The Microbiology of Cereals and Cereal Products

Editor’s Note: This article is excerpted from a longer article that appeared in “Microbiologically Safe Foods,” edited by Norma Heredia, Irene Wesley, and Santos Garcia. The book was published in 2009 by John Wiley & Sons, which also publishes Food Quality & Safety.

Cereals and cereal products are significant and important human food resources and livestock feeds worldwide. Cereal grains and legumes are food staples in many, if not most, countries and cultures and are the raw materials of many of our foods and certain beverages. The main cereal grains used for foods include corn (maize), wheat, barley, rice, oats, rye, millet, and sorghum. Soybeans are not a cereal product, but rather, are legumes or a pulse, but are often considered with cereals because of their importance as a food source.

Examples of cereal products derived from cereal grains include wheat, rye, and oat flours and semolina, cornmeal, corn grits, doughs, breads, breakfast cereals, pasta, snack foods, dry mixes, cakes, pastries, and tortillas. In addition, cereal products are used as ingredients in numerous products, such as batters and coatings, thickeners and sweeteners, processed meats, infant foods, confectionary products, and beverages such as beer.

Table 1. Major Storage Fungi and the Moisture Contents of Commodities at Which Mold Invasion May Occur

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Table 1. Major Storage Fungi and the Moisture Contents of Commodities at Which Mold Invasion May Occur

Because of their extensive use as human foods and livestock feeds, the microbiology and safety of cereal grains and cereal products is a very important area. The sources of microbial contamination of cereals are many, but all are traceable to the environment in which grains are grown, handled, and processed. Microorganisms that contaminate cereal grains may come from air, dust, soil, water, insects, rodents, birds, animals, humans, storage and shipping containers, and handling and processing equipment. Many factors that are a part of the environment influence microbial contamination of cereals, including rainfall, drought, humidity, temperature, sunlight, frost, soil conditions, wind, insect, bird and rodent activity, harvesting equipment, use of chemicals in production versus organic production, storage and handling, and moisture control.

The microflora of cereals and cereal products is varied and includes molds, yeasts, bacteria (psychrotrophic, mesophilic, and thermophilic/thermoduric), lactic acid bacteria, rope-forming bacteria (Bacillus spp.), bacterial pathogens, coliforms, and Enterococci. Bacterial pathogens that contaminate cereal grains and cereal products and cause problems include Bacillus cereus, Clostridium botulinum, Clostridium perfringens, Escherichia coli, Salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. Coliforms and enterococci also occur as indicators of unsanitary handling and processing conditions and possible fecal contamination.

Bacteria are frequent surface contaminants of cereal grains. For bacteria to grow in cereal grains, they require high moisture or water activity (aw) in equilibrium, with high relative humidity. Generally, bacteria are not significantly involved in the spoilage of dry grain and become a spoilage factor only after extensive deterioration of the grain has occurred and high moisture conditions exist. However, bacterial pathogens and spoilage bacteria, such as spore-forming bacteria that cause ropiness in bread, may survive and carry through to processed products and become problems. Lactic acid bacteria may also be present in the raw grain and carry over into flour and cornmeal and spoil doughs prepared with them. Yeasts present on cereal grains may also carry through into processed products. The main spoilage organisms in cereal grains, however, are molds.

Figure 1. The chemical structure of aflatoxin.

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Figure 1. The chemical structure of aflatoxin.

There are more than 150 species of filamentous fungi and yeasts on cereal grains. But again, the most important of these are the filamentous fungi or molds. The filamentous fungi that occur on cereal grains are divided into two groups, depending on when they predominate in grain in relation to available moisture in the grain. These groups have been referred to as field fungi and storage fungi. Field fungi invade grain in the field when the grain is high in moisture (18 to 30%, i.e., at high aw) and at high relative humidities (90 to 100%). Field fungi include species of Alternaria, Cladosporium, Fusarium, and Helminthosporium. Storage fungi invade grain in storage at lower moisture contents (14 to 16%), lower aw and lower relative humidities (65 to 90%). These main storage fungi are species of Eurotium, Aspergillus, and Penicillium. To prevent spoilage by storage fungi, the moisture content of starchy cereal grains should be below 14.0%, soybeans 12.0%, and other oilseeds, such as peanuts, and sunflower seeds, 8.5%. Certain molds, such as Eurotium glaucus, may initiate growth at low aw and moisture contents (i.e., 15 to 16% moisture) and through their respiration increase aw and raise the moisture content, facilitating molds to grow, thus ultimately leading to spoilage. More information on storage fungi and moisture contents in various commodities is given in Table 1 (see p. 26).

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