Health and wellness professionals are recommending food and drink to aid chronic health conditions with a centuries-old cooking legacy – fermented dairy.

“Fermentation is back. In fact, we have over 10,000 years of fermentation history and we aren’t done because, right now, it is a hot culinary and nutrition topic,” said Andrew Dole, chef, dietitian and owner of BodyFuelSPN. “Today, fermented foods have found a resurging popularity. The combination is based in the unique taste profile, the artisan aura, and the health benefits that have secured fermented foods in the top spots with trend spotters.”

Dole spoke at the “Get Cultured on Fermented Dairy Foods” webinar with National Dairy Council representatives Sally Cummins and Chris Cifelli. Using independent, clinical studies, the trio highlighted how fermented dairy – especially dairy with the “nutrition powerhouse” of milk – can boost gut health, decrease inflammation and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Fermented Food Just as Important as Fiber

Fiber is the shining star of the health world to aid the complex gut microbiome, but fermented food and drink are equally as important said Cifelli, PhD, vice president of Nutrition Research for the National Dairy Council.

“When we think about food, we think about fiber and we know the benefits of fiber in terms of helping our microbiota, but we also don’t think about getting those live and active cultures the same way and we really should,” he said.

The microorganisms that come from fermented foods are just as critical as fiber. He pointed out the Live & Active Culture seal as an important indicator of how to find dairy products with good bacteria. That seal – a voluntary seal by the National Yogurt Association – identifies a yogurt product that contains at least 10 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacturing. Some yogurt brands are heat treated after fermentation, killing any good bacteria. The seal is “the industry validation of the presence and activity of significant levels of live cultures,” according to the National Yogurt Association.

Fermented Dairy as Preventative Food

The human digestive tract contains 100 trillion bacterial cells. But modern practices like sanitation, antibiotics, processed food, c-section births and baby formula use have altered microbiota composition. Cifelli said scientists still don’t understand whether disease is a cause or consequence of an imbalance of good and bad bacteria (known as dysbiosis).

Fermented dairy foods, though, are linked to numerous positive health benefits. As plant-based milk products become increasingly popular, Cifelli noted the research all studied dairy milk products. He called milk “a foundational ingredient in all fermented dairy.” The essential nutrients in milk give it a unique health profile, the reason the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend three daily servings of dairy food.

Diabetes and cardiovascular disease – two of the major disease plaguing Americans today – both have beneficial health outcomes when a patient consumes fermented dairy products.

Diabetes:

  • American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Consuming more dairy products reduces risk for Type 2 Diabetes by 7%. Eating 80 grams of yogurt daily compared to 0 grams of yogurt daily reduces risk for Type 2 Diabetes by 14%.
  • PLOS One (Public Library of Science): Eating 30 grams of cheese daily and 50 grams of yogurt daily reduces risk of Type 2 Diabetes by 6%.
  • BMC Medicine: One serving of yogurt a day is associated with a 17% reduced risk for Type 2 Diabetes.

Cardiovascular disease:

  • American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: A high daily intake of regular-fat cheese for 12 weeks did not alter LDL cholesterol levels of metabolic syndrome, both risk marks of cardiovascular disease risk.
  • European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Cheese consumption reduces the risk of: cardiovascular disease by 10%, coronary heart disease by 14% and stroke by 10%.
  • Journal of Hypertension: Higher total dairy intake (3-6 servings a day), especially in the form of yogurt (at least 5 servings a week), associated with a lower risk of incidence of high blood pressure in middle-aged and older adult men and women.
  • American Journal of Hypertension: Hypertensive men and women who consumed 2 servings per week of yogurt, especially while eating a healthy diet, were at a lower risk for developing cardiovascular disease.

Cifelli called the studies “significant. He added: “there’s been a huge body of evidence looking at dairy guidelines and (diabetes and cardiovascular disease) risk. … We’re really scratching the surface of what (fermented foods) means for health in the long run.”

Incorporating Fermented Foods

Dole, a chef, said you’re “bringing science to the table when it comes to fermented dairy foods.” Fermented foods enhance food by providing an increased concentration of vitamins, adding delicious flavor and increased texture. He shared multiple recipes using yogurt. Yogurt can be used for dip, spread, sauces, dressings, soups and marinade.

“Yogurt is a culinary powerhouse, from a chef’s perspective. We’re always looking for what has the most bang for its buck in versatility, and yogurt is ready-made everything,” he said.

“The (yogurt) fermentation process from a culinary perspective that creates that lactic acid, it works to tenderize meat. Indians have used it in their tandoor for a really long time. Another reason, the sugar caramelizes…and it completely changes the flavor profile and the color. And we get the unique taste of that yogurt tang, it imparts a different balance and depth, which is something home cooks can struggle to get.”

Health and wellness professionals are recommending preventing chronic health conditions with a centuries-old cooking legacy – fermented dairy.

“Fermentation is back. In fact, we have over 10,000 years of fermentation history and we aren’t done because, right now, it is a hot culinary and nutrition topic,” said Andrew Dole, chef, dietitian and owner of BodyFuelSPN. “Today, fermented foods have found a resurging popularity. The combination is based in the unique taste profile, the artisan aura, and the health benefits that have secured fermented foods in the top spots with trend spotters.”

Dole spoke at the “Get Cultured on Fermented Dairy Foods” webinar with National Dairy Council representatives Sally Cummins and Chris Cifelli. Using independent, clinical studies, the trio highlighted how fermented dairy – especially dairy with the “nutrition powerhouse” of milk – can boost gut health, decrease inflammation and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

*Article published in full on 11/13

We asked three fermentation experts if recent popularity of fermented foods is a fading trend or a new food movement. These industry professionals weigh in on their predictions for fermentation’s future. The fermenters include Katherine Harmon Courage (author of “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome”), Aneta Lundquist (owner of 221 BC Kombucha) and Alex Lewin (author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond”)

Do you think the surge of fermented food and drinks is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?

Katherine Harmon Courage, author of “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome”: It’s here to stay. I expect to see it expanding and incorporating into more people’s lives. There is really compelling research with the health benefits, but there’s also these amazing flavors for those of us who weren’t raised with it. Like kimchi. Once you eat kimchi, food seems bland and lacking without it. Koreans describe it as “You need kimchi with every meal.” They can’t imagine eating it without. The flavor and texture experience is a big part of eating. We shouldn’t be forcing it down for our health, but truly enjoying it.

Aneta Lundquist, Owner 221 BC Kombucha: The future is fermented. Stretching back as far as human history itself, the origins of fermentation are hard to track down. People have been teaming up with microbes for much longer than we know. Almost every culture appears to have embraced fermentation for millennia but without a deeper understanding of it’s purpose. Fortunately for us, today’s science became “microbes-curios” and surprised us with some terrific findings. One of the most important ones is that we actually are ONE large thriving ecosystem and its survival is based on an ongoing symbiotic dance between microbial and human cells. Those cells communicate with each other and the outside world, exchange their DNAs and they even shape human behaviors. Now, in the 21st Century, we finally started embracing this profound partnership because of its obvious benefits (gut-brain connection, anti-inflammatory properties, digestive help, depression and Alzheimer aid… this list is almost endless). And there is no way back from here. Demand on fermenting foods is going to only grow from now on. As soon as so called “good microbes” from fermented food find a safe home in human guts, they will call for more of its kind. This is how “they” operate! Suddenly, people will crave kombucha, sauerkraut and kimchi-ferment generally. And that is exactly what we are observing now.

Alex Lewin, author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond”: Fermentation is not a new technology — in fact, it is one of our oldest! People have been doing it for millennia, and microbes have been doing it on their own since before humans even darkened the earth.
So by the numbers, it qualifies as a trend or movement.
But it’s definitely not a fad.

And to be fair, in some parts of the world, fermentation was never “out of fashion”. In Korea, for instance, kimchi has been a staple food for a very long time, often eaten with every meal.

My forecast for North America is that fermentation will continue to grow.
This is because fermentation is the meeting point of a few trends that are on the rise here:

– Health. We are more interested in health (and concerned about health) now than we have been at any time in recent memory. We are learning more about gut health and how it affects the rest of human physiology. Fermented foods are directly related to gut health.
– Food. North Americans watch more food TV than ever before, and celebrity chefs are as famous as pro athletes. People are eating things on a regular basis that their parents had never heard of.
– Sustainability/Infrastructure Resilience. Producing and preserving food without reliance on electricity and other infrastructure is an important thing that we as individuals can do to prepare for an uncertain future that will include climate change and may include dramatic societal change and partial or total infrastructure collapse.

Fermentation opens a culinary Pandora’s Box says David Zilber, head of fermentation at Noma restaurant in Denmark. Instead of just pureeing or heating a berry, the berry can be juiced for alcohol, transformed into vinegar, preserved for a fish sauce, pickled or dehydrated.  

“Fermentation was a discovery of possibility,” said Zilber. “You see the recommitorial power that comes from fermentation. It’s not just a subset of cuisine in gastronomy, it’s honest to goodness as large or it not larger than the world of gastronomy itself.”

Experimenting with ingredients that lead to tasteful outcomes is why “fermentation is so thrilling to explore” Zilber told Harvard students at Harvard University’s Science and Cooking Lecture Series. Zilber lectured with former Noma colleague Jason White, head of research and development at the Kudzu Complex in Tennessee.

Experimenting in the Noma Kitchen

Their topic: “Exploring Flavor Space: Innovation through Tradition in Noma’s Fermentation Lab.” The two shared fascinating insight into Noma, the two-Michelin-star restaurant regarded as one of the best in the world. But how do cooks toy with fermentation when the Michelin guide historically values consistency? Thousands of experiments and variations. Only 5% of what the chefs in Noma’s fermentation lab creates make it onto a plate.

“If you’re not trying to keep things traditional, you’re free to do whatever you want. And that’s the beauty of fermentation for us,” Zilber said. “When Noma employs fermentation, we do it knowing that we can change things. That we can seek out flavors by looking to old techniques, by turning to tradition, breaking down processes via reduction, pulling them apart, saying what enzymes are at play? What molecules are in the mix? What byproducts can be produced?”

Zilber showed the huge shared file between Noma employees of recipe trials. Things like moose snout, moldy vegetables, roasted pinecone, egg picked in elderberry juice and pig meat fermenting in its own pancreas enzyme. One of Noma’s early successes was adding a few drops of a fish sauce to a dish. A few drops of a potent fish sauce iteration goes a long way when flavoring a meal. The cooks began creating fish sauce equivalents, like a fish sauce from squirrel, sea cucumber, beaver, sea star, reindeer, wild boar, razor clam, bear (“That was the worst thing we’ve ever tasted,” Zilber said, “that did not go right.”).

“These were huge discoveries for us at Noma because, all of sudden, you could have a primarily vegetarian cuisine that had all the flavor and impact of like a full plate of food with meat and starch and vegetables just by using seasonings,” Zilber said. “And kind of flipping the role of meat and vegetables on its head. Suddenly vegetables didn’t have to be the accoutrement that just served to kind of temper what you were chewing in your mouth and act as the texture. They were actually the starring role, but you were as satisfied as eating a full plate of sliced sirloin because you could have this taste of meat permeating through your samphire mixed with watercress emulsion.”

Fermentation is the most useful tool for the restaurant, Zilber said. Noma has what he calls a “DIY or die” attitude.

When Noma chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi opened the restaurant in 2003, he wanted to create a fine-dining experience concentrating on the food of the Nordic region. Fine dining in Denmark, Sweden and Norway was primarily French food because the cold, coastal Scandinavian countries have such a short growing season. Redzepi and the cooks dove into cultural recipes. They contacted local foragers, then experimenting preserving the ingredients they’d find. They started a Noma Food Lab to catalog the different ingredients.

“When you taste all the products of fermentation, you understand it is delicious because it is that heightened level of food. All life is transformation – creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin. Building things up in a certain way is just half of the picture if you understand you have to break them down first. And when your body understands that something has been broken down for it in a friendly manner by something that isn’t harmful in any way, alarm bells go off and you understand these things to be delicious.”

“That search for that flavor…is how Rene and the team back in the test kitchen in those early days learned to use the very paltry pantry that sat at Noma’s disposal with all these Scandinavian ingredients and multiple them many times over w the dimensionality of flavor that fermentation could provide. If at first, they only had in a season 250 ingredients to work with, they could turn to fermentation and all the different processes at their disposal to turn those 250 into 1,000.”

During the Harvard lecture, White made a koji and miso for the students to sample. He detailed creating miso from unconventional protein-rich foods, like seeds, roots, parsnip, corn, fava beans, byproducts from oil extracted from nuts.

Transformation through Fermentation

“A field is a field and a plant is a plant. It’s only a weed if you choose to pull it out. But it’s a crop if you put it there and want to harvest it at the end. That’s exactly how you have to think about fermentation,” said Zilber.

Zilber said the technical, chemical definition for fermentation is the anaerobic, enzymatic pathway that yeast uses to metabolize glucose and transform that into alcohol in the absence of oxygen. Simply put, it is the transformation of one food into another by a microbe. But those definitions don’t go far enough to describe fermentation’s complexity.

“If you want to get really into it, you do have to talk about human intent,” he says. “And humans have a big part to play in fermentation because, without the human willing the fermentation into existence, you just have a free-for-all.”

Zilber uses the analogy that a fermenter is like a bouncer at a night club. The fermenter has to decide between the troublemakers and the enjoyable customers. Who is going to come in and start a bar fight and who is going to come in and order drinks and mingle with other customers?

“The club is all the food you’re looking to ferment, the ingredients you’re looking to transform, and which microbes to keep out,” he said. “The key to cooking with microbes is cooking with life. You need to keep these creatures alive so they do the cooking for you.”

Control points are key to a fermentation. Lactic acid – the metabolic process that converts sugar and glucose into energy – has five basic needs. Access to oxygen, salt concentration, pH levels, nutrient sources and temperature. Every control point and process will lead to a different fermentation outcome.

“You’re trying to build an environment for that microbe to survive,” Zilber added.

Harmful pathogens won’t grow in a controlled fermentation environment. Mold can’t live without oxygen. And botulism has a higher water activity level than lactobacillus, and water activity level drops once salt is added in fermentation.

“You’re cutting off at the pass any malevolent microbes that you think might grow,” he said.

Humans, he said, have domesticated the lactobacillus bacteria.

Use Tradition to Apply Fermentation Processes

Zilber knows fermentation is a trendy topic today, but he notes it’s been around since the dawn of man.

“The first real food technology we had for safe food preservation before the USDA was a thing was fermentation,” he said. “And it makes sense that we do it until this day and we have all these traditional recipes on our counter tops because these are things that have kept civilization alive for a very, very long time. And we have grown up to actually love the taste of them and understand them as part of our cultural history.”

Before recipes were shared through the internet, cultures passed recipes through families. Fermentation was mastered because because a grandparent taught it to a grandchild. This is why towns in Italy have a sausage (Genoa, Calabrese) and towns in Japan have a Miso variety (Hatcho, Saikyo).

Cooking your own fermented product “is about crafting those environments that your microbes need to thrive.” Making a koji is recreating the ancestral field in humid China.

Noma is revolutionizing fermentation by using using traditional processes, then creating their own techniques. Noma uses biological and mechanical technology in their food to push the boundaries of cuisine.

“Noma applies the basic concepts of fermentation, of preservation, of making something last in a season where it normally wouldn’t be available, but taking it to the nth degree,” Zilber said. “No, it’s not always about combining flavors and seeing which is the best. Sometimes it’s combining technologies and seeing what produces the best flavor. We try all different sorts of extraction, sonication, vacuum filtration, the (supercritical fluid extraction systems) unit.”

Partnering with local Denmark bio-tech firms, Noma uses scientific technology to explore different fermentation projects.

If just 10% of the population chooses to eat fermented foods, could the food industry be disrupted? Fermentation guru Sally Fallon says: absolutely.

“With fermented foods, you could get rid of all this huge medical industry selling you antacids and digestive aids, and this huge industry that’s grown up around IBS and celiac disease. We can destroy that industry by eating the right foods, and that means eating fermented foods,” Fallon says. The author of cookbook and nutrition guide “Nourishing Traditions” is often credited with bringing ancestral diet methods back into vogue.

Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, founder of A Campaign for Real Milk and author of the new book “Nourishing Diets,” discussed fermentation during The Fermentation Summit. Below, selected highlights from Fallon’s interview with Paul Seelhorst, host of the summit.

Seelhorst: Tell us more about yourself and how you got into the fermentation topic.

Fallon: Well, when I was writing “Nourishing Traditions,” I wanted to make sure I was really describing traditional diets and not something people just think they are. I was very fortunate to find a book in French about fermented foods. I had never read about these before, lacto-fermented foods.

Recipes were very complicated – keep them at certain temperature for this many hours, then switch temperature for another few hours.

I kind of took this principle and worked out a way that was easy and fool-proof, using glass jars, we use way of innocuous so they don’t go bad while they’re starting to ferment.

Tried all these recipes, experiments, made children try – kids have funny stories about trying all these

The neat thing about fermentation is that it is a practice that’s traditional. When you ask traditional people why they do this, they wouldn’t know what to say or how to answer you, they just do it. But it totally accords to modern science. We have seen a complete paradigm shift in the last 20 years. In the past, bacteria were evil and they attacked us and made us sick. Now we realize that bacteria are our best friends, and we need at least 6 pounds of bacteria lining our guts in order to be healthy.

The way traditional people made sure that they had plenty of this good bacteria restocking everyday was to eat these raw fermented foods full of this healthy bacteria. They ate them in small amounts with the rest of their meals. This is how they did it, they had really healthy guts. We know when you have a healthy gut, everything goes better in life. You feel better, you digest better, you have more energy.

I recently wrote this book called “Nourishing Diets” which is about diets all over the world and what really struck me was the fermented foods. Every single culture in the world without exception eats fermented foods. Now some of these foods are pretty weird – like fermented seal flippers. Africa is the land of fermented foods. Almost everything they eat in traditional culture is fermented in Africa. They’ll kill an animals and ferment every part of the animal — the blood, the bones, the hoofs, the skin, the organ meats, the fat, the urine. Everything is fermented when they kill an animal.

Seelhorst: That’s pretty easy because its warm?

Fallon: Its warm, the bacteria like it. They have a saying – a rich man needs 10 animals to feed the wedding feast because he feeds everything fresh, but a poor man can feed the same feast with one animals because he ferments everything

Seelhorst: Do you know what they make out of urine, like a probiotic lemonade?

Fallon: I don’t know, they didn’t say. There’s two wonderful books  on fermented foods – one is the “Handbook on Indigenous Fermented Foods” by Keith Steinkraus. He was at Cornell and is retired now. I fortunately talked to him while I was working on “Nourishing Traditions” and what he shows, he has a bunch of students from all over the world, especially Africa, and they do studies on the food. For example they take a food like cabbage and they’d measure the Vitamin c and the amino acids then they’d ferment it and measure it again. The vitamins goes way up – some 10-fold increase – and the amino acid increase.”

The other thing fermentation does with grains and meats, it releasees the minerals so they’re easily available.

There’s another wonderful book called “The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan: A Study in African Food and Nutrition.”  The author was a student of Dr. Steinkraus. He reminds me a lot of Weston Price – he’s going to these traditional people not to, you know, lord over them and tell them how superior Western culture is. He goes with hat in hand saying “You guys have the secret here. You know how to eat; you know how to prepare food. Not only that, these foods can be done at the homestead, they can be taken to the market and sold, they are a good income for millions of people.” So he’s not pushing the industrial system, he’s pushing artisan food.” I just thought what a wonderful man, how humble. That’s how we need to come to these traditions – not how to make millions of dollars on them, but how to make a decent living for thousands of people and provide a healthy food for millions of people.”

Seelhorst: What I also like about fermentation is the sustainability aspect. People can make food sustainability and do not need fridges to keep the food good and not get it moldy.

Fallon: Foods like grains are impossible for humans to digest unless they are fermented. So many people can’t do grains, they’re sensitive to gluten. But when you ferment, as in the case of a sourdough bread or soaking your oats or pressed cakes all over the Southeast and Africa, these are fermented grains pressed into biscuits, this takes a food where most of the nutrients are unavailable to us and makes it readily available.

Seelhorst: Nowadays, people have fancy equipment to ferment food. How did people ferment food back in the day?

Fallon: Usually they did it in large terracotta pots. And the culture was sort of in the holes of the pots, they didn’t have to add a culture, it was just hanging out there. When I started this in the late 1990s, this book I read in French was talking about these big pots. You couldn’t get these pots in the states when I was writing this book. I thought this isn’t going to work, the pots are heavy they’re expensive and they make a very large quantity which you may not be able to use. I thought we need a different method for the modern house wife or modern father. I thought “Let’s try to do this in Mason jars, the big quart jars with the wide top. Instead of having the culture hanging out in the holes, we didn’t have that. You had to add something in your culture, so that’s where we came up with adding whey. You have your cabbage or pickle or carrots or whatever it is you want to ferment, you put them in a bowl, you toss them with salt and a little bit of whey. You toss them, pound them a little bit, push them in the jar, push down heavily so the liquid comes and covers the top, this is an anerobic fermentation. Leave it at room temperature for a few days and its done.

Seelhorst: Where do people get the whey from?

Fallon: We teach people how to make it. You start with yogurt or with raw milk or something fermented like yogurt or kefir and you poor it through a fine cloth and the whey will drip out. From a quart of yogurt, you get about two and a half cups of whey. You’re only using a little bit at a time – a tablespoon or two – so that will keep a long time in the fridge. That’s your culture. There are other cultures, too. People are selling powders in culture. The only thing I would warn you is don’t try to do this without salt. Because the only time I heard about someone getting sick from fermented foods is when they didn’t use salt.

Seelhorst: Simply put – what happens during fermentation.

Fallon: What happens during fermentation is lactic acid is created by the fermentation. And in some foods, the lactic acid is already there. Like cabbage, cabbage juice is full of lactic acid. This makes whatever you’re fermenting get sour, it lowers the pH to under 4 and no pathogens can exist at a pH under 4. It makes the foods very safe and they don’t spoil after that. Lactic acid is a preservative just like alcohol is a preservative, but lactic acid doesn’t make you drunk. So, at the same time, these bacteria that are fermenting in there, they’re creating vitamins. Vitamin C, b vitamins. They’re breaking down what we call anti nutrients that block the simulation of minerals. They’re creating digestive enzymes that help you digest your food. The interesting thing is these bacteria and these enzymes do get through the stomach, they do get through and are passed into the small intestines where they are really useful. We’re not sure how that happens, they’re buffered in some way, but we do know these bacteria do get through

Seelhorst: How do you think fermented foods can fit into a modern diet.

Fallon: You can include them every day. One of my favorites foods is a fermented beet juice, I first noticed it in Germany, it’s called beet kvass. I have that every morning for breakfast. Sauerkraut is a really easy way, that’s the way most people do it, they just have sauerkraut with their meal. And then the fermented dairy foods like yogurt or kefir, those are wonderful fermented foods. You have a little bit with every meal.

Seelhorst: Are those the oldest fermented foods that we ate?

Fallon: In Europe, yes. We don’t have a tradition of eating fermented bones or fermented blood. But we definitely had fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, that dates to Roman times at least. And also fermented fish, the fish sauce, the universal seasoning, they found it in the ruins of Pompei where they were making it.

Seelhorst: What’s the difference between industrialized and self-made fermented food.

Fallon: once you industrialize something, they start to take shortcuts because they want to lower the cost. Typically, what they’ll do is eat something. So they’ll heat the sauerkraut and package it in plastic bags or something horrible or they’ll can it. So it will last forever and be shelf stable. Typically, the industry has not done genuine fermented foods because its not something that lends itself to an industrialized process. The things we consider true fermented foods in the united states, they’re being made by small companies.

Now the one exception to that might be yogurt. Yogurt is big business, it’s made by the big conglomerates. I would never even eat that yogurt because apparently the cultures are not even any good and the milk has been pasteurized.

Seelhorst: What’s your favorite fermented food.

Fallon: Kombucha. I make my own kombucha. I have a 30-day kombucha, I call it kombucha like fine champagne. It gets these tiny, tiny bubbles in it, it gets really, really sour and a little thick. I also make sauerkraut. It’s interesting – I’m a lot busier than I was when I wrote my book, I don’t have as much time as I used to have, but I still make my own fermented food. I do carrots and cabbage, I’m just about to pull some carrots and make some fermented cabbage.

I forgot to mention cheese. And cheese. Cheese is a fermented food. Here on our farm, we make cheese. I’d have to say cheese is my favorite fermented food. And also, traditionally made salami. A charcuterie is fermented. They hung these sausages up and fermented them. So they are fermented foods, they’re full of bacteria, good bacteria. They should be kind of sour, they’re very good for you.

Seelhorst: Do you want to add anything for people that just found the Fermentation Summit and may not know what fermentation is, they want to try it

Fallon: I will say this – you don’t have to make it yourself, there’s a lot available, in the states there’s now hundreds of artisan producers making sauerkraut. I love to see that – I love to seen an individual be able to start a little business without a big capital investment and make food that’s really good for people and make a decent living. Here on our farm, we have a store and we sell sauerkraut made by a Russian lady who has just made a wonderful living doing this. I love to see that. Just like artisan cheese. I love see small production of cheese; I love small production of fermented goods. Bread is another one, we now have a lot of artisan bread makers. This is the future of food – its sustainable food, its moral food, its food that makes you healthy, its good for the economy, it keeps the money in your community. I think people need to realize that every morsel of food they put in their mouth is a political act. It’s a decision they make. What are you going to support? Are you going to support Monsanto and Kraft and Unilever? These huge corporations who don’t care about you at all, all they care about is making a profit. Or are you going to support local artisan producers? People just like you making a decent living and providing a healthy food. And you’re also deciding whether you’re going to put something healthy or unhealthy in your body and in your children’s bodies. The traditional cultures, they had no choices in what they ate. They ate what was there, they ate according to their traditions. Today, we are not traditional people. We have left all that behind. We have to think what we eat, everything we eat is a choice. They didn’t have a choice, they just had healthy food. Now we always have this choice between healthy artisan food and unhealthy corporate food. So what kind of society do you want to live in?

Ever wonder why you crave umami, the savory food taste common in fermented foods? You were born with it.

“When you say taste, it’s actually just as much the nose because were actually using all the five senses when we say taste or taste experience,” says Ole Mouritsen, a professor of gastrophysics at Copenhagen University in Denmark. “Taste and particularly odor is very good to invoke memories, good memories and bad memories, because that’s the way its hardwired in the brain. These senders that store our memories are stored to the limbic center, and the processing center for taste and odor are in the same area. You can be brought back to your grandma’s kitchen in no time.”

The five basic tastes are: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (umami).

He continues: “There are some basic tastes and odors that you prefer. We’re born to like sweet and umami, and we’re born to dislike bitterness and too much sourness. But our preferences change over time.”

Mouritsen and Adam James, founder of fermentation condiments company Rough Rice, spoke with Cooking with Science host Kevin Glidden on the topic of fermentation and taste. Glidden brings researchers and foodies together in an interactive interview for the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture.

Glidden asked why Mouritsen and James think fermented foods played such a big part in other culture’s diets, but not in the Western diet.

James travelled on a Churchill Fellowship-backed fermentation world tour to study ancient and modern fermentation techniques. He pointed out that fermentation has never been part of Western culture.

“If you look at what my biggest influences are – Japan, Korea, China – they eat fermented foods pretty much with every meal, in the form of a pickle or a soy sauce,” James said. “But again, I think that’s something that’s just been part of their culture. Families would sit down and make kimchi together.”

Mouritsen agreed, adding: “If we want to learn about making old-fashioned pickles, we will not ask our mothers, we’ll ask our grandmothers, because the knowledge is lost.”

In the segment, James made a brown rice congee with Tasmanian abalone and fermented condiments. Congee – an Asian rice porridge – dates back 4,700 years, 1,000 years before shoes were invented. James’ cooked his congee using untraditional methods. Congee is usually made using a chicken stock or duck stock as a base, but James made his congee with shitake mushrooms, fresh tomatoes and kelp. Though no meat was used, the result was an umami-tasting flavor.

A new Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute white paper titled “Umami: The Taste that Perplexes” details why umami is a vital food flavor. Umami’s functions and biological mechanisms are not very well understood. “…Unfortunately the way many people have learned about umami is through the stigma of monosodium glutamate (MSG), the prototypical stimulus of umami taste,” writes author Nancy Rawson, the associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

The umami flavor, though, extends well beyond MSG. It can be found in every day food, like mushrooms, tomatoes and aged cheese. Umami is popular in Asian cultures, where fermented food is high in the glutamate compound. Fermented fish and fish sauce are a common cooking item in South East Asia cuisine, creating “a more balanced taste.” Miso and soy bean paste are used in North Asia, where they flavor food with “a natural and longer lingering taste and mouthfeel.”

Mouritsen said umami is one of the ultimate dining experiences. He adds: “It gives you appetite, when you stick it in your mouth, the saliva starts running. It’s a very good way of getting appetite. We have receptors in the stomach, in the intestinal system, that signals back to the brain that those umami-rich food, and it will eventually tell you to stop. It’s knowledge one could use to make more healthy eating patterns for people.”

Ready-bake and frozen pizza is a market with little disruption. Processed ingredients, chemical-filled cheese and cardboard-like dough are the mainstay of a grocery store pizza.

But Alex Corsini wants to change that. After battling an autoimmune disease, quitting his rat race job in the tech industry and completing an apprenticeship at a Michelin-star restaurant, Corsini wondered why there wasn’t a delicious sourdough pizza in a consumer packaged goods brand. He started Sourdough Story in 2018 as the first USDA organic and Non GMO Verified pizza on the market.

“We wanted to hone in on ultra-thoughtful sourcing and really meticulous preparation, and celebrate slow sourdough fermentation” Corsini said. “I think there’s a lot of dogma in nutrition, and I want people to listen to their own bodies and also think about the roots of where their food is coming from. Pizza is an interesting canvas and platform to showcase this narrative and perspective.”

Below, a Q&A with Corsini, who believes food — especially fermented food — “is the foundation of healthy people.”

Q: Why did you start Sourdough Story?

Around 2016, I was working in the technology industry in startups. I developed this autoimmune condition out of nowhere. My doctors didn’t really have a name for what I was going through, they kept testing me and concluded this was something I’ll have for the rest of my life. I decided to turn to nutrition to mitigate symptoms. I read about the Whole 30 Diet and basically cut out every major allergen. I did it for 60 days, and all my symptoms went away. It was really powerful for me to overcome this through food and not really any medication at all.

Eventually, I started slowly adding back in foods. I started reading about wheat and the ancestral diet. My ancestors are from Sweden, and fermented dairy and sourdough is big there. I started baking sourdough and, the first loaf I ever made, me and my roommates just devoured the whole thing in minutes. And we still felt really good.

I had this epiphany that this whole anti-gluten movement I fell into, there’s definitely valid signs, some people have Celiac Disease. Some people can’t digest wheat as well as others. But there’s also this layer of dogma that I’ve succumbed to. Maybe this is about the ingredients and preparation than the reductive nutrition side of things that’s all too common in the media. 

I started getting obsessed with sourdough baking. I decided I didn’t want to go back to the tech industry. I applied to sourdough bakeries and Michelin rated restaurants that focus on sourdough baking. I got an apprenticeship at Kadeau in Copenhagen and I literally walked into my tech job the next day and quit. I said I’m done with technology and I want to focus on food.

I spent a month apprenticing, learning about fermentation and the farm-to-table movement. Copenhagen is this booming food scene. There’s this identity and really strong sense in bakeries around California — it was even greater in Copenhagen.  I had this realization — why is there not a sourdough pizza in a consumer packaged food brand? And why is there not a brand focused on sourdough as a general concept?

My whole thing was, let’s create a brand around sourdough. We started with pizza, but it’s a broad category. When I decided to do a CPG concept, I talked to the founder of my favorite natural food store in Sausalito. I asked to stock or work in product and get a sense of the retail store environment. I spent three months working in the grocery department, stocking at a natural food store. I told them about my sourdough pizza concept and asked if I could put a couple pizzas on the shelf and see how they sold. We have this idea of what our movement would be — we’d vacuum-seal pizza, we’d put them on the shelf in the deli section, people could take and back. We put out 12 pizzas, and in a few hours they were gone. The orders started getting bigger and bigger from there.

We officially launched in June 2018, making 50-70 pizzas a week for that location alone. We were written up in the local independent journal, and it started a domino effect. Now we’re in about 100 stores in the Bay Area and just throttling growth. We’re at the point where we’re ready to make a big footprint.

Q: You said when you were learning how important fermentation is to people’s diets, that pizza is a great platform to showcase that. Why?

My initial idea, going back to working at the Michelin star restaurant, I loved the idea of knowing where every ingredient came from. I love going to a customer with the menu and saying “This butter is from a grass-fed cow, its name is Mike.” Having that level of granularity was really important to me. With pizza, there are so many ingredients that make up pizza. It’s also a great creative product. It’s a product everyone is familiar with and everyone is passionate about it. If you ask somebody what their favorite type of crust is, you’ll get lots of different answers. They’ll fight you on their favorite pizza place in New York. They all have a favorite topping. It’s a passion product.

Our toppings, the tomato is the best organic tomatoes in the U.S. from DiNapoli, an hour away from us in California. Our flour is freshly milled flour by Central Milling Organics, an old family mill based out of Northern California. The cheese is from grass-fed cows from the Rumiano pasture, the oldest family-owned California dairy. I love the idea of partnering and showcasing with these companies, being on a first-name basis. Pizza is a great vehicle for that.

Q: Why is modern bread bad for the gut? What’s better about sourdough?

We think of modern bread making, conventional bread is a process of simply leavening bread, giving rise to the dough. They all use the same commercially manufactured yeast that was derived from a lab back in the late 1800s. The whole concept around this was to mass produce bread to make sure you can create an industrial product that you can scale to consistency. Before that, it was all sourdough-based bread products, dating back to ancient Egypt. 

Sourdough is a process of not only leavening bread but acidifying bread. The key benefits come from the acidification. So you’re getting benefits like a lower glycemic index, more available vitamins and minerals from grain, some people think it’s easier to digest and you’re getting better preservation. The higher the acidity, the lower the propensity for bacteria or mold to affect the product. 

The science of it — it mainly comes down to phytic acid, which is an organic, indigestible compound that all grains and seeds possess. 

Unfortunately, humans don’t have the enzyme to break it down — it’s called phytase. Some animals have this, and can eat raw grains and nuts and benefit. So when we eat grain in modern bread today, there’s a ton of potential nutrients that we’re not absorbing. There are two primary ways of breaking this down. One way to break this down would be sprouting the bread, one would be sourdough fermentation. Lactic acid fermentation and the acidification process of sourdough, you are breaking down fidic acid. There are studies that show you can get up to 90% percent of the available nutrients in the dough, whereas conventional bread would get like 20%, according to clinical trials.

A lot of the indigestibility of bread is around phytic acid, but gluten is coming to the mainstream, it’s become the easy thing to blame.

It’s great to be able to say, with clinical backing, there’s more bio nutrients in sourdough. That’s powerful. What we’re trying to do now is be the first party and authority on validating the science around lactic acid fermentation. There really hasn’t been an interested party or corporation interested in investing in the science. Our goal is to work with these scientists.

Q: How do you ferment your sourdough?

Modern bread, industrial bread or pizza on the shelf, you probably see an hour to three hours of fermentation time. With us, we do a full three days of fermentation time. We constantly have this starter, this mother culture, that we feed twice a day. We slowly mix our batches, low and slow. We do a bunch of small batches rather than one large batch, we find we get better quality that way. We do a really slow batch, then we take our dough and ferment it in a proofing room for two full days and nights. It will vary a little bit, but each ferment goes above 70 hour.

We use 100% organic flour from Central Milling. The better the flour, the more microbial activity in the flour. We use a specific flour that’s grown three hours away in california, there’s a lot of whole grain in the flour. So the microbial activity is really active. What you get is a really healthy ferment with more lactic acid, so you get that classic sourdough tang and that’s what we’re going for.

Q: The flour seems really critical in fermentation to create a good dough. 

It’s one of the important elements. You could have a company that says “We’re organic sourdough,” but they could be using terrible bleached flour and putting vinegar in it to make it taste sour, there are so many shortcuts.

Q: Tell me about the sourdough starter you use to create your dough.

For the starter, we use a local whole wheat starter and triple filtered water. Good water is super important with any ferment. We feed our starter local whole wheat, but our starter is decades old. It’s an heirloom starter from a natural foods business out here in Fairfax, California. It could be over 100 years old, we’re not sure. Feeding the starter is a constant point of stress. There’s a reason people mass manufacture bread, let’s put it that way. It’s like having a pet.

Q: What is the most challenging part of fermenting sourdough?

All the variables. It’s similar to any fermentation, where you need to measure the time and temperature. One thing that’s especially challenging is making estimates based on the temperature of the room and the seasonality. Thankfully we’re in San Francisco, so it’s not dramatic, but sometimes we’ll get a heat wave and it will change the dynamics of our operation, we’ll have to make adjustments on the fly.

Q: What flavor difference does sourdough bring to pizza?

The biggest difference is that, with any baked good with conventional yeast, you’re going to taste yeast. It’s a very distinct taste. Our sourdough specifically, what you’re going to taste is something that’s a little more nourishing and wholesome. You’re doing to get a little bit of the whole grain but not too much, it doesn’t taste like a whole-grain pizza. It’s something more artisan. You’re going to get a finish that’s slightly acidic, enough that you want to take another bite. It’s addicting — it makes you salivate. With any ferment, there’s this metabolic process where you’re salivating more, you’re wanting more, it’s your instinct.

Q: Sourdough Story was the first USDA organic and Non GMO verified pizza on the market. Why was that important to you to get those certifications?

This was a point of contention. Just because industrial organics and the fact that having this certifications does not inherently validate that you’re a thoughtful brand. The reason I would argue it was the right decision is it creates immediate consumer trust, and puts us in channels that we want to grow into quickly, whether its natural or conventional. It gives us a point of differentiation against brands that aren’t thoughtful at all. It helps us with our sales funnel, and through the sales process being able to go to buyers and check the box. It also gives us leverage in closing new accounts.

For consumers, if anything, having both shows we’ve done our due diligence and we’ve been vetted. Overarchingly, I think it was the right decision.

Q: Is there a lot of competition from the gluten-free market?

My whole thing is that, whether you’re gluten free or not, at the end of the day, people want to feel good about eating pizza. We’re providing people an avenue to feel good about eating pizza.

There’s so many new entrants in the gluten-free space. What really bugs me about gluten-free products is a lot of them don’t care how they’re sourcing their ingredients. They’ll get terrible rice flours you don’t even know where they’re coming from, or cauliflower from international markets, or processed cheeses making up crusts. Our thing: we’re going with tradition. We’re going to trust the heirloom staples, sourdough being one of them, that’s been around for thousands of years, that’s touching every culture. I think it’s good for us to be different.

Q: Where is your copacker, are they in Northern California?

Yes, they’re in Berkeley. It’s a copacker made up of artisan pizzaiolo from Italy. Every pizza is handmade and hand stretched. It’s a USDA organic facility. It’s only us and then their line of organic products. It’s a special little manufacturing facility.

Q: More and more retail news shows fermented pizza dough is an increasing trend. Why do you think so?

If I had to say one thing I’d start with flavor. You win people on taste. And I don’t think there’s anyway a modern bread can taste better than sourdough. The reason being it’s pure umami flavor. If you ferment dough correctly, you’re going to get this incredible flavor that’s unmimicked by conventional applications.

Q: Where do you see the future of Sourdough Story?

We want to have a national footprint in natural and conventional. More importantly, we want to be the authority for all things sourdough based. We want to provide research, we want to provide recipes and information on how to get people involved in traditional baking, we want to be the point on all things sourdough based, and really creating a category for it. And we see the brand expanding beyond pizza in the future, too.

Q: Do you think consumers awareness of fermented foods is increasing?

Wholeheartedly, yes. Almost all my friends have jars of kraut in their fridge now. The whole microbiome, all the understanding and science coming out on the importance of the microbiome, how it influences all elements of health from your mood to your skin to you name it. I think it’s an extremely exciting industry. Not to mention that fermented foods are popping up everywhere. Look at kombucha, look at fermented, plant-based yogurts. They’re everywhere. I think it’s one of the hottest trends.

Q: What challenges do fermented food producers face?

From the manufacturing side, it’s hard to scale a fermented food. It’s hard to scale any manufacturing product, but with fermented food, there’s value in having a smaller volume. It’s also a living organism, it’s really a living thing with a personality that you really need to really thoughtfully think of how to scale. You also just have to learn from your mistakes, it’s just a trial by error thing. It’s a growing category and there’s a ton of competition.

Q: What are the fermented food industry strengths?

I think the entire ecosystem of retail is going to healthy food, functional food, slow food. When you look at Wal-Mart being the largest seller of organic products, that’s exciting. That’s correlated to the fact that people want to eat healthy. Fermentation is a staple and tiller of health in every single culture, you name it. Every corner of the world has fermented food.

Q: Where do you see the future of the fermented food industry?

I think the future would be people being a household necessity to the point where people are trying to get a form of fermented food in their diet every single day. It’s becoming a preventative medicine, and that’s promising.

Q: What’s your advice to other entrepreneurs starting a fermentation brand?

Start small and don’t grow too fast. We’ve had some serious growing pains, and just really try to add value to the product, listen to your consumer, and you get in front of it as many consumers as you can and gather feedback so you can find your niche.

And also, tap into the community. What excites me the most about fermentation and food in general is there’s so many people willing to help and provide advice. 

Q: What can the fermentation industry do to better educate the public about fermented foods?

The onus is on, the brands. this was one of the reasons I started a food company, people vote with their dollars. And the best was to educate is to create a really good product.

As the dairy industry declines rapidly – milk sales plummeted by $1.1 billion in 2018 – fermented dairy could help dairy farmers reclaim the grocery aisle.

More Americans are turning to plant-based options, like nut, oat, rice and soy milk. The demand for milk-based alternatives from companies like Miyoko’s Kitchen (vegan, plant-based dairy products) and Perfect Day Foods (oat milk with fermented yeast) are popular with modern consumers.

But sales are not slowing for fermented milk-based products like kefir and Skyr yogurt.

A study from The Nutrition society published in the Cambridge University Press found multiple health benefits of fermented milk drinks like kefir. Fermented dairy improves digestion, produces anti-inflammatory effects, increases colonization of good gut bacteria and stimulates antioxidants, researchers found. Fermented dairy is high in protein, high in live probiotics and improves lactose digestion.

“Consuming fermented dairy can [help] the digestive system because it actually adds more beneficial bacteria to the system,” said Nicole Dynan, a dietitian with gut health expertise. She spoke to Dairy Australia in an article about the power of fermented dairy. “If we put it in simple terms, most of our bacteria live in the large intestine and can assist that existing population of bacteria to balance out the good and bad. Fermented dairy can contain microbiota that make by-products called short-chain fatty acids that can help release anti-inflammatory benefits into the body.”

“Fermented dairy can also represent a precious source of other nutrients and vitamins such as C and E, while balancing out the ‘bad’ bacteria that can lead to common digestive problems such as bloating, diarrhea, pain and gas,” she says.

Dairy Alternatives Full of “Frankenfood”

Today, 19 percent of yogurt varieties are plant-based. Christopher Malnar, vice president of marketing for Stonyfield, says the ingredient lists on dairy-free yogurts are often alarming. They’re highly processed, full of sugar, chemical stabilizers and what he called “frankenfood.” Organic dairy, meanwhile, is a clean ingredient list with no high processing.

Brands can create demand for dairy again by raising awareness, Malnar said. They can educate on the benefits of dairy and organic products.

“How can we be more innovative as an industry?” Malnar said. “We understand where the market is going [but Stonyfield is] staying true to our core in dairy, recognizing that there are some needs out there.” Stonyfield is currently testing a fruit and vegetable pouch.

Malnar spoke at a panel on organic dairy in September during Natural Products Expo East. When educating consumers on dairy, the panel of organic dairy leaders said it’s important to highlight proper animal treatment. Fairlife Dairy recently came under fire after a video was released of employees abusing calves and cows in a processing facility. Tim Joseph, the founding farmer at Maple Hill Creamery, said he thinks brands lose consumers when they educate them with scientific facts “because it’s just too much information.” Animal welfare is a major consumer driver.

“It’s not whether we think it is right or wrong in the end, it’s what the consumer is looking for,” Joseph said. “Animal welfare is I think the next biggest areas consumers are focusing on.”

Not all Milks Are Equal

A major consumer for plant-based milk: new moms. Mothers, many who adopt a healthy, organic lifestyle once they have children, are turning to dairy alternatives because they believe it’s the healthiest option for their child.

“We’re feeling like we have to go back in time and educate on the value of dairy,” said Melissa Hughes, chief mission officer and general counsel for Organic Valley. “It’s not necessarily to say that plant based isn’t the right thing, but especially for a lot of young moms, make the choice based on good science and good understanding of what the nutritional value is for your child.”

American dietary guidelines dictate that, besides water, milk is the only other drink recommended for children.

Jessica Shade, the director of science programs for the Organic Center, presented findings of a study on modern milk in today’s grocery market, comparing organic and conventional milk. The biggest takeaway: Americans should be choosing dairy milk for the nutritional benefits, and organic milk to avoid exposure to harmful chemicals.

Shade said she was surprised testing milk that non-organic varieties test positive for antibiotics, high levels of growth hormones and pesticide contaminants. “…it is much more ubiquitous than previously thought,” Shade added. Many of these are illegal residues are banned by the Food and Drug Administration. They concentrate highly in cow milk, and research shows they can lead to a wide array of health problems in humans. Allergies, hypersensitivity, rashes, headaches, birth defects, hyperthyroidism are all linked to consuming contaminants in milk.

Organic milk, meanwhile, did not test for any illegal residues.

“The findings about conventional milk are really concerning,” Shade said. “That’s the question that needs to be asked and needs to be addressed – how are these chemicals getting into the milk supply when they shouldn’t be there? The difference between organic and conventional are extremely significant…the easy way to avoid all of these residues is by choosing organic.”

The American dairy industry is in a period of oversupply, hurting farmers especially who are forced to throw out milk. On average, it takes three years to transition a dairy farm from conventional to organic.

“The challenge with any dairy, whether it’s organic dairy or conventional dairy, is balancing this perishable product that’s coming out of the cows and making sure you put it into the system as quickly as you can in order to return a value,” said Hughes.

“We’ve seen the slowdown. For Organic Valley, we’ve seen the slowdown of consumption in fluid milk. For us, quality really becomes a very important thing. Volume becomes a very important thing, and how do you control that when most of your volume is folks drinking milk? But at the same time we’ve seen an incredible increase in the consumption of butter. Everyone loves butter and fat. It’s really pushing some pressures on our supply chain to make that all work together. We’re starting to see more opportunity.”

Good news for fermented food and drink brands. Today’s increasingly disruptive, consumer-driven economy is favoring brands that are craft and artisanal, source responsibly, reduce waste, nourish their microbiome and aim for better treatment of the planet. These are already core operating values for many fermentation brands.

“Consumer values are shifting in the marketplace; businesses are working hard to find ways to use their business as a force of good. Consumers are increasingly engaged in supporting the businesses that are looking to disrupt the status quo, that are looking to change,” said Eric Pierce, vice president of strategy and insights for New Hope Network. “Our market is moving in this direction with more innovation, with more access, with more options for consumers that are easier for them to get a hold of…we will find more and more people opting into the products we are bringing to the marketplace.”

The top trends driving the natural products industry were shared at a “What’s Next” session for industry leaders at Expo East. Here are six trends the fermentation industry can use to grow their company.

1. Brands Supporting the Planet

From the treatment of animals on the farm, the soil used to grow the vegetables and the type of packaging used, the environment is on the top of consumer’s minds. Consumers want to support brands that practice regenerative farming, zero waste production and responsible supply chain sourcing.

 “The top three trends fell under purpose-driven commerce,” said Amanda Hart, market research manager for NEXT Data & Insights. She said consumers want brands to be more mindful, proactive and “really dive in and solve for community health and issues where government regulation is lagging or lacking.”

2. Selling Outside the Health Food Crowd

Since the start of the natural food industry, natural and organic foods were mostly purchased by a demographic of shoppers SPINS market research defines as “Core Natural/Organic.” These “true believers” and “enlightened environmentalists” make up the majority of natural industry shoppers.

Meanwhile, the mainstream consumer has traditionally been a harder group for brands to reach. These “indifferent traditionalists,” “struggling switchers” and “resistant non-believers” make up the smallest part of natural product sales.

That gap is closing – today 92 percent of all households buy organic products, and 99 percent buy natural products.

Pierce noted he was surprised when studying these groups that the reason they purchase natural products is now the same.

“What this means to us is their level of commitments to products in the industry, their level of commitment to brands is dramatically different,” Pierce said. “But consumers across our economy value similar things what it comes to what they’re looking for from us.”  

“Increasingly, these products are resonating with mass retailers,” he continued.

The findings also showed the food trends that resonate with consumers were not influenced by their political leaning. Whether Democrat or Republican, consumers care about the same food values.

The top five food trends these groups care about: waste reduction, responsible sourcing, responsible meat and dairy, craft and artisanal and responsible packaging.

3. Expanding Knowledge of Microbiome

Probiotics – which has topped SPINS trend lists for years — is no longer claiming a top spot. This doesn’t mean consumers don’t care about gut health, though. Consumers are looking at different beneficial options for their microbiome.

“How can consumers cultivate a health microbiome, to make us our strongest selves as we navigate the forces of modern life?” Hart said.

There is lots of research on nourishing a healthy microbiome. Brands should market gut health to consumers, especially with scientifically-backed claims on how fermented foods aid the gut bacteria.

4. No Added Sugar

Sugar – especially added sugar – has long been the nemesis of natural food shoppers. But consumers now want blatant communication from brands on product flavoring.

“Sugar and sweetener are different, so some brands now are starting to leverage both of those terms and really communicate how they’re adding a sweet flavor to their product – or not adding,” Hart said.

Botanical flavoring is starting to become a sweetner alternative for brands.

5. Alcohol-Free Drinks

Concerned with their health and focused on mindful drinking, Americans are purchasing less alcohol. Data from industry tracker IWSR found that U.S. alcohol volumes are dropping every year. Beer was the lowest, with volumes down 1.5 percent in 2018 and 1.1 percent decline in 2017. Growth in wine and spirits also slowed. This is especially true among younger, millenial consumers.

The taste for a fermented craft beer or cocktail is not waning, though.

This trend was seen on the show floor, where more and more alcohol-free brands are marketing alcohol-free drinks, like non-alcoholic beers, sugar-free mocktails and sparkling vinegars.

6. DIY Rules

Consumers want to be part of the creative process, “like they’re building products for themselves,” Hart said. Pierce added: “consumers value innovation efforts…that engage their sense of adventure and exploration.”

Fermentation brands are catering to consumers DIY nature by offering recipes to experiment with their product, like kefir smoothies, kombucha cocktails or sauerkraut omelets. Some fermentation brands are even selling fermentation kits for home use.

Baltimore-based Wild Kombucha has grown massively since their founding almost five years ago, increasing sales 466 percent in the last three years. The founders hard work and the drink’s delicious flavor helped propel the brand into 1,000 stores in eight states and Washington D.C.

At Natural Products Expo East, Wild Kombucha’s three co-founders point to another factor in their success: the city of Baltimore.

“A big piece was telling people we’re a local kombucha company, it’s Baltimore made,” says Sergio Malarin. “People here are super focused on local, they really love it. A lot of the initial accounts we worked with didn’t even bat an eye about bringing us in. Eddie’s Market, Charmington’s, One World Café, all the healthier, vegan and vegetarian independently-owned grocery stores and cafes, they brought us in and started selling us, fast.”

Co-founders Malarin, Adam Bufano and Sid Sharma are all first-generation Americans raised in Baltimore. The trio (Bufano and Malarin are step-brothers – Sharms is a childhood friend) take great pride in their hometown, praising the locals as a factor in Wild Kombucha’s success. They started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in February 2015 as a side gig, brewing in the evenings after their day jobs. They officially left their former careers for Wild Kombucha in August 2016, the day Whole Foods agreed to sell Wild Kombucha.

Today, Wild Kombucha employs 21 people and is brewing 10,000 bottles and 50 kegs of kombucha each week. They’ve moved to a 13,000-square-foot brewery and taproom in Baltimore. They will release their new flavor — a CBD kombucha flavor — in October.

“We’ve focused on how to educate the community around us on the health benefits of kombucha,” says Bufano. “So many people come to our demo tables and say ‘I don’t like kombucha, but then they try ours and they buy a bottle because it’s very approachable.”

Below is a Q&A with Bufano, Malarin and Sharma, who spoke with The Fermentation Association at their booth during Expo East.

Q: How did you start Wild Kombucha?

Bufano: Sergio and I are stepbrothers. Our family brewed kombucha when we were younger; our parents taught us when we were like 10 years old. And then I continued to brew from then basically until now, perfecting the recipe every time. I started selling it to my friends and then, at a certain point, I was trading it for rent. I was selling it to Hopkins students (John Hopkins University of Medicine). I had this big group of Hopkins students that would come to my house, grab a six-pack and bring me the empty bottles, I’d sanitize and refill them. And then I reached a point where I had to start charging people a little bit more to make it an actual business. That’s when Sergio and I hooked up and came up with a plan to expand and make it a little more legit. Sid is a childhood friend of ours, so we brought him on, too.

Q: You started with your parent’s kombucha recipe. Where did this kombucha recipe originate from?

Malarin: Our parents learned about fermented foods was from this woman, Sally Fallon, who wrote this famous book called “Nourishing Traditions.” She is a best-selling author, and my mom actually became one of her top volunteers and became friends with her. 

Bufano: So we would make like sauerkraut, kefir…

Malarin: Water kefir, milk kefir, sourdough…

Bufano: And it went beyond fermentation. Our fridge was pretty crazy.

Q: Sounds like your parents were very health.

Malarin: Yes. They were super into fermented foods.

Bufano: And this was in the ‘90s, before it was cool.

Q: Where did your kombucha recipe originate from?

Bufano: My parents learned from Sally Fallon how to make it, but they really made it their own. I used their recipe, which wasn’t very good at that point, and improved it.

Q: What makes Wild Kombucha unique?
Malarin
: It’s a lot more approachable than other kombuchas. So the taste, but also the package. Our mission is to make kombucha approachable and available to everyone. So not necessarily the Whole Foods crowd, we want this something the average joe in Baltimore can grab.

Sharma: It has a fresher flavor profile. So because of that, we also have lower sugar, so really the fruit comes out so you don’t need to add sugar after the fact.

Malarin: What really differentiates us as a company is we are one of the few cause-driven kombucha companies. We donate 1% of our sales to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – that’s what makes us Wild Kombucha.

Q: Why did you decide on the Chesepeake Bay Foundation?

Malarin: Since we were kids, we’ve gone swimming on the Eastern Shore. For us, it’s super important. It’s where we live, it’s a huge ecosystem. We really feel our community goes beyond the people in it, it extends to the ecosystem and the wildlife as well.

Sharma: We want to put resources back into the place where we’re using the resources.

Malarin: For us it’s very important to be more than a bottom line. We want to be a business that gives back in many, many ways in the community. We are located in Northwest Baltimore, which is a bit of a food dessert. We opened a taproom out there and we’ve been hosting yoga classes there, we’ll do a speaker series soon. We want the community to be able to participate and be a part of wwat we’re doing.

Q: Tell me how important that was to be in Baltimore. You moved a few years ago from Baltimore to the suburbs, and now you’ve moved back to Baltimore.

Bufano: We tried to stay in Baltimore at that time, but in order for us to push ourselves forward, the only option for us was to move to this space that we found in the Timonium area outside of Baltimore. Just moving back into Baltimore was a huge thing for us. We’d been looking for a space for a while, anticipating our move back. We feel a connection here, we want to support the city. A lot of businesses are moving out of Baltimore, so Baltimore really needs support right now.

Q: Why does Baltimore need the support of local businesses like Wild Kombucha?

Malarin: Baltimore is getting a lot of negative attention in the media. From Freddie Gray and all the craziness that came out of that as well as just the stuff Trump has been saying, and there’s been a big focus on the violence. A lot of other big cities have a lot of negative things too, but you don’t hear people saying those things about, like Chicago. People say the sausages are good in Chicago, the jazz and blues music are good, but there are a lot of murders in Chicago, too. The media doesn’t focus solely on the negative in other cities like in Baltimore.

Sharma: There’s this unfortunate migration out of the city. And there’s a wealth gap, this poverty gap that exists within Baltimore. By employing people in the city, we’re able to make a difference there. By putting local products into the economy, we keep the dollars inside Baltimore as well. It’s about helping the people around us, helping the people who have supported us and allowed us to grow, and paying it forward.

Q: Your sales have skyrocketed since your start in 2015. How do you think you’ve grown so much?

Malarin: A lot of hands-on work on our part. We very much went out and met people and talked to people and shook hands and pounded the pavement and made real connections instead of going through a broker. We didn’t cut corners. Another reason is our product is delicious and approachable. And finally, the last reason is kombucha in general, it’s the fastest growing sector of the non-alcoholic beverage industry, so we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve gotten to ride that wave a little bit. We don’t have a lot of natural competition where we are. Kombucha is still a lot of west coast companies, and shipping is really expensive across the country. So we’ve been able to compete very directly in terms of price point with these multi-million dollar companies that are backed by Coca Cola and Pepsi.

Q: That’s impressive you can compete with the big brands.

Bufano: We started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in 2015. We were in Whole Foods in August 2016.  

Malarin: We were selling at the side of a juice shop, initially. We didn’t have any starting capital. We were a bunch of 24 year olds, so no bank wanted to give us loans. We found a way to get around a lot of the licensing from the health department. We went to an active juice shop that had all the licensing, and we were able to circumvent all those costs by operating through a sublease from them. We initially rented a space that was tiny.

Bufano: We were making enough kombucha that we couldn’t fit it in the fridges we had, so we actually had to sell them when they finished fermenting, on the same day, since it needs to be refrigerated. So when the fermentation day was done, we’d immediately have to put the kombucha in our cars and drive it around to stores.

Q: Most new food brands I talk to have to start at a farmer’s market to get their name out there. You guys were able to get Wild Kombucha into local stores very quickly.

Bufano: We didn’t really go the farmers market route. We area in some now, but it’s really been in the last year that we started doing the farmers market thing because we felt like we weren’t connected as much as we liked to be to the community, we felt we took a step back in the wrong direction after a certain point. that’s why we started the farmers market program so we could be back in it.

Q: Your production and offices are on the same site; you’re not using a copacker. Why was that important to you, to have everything on site?

Bufano: Company culture to us is really important. Creating a team of people that all have a common goal that we’re all working towards, you really feel more unstoppable in that sense. If you separate people – we noticed this with some of our offsite sales people that were in Philly – we felt disconnected. We always had trouble making them feel like they were a part of the team. We wanted to make them feel a part of the team as much as possible. We want to keep everyone as close as possible. A lot of our demo team actually works out of our facility and we pay for them to travel farther away to do demos and come back to the Baltimore office.

Malarin: With the copacking, or lack thereof, we produce everything in house. It’s been really important because, initially for us, it was very important to have full control of the product. Learning how to scale up and how to control it. At the end of the day, if you’re not making your own product, you’re just the middle man. We saw that go into effect in very negative ways for people that we’re friends with, people at other local companies. Once the copacker realized they were doing well, they’d raise their prices.

Bufano: Just relying on someone like that for your whole company and your whole product, that’s too big of a risk for us. Quality control is super important to us. We are right there all the time, making sure everything is how we like it.

Q: That enables you to be out on the production floor, too, monitoring brewing.

Bufano: Oh yes, I am right there. Watching the mother kombucha, singing to the cultures.

Q: How did you get funding to start Wild Kombucha?

Bufano: It was about $5,000 a person that we just put in.

Malarin: Shortly after, we signed a lease for a new space, but we did not have the money for it. We needed like $30,000 in the beginning. So we entered a business competition and the top prize was $30,000. So we signed the lease, then we went to the business competition and we won. It was called the Shore Hatchery at the Salisbury University Perdue School of Business, it’s a one-minute timed pitch, “Shark Tank” style. But they don’t take any equity, they just give you money, a grant. The most you can get it $45,000, but the most you can get at one time is $30,000. So we came and got the other $15,000 during the next competition.

Bufano: If that didn’t happen, we would have had to pull out of that lease. We would been a very different company.

Q: What would be your advice to other entrepreneurs wanting to start a fermentation brand.

Malarin: Don’t do it alone.

Bufano: I’d agree. Having the three of us was so amazing. If one of us was having a tough time, we could lean on the other person. You really feel lonely if you do something alone especially up to this caliber, you sacrifice your social life. Have a partner, give them some equity, do it together.

Q: Where do you see the future of the fermentation industry?

Malarin: It’s only going up. Soda sales have been tanking for a better part of the decade, if not longer, and there’s a lot of things coming in to fill the void. This whole expo is a testament to that.

Bufano: The awareness for kombucha seems to be growing faster than the industry is growing, the market share doesn’t seem to be getting smaller even with more companies popping up. More people are getting educated about kombucha.

Malarin: A lot of the other kombucha companies on the market help us, if they’re doing it the right way. Because they educate people on it, then those people, when they come into our area, they’re much more likely to try our product.

Bufano: It’s between 5 and 10 percent of the U.S. population that doesn’t know what kombucha is.

Sergio: Very few people know about it still, so there’s a lot of room for growth.

Q: What challenges do you think fermented drink producers and kombucha producers face?

Bufano: It might not be as big as an issue anymore, but just educating the government agencies about what kombucha is, that’s been a huge hurdle for us. Especially in smaller cities if you’re the first fermented beverage company that opens there. Educating them about it, especially the health department, that was huge for us. You have to create a whole other category for yourself.

Malarin: It will be nice too when there’s more regulation on labeling kombucha. Right now, people throw kombucha on whatever they want and it’s not kombucha at all. Its misleading and it’s confusing to people.

Bufano: We look forward to the day that kombucha is labeled correctly, so you can see what is authentic kombucha and what isn’t.

Q: What strengths do you think kombucha producers bring to the industry?

Malarin: I feel like a lot of kombucha producers in one way or another are very tied to the communities they produce in. Much more than these huge conglomerates, so I think it brings this much more dynamic side to business that a lot of these huge corporations just can’t have. It’s changing the whole way business is done, reverting to something a little more personal.

Bufano: What I’ve seen from other kombucha companies, they treat their employees really well, at least what we’ve seen so far. I think that’s kind of been a norm in the industry, which is pretty cool.

Summer Bock compares the gut microbiome to a forest. If a fire destroys the forest and forest restoration is attempted by just introducing a few animals, the forest would never rebuild.

“That’s what we’re missing with probiotic pills,” Bock says, adding that relying on a probiotic pill to fix the gut is like telling a few bacteria strains: “’You’re in charge of building our entire gut microbiome,’ you just can’t. if you’re just picking a few probiotics and saying ‘You’re the work horse, you’re going to do all of it,’ they can’t. You have to go think of this bigger picture ecosystem. When we use ferments, we’re bringing in some of the nutrition, the soil and even bringing in a greater variety of probiotics than what you find in most pills. …there’s a huge benefit of ferments that people are missing out on.”

A fermentationist, health coach and founder of Guts and Glory, Bock detailed how fermented foods can improve overall health at the Fairmentation Summit. She coined the word “gut rebuilding” and was the founder of the Fermentationist Certification Program.

Bock started fermenting after becoming incredibly sick. A trained herbalist, Bock began treating multiple food allergies, regular panic attacks and chronic exhaustion with herbs. This was long before terms like probiotics and gut microbiome were a regular part of diet discussions. But Bock was recommended by a naturopathic doctor to try taking probiotics, and “a lot of my symptoms started clearing up very quickly.”

Bock, though, is a purest, and wanted to know how she could ingest probiotics without taking a pill.

“What’s the whole food version of probiotics?” Bock said. “If I’m missing it and I’ve wiped it out with antibiotics, how did my ancestors get this into their body on a daily basis? That’s how I discovered fermented foods.”

So Bock started fermenting everything. During this experimentation process, Bock sold sauerkraut and kimchi from her fridge, launching her first sauerkraut company. She described sharing sauerkraut with her roommate’s friends, skeptics who would initially say “I don’t like it,” but would come back a week later and tell her “I have to come back and but it because I can’t stop thinking about that one bite.”

“This is an addictive healthy food, and I got fascinated by what is happening on your taste buds that makes your body go ‘I don’t like this right now,’ but your body recognizes that health benefit,” Bock said. “If there’s some communication happening through one little bite of food and that person can’t stop thinking about it and they want it, I’m still utterly fascinated by that today.”

Her favorite fermented food is kimchi “because it has all the benefits of lacto-fermented vegetables, it has all the great probiotics in it plus it has prebiotics, it has organic acids and the lactic acid which is a natural microbial.”

Studies during the avian flu outbreak found birds who ate kimchi were not contracting the bird flu. One microbiologist in South Korea found 11 of 13 chickens infected with avian flu who ate kimchi made a full recovery. All birds in the control group died.  

“Fermented foods are really powerful, and I think that what’s fascinating about them for me is they differ from just probiotics. They contain probiotics, but they also have the prebiotics. They have the entire ecosystem,” she said. “We eat it because it’s delicious, but we also eat it because that food assists us in some way.”

Probiotic-rich ferments “acts as a fertilizer” for the gut microbiome, killing off pathogenic organisms. Microbes grow best at room temperature, a temperature the health department defines as a danger zone because it’s the best temperature for pathogenic, food-born illness to grow.

“What we’ve found is, when there’s that acidic environment, these pathogenic food-borne illnesses can’t exist there. They don’t grow,” she adds.

Multiple nutrients are produced through fermentation, like Vitamin B and Vitamin K. Only a few organisms produce these vitamins, Bock notes. They are critical vitamins because they’re not absorbed easily through food. Bok calls them the “star players” of the microbiome. People with an imbalanced microbiome are often lacking in vitamins B and K.

If not fermenting their own food at home, consumers need to practice due diligence when purchasing fermented food brands, Bock says. Kombucha, she shares as an example, is a great “gateway ferment” for most people, but how much sugar is in it? Is it fermented naturally or are lab strains of probiotics added?

“You have to ask yourself, what is the major probiotic we’re talking about,” in the food you’re eating, Bock said. “Is it a naturally-occurring probiotic or a…patented, genetically-modified probiotic?”

Americans have a “Supersize” mentality, Bock said. People shouldn’t be consuming bowls of fermented foods every day.

“Remember that fermented foods are generally a condiment, especially the ones with live organisms, like kimchi and sauerkraut, natto,” she said. “So if you treat it as such, you’re maintaining the respect for these organisms and for these foods,” she said. “Your body knows what it needs.”