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Lactic acid fermentation is a biological process by which glucose and other six-carbon sugars (also, disaccharides of six-carbon sugars, e.g sucrose or lactose) are converted into cellular energy and the metabolite lactate. It is an anaerobic fermentation reaction that occurs in some bacteria and animal cells, such as muscle cells.
If oxygen is present in the cell, many organisms will bypass fermentation and undergo cellular respiration; however, facultative anaerobic organisms will both ferment and undergo respiration in the presence of oxygen. Sometimes even when oxygen is present and aerobic metabolism is happening in the mitochondria, if pyruvate is building up faster than it can be metabolized, the fermentation will happen anyway.
In homolactic fermentation, one molecule of glucose is ultimately converted to two molecules of lactic acid. Heterolactic fermentation, in contrast, yields carbon dioxide and ethanol in addition to lactic acid, in a process called the phosphoketolase pathway.
Lactic acid fermentation is used in many areas of the world to produce foods that cannot be produced through other methods. The most commercially important genus of lactic acid-fermenting bacteria is Lactobacillus, though other bacteria and even yeast are sometimes used. Two of the most common applications of lactic acid fermentation are in the production of yogurt and sauerkraut.
As in yogurt, when the acidity rises due to lactic acid-fermenting organisms, many other pathogenic microorganisms are killed. The bacteria produce lactic acid, as well as simple alcohols and other hydrocarbons. These may then combine to form esters, contributing to the unique flavor of sauerkraut.
The main method of producing yogurt is through the lactic acid fermentation of milk with harmless bacteria. The primary bacteria used are typically Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, and US law requires all yogurts to contain these two cultures (though others may be added as probiotic cultures). These bacteria produce lactic acid in the milk culture, decreasing its pH and causing it to congeal. The bacteria also produce compounds that give yogurt its distinctive flavor. An additional effect of the lowered pH is the incompatibility of the acidic environment with many other types of harmful bacteria.