Leave cabbage in the crisper too long and it is a brown, stinking, squishy mess. But with a few minor tweaks, that fermented mush could end up as crunchy, tasty sauerkraut. What’s the difference? The balance of microorganisms and the process in which the “good” goes “bad.” That’s the science of fermentation.
The topic is the focus of a new and unique major taught for the first time next year in Colorado State University’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, the fermentation science and technology major. The major focuses on educating students about fermented foods and beverages such as cheese, yogurt, salami, miso, sourdough bread, beer and, of course, sauerkraut. Students will understand the process and learn production methods.
Fermentation science and technology is the first CSU major focused on the use of microorganisms – bacteria and yeast – to ferment different types of foods and beverages. Yet fermented food and drink is nothing new; cultures from around the world have practiced the art of fermentation for thousands of years. Nearly every culture has a signature fermented food, such as cheeses from different global regions, teas from China, and meats such as salami from Italy. Beer and wine are among the fermented beverages popular in many places across the globe. The ancient art is a new topic of research in food science, since new evidence is emerging regarding its long-suspected health benefits.
Tiffany Weir, an assistant professor in CSU’s Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition, is researching the microbial benefits of fermented food including a Chinese tea made with an ancient method that includes fermentation. Fermented foods, once ingested, can change the microbial balance in the human gut. The benefits may include an impact on risk for some chronic and inflammatory diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cancer. Weir has lectured in the class and taught the students to make kombucha, a fermented sweet and tangy tea.
“I am excited about this program because I think that fermentation science is growing in popularity, but is offered as a dedicated major at so few universities,” Weir said. “The availability and diversity of fermented products, including cheese, bread, yogurt, kefir, pickles, sauerkraut, meat, soy products, beer and wine, has increased in recent years and consumer interest in these products is continuing to grow. This program will prepare students for employment in the rapidly expanding interface of functional foods and human health, and also in the industries that develop and generate fermented products. I think this program will attract students to CSU and prepare them for careers in a rapidly growing industry.”
The department recently launched the major, and the first students will graduate within the next four to five years. The program at CSU is one of a handful of its kind in the United States, and it is a direct response to industry needs. Students with a degree in the program can look forward to careers in food health and safety, wine and brewing sciences, dairy and cereal production, and medical foods.
The curriculum includes rigorous core scientific requirements and specialized coursework in the production, quality assessment, processing and packaging and evaluation of value-added health benefits of fermented foods and beverages. Students will have the opportunity to gain practical experience in operation and management through internships with local or national industries, in the science of fermentation through such partnerships such as one with the CSU Ramskeller pilot brewery laboratory, by bringing the industry into the classroom and laboratories, as well as conduct other impactful research to benefit the field. Students will be exposed to multiple components of the disciplines ranging from production and management to basic and applied research.
The major and the Department of Food Science and Human Nutrition are in the College of Health and Human Sciences, formerly the College of Applied Human Sciences.