Academic story

More Plants on Our Plates: Transforming the Food System With Fermentation

4 min read · By Academic Positions

The food on our plates doesn’t just determine our health, but the health of the planet, too. Climate change is an increasingly urgent threat, and our current diet - rich in animal protein, a significant source of carbon emissions - is a major contributor. To help accelerate the transition to more environmentally-friendly plant-based proteins, Professor Raffaella Di Cagno and her team at the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano are creating new food products through the innovative art of fermentation. 

Professor Raffaella Di Cagno

The ratio of plant to animal proteins in our diet currently stands at 50/50, but to secure a sustainable future, we’ll need to shift the scale to 60/40, Raffaella says. As the need to move away from farmed meat and dairy becomes more pressing, there’s “growing interest in alternative protein sources from plants like fruits, vegetables, legumes, nuts, and whole grains”. Unfortunately, these plants, especially legumes, can have an unappealing taste and texture, and contain compounds which reduce the food’s nutritional value.

That’s where fermentation comes in. While the process itself isn’t new - it’s what’s used to make yoghurt and sauerkraut, among many other traditional fermented foods - scientists are harnessing the technology to create new plant-based formulations that provide a source of protein without these drawbacks.

“Imagine fermentation as a labyrinth,” says Raffaella. “Microorganisms - and here I’m talking about lactic acid bacteria, the major players of fermented foods - can follow different pathways, so you can guide them based on your end goal.” By controlling the metabolic activity of the microorganism, scientists can create a fermented plant-based food that’s rich in health-promoting compounds, even if they weren’t present in the raw food matrices - the fruits or vegetables - that they started with. 

In a recent experiment, Raffaella was able to give food waste a second life through fermentation. Using lactic acid bacteria and yeast that originated from apple cores, seeds, and peels, she created a non-conventional flour that blends perfectly with wheat flour to produce fragrant breads with distinct aromatic notes. The addition of this new flour makes the bread richer in fibre and allows it to stay fresh for longer. It also lowers the bread’s glycaemic index (GI), highlighting fermentation's potential benefits on human health - foods with a high GI are associated with an increased risk of diabetes and heart disease.

With its Micro4Food program, made up of six state-of-the-art laboratories, the Free University of Bozen-Bolzano is perfectly positioned for this groundbreaking work. “It’s a modern system to explore fermentation, and a unique example of a laboratory for food microbiology - at the national level, but also the European level,” she says. The program takes a multidisciplinary approach, recognising that transforming the food system requires cooperation among different scientific fields. “It’s the same as the concept of microbial consortium [where different microorganisms act together] - you need to interact with each other.” 

Rafaella and her team are creating new food products through fermentation.

The university's resources include the province’s “cultivation of cabbage for sauerkraut production, and local dairy farms, which provide different samples of cow's milk - a source of microbial diversity,” she says. This microbial diversity “is an example of cultural heritage for a country’s population. Through my research activities, I am able to preserve this diversity, which means we can exploit it for further potentiality.”  

Another strength that sets the university apart is its innovation hub, the NOI Tech Park, says Raffaella. “The most important thing is the link between the university and companies - in my field, food companies.” This collaboration bolsters the university’s research activity, and helps pave the way for researchers’ discoveries to be channelled into impactful, real-world applications.

With the upcoming opening of a new Competence Centre - focused on food fermentation - lead by Raffaella, the university will play a pivotal role in realising the technology’s potential to spur a more sustainable food system. “I think I can be a pioneer in the fermentation of fruits and vegetables,” says Raffaella.

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The Free University of Bozen/Bolzano was founded on 31 October 1997 as a multilingual, internationally oriented institution.

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Published 2024-07-03

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The Free University of Bozen/Bolzano was founded on 31 October 1997 as a multilingual, internationally oriented institution.

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Raffaella Di Cagno

Raffaella Di Cagno is a full professor at the Free University of Bolzano, Faculty of Science and Technology. She and her team are creating new food products through the innovative art of fermentation.

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