employ. We should also ensure foods are prepared in clean environments, ensure not to leave uneaten foods uncovered or stored loosely. Every utensil to be used in food preparation and storage should also be properly washed and free from dirt.
Food Spoilage: Spoilage of food is a change in food that makes it unfit or unsuitable for consumption. It occurs as a result of four major factors: physical; chemical; enzymes; and microorganisms.
Physical spoilage occurs as a result of changes in temperature, moisture, and food handling.
Chemical spoilage occurs as a result of changes in the chemical composition of the food.
Enzymatic spoilage occurs as a result of the actions of enzymes on food.
Microbial spoilage occurs as result of the action of microorganisms on food items. The microorganisms that cause food spoilage are bacteria, and fungi (in particular moulds and yeasts). Moulds grow on the surface of foods like bread, and eba, fungi can infect food like groundnut and tomatoes; and bacteria can grow on any food that has high moisture content.
Signs of Food Spoilage
Signs of spoilt food include a slimy surface, an off or unpleasant odour, rotting, change in colour/appearance, a visible growth on food surface as seen in bread and eba. It is best to dispose of spoilt food, especially those that are spoilt as a result of microbial action. This is because these microorganisms produce toxins and other harmful substances that make consumption of such foods unsafe for humans.
It must be noted that while there is always some sort of evidence either in appearance, taste, or smell to indicate food spoilage; food contamination does not show any sort of physical evidence or otherwise.
So how then do we save our foods from being spoilt by microorganisms? The answer lies in food preservation. Food preservation is a process of utilising different means to prevent the spoilage and or contamination of our food items.
Common food preservation mechanisms include:
Drying: This involves the removal of water from a food item by applying heat or salt.
Canning: Some foods are also preserved from spoilage by putting them in cans. This at times involves applying some pressure, or other chemicals to ensure they last.
Freezing: Different microorganisms survive at different temperatures; these include low, medium, and high temperatures. Foods subjected to freezing or refrigeration are prevented from microorganisms that prefer high and medium temperatures. This leaves only those that survive at low temperatures, which can be removed by subjecting the food to high temperatures.
Conclusively, the points raised in this post include specifying microorganisms that are used in food production, probiotics and their benefits, food contamination, food spoilage, and food preservation.
Are there any points you wished I had touched on? Or do you have any questions or disagreements? Please leave your comments below.
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