Fermentation in food processing is the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids using microorganisms—yeasts or bacteria—under anaerobic conditions. Fermentation usually implies that the action of microorganisms is desired. The science of fermentation is known as zymology or zymurgy.

The term fermentation sometimes refers specifically to the chemical conversion of sugars into ethanol, producing alcoholic drinks such as wine, beer, and cider. However, similar processes take place in the leavening of bread (CO2 produced by yeast activity), and in the preservation of sour foods with the production of lactic acid, such as in sauerkraut and yogurt.

Apart from alcohol, widely consumed fermented foods include vinegar, olives, yogurt, bread, and cheese. In various parts of the world, more localised foods prepared by fermentation may also be based on beans, dough, grain, vegetables, fruit, honey, dairy products, fish, meat, or tea.


Natural fermentation precedes human history. Since ancient times, humans have exploited the fermentation process. The earliest evidence of an alcoholic drink, made from fruit, rice, and honey, dates from 7000 to 6600 BC, in the Neolithic Chinese village of Jiahu, and winemaking dates from 6000 BC, in Georgia, in the Caucasus area. Seven-thousand-year-old jars containing the remains of wine, now on display at the University of Pennsylvania, were excavated in the Zagros Mountains in Iran. There is strong evidence that people were fermenting alcoholic drinks in Babylon c. 3000 BC, ancient Egypt c. 3150 BC, pre-Hispanic Mexico c. 2000 BC, and Sudan c. 1500 BC.

The French chemist Louis Pasteur founded zymology, when in 1856 he connected yeast to fermentation. When studying the fermentation of sugar to alcohol by yeast, Pasteur concluded that the fermentation was catalyzed by a vital force, called “ferments”, within the yeast cells. The “ferments” were thought to function only within living organisms. “Alcoholic fermentation is an act correlated with the life and organization of the yeast cells, not with the death or putrefaction of the cells”, he wrote.

Nevertheless, it was known that yeast extracts can ferment sugar even in the absence of living yeast cells. While studying this process in 1897, Eduard Buchner of Humboldt University of Berlin, Germany, found that sugar was fermented even when there were no living yeast cells in the mixture, by a yeast secreted enzyme complex that he termed zymase. In 1907 he received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research and discovery of “cell-free fermentation”.

One year earlier, in 1906, ethanol fermentation studies led to the early discovery of NAD+.


Food fermentation is the conversion of sugars and other carbohydrates into alcohol or preservative organic acids and carbon dioxide. All three products have found human uses. The production of alcohol is made use of when fruit juices are converted to wine, when grains are made into beer, and when foods rich in starch, such as potatoes, are fermented and then distilled to make spirits such as gin and vodka. The production of carbon dioxide is used to leaven bread. The production of organic acids is exploited to preserve and flavor vegetables and dairy products.

Food fermentation serves five main purposes: to enrich the diet through development of a diversity of flavors, aromas, and textures in food substrates; to preserve substantial amounts of food through lactic acid, alcohol, acetic acid, and alkaline fermentations; to enrich food substrates with protein, essential amino acids, and vitamins; to eliminate antinutrients; and to reduce cooking time and the associated use of fuel.