By Sylvia Kantor, College of Agricultural, Human & Natural Resource Sciences
PULLMAN, Wash. – From beer and pickles to cider and cheese, U.S. food industries that rely on fermentation are proliferating – and so is the need for an appropriately skilled workforce. Starting in the fall, Washington State University will offer classes in fermentation science as part of a new option within the food science major.
“There are only four or five programs in the U.S. that are comparable, and most focus on a specific commodity like wine, dairy or beer,” said Charles Edwards, WSU food science professor. “We’re offering a broader spectrum of fermentation science.”
Students will learn about yeasts, bacteria and molds, study the science behind fermented beverages and foods and discover industrial-scale applications of fermentation in three new courses.
With interdisciplinary coursework, the option is designed to prepare graduates for professional technical jobs with skills in all aspects of working with microorganisms for commercial applications.
Microbes are trending
Fermentation – the process of using microorganisms including yeasts or bacteria to convert carbohydrates into alcohol, carbon dioxide, acids or other byproducts – is basic microbiology. But when it comes to culinary trends, microbes are hot.
Increasingly popular foods containing probiotics involve fermentation, as do chocolate, coffee, tea – and bread.
As consumers discover the health benefits and bold flavors of fermented foods, grocery stores are making room on their shelves for more of these products. And chefs are reviving the art and science of fermentation in their kitchens.
Beyond cheese and wine
“We have a lot of expertise in cheese and wine and other types of fermentation,” said Barbara Rasco, director of the joint WSU/University of Idaho School of Food Science. “We created the fermentation science option as a way to address the growing interest in cider making, distilling and brewing as well as in fermented foods and industrial applications of fermentation.”
Scientists are discovering new industrial applications of fermentation, like using it to convert industrial processing waste into useful products. For example, fish scraps can be converted into organic crop fertilizer, a medium for growing microbes or a foam-based fire suppressant thanks to enzymatic fermentation.
The fermentation science option will be available to students at both WSU and UI. Facilities at the Pullman campus include a food processing pilot plant and a student winery.
“We’ve also obtained a pilot-scale distillation unit for teaching purposes,” Edwards said. “It’s going to be a popular class.”