For as long as humans have harvested food, we have sought ways to keep it longer from spoiling. Through the millennia, we developed numerous techniques for extending food storage times, including drying, salting and smoking.
Canning and bottling have also enabled people to store foods from one season to the next, and with root cellars and ice boxes we can keep foods cool, slowing bacterial growth and dramatically extending storage time. Electrical refrigeration and further implementations like refrigerated transport enable the availability of fresh foods around the world and year-round.
Today, these shelf-life extension breakthroughs are taken for granted in developed countries, despite that an effective post-harvest food storage infrastructure is not readily available to a large percentage of the world’s population.
For processors, distributors and retailers in all countries, shelf-life remains the single most significant food loss factor. According to the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation, up to one-third of the world’s food—1.3 billion tonnes— becomes spoiled before it can be consumed. This amounts to an annual loss of one trillion US dollars’ worth of food.
Because of this, scientists continue to search for better methods of extending shelf-life and preserving foods. At the same time, chemical preservatives have continued to lose favour as increasingly educated consumers drive demand for natural options.
Food processors and restaurants increasingly recognise that ingredient lists and menus must be cleansed of chemical preservatives, and as a result many are investing heavily in innovation towards simpler, more natural methods of extending shelf-life and safeguarding against pathogens.
This has led to a dramatic rise in demand for bio-preservatives, natural microbiota and antimicrobials that preserve and extend the shelf-life of foods without the use of chemical ingredients. In recent years, multiple approaches have emerged.
Some bio-preservation methods use yeasts to compete for nutrients or produce bacteriocins—proteinaceous toxins that can prevent the growth of other bacterial strains.
Other bio-preservatives use live microorganisms to create antibiotics that destroy pathogens. Also known as probiotics, these tend to be highly specific. For example, a bio-preservation agent that uses a lactic acid bacterial culture will create bacteriocins exclusively targeting listeria.
Offering Health Benefits
Most commercial bio-preservation methods using live bacteria do their work through acidification. As the bacteria compete for nutrients, they create natural antimicrobials including lactic acid, acetic acid, and hydrogen peroxide.
However, one downside to lactic acid bacteria bio-preservation is that the resulting by-products can break down the food it is meant to protect, which often causes undesired odours, textures and flavours.
Biacta, a new bio-preservative by the Canadian bioscience company Vientero, uses a proprietary technology to destroy harmful bacteria without the acidification of lactic acid bacteria.
Not only does it block the growth of pathogenic and spoilage agents in meat, poultry and seafood products, but its heat-resistant probiotic bacteria are proven to survive cooking and processing to benefit the consumer’s digestive health. This enables meat processors and sellers to promote the numerous health benefits of probiotics and at the same time reduce food waste and minimise risk.
The health benefits of probiotic bacteria have been well documented, and ongoing research continues to reveal ever-broadening importance to probiotics in relation to our overall wellbeing.
Many meat products, in particular red meats, are in desperate need of a health benefit to counter growing negative public perception. What’s more, probiotics can be used to counter adverse effects of existing foods and processes.
The nitrates and other preservatives used in processed meats, for example, are known to kill off healthy gut flora. Therefore not only can bio-preservatives be used to reduce or replace such additives in the first place, but their good bacteria remain unaffected by meat preservatives and can potentially reverse their negative effects on digestive health.
In addition to providing essential gut flora, probiotics have been associated with numerous other benefits, including weight management, reduced likelihood of colorectal cancers, improved immune response, prevention of eczema and allergies, improved oral, urinary and vaginal health, healing of inflammatory bowel conditions and even improved mental health. The probiotic revolution is very real, and continues to gain critical mass.
“Probiotics have become one of the most in-demand functional foods of all time,” explains Vientero president and R&D director Pierre Tisserand. “It took years of development to create a probiotic technology that can withstand high temperatures of cooking and processing, and at the same time provide significant shelf-life extension to meat, poultry and seafood.”
Bio-preservation has its challenges in industry. For many years, the trend has been to destroy every living thing on meat products, in order to remove pathogenic bacteria. Chemicals are an effective and very inexpensive way to achieve this, but have their downsides.
“Washing carcasses with chlorine or acids not only harms the meat, but also creates a perfect environment for any bacteria that are later introduced,” Mr Tisserand says. “From a food safety perspective, this is dangerous. But if we pre-populate with beneficial bacteria, we are able to block pathogens. Probiotic bacteria are a natural control, and are incapable of harming humans.”
Riding On Positive Consumer Perception
Probiotics are now well known and recognised around the world. In North America, more than 80 percent of consumers are familiar with the word “probiotic” and associate it with a health benefit.
On a recent promotional tour of China, Mr Tisserand and his Vientero colleagues witnessed a similar dynamic. “We talked to many people, and whether we were in an upscale grocery store in Guangzhou or in a blue-collar market in Yantai, consumers understood what probiotics are and what they do,” he says. “The Asian market is generally very open to innovations in food safety and health, especially from a Canadian source.”
According to him, not only do probiotics not have flavour or odour, but their application also does not affect the way foods taste, look, smell or feel in the consumer’s mouth— even in the late stages of shelf-life extension. Many probiotic strains can be used as functional food additives and have Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS) statuses, enabling them to be readily used in food products.
Probiotic bacteria have long been known to control spoilage, dating back to 6,000 BC, when Neolithic herdsmen in Central Asia used animal stomachs to carry milk.
The containers’ natural enzymes turned the milk to yoghurt and kept it edible much longer, even in the hot sun, thanks to natural competitive enhancement. Simply put, the good bacteria proved adept at outcompeting spoilage and pathogenic agents.
It is also known that Genghis Khan gave his warriors greater strength and stamina than mostly grain-fed enemy troops by feeding them horse milk yoghurt, placing the Mongol emperor among the earliest documented proponents of probiotic health benefits in functional foods.
The result: his solders were stronger, had more stamina, better oral health and greater immunity because of their yoghurt-centric diet.
Similar to yoghurt, kefir is a fermented milk drink that dates back 2,000 years to the shepherds of the Caucasus mountains, who discovered a pleasant effervescent effect in the milk they carried in leather pouches.
Kefir is today enjoying unprecedented popularity, driven by booming demand for probiotics, quickly transitioning it from an obscure health beverage to one now sold in grocery stores everywhere.
Probiotics are also naturally found in fermented non-dairy products such as sauerkraut, Kimchi, miso soup and kombucha tea.
Opportunities For Probiotics In Meat
Interestingly, meats have proven a better substrate for probiotics than many of these traditional products because meat proteins buffer stomach acid.
This protects beneficial microorganisms, enabling them to survive powerful stomach acids in order to do their important work.
Probiotic bacteria occur naturally in many European dry-cured sausages, and can allow for years of storage without refrigeration. Still, probiotics are novel as a functional additive to meats.
By exploiting the antimicrobial capabilities of beneficial microorganisms, bio-preservation continues to gain popularity as a means of extending shelf-life through technological enhancements of functions that have proven effective for thousands of years.
And in recognising that the use of bio-preservation methods is not merely less harmful to our wellbeing than chemical preservation, but in some cases can deliver numerous health benefits, it becomes even more clearly a worthy option for shelf-life extension.