A pioneering “periodic table” of fermented foods was released this month, the first attempt to represent the breadth and range of fermented foods and beverages in graphic form.
This creation is the brainchild of Michael Gänzle, PhD, professor and Canada Research Chair in Food Microbiology and Probiotics at the University of Alberta. Gänzle is regarded as an expert in fermented foods and lactic acid bacteria. His recent research includes identifying a new taxonomy for the lactobacillus genus, a topic Gänzle spoke about in a TFA webinar.
“Non-traditional fermented foods are a big trend both in industrial food production and in culinary arts,” Gänzle said in an interview with TFA. “The periodic table may be the most concise overview on what is possible if all of the diversity of our benign and beneficial microbial helpers is recruited.”
The impetus for the table dates to 2014, when Gänzle and a colleague used a periodic table of beer styles in their food fermentation class. They wondered if it would be feasible to create a similar version for fermented foods.
Gänzle’s final version, along with his well-documented analysis of the table, was published in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology. The table includes 118 entries of fermented foods, each coded for product category, country of origin, fermentation organism (like LAB, acetic acid bacteria or yeasts), fermentation substrate, metabolites and fermentation time.
Gänzle suggests the table is “quite useful for a number of things that may impact the development of fermented foods.” He says fermentation has “reemerged as a method to provide high-quality food.” A chef or producer can use the table to compare “differences and similarities in the assembly of microbial communities in different fermentations, differences in the global preferences for food fermentation, the link between microbial diversity, fermentation time and product properties, and opportunities of using traditional food fermentations as templates for development of new products.”
Because of its straightforward graphical layout, the table can quickly answer questions. A scan of it shows “which foods contain live fermentation microbes, which regions of the world have which preferences for substrates and fermented foods, which fermented foods are back-slopped and are fermented with host-adapted fermentation organisms.”
He stresses, though, that the table has its limitations, as it doesn’t cover every fermented food.
“The more I read the more likely I am to quote Plato’s rendition of Socrates’ statement that ‘I neither know nor think I know,’” Gänzle says. “Fermented foods are about as diverse as humankind.”
Gänzle plans to continue to revise the table on his personal website. Currently, he and two doctoral students are researching fermented soy and legumes, so look for the next updates to be in those categories.
The Covid-19 lockdown spurred aspiring home chefs around the world to try fermenting for the first time. DIY classes moved virtual and countertops filled with bubbling crocks of kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and sourdough. Fermentation was one of the top pandemic hobbies.
For professional fermentation educators, this trend brought new, eager faces to classes. But now, as lockdown restrictions have eased, are people still wanting to experiment making their own microbe-rich food?
We asked three experts to share their thoughts on the current state of fermentation education — author and educator Kirsten Shockey (of The Fermentation School and Ferment Works), writer and educator Soirée-Leone (who can be found via her website) and chef, food scientist and fermentation educator Jori Jayne Emde (of Lady Jayne’s Alchemy and The Fermentation School). [Shockey and Soirée-Leone are both members of TFA’s Advisory Board.]
The question: What is the current state of fermentation education?
Kirsten Shockey, author and educator
Fermentation education is exploding. The time has never been better. The interest in fermentation — both as a topic and in hands-on engagement — keeps gaining momentum. People are both more curious and more confused than I have seen in the past. I think part of that is because with the boom of interest a lot of people are coming forward as experts sharing content without the prerequisites to inform accurately. For example, we see misinformation about the subtle differences in fermentation vs. culturing vs. pickling that end up leaving people who are just dipping their toes in the process a little less unsure. When these folx do engage with true experts they are enthusiastic students who enjoy soaking up all that they can and we see their anxieties dissipate. I speak from the experience of working with solid experts and their students through The Fermentation School. It has been beyond gratifying to work with an amazing group of really talented fermentation educators to grow quality online education and a dedicated “help” community through The Fermentation School. In my other educator hat, as an author, it is less clear to me how that media is working for education, but that is a bigger issue in that the publishing world itself is in a lot of flux.
Soirée-Leone, writer and educator
Folks are connecting with familial, cultural, and traditional roots through fermentation. They are building online communities to share knowledge, taking workshops, participating in residencies, checking books out from libraries, and attending fermentation festivals that are popping up all over the world.
While there is an abundance of information available through books and websites, some folks seek to connect in person through workshops. I find that it’s especially dynamic to teach and learn in collaborative environments to share skills and experiences. There are so many traditions, techniques, and riffs. It is exciting to learn about folks’ travels, study, and experiments — we each have a different fermentation journey and something to teach and learn.
Today is a far cry from when I first started cheesemaking in 1991 with one slim book that sang the praises of junket rennet. Now there are books sharing natural cheesemaking techniques, bloggers happy to answer questions, travelers bringing information home and sharing online, and workshops to attend.
Fermentation is accessible with rudimentary kitchen equipment and improvised incubators and cheese caves. Fermentation is empowering and engaging of all our senses—and learning new things about fermentation is a never-ending journey.
My perspective on this is it’s booming! There was a huge burst of interest for online learning during the pandemic, and I have not seen that slow down much. Fermentation is a trendy topic and word with, unfortunately, a tremendous amount of misinformation floating around out there. It’s an important time as an educator to really remain engaged with students, as well as capturing fermentation aspirants, guiding them towards proper and well informed education taught by experts in the field of fermentation and health.
A win for kombucha brewers — after a confusing month for those trying to sell their products in South Carolina, they can now sell kombucha as a non-alcoholic beverage in the state.
South Carolina’s Department of Revenue (DOR) had categorized all kombuchas as alcoholic beverages. The state.’s regulations set a maximum alcohol content for beverages but no minimum, so any fermented beverage with any alcohol content would be considered alcoholic. Since kombucha fermentation produces a trace amount of alcohol, a brewer
would need to apply for a state alcohol license, and kombucha could not be sold to anyone under the age of 21.
S.C.’s law contradicts the U.S. legal definition of an alcoholic beverage, which is any product with 0.5% or more alcohol by volume (ABV).
After kombucha industry leaders contacted the state’s DOR and the South Carolina Retail Association (SCRA) to share advice and resources, the regulation was amended to exempt kombucha. Kombucha Brewers International’s leadership and legal counsel, along with producers Buchi Kombucha, GT’s Synergy Kombucha, Health Ade, Humm and Brew Dr., were involved.
“Every time we are called to support commercial producers to advocate on their behalf with government agencies, we validate the category,” said Zane Adams, chair of KBI’s board and co-CEO of Buchi Kombucha and FedUp Foods. “Our very existence means that kombucha is not a fad rather it is a necessary beverage segment that will only continue to grow. We appreciate every opportunity to interface with regulators to help them better understand our product and processes.”
“Crisis creates community,” adds Hannah Crum, KBI president. “Our mission is to advocate and protect kombucha and that’s exactly what we were able to do here thanks to the cooperation of several KBI member and non-member brands. We also appreciate that we were able to create new relationships with the SCRA and the S.C. DOR as we worked together to create a harmonious resolution.”
Most retail stores sell kombucha in the refrigerated juice section. In a press release, KBI shared three points for food regulators who may be unsure in what beverage category kombucha fits:
- Kombucha is not beer. Tax codes that lump kombucha with malt beverages are incorrect.
- Kombucha is an acetic acid ferment. Its fermentation process is similar to that for vinegar. Trace amounts of ethanol will be left in the final ferment, and they act as a natural preservative.
- Hard kombucha is an exception to non-alcoholic kombucha. Hard kombucha is intentionally made with a higher alcohol content, with the purpose to be sold and consumed as an alcoholic beverage.
KBI is currently lobbying for legislation that would exempt kombucha from excise taxes intended for alcoholic beverages. The KOMBUCHA Act, currently in Congress, proposes to raise the ABV threshold for kombucha taxation from its current level of 0.5% to 1.25%. KBI is encouraging the public to sign a petition in support of the act.
While KBI notes it would be ideal to create a new beverage category, “the process is long and arduous and requires a lot of financing for education and lobbying.”
Nutrition professionals need to share the details when recommending fermented products to clients. What are the health benefits of the specific food or beverage ? Does the product contain probiotics? Live microbes?
“There are a vast array of fermented foods. This is important because it means there can be tasty, culturally appropriate options for everyone,” says Hannah Holscher, PhD and registered dietitian (RD). But, she adds, remember that these are complex products.
Holscher spoke at a webinar produced by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) and Today’s Dietitian. Joined by Jennifer Burton, RD and licensed dietitian/nutritionist (LDN), the two addressed the topic Fermented Foods and Health — Does Today’s Science Support Yesterday’s Tradition? Hosted by Mary Ellen Sanders, executive director of ISAPP, the presentation touched on the foundational elements of fermented foods, their differences from probiotics, the role of microbes in fermentation, current scientific evidence supporting health claims and how to help clients incorporate fermented foods in their diets.
Sanders called fermented foods “one of today’s hottest food categories.” Today’s Dietitian surveys show they are a top interest to dietitians, as the general public often turns to them with questions about fermented foods and digestive health.
Here are three factors highlighted in the webinar that dietitians should consider before recommending fermented foods and beverages.
Does It Contain Live Microbes?
Fermentation is a metabolic process – microorganisms convert food components into other substances.
In the past decade, scientists have applied genomic sequencing to the microbial communities in fermented foods. They’ve found there’s not just one microbe involved in fermentation, Holscher explained, there may be many. The most common microbes in fermented foods are streptococcus, lactobacillaceae, lactococcus and saccharomyces.
But deciphering which fermented food or beverages contains live microbes can be difficult.
Live microorganisms are present in foods like yogurt, miso, fermented vegetables and many kombuchas. But they are absent in foods that were fermented then heat-treated through baking and pasteurization (like bread, soy sauce, most vinegars and some kombucha). They’re also absent in fermented products that are filtered (most wine and beers) or roasted (coffee and cacao). And there are foods that are mistakenly considered fermented but are not, like chemically-leavened bread, vegetables pickled in vinegar and non-fermented cured meats and fish.
“The main take-home message is that it’s not always easy to tell if a food is a fermented food or not. So you may need to do more digging, either by reading the label more carefully or potentially contacting the food manufacturer,” Holscher said. “When we just think of if live microbes are present or not, a good rule of thumb is if that food is on the shelf at your grocery store, it’s very likely that it does not contain live microbes.”
Does It Contain Probiotics?
The dietitians stressed: probiotics are not the same as fermented foods.
“Probiotics are researched as to the strains and the dosages to be able to connect consumption of a probiotic to a health outcome,” Holscher said. “These strains are taxonomically defined, they’ve been sequenced, we know what these microorganisms can do. They also have to be provided in doses of adequate amounts of the live microbes so foods and supplements are sources of probiotics.”
Though fermented foods can be a source of probiotics, Holscher notes: “In most fermented foods, we don’t know the strain level designation.”
“For most of the microbes in fermented foods, we’ve just really been doing the genomic sequencing of those over the last 10 years and so we may only know them to the genus level right,” she said. For example, we know lactic acid bacteria are present in kimchi and sauerkraut.
Holscher suggests, if a client has a specific health need, a probiotic strain should be recommended based on its evidence-based benefits. For example, the probiotic strain saccharomyces boulardii is known to help prevent travel-related diarrhea, and so would be good for a patient to take before a trip.
“If you’re looking to support health and just in general, fermented foods are a great way to go,” Holscher says.
The speakers recommended looking for probiotic foods in the Functional Food Section of the U.S. Probiotic Guide.
Does Research Support Health Claims?
Fermentation contributes to the functional and nutritional characteristics of foods and beverages. Fermented foods can: inhibit pathogens and food spoilage microbes, improve digestibility, increase vitamins and bioactives in food, remove or reduce toxic substances or anti-nutrients in food and have health benefits.
But research into fermented foods has been minimal, mostly limited to fermented dairy. Dietitians should be careful making strong recommendations based on health claims unless those claims are supported by research. And food labels should always be scrutinized.
“There’s a lot of voices out there that are trying to answer this question [Are fermented foods good for us?],” says Burton. “Many food manufacturers have published health claims on their labels talking about these benefits and, while those claims are regulated, they’re not always enforced. Just because it has a food health claim on it, that claim may not be evidence-based. There’s a lot of anecdotal accounts of benefits coming from eating fermented foods and the research is suggesting some exciting potential mechanisms. But overall we know as dietitians we have an ethical responsibility to practice on the basis of sound evidence and to not make strong recommendations if those are not yet supported by research.”
Reputable health claims are documented in randomized control trials. But only “possible benefits” can be linked to nonrandomized controlled trials. And non-controlled trials are the least conclusive studies of all.
For example, Burton puts miso in the “possible benefits” category because, with its high sodium content, there’s not enough research indicating it’s safe for patients with heart disease. Similarly, she does not recommend kombucha because of its extremely limited clinical research and evidence.
“We have to use caution in making these recommendations,” Burton says.
This is why Burton advises dietitians to be as specific as possible. Don’t just tell patients “eat fermented foods” — list the type of fermented food and its brand name. She also says to give patients the “why” — what is the benefit of this fermented food? Does it increase fiber or boost bioavailability of nutrients?
“Are fermented foods good for us? It’s safe to say yes,” Burton says. “There’s a lot that we don’t know, but the body of evidence suggests that fermentation can improve the beneficial properties of a food.”
Expect more changes to fine dining as the restaurant industry grapples with Covid-19 changes, casual eateries adapt more fine dining techniques and the war in Ukraine continues to affect the world economy.
“Everyday restaurants have become so amazing. It’s not like it used to be, you used to go to the best restaurant to get the most tender piece of meat and the perfect ice cream,” says Rene Redzepi. He is the founder of Noma, the Michelin three-star restaurant in Copenhagen lauded as one of the top in the world. “You can find typical luxury ingredients like caviar and wagyu in airports. The quality of cooking now is so high.”
Redzepi says there’s been a “flavor spread” or “quality spread” of gastronomy techniques. He points to espumas, the Spanish term for culinary foaming. – now used on every continent, in every level of restaurant. A gourmet dish may come from the neighborhood brasserie, a tapas bar or even a food truck. It’s “dramatically changed” the restaurant industry, he notes.
“That’s because people don’t understand the influence and the philosophies that [are] now completely naturalized in every corner of gastronomy,” he says. Techniques once used only in premier establishments have become part of cooking DNA. “I hope fermentation will be that because I genuinely believe in the power of that.”
When Noma opened in November 2003, Redzepi promised Nordic cuisine made with local produce. But it was winter and freezing, making sourcing food a challenge, “so I stepped into the wilderness to find flavors.”
He also realized Noma needed to conserve summer produce for the long winter.
“We started to use pickling, fermentation, drying, smoking. Twenty years later, we have this bank of knowledge,” he said. “Before, we used to try 20,000 different fermentation techniques, now we are trying one at a time, with the whole team, like we are doing with lacto-fermentation.”
Fermentation drives an enormous amount of innovation at Noma. Redzepi told the Madrid Fusion audience that the restaurant industry is one of the most difficult to work in, so innovation and experience are what drive profitability.
“That’s what makes it special, putting together a team, while constantly looking for the ‘next big thing,’” he says. “That’s where the challenge is; pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone, until you have no clue what you’re doing, but as a group, you draw on your experiences, you trust each other, and you dare to move onwards.”
Redzepi praised the current state of Spain’s cuisine, saying “the Spanish influence is a natural part of any fine dining kitchen in the Western world.”When he was starting out in the 90s, French food was the only focus for chefs. “You were going to cook French food in Denmark, that’s what I always thought to myself.” But when he took a job cooking in Spain for a season, “it was like everything that you had been taught before, all your rules that you knew, were sort of thrown away and you could build and dream in a different way. “[Spanish cuisine] has given me the very seed of everything that’s become Noma.”
Hard kombucha is one of the fastest growing alcohol categories. Could it become the next cider, craft beer or even hard seltzer?
“That’s the big question, isn’t it. It’s up to us to do it,” says Joshua Rood, CEO and managing director of Dr Hops hard kombucha. “If we could make it so good that beer people get excited about it and wine people get excited about it, well now there’s potential for something really, really big. That’s how craft beer did it — they focused so much on quality that they just blew regular beer out of the water on quality and everyone went for it because it was just so much better. We’re committed to what’s possible.”
Declared the “drink of summer” in both 2020 and 2021, hard kombucha continues to grow this year. While still only a small segment (~$58 million) of the overall alcoholic beverage market, hard kombucha’s dollar sales growth is big at 60%. And this performance is at a time when sales are declining for both cider and hard seltzer.
“Seltzer is really homogenous, there’s no differentiation for the most part, whereas kombucha, every brand is very different,” says Joe Carmichael, co-founder of Local Roots Kombucha. “A lot more than craft beer, there’s a lot you can do with it.”
The two spoke on a hard kombucha panel at KombuchaKon, joined byJames Conery, manager of innovation at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and Steve Dickman, owner and brewmaster of Rocky Mountain Cultures and High Country Kombucha. The brewers agreed: hard kombucha can become as great as the craft beer category.
“For us, fermentation is part of the process,” Rood says.”There are live lactobacillus cultures still alive up to 11% ABV [Dr Hops ABV]. We chose that [alcohol level] because, for us, it was an expression of craft. It was a great style.”
The acidity of kombucha masks the taste of alcohol, making hard kombucha a smoother, tangier drink. While beer is made from grain, hard kombucha is made from tea leaves. This gives it its “better-for-you” profile, drawing on the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in tea.
Kombucha brewers hoping to add a hard kombucha line need to realize that it is a “totally different business than non-alcoholic,” Rood says. The regulations are strict.
“If you’ve never done an alcohol booch and you’re going to get into it, some of the things we’re going to touch on, like probiotics or health claims, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) has very big issues with health claims,” says Steve. “You cannot make health claims with alcohol. …There are a lot of regulations that come with it, a lot of ingredients you can’t use.”
Adds Conery, who runs the Strainge Beast brand for Sierra Nevada: “If you’re thinking about doing hard kombucha, you really need to research all the regulations before you start to do anything, before you even make it, so you know what you need to do.”
Even brewing hard kombucha is not without its challenges, too. Similar to beer, it requires the monitoring of key parameters — acidity, temperature, yeast strain, nutrients, time. But yeast is a delicate organism that can be difficult to manage, but which can alter the flavors of a brew.
Creating their first non-beer line came with growing pains for Sierra Nevada, one of the largest brewers in the U.S. Strainge Beast’s launch in 2020 required the company to make a substantial investment in its Chico, Calif., brewery, to seal off and isolate its beer operations from the hard kombucha line.
“As a brewer, I’ve spent my entire life making sure what kombucha is does not get into my brewery, because everything in kombucha is what you’d consider a beer spoilage organism,” Conery said. “We have to be very good about keeping what we’re doing with our kombucha segregated. As you scale up — especially with alcohol — there are a lot of things that can go wrong.”
Working with yeast is always a growing experience, “I’m still in the trial and error process,” Conery said. It took Sierra Nevada “quite a long time to find the correct yeast strain when we were fermenting to make our alcohol.” Yeast can create unique flavors — or funky, bad-tasting brews. A brewery will spend months exploring what yeast they want to use.
“It is the most interesting and horrible part of the production side, which is how to get the flavors you want, effectively,” Rood said. “When you’re dealing with a very acidic environment, that’s one of the biggest challenges and you want that acidity, which is part of the challenge. But you want your yeast to do a good, clean, healthy job of fermenting the alcohol.”
While both Sierra Nevada and Dr Hops approached hard kombucha with backgrounds in craft beer, Dickman at High Country Kombucha came from the kombucha world.When making hard kombucha, he brews the kombucha flavor he wants, then creates a neutral seltzer-like base. He blends the two together for the ABV value he desires, and says he likes this method as a way to experiment with acidity profiles.
“Kombucha was always a cool beverage, but now it’s bringing the party,” Dickman said.
More and more food and beverages are labeling their product with -biotics – probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics — confusing consumers as to what a -biotic is and its potential health benefit.
There’s an “overuse of the term probiotic as referring to any live microbe,” says Bob Hutkins, professor of food microbiology and the University of Nebraska (and a Science Advisor on TFA’s Advisory Board). Probiotics, according to the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), require documentation of both a health benefit and the strain.
“It’s a high bar to call something a probiotic,” he continues. “I read labels that say ‘contains probiotics’ and I’d say, the vast majority of the time, they’re incorrectly named if they’re named at all.”
Hutkins was part of a panel hosted by Food Navigator on “Feeding the Gut Microbiome: From Pre-, Pro-, and Postbiotics.” Speakers included leaders of food brands and -biotic supplement brands.
Is a Fermented Food Probiotic?
The issues surrounding probiotics and fermented foods have long been debated. TFA hosted a webinar on the topic in 2021, and it was the focus of a keynote session at TFA’s FERMENTATION 2021 conference.
Using the example of kimchi, Hutkins explains the fermented cabbage may contain live microbes that closely resemble a probiotic strain. But, according to scientific-backed definitions by ISAPP and the World Health Organization (WHO), “you can’t call that kimchi probiotic unless you isolated the strain, characterized the strain, done a clinical study and then that kimchi is going to be different from the kimchi you’ll make tomorrow. So it’s a challenge for companies that are producing fermented foods that probably have live microbes that can provide some benefits, but you can’t call them probiotics.”
Hutkins encourages fermentation producers to use the term “rich in live microbes” on their label instead. If the product does include clinically tested probiotics (like in yogurt), “I really applaud the company that puts the genus and species on their package.”
Miguel Freitas, PhD, vice president of health scientific affairs at Danone North America, says the conversation in the industry needs to change from just probiotics to strain specificity.
“There are many consumers that are just seeking the word probiotic on the packaging. And they believe that probiotics will [help] everything from immune health to gut health,” Freitas says. “This is where I believe it can start to get tricky because there are so many products out there.”
Though the science around -biotics has evolved tremendously in the past two decades, consumers are overwhelmed and confused by all the choices.For example, he points to a new clothing brand that alleges the probiotics in their clothes are activated by heat.
This is why the food and beverage industry needs to play an active role in consumer education, says Todd Beckman, president of Verb Biotics.
“They have a platform to talk about health, these specific ingredients and health benefits,” he says. “They have the megaphone to talk to consumers in a true and authentic way.”
But Beckman warns: “the brands that don’t really know what they’re doing or don’t stand for anything or don’t stand for science, they’re not going to be there tomorrow.” Consumers will abandon brands with unsubstantiated health claims.
“If all of a sudden consumers aren’t believing in probiotics or what they can do, then it’s quite damaging,” he says.
Tom First, founder and CEO of Culture Pop probiotic soda, says that, though their brand has the clinical benefits of a verified and shelf-stable probiotic strain, they don’t lead with this complicated information in their marketing. Instead, they focus on flavor and it “being a fun drink,” figuring consumers can look to the Culture Pop website if they want to dive deeper.
Adding to consumer confusion: products on grocery shelves may now contain one of three -biotics – probiotics, prebiotics or postbiotics. Justin Green, PhD, director of scientific affairs at Cargill Health Technologies, says many think of -biotics as a daily supplement with a simple health benefit, like vitamin C.
“We really have to drive home there’s going to be different [-biotics] from different organisms, different fermentation techniques and most importantly different health benefits,” he says.
Probiotics are live bacteria; prebiotics are food for the bacteria; and postbiotics are metabolites produced by the probiotics.
The United States is becoming more diverse, with 4 of every 10 Americans identifying as non-white. But grocery stores have been a poor reflection of that mix of cultures. Now, a group of BIPOC food entrepreneurs are encouraging buyers and retailers to expand the range of products featured on store shelves.
“It has to start with leadership at the top saying, ‘We have to champion emerging brands because it’s good business,’” says Clara Paye, founder of UNiTE Foods, a maker of protein bars with international flavors. “Let’s face it. Your customers are diverse. They’re looking for diverse products. Create the incentive structures for buyers out there to have those placements and do it confidently.”
Paye was part of a panel at Natural Products Expo West discussing the challenges and opportunities for founders of color. The U.S. food system, the panelists lamented, is far from equitable. For example, though foods like kimchi and miso are staples in Asian countries, shoppers are hard-pressed to find a broad and deep array of multicultural food products at a typical American grocery.
“There wasn’t an avenue if you weren’t born and raised in America,” Paye explains.
Reclaiming Food Culture
The panel stressed that they could never find the traditional foods they ate growing up when they went to American grocery stores. First- and second-generation immigrants have never been the focus of major retail food brands. Underserved in this way, these BIPOC founders say they started their companies to reconnect with the flavors of their cultures.
“We felt it was a travesty that the second largest continent in the world [Africa] didn’t have any reflection in mainstream grocery,” says Perteet Spencer, founder of Ayo Foods, which sells West African frozen dishes and jarred sauces. (Spencer — a former employee of SPINS, a retail sales data provider for natural products — spoke at a TFA webinar in 2021).
But she notes the food system is changing: “It’s clear that the market has shifted over the last several years and is embracing global flavors.”
Expanding the flavor of Mexican cuisine is the goal of Miguel Leal, co-founder and CEO of Somos, maker of Mexican meal kits.
“There’s stereotypically this (belief) that ethnic food has to be cheap,” he says. “It can be beautiful or clean or premium.”
Vanessa Pham agrees, adding there’s a narrative that authentic ethnic food should only be served in hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Pham is co-founder of Omsom, which makes chef-created Asian dishes. “Authentic” is a complicated term, she says.
“Authenticity sometimes pegs and limits food founders and chefs to a nostalgic idea, ‘How my grandma made it’ or ‘The traditional way,’” she explains. “We believe BIPOC chefs should be able to innovate. Cultural integrity is much more about doing your research, involving the right people and compensating ethically.”
Ethnic Aisle: Integrate or Celebrate?
The ethnic aisle in groceries is a debated topic among BIPOC food leaders. Some say it’s an easy way for shoppers to find international products; others argue it’s an antiquated and offensive placement.
“I like the ethnic aisle, I just don’t like the way it’s showing us today,” Leal says. “It’s a little bit of a caricature.”
A recent survey by Adobe found 66% of African Americans and 53% of Latinos feel their ethnicity is portrayed stereotypically in food advertisements.
Pham views a future where the hodgepodge of products in the ethnic aisle disappears, and rice noodles are sold next to spaghetti. Paye agrees. “I think it will be a thing of the past, a funny thing where we put candles and beans and matzo balls.”.
Two years after kombucha sales began to clock double-digit growth during the pandemic, sales are slowing, increasing only 1% over the last 52 weeks. But kombucha is still the sales leader in the fermented, non-alcoholic beverage space, representing nearly 85% of the category.
Kombucha pioneered the refrigerated functional beverage industry. For years it was one of the few beverages in the fermented, non-alcohol beverage space. But now there’s competition from new functional drinks — like prebiotic- and probiotic-infused sodas — that are diverting sales from kombucha.
“The consumer really is not OK with just drinking water. They want functionality out of everything they consume,” says Caroline Davidson, director of channel partnerships at SPINS (a data provider for natural, organic and specialty products). “Non-alcoholic beverages are traditionally not healthy options. To see that kombucha is actually one of the few segments contributing to double-digit growth (in that category), it’s really refreshing and encouraging.”
Those numbers were presented at KombuchaKon, the conference and trade show produced by Kombucha Brewers International (KBI). The event had been virtual the last two years, and brewers were anxious to meet in person again. Hundreds of brewers and brand leaders converged last week in Long Beach, Calif.
Here are highlights from SPINS’s kombucha market analysis.
Functional Beverages Grow
Refrigerated functional beverages are a top growth category across all sales channels — natural products stores, regional groceries and multi-outlet retailers (MULO) like WalMart, Target and CVS. Beverages made with -biotic cultures, high fiber sodas, water kefir sodas, drinking vinegars, kvass and tepache are all part of that growing category — and they compete with kombucha.
Shelf-stable functional beverages are growing even more quickly. For example, in the natural channel, sales of these drinks have increased nearly 25%, versus 4% for their refrigerated counterparts.
“It may not be refrigerated, but it still may be competition to a kombucha,” Davidson says.
Major Brands Diversify
Kombucha-adjacent products — like powdered kombucha and kombucha-flavored yogurt bites — are entering the market. So are kombuchas with no sugar or less than 1 gram of sugar.
“I am consistently seeing no sugar options in fermented beverages, which I know I’m speaking to an audience that already knows this, but fermentation doesn’t happen without sugar,” Davidson says. She notes more and more beverage categories “are seeing differentiation within probiotics of fermentation.”
Of the five fastest growing kombucha brands,— only two – Wild Tonic and Better Booch – are selling just traditional kombucha or hard kombucha. The other three – Humm, Health-Ade and Rowdy Mermaid – have added new product lines. Humm and Health-Ade sell prebiotic sodas and Rowdy Mermaid offers tonics.
Health-Ade is marketing their brand as a “gut health beverage” instead of simply kombucha. In a statement, Health-Ade CEO and co-founder Diana Trout says: “We have seen a dramatic increase in consumer interest in gut health over the past year as people begin to realize just how important gut health is to immunity and overall health. We wanted to offer our customers something that doesn’t compromise on taste and has legitimate gut health benefits, and (our new prebiotic drink) Pop does just that.”
Defining the Product
KBI has been well aware of changes in the category. Two years ago, it released the kombucha Code of Practice, the first set of safety and quality standards for the industry.
“Kombucha” is not a protected product name, unlike “tequila” or “champagne.” With the code, KBI aims to protect kombucha as a traditional fermented beverage. But KBI also doesn’t want to eliminate kombucha brands that may pasteurize and sell in shelf-stable cans, process from a base or brew with sweeteners.
Joshua Rood, CEO and managing director of Dr Hops hard kombucha, attended the SPINS presentation and thinks KBI “is standing in the right place.”
“First, we have to define what kombucha is. And then how you label variations of that, like if it’s filtered or pasteurized. Then you can actually have clarity and transparency for consumers so they actually know what they’re getting,” Rood says. “Right now, we don’t have that. It’s very rough, it’s essentially just an honor system.”
Rood emphasizes he has no problem with kombucha brands not brewing with traditional methods. But he says there needs to be a classification system and transparent labeling of how a kombucha is made. “There’s a lot of room for education,” he says.
Dr Hops, for example, prints a nutrition fact panel and calorie listing on their hard kombucha, even though most beer, wine and spirits are not legally required to do so.
“We try to be massively over-communicative on our labels,” Rood says. “And, if you’re looking at our labels from a calorie stance, it doesn’t look good because we have such high alcohol content. We’re not competitive in calories. But if we put it on there, people will learn that it’s 10% alcohol and most of the calories come from the alcohol.”
Shift in Retail Channels
Sales in natural stores – the retail channel that helped launch the kombucha industry have slowed, actually declining 5% over the past year. . But sales over the same period grew 3% in MULO outlets and 2% at convenience stores.
“People are still trying to find outlets where they can get everything in one trip,” Davidson says. “We’re seeing a lot more consolidation of what people are purchasing in one trip or fewer trips per month.”
Hard Kombucha “Massively Outperforming”
SPINS’s “flavored malt beverages” category includes a number of alcoholic drinks that don’t contain malt. While hard seltzers have long dominated here, six of the 10 fastest-growing brands in natural retailers are now hard kombucha brands: Boochcraft, Flying Embers, June Shine, Kyla, Strange Beast and Nova Easy.
“Natural retailers are fully embracing this as a new category and it’s paying off exponentially,” Davidson says.
Hard kombucha sales are still small overall, at $58.31 million, are driving growth in the category and “massively outperforming hard cider,” Davidson says. Dollar growth for hard kombucha is almost 60%, while sales of hard cider are declining. Sales for the hard seltzer – including category leaders White Claw and Truly – are also slipping in all retail channels.
For nearly two decades, the Mediterranean diet has been the food choice recommended by dietitians and the USDA.. This approach to eating has been proven to improve health and reduce risk of chronic disease.
But there’s a new contender: the Nordic diet.
This plan focuses on eating fermented foods and beverages, with less meat and more legumes than in the Mediterranean diet. Both approaches are plant-based and full of lean proteins, complex carbs and healthy fats.
“The nordic diet really does promote a lifelong approach to healthy eating,” says Valerie Agyeman, RDN (pictured). “It also really really focuses on seasonal, local, organic and sustainably sourced whole foods that are traditionally eaten in the Nordic region.”
Agyeman, founder of Flourish Heights, shared her research during a Today’s Dietitian webinar “Breaking Down the Nordic Diet: Why is it Gaining So Much Popularity?” The presentation was designed to help registered dietitians better counsel clients on healthy eating habits.
What is Nordic Eating?
The diet embraces traditional Nordic cuisine, with a focus on ingredients that are fresh and local. The core of the fare is from Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Finland and Iceland.
“Fresh, pure and earthly are the words used to describe this food movement that was born out of the landscape and culture,” Agyeman says. “The Nordic movement is all about using what is available.”
The goal is not to invent a new cuisine, but to get back to its roots. Seafood is central, but meat – scarce during the long Nordic winters – is treated as a side dish Fresh vegetables and berries – the most common Nordic fruit – are prevalent during the summer. Fermented foods were born out of the necessity to preserve food from the warmer months to eat during winter. The indigenous Nordic people traditionally fermented vegetables, fish and dairy.
“It really takes the focus off calories and puts it on healthy food,” Agyeman adds. “This way of eating is pretty nutrient-dense.”
Nordic foods, she continues, are served in their natural state with minimal processing. They’re high in antioxidants, prebiotics, probiotics, fiber, minerals and vitamins; low in saturated fats, trans fats, added sugars and added salts.
“The Nordic diet is really not that straightforward,” Agyeman says. “When you think of other cuisines, like Italian cuisine, they have signature flavors and various culinary techniques that make up Italian cuisine. When it comes to Nordic cooking, it’s very diverse.”
Key, too, is sustainability. Foods from the Nordic countries have a lower environmental impact because they’re sourced locally and eaten in season.
Sustainability is also partly why Nordic cuisine has become a staple at many restaurants. The farm-to-table style continues to expand in restaurant dining, along with fermentation. Restaurants around the world are following the lead of Copenhagen’s Noma and building their own labs to explore the flavors and textures fermentation adds to dishes.
“Today [fermentation] is not something that’s needed,” like it was before a global food scene made it simpler to eat fresh food year round, Agyeman says. “But culinary wise, fermentation has evolved. It’s become a big part of these new creations.”
Fermented foods and beverages add to the “epicurean experience,” adds Dr. Luiza Petre, a cardiologist and nutrition expert based in New York.
“Savory flavors and fermented food with spices make it a culinary experience,” she says.
Studies show eating the Nordic diet prevents obesity and reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol.
The health effects of the Nordic diet were always assumed to be solely due to weight loss. But results of the most recent study of the diet, published in the journal Clinical Nutrition in February, found the positive health effects are “irrespective of weight loss.”
“It’s surprising because most people believe that positive effects on blood sugar and cholesterol are solely due to weight loss. Here, we have found this not to be the case. Other mechanisms are also at play,” said Lars Ove Dragsted, of the University of Copenhagen’s Department of Nutrition, Exercise and Sports in a statement on the study.
The researchers from Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden and Iceland studied 200 people over 50 years of age with elevated BMI. All were at an increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. For six months, the group ate the Nordic diet while a control group ate their regular meals.
“The group that had been on the Nordic diet for six months became significantly healthier, with lower cholesterol levels, lower overall levels of both saturated and unsaturated fat in the blood, and better regulation of glucose, compared to the control group,” Dragsted said. “We kept the group on the Nordic diet weight stable, meaning that we asked them to eat more if they lost weight. Even without weight loss, we could see an improvement in their health.”