Aside from fire, yeast is the oldest food processing agent known to man and has been used for millennia in foods and beverages such as bread, wine, beer and cider.
Given the widespread use of this most trusted of microorganisms across the food and beverage industries, it is easy to take the microbe for granted and assume it is a simple ingredient.
In fact, it is anything but simple.
The impact yeast has on the end product is truly transformative —think about the difference between leavened and unleavened bread, or grape juice and wine. Yeast has the power to fundamentally improve the physical, chemical and even biological characteristics of a product.
Commercially harness its power
We are currently realizing only a fraction of the intrinsic potential of yeast. It is only in the last century and a half that we have begun to understand its true importance and commercially harness its power.
During this time, however, we have selected yeast strains with easy-to-quantify and industrially advantageous traits: Maximum gassing power, temperature tolerance, neutral flavor profiles, etc. What we’ve failed to capitalize on to date is the huge range of natural biodiversity inherent in the wider yeast family.
Traditionally viewed as a workhorse food ingredient, yeast is applied principally in large commodity-type applications, so it is hardly surprising that less than 1% of commercially viable yeast strains are currently in production.
While this might be desirable from an industrial efficiency standpoint, it limits the functionality of the yeast — and the variety of the end products.
Improvements in yeast technology
But that needn’t be the case. Recent improvements in yeast technology — particularly in the areas of classical breeding and strain evolution techniques — have led to some remarkable advances in strain development.
Enhancing a desirable but otherwise repressed trait through adaptive evolution is one such advance. Another involves introducing a new trait into an existing strain through breeding, while maintaining the background strain’s functional performance.
These classical techniques are the methods of choice when it comes to complex or multiple traits such as flavor and aroma. Advances in this area could be used to generate strains that, for example, gas as normal yet produce enhanced flavor profiles, while offering cleaner labeling.
Recent advances have also led to new yeast products with exciting functionality and uses.
For example, novel strains have enabled the reduction of the carcinogen acrylamide in certain cooked foods; the addition of Vitamin D and important minerals such as selenium; and the promotion of gut health in the form of pre- and probiotics.
Novel yeast strains, created by the confluence of natural biodiversity and classical strain development, have the potential to be versatile, widely available and cost-effective clean-label solutions to a host of challenges facing the food and beverage industries.
Yet development in the manner described above is neither trivial nor inexpensive.
Tightening of research budgets
As a result, given shrinking margins across the food and beverage sectors — and consequent tightening of research budgets — strain development is an activity in which fewer players are engaging.
Moreover, today’s business realities have created a fundamental mismatch of complementary assets needed to get new yeast strains to market: small technology companies lack production, sales and distribution networks; while large manufacturing companies tend to lack new products to maintain or grow market share.
What this necessitates is a new way of thinking and doing business — one in which large, incumbent firms harness the ingenuity and flexibility of small, focused R&D firms by outsourcing work and/or in-licensing technology.
Like the pharmaceutical and information technology/software industries before them, the food and beverage industries should embrace novel technologies for the vast opportunities they now present.
It is through such synergistic strategic partnerships that small and large firms will be able to come together to realize the power, potential and profits of the exciting yeast strain innovations now on the horizon.
About the author:
Cormac O’Cleirigh, Ph.D., is chief business development officer at Renaissance Bioscience, a leading global yeast technology company that develops yeast-based platform technologies to solve industrial efficiency and consumer health problems in the food, beverage, alcohol, biofuel and pharmaceutical industries. Prior to joining Renaissance, Dr O’Cleirigh was head of business development & innovation for AB Mauri Global Bakery Ingredients. He can be reached at email@example.com