Uses of Biotechnology in the Food Industry

The use of biotechnology in the food industry has a lot in common with the use of biotechnology in the larger domain of agriculture. A discussion on either subject tends to overlap with common features. However, in this article we intend to specifically focus on biotechnology in food industry, as it has evolved over the years.

The use of biotechnology in the food industry is primarily based on the use of enzymes that are to be found in different microorganisms. This is of course nothing new. Although we seldom emphasize this fact, several food products of day to day use that have been around for hundreds of years like alcohol, beer, vinegar, cheese, bread and curd are products of biotechnology, since enzymes and microorganisms have had a role to play in their making.


Let's evaluate a few of these food items and see how biotechnology helps in making these products even better. Take the common bread for instance. Traditionally the method has been that, when bread is made, the dough that is used for making the bread comes in contact with yeast cells (these cells feed on the nutrients in the dough) and the process generates alcohol and carbon dioxide with the former responsible for the aroma that you could smell when bread is baked, while it is the latter that is responsible for the texture of the loaf. And all along it has been the enzymatic effect of yeast cells that kept the bread fresh up to a point.

But now there are enzymes for dough strengthening and conditioning as well. It is interesting how lipases have contributed to the strengthening and stability of the dough that goes into the making of bread. Earlier chemical dough strengtheners and emulsifiers were used until the lipases came on the scene. Now these lipase enzymes itself have undergone transformation, which means even better enzymes that permit better high speed mixing of the dough and which do not contribute to the release of fatty acids that are primarily responsible for the stale flavor of bread as opposed to the aroma of the freshly baked bread.

For making bread soft, bakers had been using for a long time alpha amylase enzyme. This has given way to Novamyl a proprietary enzyme which keeps the bread even fresher. Bread can be made more soft using bacterial amylases or other specialty amylases as well.

The role of proteolytic enzymes in bread making is significant. Bread is made of wheat flour and gluten happens to be the building block of wheat flour. These enzymes were originally used to make the bread softer and allow better machinability of the dough. But now these proteolytic enzymes of proprietory origin have the ability to offer even better machinability (as for example reduce mixing time for instance) in addition to giving improved color and flavor to the bread

There are other enzymes that prevent bread from turning stale, which means that bread gets a longer shelf life. The reason why bread gets stale is due to the crystallization of the starch (or what is called starch retrogradation) in the bread. Microbial spoilage of bread is also a possibility. There are enzymes that when used prevent this from happening, and keeps the bread spongy and fresh for longer periods. Using current enzyme technology it is now possible to extend the shelf life of bread to more than a week, although consumer acceptance is a different matter altogether.

To sum up, advances in biotechnology plays a key role in the making of bread. Apart from enzymes in bread making already discussed so far, other key enzymes like transglutaminases, oxidases, and xylase have a role to play in modern day bread making. In most cases, reference to any of these enzymes means a proprietary blend of enzymes, in which the dominant enzyme in the mix contributes the name by which the enzyme product is known. This not only emphasizes the complexity of enzymes that have a role in bread making, but also helps us reckon with the transformational change the bread making industry has undergone over the years thanks to biotechnology.

In Making Beer:

Let's take the case of beer, and see how biotechnology has contributed to beer making process. Traditionally beer has been made from cereal grains (which contain abundant starch and sugar) by breaking them down to form alcohol using yeast. What you see at the top of the beer "the froth" is the carbon dioxide gas that the yeast cells produce--so what's happening is the fermentation of sugars in starchy material. As it was made hundreds of years ago, water, hops, yeast and barley are needed for making beer. But recent biotechnological advances have altered the structure of the yeast, so for example, you can now get brewers yeast which can ferment even hitherto un-fermentable carbohydrates. Earlier the process of malting (partial germination of barley for instance in making enzymes that ultimately break these hard to ferment complex sugars) was used to break these un-fermentable substances. Malting is considered expensive, but now enzymes added to un-malted barley can easily convert complex polysaccharides to simple sugars that yeast can easily ferment. That apart, enzymes can help in faster maturation after fermentation, and also help in making lighter beer with less of carbohydrates.

If this was not enough, thanks to biotechnology, now there are specialized strains of bacteria for imparting flavor and quality to the beer, enzymes to make the beer making process cheaper and to ensure quality in each and every bottle---apart from enzymes to help in aging, and enzymes to control alcohol and sugar content. So just as in bread making, in beer making too biotechnology has played a transformational role.

Fruit and vegetable juices:

In making fruit juices too biotechnology has a role, as for example, the use of proprietary enzymes mostly pectinases helps increase the quantity of antioxidants and color in vegetable and fruit juices made by pressing and other means. Citrus fruits have some bitter compounds and that can be eliminated using certain enzymes too.

Cheese and other products:

In cheese production, advances in biotechnology have enabled the use of microbial rennet instead of rennet's of animal origin. Protease enzymes are used to assist in gaining flavor and in cheese ripening. Coffee whiteners and margarine get their dairy flavor from proprietary fungal lipases. The list is almost endless.

Although the use of enzymes in making better food products offers lower costs and manufacturing advantages, the pace of development of food products using biotechnology will greatly depend on the acceptance of the products already made using this cutting edge technology. This is not to say that bread and beer don't have wide acceptance. But there are food products from the agricultural sector that don't have a wide clientele. That apart, there is an erroneous perception that food product made by using enzymes has enzymes in them. That is not so, as most often enzymes used in the manufacturing process get destroyed in the manufacturing stage itself. If the benefit of biotechnology in the food industry has to gain acceptance then consumer education in that direction is vital. After all civil society's acceptance of biotechnology food products will be the harbinger for more such biotechnological advance to take place.

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