Fermented foods have had an impact on human evolution, and they continue to affect social dynamics, according to a new collection of 16 studies in the journal Current Anthropology. This research explores how “microbes are the unseen and often overlooked figures that have profoundly shaped human culture and influenced the course of human history.”
The journal’s special edition, Cultures of Fermentation, features work from multiple disciplines: microbiology, cultural anthropology, archaeology and biological anthropology. Researchers were based all over the globe.
“Humans have a deep and complex relationship with microbes, but until recently this history has remained largely inaccessible and mostly ignored within anthropology,” reads the introduction, Cultures of Fermentation: Living with Microbes. “Fermentation is at the core of food traditions around the world, and the study of fermentation crosscuts the social and natural sciences.”
The impetus for the articles was a 2019 symposium organized by the non-profit Wenner-Gren Foundation. This organization aims to bring together scholars to debate and discuss topics in anthropology.
“Fermentation is at the core of food traditions around the world, and the study of fermentation crosscuts the social and natural sciences,” the introduction continues. The aim of the symposium and corresponding research was to “foster interdisciplinary conversations integral to understanding human-microbial cultures. By bridging the fields of archaeology, cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, microbiology, and ecology, this symposium will cultivate an anthropology of fermentation.”
Here is a listing the included studies:
- Predigestion as an Evolutionary Impetus for Human Use of Fermented Food (Katherine R. Amato,Elizabeth K. Mallott, Paula D’Almeida Maia, and Maria Luisa Savo Sardaro). Using research on nonhuman primates, researchers conclude that “fermentation played a central role in enabling our earliest ancestors to survive in the forested grasslands in Africa where key anatomical features of our species emerged. Fermentation occurs spontaneously in nature. Most nonhuman primates cannot metabolize fermented products, but humans evolved the capacity to use them as fuel. …By breaking down tough and toxic plant species, fermentation helped humans meet the caloric requirements associated with their growing brains and shrinking guts. These anatomical changes both stemmed from and fueled the emergence of collective forms of know-how — microbial and human cultures fed on one another, in this view of the human past.”
- Toward a Global Ecology of Fermented Foods (Robert R. Dunn, John Wilson, Lauren M. Nichols, and Michael C. Gavin). This ecological view of fermentation maps the “emergence and divergence of the world’s many varieties of fermented foods.”
- Prehistoric Fermentation, Delayed-Return Economies, and the Adoption of Pottery Technology (Oliver E. Craig). Craig explores the central role of pottery in “people’s ability to amass the kinds of surpluses that allowed human communities to lay down roots.” Pots were ideal as the storage vessels that made it possible to domesticate microbes.
- Seeking Prehistoric Fermented Food in Japan and Korea (Shinya Shoda). This study focuses on fermentation’s rise in prehistoric Japan and Korea along with each country’s respective cultural achievements.
- Cultured Milk: Fermented Dairy Foods along the Southwest Asian–European Neolithic Trajectory (Eva Rosenstock, Julia Ebert, and Alisa Scheibner). Using archaeological evidence of fermentation, researchers track the “emergence of lactase persistence in sites where dairying made an early appearance. It appears that people ate cheese and yoghurt well before they drank milk: only a small subsection of the human population retains the enzymes needed to digest lactose into adulthood.”
- Missing Microbes and Other Gendered Microbiopolitics in Bovine Fermentation (Megan Tracy). Industrial dairy farms are finding “missing microbes” in cows, Tracy highlights in her study. Newborn calves are separated from their mothers in industrialized dairy farms, and thereby lose the critical gut connections that would have been made by drinking breast milk.
- Living Machines Go Wild: Policing the Imaginative Horizons of Synthetic Biology (Eben Kirksey). Kirksey profiles the International Genetically Engineered Machine competition in Boston, where living creatures made through genetic engineering tools are regarded as machines. “…life is being remade in novel and surprising ways as iGEM students use increasingly fast and cheap genetic engineering tools.”
- From Immunity to Collaboration: Microbes, Waste, and Antitoxic Politics (Amy Zhang). Research details “urban waste activists in China who are practicing a quiet form of resistance to the policies of the authoritarian state by using the fermentation of eco-enzymes to heal sickened rivers, bodies, and soils.”
- The Nectar of Life: Fermentation, Soil Health, and Bionativism in Indian Natural Farming (Daniel Münster). Münster delves into agricultural politics in India. He concludes that “fermentation’s effects are unpredictable: there is always more than one story to tell.”
- Microbial Antagonism in the Trentino Alps: Negotiating Spacetimes and Ownership through the Production of Raw Milk Cheese in Alpine High Mountain Summer Pastures (Roberta Raffaetà). Raffaetà investigates cheesemaking in the Italian alps, contrasting three different approaches — farmers who don’t use contemporary cheesemaking methods and only use microbes found in their terroir, , industrialized cheese producers,; and high-mountain farmers who mix cheesemaking elements from different times, such as using a standardized starter with local cultures.
- Protecting Perishable Values: Timescapes of Moving Fermented Foods across Oceans and International Borders (Heather Paxson). Raw milk cheese, cured meats and assorted ferments get their flavor from microbes. Paxson documents how transportation and distribution can erode the microbial content of these products, especially international imports. She concludes supply chains (especially international) should be further explored to make transporting products with live microbes viable.
- Enduring Cycles: Documenting Dairying in Mongolia and the Alps (Björn Reichhardt, Zoljargal Enkh-Amgalan,Christina Warinner, and Matthäus Rest). This research details the Dairy Cultures Ethnographic Database, an open resource featuring photos and videos of dairy production, landscapes and livestock in the Alps. Interviews, oral histories and folk songs are also included.
- Preserving the Microbial Commons: Intersections of Ancient DNA, Cheese Making, and Bioprospecting (Matthäus Rest). Rest traces the history and spread of dairying in Mongolia, Europe and the Near East. She concludes by calling on scientists and local producers to protect the “microbial commons” from “patenting and commodification.”
- Taste-Shaping-Natures: Making Novel Miso with Charismatic Microbes and New Nordic Fermenters in Copenhagen (Joshua Evans and Jamie Lorimer). This research for this paper took place at Noma in Copenhagen, and studied how fermentation allows the restaurant to tread a fine line “between ecologically responsible localism and the nativism associated with the rise of Denmark’s anti-immigrant right. Noma’s chefs have hit upon kōji, Japan’s “national fungus,” which they turn loose on Danish ingredients.”
- Bamboo Shoot in Our Blood: Fermenting Flavors and Identities in Northeast India (Dolly Kikon). Kikon explores fermented bamboo, a delicacy in India, and how it’s part of the local the community.
- Fermentation in Post-antibiotic Worlds: Tuning In to Sourdough Workshops in Finland (Salla Sariola). Sariola describes fermentation “as a politically progressive form of performance art.” She documents activities in China, where fermentation is used to “challenge the modernist regimes of purification that have turned microbes into the enemy. To learn to live better with microbes is to learn to live better with other kinds of difference — those associated with ethnicity, race, national origins, sexual orientation, ability, and age.”
When Sandor Katz was asked to teach his first fermentation workshops in the early ‘90s, he figured it would have only niche appeal. Instead, people filled his workshops, begging for more information and calling on him to host similar events all over the U.S. “People [were] hungry for more information on fermentation,” he says.
“Humans didn’t invent fermentation. Fermentation is a natural phenomenon that existed before we did,” Katz says, speaking from in front of a wall of ferments and spices in his home kitchen in Tennessee. “Fermentation is an essential part of how people everywhere make effective use of whatever food resources are available to them. Food fermentation is not precious; fermentation is practical.”
Katz was a keynote speaker at the FERMENTATION 2021 conference. He shared his personal journey into the subject as well as his thoughts on fermentation as a natural phenomenon.
Fermentation as Trend
Katz says people are excited about fermentation for different reasons — some have memories of fermenting with their grandparents and want to try it at home, others are immigrants wanting to recreate dishes from their native countries, some are farmers hoping to preserve a surplus of produce, others are interested in the health benefits and some are foodies chasing the delicious flavor.
He hates equating fermentation with trends, preferring the term “fermentation revitalization” — the demographics of people currently making fermentation “trendy” again hasn’t really changed in the last 30 years.
“Fermentation has been so important to food traditions everywhere, and yet because of factory food production, one-stop shopping convenience foods, fewer and fewer people were practicing fermentation,” Katz said, recalling his workshops in the early days. “It was becoming more mysterious to people. Now there’s no denying that fermentation is trending. There’s a heightened awareness of fermentation, but people don’t realize the products of fermentation have been so integral to how everybody, everywhere eats. Without even thinking about fermentation, people have always been eating products of fermentation.”
The “War on Bacteria”
But there has long been fear around fermentation from some consumers. Katz says many people “project their anxiety about bacteria onto the idea of fermentation.”
“For people of my generation and older, we never heard anybody say anything positive about bacteria. The degree that bacteria were talked about at all, it was about how dangerous they are and how much they need to be avoided. I grew up in a period that could be described as the war on bacteria, this idea that bacteria are pathogenic, bacteria are dangerous to us, bacteria must be avoided and you know we have an arsenal of chemicals that we can use to kill bacteria as needed to keep us safe.”
The U.S Department of Agriculture has never had a case of foodborne illness from fermented food or beverages, Katz notes. “Statistically speaking, fermented vegetables are safer than raw vegetables.”
Facing people’s questions and fears motivated Katz to write his first book, The Art of Fermentation. This month, he released his 6th title, Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, Techniques, and Traditions from Around the World.
Fermenting the Future
Katz is an advocate for decentralizing food production, replacing a global supply chain with local, farm-fresh sources. Though this will raise the cost of food, it will put fermentation as a key means of preserving a surplus of seasonal crops, Katz notes.
Even as more and more chefs and producers apply different processes to different substrates and play with flavor, Katz says the fundamental processes remain the same. Nothing new has been invented in fermentation, which dates back 10,000 years.
“Fermentation of the future grows out of the techniques and traditions of the past,” he says. “Anything you can possibly eat can be fermented, so I’m never surprised when something is fermented.”
Katz shared his story of fermenting a goat on the rural Tennessee farm he lived on in the ‘90s. After the animal was butchered, he took the leftover pieces and fermented them for a few weeks in a mix of miso, yogurt and sauerkraut juice. When cooked, the meat released a strong aroma, a scent that became legendary on the farm. But, Katz says, “It was delicious. Like many things, it had a stronger aroma than flavor.”
Health Benefits Come with Warning Labels
When asked about the curative health benefits of fermented foods, Katz does not mince words. He wrote in Wild Fermentation that fermented foods were an important part of his healing when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. Since then, numerous media outlets have twisted his story, writing that Katz cured himself from HIV with fermented foods.
“I have become much more cautious about how I talk about this,” he says. “There’s a lot of highly speculative information out there…and I’ve never seen data that would suggest that.”
Katz says he’s careful to rely on reputable scientific studies for data on fermentation’s health benefits. He says he’s read articles claiming kombucha will prevent hair from going gray. Pointing to his full head of gray hair, Katz smiles and says “When I started teaching about fermentation, my hair didn’t look like this. Time marches on.”
“Food has profound implications for our health and well-being and for how we feel, but singular foods are very rarely the cure to specific diseases. …There are many benefits to fermentation, whether it is simply from pre-digestion of nutrients that makes nutrients more bioavailable and accessible to us or whether it’s from the probiotics or whether it’s from metabolic byproducts which can be extraordinarily beneficial to us.”
A research team has made the first comprehensive analysis of Mexico’s traditional ferments. Utilizing the country’s native cacti, agaves and maize, these diverse beverages are unique to their region. But they are poorly studied, and some are endangered as they fall out of style with younger generations.
“Many of Mexico’s finest microbiologists and ethnobotanists are giving ever-greater attention to this fascinating but once-forgotten foodscape, but even they are willing to admit that we’re just beginning to scratch below the surface of understanding all the biodiversity in these bottles of blessed ferment,” says Gary Paul Nabhan, research scientist at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona (U of A).
Researchers in various disciplines (microbiology, ethnoecology and genetics) from five different schools (U of A and four universities in Mexico) took part in the study. The results, Traditional Fermented Beverages of Mexico: A Biocultural Unseen Foodscape, are published in the international journal Foods.
Sixteen traditional Mexican fermented beverages were identified: tepache, pulque, hobo, Mexican wines, colonche, nawait, pozol, sidra, tejuino, tesgüino, taberna, cocoyol, tuba, Mexican palm wine, balché and xtabentún. Those 16 drinks were made from 143 plant species and include 102 genre of microorganisms.
In each region, “a distinctive set of plant roots, leaves, fruits and stems were added as fermentation catalysts, flavorants, colorants and stabilizers,” reads the U of A press release. “A large number of bacterial strains and yeasts — in addition to common brewer’s yeasts and water kefir grains — enabled the nutritional transformation of these raw materials into a wide array of unique nutritionally rich, probiotic beverages.” The team mapped the regional variations and ecological niches of the fermented drinks.
The study notes this level of analysis is “indispensable” to promote fair trade and sustainable food production. Industrial mezcal, for example, has created a monoculture of blue agave, and farm labor often works in exploitative conditions.
“These products have been embedded as part of the daily lives of many people, including those currently marginalized rural or Indigenous groups,” the study reads. “The diversity of fermented products is an outstanding reservoir of genetic resources that has high potential to obtain secondary products such as extracts, enzymes, dyes, and others compound that can be involved in global markets and could help to solve problems such as hunger and poverty and may play a key role to reinforce cultural identity..”
Traditional Mexican fermented beverages also provide important nutrients for consumers as the globe battles a changing climate.“The naturally-occurring yeasts and kefir-like tibico grains found in association with prickly pear cacti, saguaro fruit, century plants and desert spoons (sotols) likely tolerate much higher ambient temperatures than those from the semi-arid highlands and wet tropical forests,” Nabhan explains.
Some healthier artisanal drinks “have fallen out of fashion and face local or broad extinction,” the press release notes. In some areas of the country, these “forgotten ferments” are still used in the home, but not commercialized.
“Now that the days of Prohibition are over and there is a great need for arid-adapted crops with highly-efficient water use, some of these traditional agave and cactus varieties should be revived for the local production of healthful beverages,” Nabhan suggests. “In fact, traditional beverages such as tepache, tesguino and colonche have made a comeback in the Tucson, Arizona, region since it received recognition as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. These traditional beverages are also being employed by mixologists in novel cocktails now being featured in nearly every state of Mexico.
Cacao is one of the most environmentally harmful and ethically dubious commodities produced on the planet. It plays a huge role in deforestation, uses an alarming amount of water and more than 2 million children work in cacao farms. Yet cacao hasn’t been reimagined the way other foods with similarly harmful footprints have.
“There’s a lot of ethical quandaries around the production of chocolate,” says Johnny Drain, PhD, co-founder of WNWN Food Labs. “Cacao is a huge contributor to climate change, and child labor and slave labor are hardwired into the supply chain.”
Drain’s nickname is the “Walter White of fermentation” because of his work helping pioneering restaurants and bars around the world incorporate fermentation into their food and drink. Now Drain can add “Willy Wonka of chocolate” to his resume. He is co-launching a cacao-free chocolate, next in the wave of alternative products designed to replicate flavor and texture without a harmful production cycle.
A Chocolate-Potato Connection?
WNWN (Waste Not, Want Not, pronounced “Win-Win”) happened by chance. About five years ago, Drain was boiling old, green potatoes, and leaned his head into the steam. He was surprised it smelled like chocolate.
“I had this light bulb moment where I thought ‘There must be some compounds within the skins that are also found in cacao and chocolate.’ I wondered — ‘Could I make chocolate from potatoes? What other weird and wonderful things could make chocolate?’” Drain says.
WNWN plans to release a small-run batch of their chocolate next month. Drain and co-founder Ahrum Pak, a former investment banker and fellow fermenter-turned-food-activist, are calling the product category choc.
WNWN’s choc ingredients are proprietary until its formal release but, as with traditional chocolate, they are plant-based and fermented. Drain describes them as familiar, whole ingredients that are common in an average person’s diet.
“It’s not a Frankenstein, lab-created product, mixing this potion with that potion. We take whole ingredients, we ferment them just as we would chocolate, then we end up with this delicious chocolatey paste that goes into a quite conventional chocolate-making procedure,” Drain adds.
WNWN also replaces cocoa butter — made from cacao pods — with plant-based oils. Cocoa butter is what gives traditional chocolate a silky, creamy texture as it melts in your mouth.
At the heart of choc’s flavor, though, is fermentation.
“Cacao is fermented to make chocolate in the same way our product is fermented. We use similar, friendly microbes to create complexity,” he says. “We’re recreating that flavour profile of chocolate that we all know and love using the same fundamental techniques that are used to make chocolate.”
High-quality chocolate contains roughly 600 different flavor and aroma molecules. Cacao fermentation involves lactic acid and acetic acid bacteria, along with various yeasts, to create its flavor.
“If you didn’t have that cocktail of microbes, you would end up with something that only tastes vaguely like the chocolate we know and love,” he adds. “At the heart of this is fermentation. The product that we have, if we produced it without the fermentation processes, it wouldn’t taste anything like chocolate, just like if you eat a raw cocoa bean or even a roasted, unfermented cocoa bean, it doesn’t really taste like chocolate. You have to have that very complex cascade of chemical reactions, made possible by the fermentation, to get the final chocolate flavour.”
The Next Big Alt Movement?
Drain is quick to point out WNWN is not the only company trying to create what he and Pak have coined “alt-chocolate.” Three companies — QOA, Voyage Foods and Cali-Cultured — all officially launched in the past three months.
Some of these companies have been operating in stealth mode for a number of years but made official launches once word of competitors began to circulate. QOA and Voyage appear to be using approaches similar to that of WNWN. CaliCultured is using a syn-bio precision fermentation route to modify yeast cells to produce lab-grown cacao cells that are genetically identical to those found in the wild.
Drain says he’s encouraged by the other companies.
“It’s exciting that there’s multiple people working in this space,” he says. “Look at the plant milk space or alternative protein space — there’s definitely plenty of room in this marketplace too, and collectively we are all doing this because we care about the ethical and environmental damage being wrought by the current cacao supply chain.”
European and American consumers historically dominate chocolate sales, but chocolate sales all over the world are increasing.
Drain and Pak feel that a shake-up in the industry at the top is needed. Huge international producers are responsible for the vast majority of global chocolate. Mars, Nestle and Hershey promised over 20 years ago to stop using child laborers, but reports say the problem continues.Similarly, these companies pledged a decade ago to source more sustainable chocolate, but negative environmental problems from cacao continue to increase.
“The way in which we consume food has to change. It’s unrealistic that millions of tons of mass-produced cacao is somehow ethically- and sustainably-produced,” Pak says.
Drain adds; “So, really, we’re not anti-chocolate, we’re anti-big-chocolate produced in unethical, unsustainable ways.”
Chocolate is merely the first challenge that WNWN wants to address. Coffee and vanilla are next, foods with similar human rights and sustainability concerns. The company is building a software system that can ideate fermentation pathways for creating sustainable, flavour-identical analogs to delicious – but unsustainable – products.
“When you really start looking at how most of the world’s food is produced and consumed, there are so so many cases where it’s produced in a really terrible and damaging way,” Drain says. But “the market wouldn’t have been ready for a product like this five years ago. People are becoming much more aware of where their food comes from. People are thinking about ‘How do I make my purchasing habits, my diet better for the planet in a way that I don’t have to sacrifice the flavors and taste that I love?’ There will be work to do. But people are more receptive now that fermentation is more of a household name than it was five years ago. I think the fact that more people want to remedy these challenges is brillant.”
Drain will be speaking FERMENTATION 2021 on “The Alt-Universe”
This is the second in a series of articles that TFA will be releasing over the next few months, analyzing trends from our Member Survey.
Fermentation is cloaked in mystery for many consumers — it’s bubbly, slimy, stinky and not always Instagram ready.
So how can fermentation producers appeal to potential consumers? What’s the best way to share fermentation’s flavor and health attributes?
In The Fermentation Association’s membership survey on industry trends, a better-educated consumer was identified as a priority. When asked what would foster increased consumption of fermented foods and beverages, the top item for nearly 70% of producers was greater consumer understanding of fermentation and familiarity with the flavors associated with fermentation.
“More than wanting to sell a product, I want people to know the information,” says Sebastian Vargo of Vargo Brothers Ferments (who is speaking at FERMENTATION 2021). The Chicago-based brand sells ferments like pickles, sauces and kombucha. “I believe preventative health starts with fermentation. I’m explaining the difference between a pickle you see on the shelf versus a pickle you see in the refrigerator. But I’m also teaching people to power up their pantry, sauce up their life with condiments.”
Health vs. Flavor
Producers say they struggle sharing fermentation’s benefits with consumers. There are not enough peer-reviewed scientific studies on many fermented products to be the basis for health claims.
“We feel a responsibility as a fermented food company to entice customers into trying these hugely beneficial and delicious products,” says Savita Moynihan, who owns SavvyKraut in Brighton, UK, with her husband Stevo. But, “with sauerkraut, it is generally understood that raw and unpasteurised kraut is good for you but once you try to elaborate on live culture vs probiotics it gets complicated, more than it needs to be.”
Can a brand claim to include probiotics? Producers feel that guidance is not clear.
“There is confusion here that we feel needs to be ironed out in order to loosen the reins so fermenters can promote their products and their benefits with much more confidence,” she adds.
Moynihan says that, when SavvyKraut sells at farmers markets and local shops, they try to communicate two main things to consumers. First, the health benefits, like enhanced vitamin and nutrient contents, increased fiber and an aid to a diverse gut and digestive system. Second, the delicious flavor.
“The process of fermentation really enhances the flavours and creates an entirely new type of flavour which can elevate any meal,” Moynihan adds.
Lack of Tastings Hurting Efforts
One of the best ways to familiarize consumers with fermentation is for them to taste a product — flavor is a great marketing tool. But COVID-19 has hurt these efforts. Producers are unable to stage in-store demonstrations, offer samples at farmer’s markets or host in-person events. This has been especially hard for kombucha brewers, says Hannah Crum(who is also speaking at FERMENTATION 2021), president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI).
“We still have such a big part of the population who don’t drink kombucha or don’t even know about [it]; we still have a lot of work in education,” Crum says.
Joshua Rood, CEO of Dr Hops Hard Kombucha, confirms, adding: “It continues to be very difficult to grow our brand and the whole category without live events.”
“The inability to do live tastings in 2020 had a significant diminishing impact on our sales during the pandemic,” he continues. “One of our main distinctions as a brand is superior taste. Consumers, however, do not believe claims about that unless they experience it for themselves. Even now we are significantly hampered by the lack of large beer festivals and street fairs. An artisanal craft brand like Dr Hops needs those live interactions!”
The Knowledge Gap
Despite the lack of in-store tastings, experts at New Hope Network (producers of the Natural Products Expos) say brands have a great opportunity — now, more than ever, during the COVID-19 pandemic — to connect with their consumers.
New Hope’s 2021 Changing Consumer Survey found U.S. consumers are not satisfied with their current health. Only 8% say they’re “extremely satisfied” with their health today, compared with 20% in 2017. Nearly 80% of consumers understand that diet greatly influences their health (79%). But achieving good health is both a goal and a struggle for consumers — and this is where brands can step in.
“There’s a gap to be bridged,” says Eric Pierce, vice president of business development for New Hope Network, during a session “Understanding Your Consumers” at the most recent Expo East. “I see it as our opportunity and our responsibility to help consumers translate healthy intentions into healthy behavior, either in how we’re educating them in our stores, the products that we’re innovating or the ways we’re communicating. Getting better at communicating can help them with solutions.”
A consistent, transparent, well-communicated message — from product label to social media page to website — is important. Pierce says consumers quickly see past “shallow marketing claims.”
“Leave a trail of breadcrumbs people can find,” Pierce advises. “You don’t have to communicate everything all at once, but allow people to follow a trail to the deeper story. When consumers want to find that trail, if it’s not there, they’ll quickly write you off as shallow with unbacked claims.”
Amanda Hartt, market research manager at New Hope, suggests putting a QR code on a product label that links to the science backing the benefits of your ingredients. Or partnering with a registered dietitian on social media to highlight how to use your product as part of a healthy diet.[To learn more about this topic, register for FERMENTATION 2021 to hear one of the keynote panels “Educating Consumers About Fermentation.”]
Melinda Williamson has always been fascinated by plants — she grew up watching her mother make baby food with produce from the garden, later studied medicinal plants in college and dedicated her career as an ecologist to researching microbial communities in soil.
So, when Williamson became extremely sick with an autoimmune disease eleven years ago, it was not surprising that she turned to plants. She began making green smoothies daily and, after a student shared a bottle of it with her, drinking kombucha.
“I became really conscious about what I was putting in my body, really focusing on where my food was coming from,” says Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha in Hoyt, Kansas. “I started researching my illness, and found that a lot of stuff stems from the gut. It brought me into this world of ferments.”
The health-scare-turned-health-revival changed the course of her life. Mother of a then-young child, Williamson moved back to Kansas to raise her daughter closer to family. She took a language program job on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation reservation in her hometown, then spent her hours off work fulfilling a dream of running her own business. She perfected a home-brewed kombucha and began selling it at local farmers markets, gas stations and yoga studios.
The pandemic easily could have shuttered a small brewery like Morning Light which, prior to 2020, Williamson ran on her own. But she designed a website, opened an online store, started curbside delivery and launched a canned line — and sales grew by 25%. By the end of 2021, Morning Light Kombucha will start shipping nationally and, by the end of next year, they plan to break ground on a 4,000-square-foot facility on the reservation.
“What I really want to do is get my product into more native communities, so they can find healing just like I found healing,” says Williamson, head of the only Native American kombucha brand. “That’s more important to me than seeing my product on the shelf of Wal-Mart or Target. I’m not in it to be rich. I still plan on living in my little house here on the reservation close to my family. I just want to do something that has meaning and an impact.”
Below is an edited Q&A between Williamson and The Fermentation Association.
TFA: Where do you get your ingredients? You forage some of the ingredients yourself on the reservation.
MW: We go out and harvest wild blackberries, wild raspberries, chokecherries and pawpaws mostly on the reservation. There’s edible plants everywhere, it’s surprising the places you can find them. We just went to Overland Park, which is the city near us, to forage for pawpaws.
Some of the ingredients like gooseberries, those we find in small quantities. If we go out and we only get four cups of berries, we may not make any kombucha with it. But sometimes I’ll make a little five gallon batch.
Most of our ingredients, we partner with local farms in Northeast Kansas. It comes down to the importance of knowing where our food comes from. My goal was to always work with local farmers and source ingredients locally, I knew I wanted that as part of my business foundational value.
As much as possible, we keep sustainability at the forefront of everything that we do, being really conscious about our footprint. It’s really nice because, being in Northeast Kansas, people aren’t thinking about stuff like that. They’re more and more thinking about where their food comes from, but it’s been really nice to have those conversations with the community and get people really thinking about supporting the local farming economy, supporting local business.
A big part of it really comes down to what we’re showing our kids. Before my daughter was born, I had her when I was 23, I was eating a lot of fast food. I was like “I’m free! I’ve got a job! I can buy and eat whatever I want!” I was eating so much junk food. And then I got pregnant and wanted to feed her properly. I grew my own garden and started making my own baby food, just like my mom modeled for me. Food is so important, it’s a constant conversation in my life and in my business.
TFA: Do you make seasonal flavors then?
MW: We launched our canned kombucha line in February. Prior to that, we were doing about 100 flavors a year, so now that we’ve launched our canned kombucha line, we’ve had to whittle that down because we have to have four flavors constantly. Our rotations have diminished a little, but we’re still putting out about 60 flavors a year.
Our berry flavors are our most popular — blackberry lemongrass and strawberry. Seasonally, our smaller batches that people love are mulberry, that is a top seller. People also love the ginger and chokecherry flavors.
TFA: How do you sell your small batches? Are you selling them retail or filling kegs on site?
MW: We sell direct-to-consumer, like at the farmers markets and events. We don’t have a brewery that’s open to the public. We do curbside pickup, that was something that was developed in response to the pandemic. We could no longer sell directly to the consumer, so we just started doing doorstep delivery, then the curbside pickup. Basically, people just have their empty bottles in their trunk and call us and we come out and grab their bottles, and swap them for new, filled bottles. It’s contactless, but we still got to see our customer and wave. We’ll probably continue to do that, we’re still in this pandemic, and the most important thing is to keep our community safe and our elders up here safe. We will continue taking all precautions to protect people around us until we hit a safe spot.
TFA: A portion of your sales goes back to the native communities. Tell me about that.
MW: We donate where we feel like the money would be used best, things that we’re passionate about and things where we see we can make a difference. For example, we just recently donated to one of the residential school survivor nonprofits. We’ve taken clothes to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe where they were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, we’ve donated to our Boys and Girls Club here on the reservation, we’ve donated to our youth soccer teams, we’ve donated to First Nations programs in Canada.
TFA: Morning Light Kombucha is a trademark American Indian Food product. What does that mean?
MW: So that trademark American Indian Food falls under the Inter-Tribal Agricultural Council, which is a subset under the USDA. The program really highlights American Indian food producers. You apply and then the program supports you in different ways. We’re able to network with other American Indian food producers, brainstorm together and talk about what we’re experiencing and try to make movements when it comes to distribution. The program is really big with international exporting, so all the American Indian food producers have the opportunity to attend large trade shows internationally, they’ll fly us there, ship our products and give us the opportunity to have a booth and get our product in front of people who are interested in American Indian food products. I’m not ready for something that big, I am so small, but I’ve gone to a domestic show through the program. I went to a food show in Chicago and got in front of a lot of people who are interested in my kombucha. We have really big plans in 2022 to expand our facilities, and hopefully expand domestically.
TFA: What are Morning Light Kombucha’s plans for 2022?
MW: I just bought 10 acres here on our reservation. My plan is to break ground and build a production facility. It will be three times the size of what we’re in now, which will be really, really nice. There’s a pond on the side, we’ve got a creek, timber, a lot of foraging areas. The plan is to build an off-the-grid brewery, too, so it will help us provide more jobs in our community and it will allow us to do some of the things that we haven’t been able to do.
I mentioned sustainability is a big part of what we do. We compost 100% of our brewery waste, but I have to truck it to my house to my compost pile because, where we’re at now, we just can’t compost large quantities at our site. The waste water from our water filtration system, it’s totally usable water, but we don’t have any place to store it currently. Our waste water is not like gray water, it’s clean water that’s just wasted during the filtration process, it’s usable. For every one gallon that’s filtered, there’s three gallons that’s wasted. It’s so insane, it killed me when I found that out. Once we are in our new facility we can begin to recycle it on property. We have this dry pond. Our plan is to see if we can get it lined, divert the waste water in there and start filling the pond.
TFA: Scaling will be big for you in 2022.
MW: I know, I just hired three employees recently because it’s just been me for the past few years. I work part-time for our language department, and my kombucha business has been my side hustle. In the past year, I’ve realized the potential. People really like my brand and they’re noticing it and requesting it. So I thought “Maybe I could grow this brand into something bigger.”
TFA: I am beyond impressed — you have been building a kombucha brand by yourself?!
MW: Family is always there for me. My boyfriend is at the market, my nephews help with anything I need, it’s a family affair even though I never really had anybody on my payroll until recently. Now I’m getting to a point where I need help all the time. I hired my sister as my brewery manager, she keeps a tight ship. It’s allowed for me to really work on expansion while she’s running operations at the brewery.
TFA: Yours is still the only Native American-owned kombucha brand.
MW: With my business, I like to think that I’m also giving a voice to native issues. I would never want to be an authority on native issues, but there’s a lot of things going on in Indian country that people don’t see in the mainstream media and mainstream social media. If I can build a brand that can also bring awareness to these things, that’s really important to me.
TFA: You have a background in academia. What got you interested in ecology before switching to kombucha?
MW: I’ve always loved science, I’ve always loved the outdoors, I’ve always been super eco-friendly, I’ve always been conscious about our impact on the earth. I love animals, I love nature. I was taking some of my general ed classes at Haskell (Indian Nations University) and took an ethnobiology class. I just fell in love. I ended up transferring to Kansas State and got my degree in environmental biology (then a masters degree in rangeland ecology and management from Oklahoma State University.) I went with my boss from K State to Oklahoma State and ran the grassland ecology lab for years.
TFA: Where do you see the future of fermentation?
MW: There’s an explosion. I see it continuing to grow and expand and people are coming out with really innovative ways to bring fermentation to the table. Like Wild Alive Ferments out of Lawrence, Kansas. We’re a part of a local CSA with them. The owners just came out with an apple kraut flavor, an autumn harvest with spices that is so amazing.
In the U.S. especially, we have a lot of people who are sick with illnesses or cancers and autoimmune issues and I think we’re starting to see more people look at what they’re putting in their bodies. They’re realizing the importance of gut health, the importance of ferments, and that it affects so much more than just your gut. It’s a movement — and I’m really excited about it.
Brands need to be extra vigilant over the health claims they put on their labels. A simple phrase like “Supports immunity,” “Aids respiratory health” or “Full of natural flavors” could result in a lawsuit from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or a state attorney general.
“The FDA is able to set very broad and very narrow regulations in terms of what our labels can look like, what can be included in the products, what kind of claims we can make for the products, who the products can be distributed too, how they can be imported and exported and the like,” says Claudia Lewis, partner at Venable LLP, a Washington D.C.-based law firm.
Complying with these sometimes archaic laws can be challenging. The FDA, which ensures food safety, has a large jurisdictional footprint, regulating about 30 cents of every dollar Americans spend. The FTC is the authority on advertising and marketing claims for food, beverage and supplement products, and it may challenge a food brand if its marketing is deemed false, deceptive and/or misleading.
“Typically, if you’re in an FTC investigation, you’re going to have at least $300,000 in legal fees by the time you’re finished, if not over half a million dollars,” says Todd Harrison, partner at Venable. “The FTC is a very expensive regulatory agency to deal with. They can make your life pretty miserable.”
Harrison and Lewis specialize in representing functional food brands at their law firm and spoke at Expo East on the topic of Legal and Regulatory State of the Natural Products Industry. [The Fermentation Association’s virtual conference, FERMENTATION 2021 will also cover this and related topics — please check our Agenda for the latest sessions and speakers.]
Harrison and Lewis reviewed two main areas where improper labeling can get a food brand into trouble with regulators.
Using Covid-19 as a Marketing Tool
Shortly after the Covid-19 pandemic started, the FDA offered a unique relaxation of their rules and regulations for food products. Brands were challenged with supply chain disruptions and ingredient shortages. The FDA allowed temporary ingredient and formulation changes without a label overhaul, as long as the new ingredient was non-allergenic, 2% or less of the weight of the finished product, not a main or characterizing ingredient and not affecting health claims.
Though the temporary rule allows for flexibility, Harrison advises it still leaves room for litigation. Plaintiff attorneys can still sue for changes in a product’s flavor.
“Minor changes are fine from an FDA perspective, but not necessarily good from a plaintiff perspective,” he adds.
Covid-19 has also spurred a gray area in food marketing claims. Labels claiming the product prevents, treats or mitigates Covid-19 are illegal and being “aggressively pursued.”
“Anytime you mention the word coronavirus or Covid, the FDA is not going to agree with what you say because everyone will think you’re somehow implying something,” Harrison says.
Context is critical, as the agency is cracking down on any brands making health claims implying their product could prevent Covid. Brands using the phrases “immunity support” or “immune boosting” on their labels — or even on their social media pages — could be targeted by the FDA.
“The FDA has historically not liked (brands to use the term) immunity, but it was always low risk (pre-pandemic), you’d likely get a warning letter,” Harrison says. “However, in the world we live in today, the word immunity is persona non grata to the agency. Especially if you add the word respiratory on it. If you put the words ‘immunity’ and ‘respiratory’ on a label, the agency is saying ‘It’s Covid.’”
Harrison also cautions against connecting science-backed supplements and vitamins to treating a Covid infection. He uses the example of vitamin D — plentiful scientific research proves vitamin D boosts immunity, but a food brand cannot legally make that association, and doing so can set it up for litigation. Though vitamin D “is a cheap way of helping reduce your risk of (Covid-19) severity, it’s not going to keep you from getting Covid,” Harrison explains. “The way the paradigm is set up, even if you have really good science in your favor, you can’t make the claim unless you have approval by the FDA.”
“Natural” and “Health Food” Still Debatable Terms
Because there is no FDA or FTC definition of “natural,” lawsuits against brands claiming their product is natural or similar claims are prevalent. (The FDA requested public comments on the term “natural” in 2016, but no rule was issued on the policy.)
And these lawsuits don’t always come from the federal agencies. Class action lawsuits are “still alive and well,” Lewis adds. A formal definition would help protect brands because plaintiffs are filling in the holes and filing costly lawsuits. She uses the example of Welch’s Fruit Snacks, which was sued for being “more candy than fruit.”
“The plaintiffs bar has seized on that and taken these companies to task,” she says. “This wording about ‘healthy’ and this wording of ‘natural’ is also taking on a different dynamic because of consumer perception. How consumers perceive these words and how consumers’ expectations are not keeping with FDA regulations, but the plaintiff bar is using that as an opening and getting pretty good settlements in connection with consumer perception.”
Making a health inference is a slippery slope. The FDA deems a healthy food as one that suggests the product can help maintain “healthy dietary practices.” Health foods are required to be low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol and sodium.One or more qualifying nutrients must also make up at least 10% of their weight..
For example, IZZE, makers of sparkling juices, was sued for misleading marketing because, though the drink advertised “no sugar added,” it failed to disclose it was not low in calories — a requirement under FDA regulations. Harrison takes issue with the FDA defining healthy in these confusing terms.
“I’d say it’s unconstitutional and I think I’d win that case because healthy is now low fat, low saturated food and a certain amount of macronutrients. It’s a much more complex question than that. But yet this is what plaintiff attorneys seize on,” Harrison says.
Though a new food product may be utilizing health ingredients on the cutting edge of scientific research, Harrison warns the FDA is “notoriously behind nutrition science” and brands need to be careful. He says don’t trust the government agency to keep up.
“Nutrition has evolved and continues to evolve,” he says, noting the FDA regulation to put “low fat” as a nutrient content claim just stripped fat out of food (including beneficial fat) and replaced it with simple carbohydrates. Most members of Congress “don’t know a damn thing” about health food. “We know what’s good for us. We’re not stupid people.”
Alternative protein companies need to stop advertising their brand as the most ethical choice and instead appeal to consumer’s taste buds.
“Sometimes plant-based food companies don’t really market themselves as food,” says Thomas Rossmeissl, head of global marketing for Eat Just, Inc., which develops plant-based “eggs” and cell-cultivated meat. “There’s this inclination to talk about mission. We say ‘We’re good for the planet,’ ‘It’s good for you,’ ‘It’s good for animals’ and obviously that’s all true and it’s admirable and it’s what drives me in our company. But it can come off like we’re sort of apologizing, that we’re negotiating with consumers, that a consumer is sacrificing something delicious to get something ethical or healthy.”
“People not buying (traditional)meat and cheese because an animal was killed or tortured. They buy because it tastes great.”
Irina Gerry concurs. Gerry is the chief marketing officer for Change Foods, an animal-free dairy brand that will launch their product in 2023. Alternative protein brands need to “flip the script from plant-based, rationalizing the food choices.” Brands need to help consumers feel that purchasing an alternative protein is a “natural choice rather than a sacrifice.”
The two spoke on a panel Insights on Consumer Perceptions of Alternative Proteins at the virtual Good Food Conference. The conference is put on by the Good Food Institute, an international nonprofit that promotes plant- and cell-based meat.
Wide Consumer Base Wanting Animal-Free
Animal-free is the main driver for customers to buy alternative products. The alternative protein industry is not just marketing to vegans, they’re also selling to flexitarians and omnivores concerned about welfare. Ninety-four percent of Eat Just consumers consume some type of animal protein.
“Sustainability is skyrocketing and potentially could cross over health as the main motivator, especially in the younger population,” Gerry says.
The modern American household family fridge is divided. There may be three types of eggs in there — conventional, cage-free and plant-based — and three types of milk — dairy milk, almond and oat. Consumers as young as 12 are the ones educating themselves on alternative proteins.
“We’re going to see this younger generation drive families to plant-based solutions,” Rossmeissl says.
Staying Honest, Maintaining Trust
Transparency will be central to public adoption. Laura Reiley, a reporter for The Washington Post who moderated the panel, noted “there hasn’t been tremendous transparency” with the alt protein market. She’s written about the market since its beginning and notes, because there’s intellectual property and so much research and development dollars, most companies have kept their food shrouded in mystery.
“We don’t want to sort of follow the example of the conventional industry. We can do better than that,” Rossmeissl says. “On the cultivated side, we have a huge responsibility to get this right. Not just as a company but as an industry, we can’t screw this up.”
Perceived unnaturalness by consumers of alt protein is a challenge. Using the term lab-grown “is disparaging to us as an industry” he continues, “but I think the best way we can address that is by being really honest and what’s in it and how it’s made.”
Gerry notes 90% of dairy cheese sold globally is made with non-animal remnants through precision fermentation — and that’s been the predominant way traditional cheese is made for over 20 years. It’s the same technology Change Food’s animal-free cheese uses.
“(These traditional cheeses) made through precision fermentation, they’re labeled under natural and oftentimes organic cheese products and nobody’s grown a third leg and nobody’s freaked out, right?” Gerry continues. “But now we’ve added one more element of that cheese — removing the cow from the cheese — and everybody seems to be greatly concerned.”
Price and regulation are big roadblocks for alternative proteins, an industry that is expanding rapidly, as more consumers turn to animal-free products out of concern for their health, the environment and animal welfare.
“People love meat but, at the end of the day, they’re not really attached to how it got to their plates,” says Brett Thompson, co-founder and CEO of Mzansi Meat, a cultivated meat company in South Africa. Thompson spoke at the TFA webinar The Forefront of Alt-Proteins in Africa with another leader in the South African alternative protein industry, Leah Bessa, PhD, co-founder and CSO of De Novo Dairy.
Alt-protein companies all over the world are bringing cultivated meat and dairy to consumers, but Africa as a continent has lagged.. Thompson founded Mzansi Meat Co. in 2020 and hopes to bring cell-cultured beef, chicken and braai sausages (traditional South African BBQ-style sausages) to retail shelves next year. De Novo Dairy, formed in 2021, is using precision fermentation to create milk proteins for animal-free dairy products, but without cows.
This novel biotechnology is new in South Africa, but it’s a critical element in addressing food security problems in Africa. Africans don’t consume enough food, especially protein, and as drought continues to plague the continent, raising animals for traditional meat products is becoming less and less sustainable.
“It’s a very different conversation to the rest of the world,” Thompson adds. “It’s about getting more protein into more people’s stomachs and plates.”
Big Production Costs in New Alt-Protein Space
Interest is high from investors, but scaling from pilot stage to large-scale production is challenging. Equipment is costly and labor is difficult to recruit to a new industry.
In a survey conducted by Mzansi, 50% of South Africans were willing to purchase alternative protein products — and they’d pay a higher price than for traditional meat.
“But we just got to make it available,” Thompson says. “That’s going to be the biggest hurdle for us, getting it into retail and getting it in front of people so that they can make that decision.”
Bessa says that, critical to the adoption of animal-free dairy, the consumer must receive “nature identical” products. These must replicate the taste, texture and nutrition level of traditional dairy — and precision fermentation is a “powerful tool” to helping achieve that goal.
“It’s going to be a very easy sell,” Bessa adds. “What’s really great about precision fermentation is, as a technology, it’s not limited to just one or two proteins. You can really explore other functional elements and other functional proteins across the food industry. So we’re really looking beyond just dairy, but we want to solve a big problem in the dairy industry because it’s very unsustainable.”
The Good, the Bad & the Ugly — of Government Regulation
Bessa notes regulation is a bigger challenge than technology for De Novo. Three governmental bodies in Africa oversee food production — the departments of trade, health and agriculture. Mzansi is exploring launching in food service, as an alternative to the long, arduous process of securing government approval to sell a product at retail.
“Consumers want something that’s familiar but, now with regulatory hurdles, if you have to classify and label them differently, then how familiar would that label be to consumers?” says Josephine Wee, assistant professor of food science at Penn State University (and a TFA Advisory Board member). Wee moderated the discussion with Thompson and Bessa. “I think it’s an important conversation as well because it might be confusing if it tastes just like milk but is labeled completely different.”
Transparency is a priority for both Mzansi and De Novo. Thompson says companies preaching sustainability can’t be “cagey…or you send out messages that are convoluted.” Bessa agrees, noting a young company may never recover from bad publicity over transparency issues.
“Working with new technologies, especially in food, which is such a personal thing for people, you almost want to get ahead of assumptions, you want to be the one putting out the information and the correct information,” Bessa says. “That’s why it’s so important because you’re working with a novel technology, you’re feeding people with this novel technology, and so it’s important to be transparent so that they feel comfortable and they can relate to what they’re consuming.”
Sales of natural and organic products grew nearly 13% to $259 billion in 2020 , “despite the pandemic and, in some ways, because of the pandemic.”
“It’s very strong and, in many ways, it’s never been stronger,” says Carlotta Mast, senior vice president of the New Hope Network (producers of the event). Between pandemic-driven pantry loading, new brand exploration and the drive to purchase healthier, natural products, “people tried those new brands and, in many cases, they stuck with them, especially across the food and beverage categories.”
Mast shared these stats during the State of the Natural & Organic presentation at Natural Products Expo East. But forecasts show sales growing at a slower pace this year, to $271 billion. By 2023, sales are projected to surpass $300 billion.
Natural foods and beverages (including most fermented products) account for 70% of all natural product sales (the rest includes items like supplements and home and pet care products). Natural products are growing three times as fast as their mainstream counterparts.
“Not only were we growing quickly, we were outpacing the rest of the store…not only did our sales accelerate, they drove the whole (food) industry forward,” says Kathryn Peters, executive vice president at SPINS (a data provider for natural, organic and specialty products). “We’re finding consumers are coming and staying and continuing to buy more.”
Expo East Returns In-Person
Expo East is the first major food trade show to meet in-person since the Covid-19 pandemic shuttered events in March 2020. New Hope Network used a hybrid virtual and in-person model to produce the show, live-streaming the conference portion to virtual attendees.
“It was really exciting and satisfying to be back on a live show floor, interacting with people again. There was a real buzz,” says Chris Nemchek, TFA’s buyer relations director. “On day 1, you could tell there was a lot of pent-up demand.”
Health precautions were increased. Attendees had to show a Covid-19 vaccination card or a negative Covid-19 test administered within 72 hours. Masks were mandatory. Badges were no longer distributed to all attendees, only being printed upon request.
Food sampling, too, was much different than at a typical pre-pandemic trade show. Samples were only given by a gloved brand representative at an exhibitor’s booth. Food was stored behind sneeze guards, and surfaces were wiped down frequently.
“Exhibitors gave away less product, but the product they did give away was for more productive reasons — the people who took the sample really wanted it,” Nemchek notes.
“It was a good step back towards normal, but it wasn’t normal,” he adds. The size of the crowd at the show was not close to pre-pandemic levels (attendance numbers have not been released). But Nemchek notes that New Hope should still be pleased. “There’s now more confidence in the industry in putting on a food show again.”
Immune Health Driving Purchases
The natural and organic industry’s most popular products continue to be ones supporting immunity, health and wellness. Those attributes were consumer’s top purchase priorities in 2020, and remain strong in 2021.
Paleo (+25%), grain-free (+17%) and plant-based (+13%) foods and beverages registered the strongest sales growth. Plant-based products have seen especially strong sales over the past two years.
“Covid was a major driver for this boost in sales growth,” Mast says. Now “it’s our opportunity to keep those consumers.”
Consumers are exploring how they can use their diet as the first line of defense against illness, Peters adds. Immunity-related ingredients traditionally found on the supplement aisle, like cider vinegar, collagen, elderberry, moringa and ashwagandha,are now in grocery and refrigerated products.
“It’s revolutionizing the aisles in the store,” Peters says.
Changing Grocery Store Shelves
The U.S. is diversifying faster than predicted as well, and those demographic changes are influencing what’s selling. International foods are outperforming in grocery sales, growing at a 21% rate (compared with U.S. food at 16%).
“This is a huge shift for our country,” Mast says. “We’re seeing that, across our industry, more consumers are looking for that multicultural food.”
Mast notes, though, that leadership of the natural and organic products industry does not reflect the U.S. population.More BIPOC representation is needed on i company boards and leadership teams.
Shopping with Values
Consumers’ social and environmental values are also driving purchasing behavior. A survey by Nutrition Business Journal and SPINS found 76% of natural shoppers pay more for high-quality ingredients, 57% avoid buying food grown on industrial feedlots or chemical-intensive farms and 53% will pay more to support businesses that are socially- or environmentally-responsible. Consumers want companies to take social and political stances that reflect their own values.
“Our industry, because of our size, our scale and our influence, we could truly help create solutions to these problems and be part of building that new future,” Mast adds. “Think about the changes that we could help create for people, animal, planet — but it’s if we chose to do so.”