Under the new kombucha Code of Practice, can a drink still be called kombucha if it’s sugar-free, hard, filtered, dealcoholized or made from a syrup base?

Yes, says Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), the organization that made the code. But that variation needs to be defined on the label. Crum shared details behind the development of KBI’s new kombucha Code of Practice during a webinar with The Fermentation Association, moderated by fermentation author (and TFA Advisory Board member) Alex Lewin. KBI released the code in July with the aim to provide consumers with transparency.

The code is meant to  help the kombucha industry self regulate as it continues to grow, providing separate seals for both certified and traditionally fermented brews. This approach, according to Crum, leaves room for all types of kombucha. KBI is in the process of finalizing the definition for each of these classes of kombucha. 

“We’re going to see fermented beverages as a category proliferate,” Crum says, noting drinks like kefir, fermented sodas and kvass will all face the same regulations as kombucha. “We want that diversity. There’s going to be a kombucha for every time, place and flavor. Everyone will have a personal profile, and there’s going to be a flavor for everybody.”

Kombucha has gained huge favor among health-conscious consumers, and the industry has grown to over $600 million in sales. The beverage  has historically been made with a traditional recipe of tea, sugar and SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.)  But kombucha in its original recipe is a hard process to commercialize and today many brands sell kombucha in various forms. The code, Crum stresses, is not intended to ban any variety from calling itself “kombucha;” rather it’s a way to distinguish kombucha types for the consumer.

“You’re not obligated to use it,” Crum points out. “Purists will say we’re too lenient — those making it from a base don’t want to define it. Look, kombucha with a weird, globby thing floating in there is not everyone’s idea of delicious. We want there to be products out there that bring people into our category that maybe have a more approachable flavor profile.”

The kombucha industry has been plagued by labelling issues. In 2010, a health inspector found multiple kombucha brands contained more than the 0.5% alcohol limit required to be deemed “non-alcoholic.” In response, Whole Foods pulled kombucha from the shelves, just as the industry was starting to take off. After new ethanol testing requirements were put in place, Whole Foods again sold kombucha. But lawsuits — lately, within the industry — have continued. Court cases over alcohol content, sugar levels and amounts of probiotic bacteria have been filed in the last few years — cases most often pitting one kombucha brand against another.

Crum says that these legal actions have created unnecessary drama  and secrecy in the industry.

“Do I like that brands were narking [tattling] on other brands to the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau)? Or that they were instigating class action lawsuits against other brands? No, I don’t think that’s a great way for the industry to build themselves up,” Crum says. “It creates division, it creates chaos, it tears things apart. we need to be unified, on the same page.”

But Crum struck an upbeat note in conclusion.

“The category is just getting started,” she says. “We’re going to get more bubbly and more fun. We’re going to see more creativity, imagination and sophistication.”

In an effort to help struggling farms during the coronavirus pandemic, Blue Hill at Stone Barns is expanding their fermentation program. 

The upscale restaurants (Blue Hill in Manhattan and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in Westchester County) have long been at the forefront of farm-to-table dining. But, like all restaurants in New York, Blue Hill closed in March when the coronavirus pandemic broke out. Though co-owners Dan and David Barber are confident the traditional restaurant model will once again return, the brothers are troubled by the catastrophic impact on farms.

Blue Hill Farm and Stone Barns Center (a non-profit farm and educational center) have partnered to form a new entity resourcED, which surveyed over 500 farmers. A key conclusion — over a third of farms will not survive the pandemic. August sales at farms are expected to be down by 50% due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and over 30% of farmers say they are struggling to cover expenses. 

“The excess product is a huge concern. That’s shaped our box program, our fermentation program,” says Andrew Luzmore, Blue Hill’s market forager. 

The resourcED survey was the impetus at Blue Hill to launch their picnic dining and box program. Diners can buy a picnic dinner and eat a farm-to-table meal on the farm’s patio or lawn (physically distanced from others), still allowing Blue Hill to purchase food from local farmers. This program allows consumers to pick-up a box full of produce, dairy products, seafood or meat, all sourced from local farms.

Blue Hill’s mainstay fermentation and preservation programs, used for over 15 years to maintain food flavor and nutrients through long Northeastern winters, have also been expanded, to absorb more of excess farm production.

“The focus on preservation program is bred out of necessity, and necessity breeds creativity,” says Cortney Burns, chef, fermentation consultant for Blue Hill and author of “Bar Tartine, Techniques & Recipes” and the forthcoming “Nourish Me Home.” “What we’re doing now with fermentation at Blue Hill rides on the coattails of what has been part of the backbone of Blue Hill for years. Working here has me looking at fermentation through a different lens these days. How can we be completely in service to good agriculture? How can we create a greater economy for farms?”

Adds Luzmore: “The fermentation program has definitely expanded a lot. We’re shifting more to helping farmers with excess product.”

For example, Blue Hill recently purchased  napa cabbage that would have been wasted from a Hudson Valley farmer. They are fermenting the cabbage, “making a delicious, nutritious  probiotic-rich food for our diners, whilst  buying up overabundant harvests,” Burns notes.

It’s conscious cooking, Burns says “We’re not just buying for the sake of preservation. We want to create variety.” Another example is how the Stone Barns Center is trialing preserving different beet varieties.

Fermented grapes and capers, buckwheat vinaigrette, peach umeboshi and whey tonic are among the creations Blue Hill has served picnic-style and in boxes. Some of the fermented food being offered is purchased from local farmers. Local cultured dairy — such as farm fresh cheese and yogurt — makes up a large percentage of their dairy box, for example.

“There are all these different ways we’re harnessing the power of fermentation,” Burns says. “We’ve had to shift our expectation of a restaurant kitchen. We need to make sure that first, the food doesn’t spoil, and second, that we have lots of probiotic rich food loaded with flavor to serve people.”

A picnic meal at Blue Hill is $195 per person and the boxes range from $45 to $170. Blue Hill is also donating boxes to families with food insecurities. 

Luzmore hopes other restaurants will innovate ways they can support local farms during the pandemic. “It’s almost impossible to buy exactly the amount a restaurant needs, especially now when there’s a greater need to support farms. Considering the constant and changing flux of product coming into the restaurant for the boxes and donations, fermentation allows for a more holistic approach of using excess product.”

“Chef Dan [Barber] has said many times throughout the launch of resourcED: we’ve kind of gone from being a restaurant to a food processing facility. Blue Hill is a fine dining restaurant. We still maintain that mentality and quality, but it’s at a different level. The scale, we’re now thinking of purchasing pallets instead of pounds.”

Special Note: Learn more about the new Kombucha safety and quality standards on The Fermentation Association’s Kombucha Brewers New Code of Practice Webinar (Wednesday, July 29th at 10am PT/1 pm ET). Hear from Hannah Crum, president of KBI, as she shares her insights into the Code and her experience in the years-long process to publish the standard. Register here for free.

Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) unveiled a kombucha Code of Practice this month, the first set of safety and quality standards for the industry. The goal of these guidelines is to give transparency to the consumer.

“This is about protecting kombucha as a traditional beverage,” says Hannah Crum, president of KBI. “Kombucha has to taste good and deliver on its health benefits. It has a reputation hundreds or thousands of years old. But you say the word ‘kombucha’ today and a lot of people don’t even really know what that means. We’re seeing products that don’t adhere to the spirit of kombucha.”

Crum will be addressing the new Code of Practice during a free webinar with The Fermentation Association on Wednesday, July 29.

The kombucha industry is exploding in growth. Retail data from SPINS shows kombucha sales were up 21% from 2018-2019, yielding $728.8 million in sales. But that growth has come with growing pains. Kombucha can now be found in most retail channels, sold in the refrigerated section or pasteurized in shelf-stable cans; brewed with a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) or processed from a base; fermented with higher alcohol content or made with sweetners. These different kombucha categories have been a sticking point with kombucha brewers. Over the years, various lawsuits have plagued the industry — most brought on by other kombucha brands.

“We’re an interesting industry. We’ve had some difficult lawsuits,” Crum says. “It’s created a lot of tension, a lot of secrecy, a lot of drama. The craft beer industry doesn’t sue each other. It flies in the face of what we view the industry to be.”

The new Code of Practice makes room for all types of kombucha, but ingredients and brewing processes must be defined on the label. A seal program will certify authentic kombucha —  made with tea leaves and potable water, utilizing a SCOBY and sugar or nutritive sweeteners. Additional ingredients — like flavorings, carbon dioxide, vitamins, minerals or probiotic bacteria — are only allowed if they do not exceed 20% of the finished product.

The seal certification will be granted based on standards outlined in the Code of Practice, but a third-party auditing firm will review confidential information from each brand in order to certify the product.

“What we’re struggling with, and it’s what every traditional fermented food is coming up against, kombucha doesn’t lend itself to mass production,” Crum says. “I’m a traditionalist, I’m not going to lie about it. But what I also recognize, we do not want one kind of consumer. We want a diverse range of consumers, with diverse tastes. Someone wants a zero calorie kombucha, while someone else wants a full-flavor kombucha made with SCOBY. They’re entirely different consumers.”

The Code was developed over five years, with input from various KBI members. But KBI did not apply for an official standard of identity with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because the trade organization wants the Code of Practice to be an evolving, flexible framework.

“That’s the benefit of being self-regulated. We don’t have the bureaucratic red tape,” Crum says. “We’re not here to walk into your facility to chide and scold you, that’s not our business. What we’re concerned about is commerce, trade, promoting the category, helping consumers get excited about kombucha, and helping them understand the category.”

To the food and drink industry, regulators can sometimes feel like “the bad guys.” But to scale a fermentation brand, sell artisanal products at a farmers market, or serve dishes with fermented ingredients in a restaurant, producers need regulators to be friends or colleagues, says Jeremy Umansky, owner of Larder Deli and author of “Koji Alchemy.”  

“As a fermented food producer, it’s a frustrating and almost difficult, like an intimidatingly difficult place to be in. Because there’s really no great resources of where to start, how to get going, how to do what you’re going to do in the safest manner possible while also maintaining a specific quality standard which is so important for us,” says Umansky. “We need to have open, honest conversation (with regulators). If your local regulators aren’t willing to work with you or just want to shut it down because they don’t understand, go up to the next level. Go up to the county, to your state or even reach out to federal. Because people are producing these foods all over the country, so there is regulation for them.”

Umansky spoke with Drew Anderson, CEO of Cleveland Kitchen, during a Fermentation Association webinar titled “Coping with Regulations (and Regulators).”

When Anderson started Cleveland Kitchen with his brother and brother-in-law, “the regulators didn’t really know how to handle fermented food.” They decided to become close with their representative from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and call her first when they moved to bigger facilities or added onto the facility. “She is fantastic. You involve the regulators into your process.”

“You’ve got to understand, when (regulators) go out, they know people don’t like them, they know they’re the enemy when they walk in that kitchen,” Anderson adds. “So if it’s a pleasure to work with you and they can see that they’re actually helping someone, that always helps. Food is still a people business. I think it’s important to be close.”

“It’s funny because the human race has been doing this for thousands of years and we never worried about it before. But now, in this modern age, everything has to be pasteurized.”

Fermenting was common in America before the 1920s, when electricity and refrigeration became a standard in homes. Today, with current food safety laws, “our regulation is more or less a mess,” Umansky notes.

“Anywhere you go in the world, for the most part, fermented foods are the crux at the root of any cuisine,” Umanksy says. “People have relied on these foods and the methods of making them for so, so long. And it’s interesting now that we have so much fear and intimidation and kind of unknowing about (fermented food) production and how they’re made and if they’re safe or not when we’ve kind of proven that society would not  exist as it does if it weren’t for these foods prior to refrigeration.”

Both Cleveland Kitchen and Umansky’s Larder Deli are based in Cleveland. However, because Larder and Cleveland Kitchen produce and sell fermented foods differently, they are regulated by different associations. Larder is overseen by the city health department, and Cleveland Kitchen is overseen by the state health department.

“From locale to locale and oversight body to oversight body, things are different,” he says. “We’re both producing fermented foods, but because of how we’re producing them, where we’re producing them, and where we’re selling them, we have different sets of regulations. Same foods, different sets of regulations. And when you talk to different people, you get different answers.”

“Where is the regulation? It’s a mess. It’s almost impossible to keep up on it,” Umansky says.

There is not a standardized food code in all 50 U.S. states. Rules for retail food production varies from cities, counties and states. At the extreme opposite is Japan, where open-air food markets sell fermented foods with little government oversight over food producers.

“We have to be able to address this issue of there not being cohesion and they’re not being easily accessible information for those of us producing these types of food,” Umansky says. “It begs the question – why haven’t we taken a model from the Japanese or the Chinese? Or Scandinavian cuisine is very, very fermentation forward, Eastern European cuisine. Why haven’t we looked at their regulations?”

HACCP is another regulation setback for fermented food and drink producers. Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) are required plans that monitor food safety. But HACCP requires producers to make one thing the same way all the time. There is no room for variances in ingredients. It works for big, commercial producers.

“For smaller restaurants and craft producers, it’s essentially improbable,” Umansky says.

If there’s a menu change at a restaurant or a new ingredient source for a craft producer, technically a new HACCP plan is required.

Umansky recommends, when filing a HACCP, producers should pick one thing on the menu that will never change or that is always in stock. At Larder, it’s the pastrami sandwich with sauerkraut. Then, when it’s time to meet with a regulator, request someone familiar with craft food and come prepared with a HACCP covering the unchanged menu dish or stocked item.

“Your regulators will be so socked that you’ve already taken that step and they haven’t had to have this conversation with you,” he said. “The great thing is, in non-pasteurized fermented foods, I don’t even think there’s any reported cases of botulism associated with fermented foods. It can’t survive. There’s salt and acid.”

Check out the full video link here.

When consumers buy beverages today, they want drinks that go beyond simply quenching thirst. Drinks today need to meet consumer’s health needs, too — improving sleep habits, aiding gut health, lowering stress levels and boosting energy.

 “There’s this real explosion of outcome-based beverages in the industry at the moment,” says Howard Telford, head of soft drinks for Euromonitor International. “Ten years ago, it was easy to identify what was an energy drink. That’s no longer the case, clearly. Because every category now has some form of products on the shelf with a functional proposition. These ingredients-based category lines are blurring. Consumers are rethinking what’s our morning option, what’s our late afternoon option, what’s our evening beverage.”

Clean ingredient lists with functional appeal will differentiate brands. In a beverage trends webinar hosted by FoodNavigator, brand leaders in the beverage industry shared their insight. Here are six beverage trends for 2020:

1. More Consumer Need States for Different Ingredients

Modern beverages straddle between food and dietary supplements.

“Every time (consumers) spend a dollar on a drink or a food item, they want that food or drink item to do more for them,” says Chris Fanucchi, co-founder of drink brands Limitless and Koia. “Brands are starting to put more marketing on the front of their labels, that say ‘Hey, we help you with calming you or with inflammation or with pain or anxiety.’ As consumers start to see that more and more, they’re going to start to expect that. And the second they start to expect that is when the consumers are going to be demanding that their beverages have more and more function to them. So a functional beverage right now I think is definitely about identifying those need states that are more relevant to consumers today.”

2. Mindfully Purchasing Natural Health Products

Consumers are looking for ingredient lists without artificial ingredients (33%) and with limited or no sugar (35%), according to research by Euromonitor International. Sixty percent are following diets – lowering carbs and saturated fat, monitoring weight and tracking calories.

Holly McHugh, marketing associate with Imbide, thinks consumers will seek out healthier products at the end of the coronavirus pandemic. “Like a detox that you see in January because people have overindulgences over the holidays…I do think there will be a bump when people go back to their normal lives.”

“There’s absolutely a stigma against sugary products for your overall health. And people are really concerned about their health right now,” McHugh says.

However, McHugh doesn’t think brands will completely abandon sugar. Instead she hypothesizes brands will provide more options. Like a full-sugar, low-sugar and no-sugar drink, then drinks with alternative sweetener like stevia and natural sweetener like honey.

3. Rise of Cannabis/Hemp in Beverages

Consumers are experiencing mounting stress due to the pandemic and are seeking drinks with stress-reducing ingredients.

Estimates show legal cannabis sales will rise to $150-170 billion by 2023 according to Euromonitor International, mostly from North America. Huge innovations in CBD industry as proving hemp-derived drinks is a growing market. CBD-infused beverages grew by 500% last year.

“I think CBD is going to be a very big category,” adds Thomas Hicks, chief growth officer for Ojai Energetics, which produces various CBD products, including a CBD drink. “The consumer demand is phenomenal and you can see that online. About 90% of our business is direct to consumers.”

Ojai Energetics has seen sales increase 20% during the pandemic.

CBD is poised to become as big of a category as energy drinks. However, more clarity around CBD needs to be provided by the Food & Drug Administration. Thomas notes the FDA has not yet defined the different elements of CBD.

“It’s a race to the bottom if you don’t have really good branding and, quite honestly, a patented process,” says Hicks, who has formerly worked with big drink giants like Hansens and Coca-Cola.  

4. Cost Major Factor During Health, Economic Crisis

Brands looking to add more premium ingredients to their drinks need to note consumer’s pocketbooks. Howard Telford, head of soft drinks for Euromonitor International, said he predicts certain drink categories will decline because of cost in a COVID-19 era.

“This event (coronavirus pandemic) is translating to an economic crisis more than a public health crisis, I think we have to be very cognizant of price,” he says.

Comparing sales during the 2008 Great Recession, Telford says consumers will trade down premium products. “Affordable luxury” needs to be the focus of new drink launches, adds McHugh.

“I think cost will be a really important consideration given the uncertainty of the economy right now,” McHugh says. “Brands will need to introduce products that are affordable and meet those clean, quality, functional qualities during this time.”

5. Brands Need to Better Educate Consumers

As more consumers routines are impacting during the outbreak and they turn to healthy eating during, will they turn to kombucha over Coke? Telford believes so. Long-term, consumer’s beverage choices will change because of COVID-19. They’re reducing sugar, trusting health ingredients.

“When we decide to indulge, we’re conscious of the ingredients in those products,” he adds.

Especially CBD.

“There’s still so much education around CBD with the general public,” Hicks adds.

Research provides CBD helps regulate the immune system, and consumers are becoming savvier and seeking out that research, Thomas says. Key, he adds, is researching the specifics behind CBD brands. Brands should publish their lot number certification online. Consumers should easily be able to research CBD batches should go through two different labels to make sure they are acceptable and organic, he advises.

6. Shelf Brand Launch Until Post Pandemic

Faccuchi, who sold Limitless to Pepsi/Keurig last year, said smaller companies are struggling securing capital to launch. An entrepreneur, Faccuchi invests in beverage companies.

“Lots of clients, especially in the energy category, are having zero luck with retail meetings, confirmation of placement on shelves,” Faccuchi says. “They’re seeing around waiting for those opportunities. It makes it all the more difficult when there’s really no light at the end of the tunnel. These brands could lose a lot of cash over the next several months, they could go belly up.”

His advice to people wanting to launch a new beverage company: “Make sure the category you’re jumping into actually has a need. I run into a lot of entrepreneurs who build this awesome product out of different ingredients that you’d never hear of, and the unfortunate truth is some of those ingredients are just not supply chain ready. So you can’t get the price point necessary for consumer to actually try the brand, which is the No. 1 thing when you’re launching a new company. So make sure you’re identifying a need space that people actually have. Your best way to test that is online marketing.”

Find people in food and beverage industry that are looking to champion brands, he advices. “Those people do exist.”

Probiotics are the third most popular health product ingredient, with 62% of American consumers buying or wanting to buy them. However, only one-third of consumers say they understand probiotics. That confusion is evident in the courts, where consumer class action lawsuits are continually filed against probiotic food and beverages.

Meanwhile, the probiotics industry is pushing to update 25-year-old dietary supplement laws, there’s a new head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the lactobacillus taxonomy has been overhauled.

What does all this mean for fermented food and beverage brands? Ivan Wasserman, an attorney with expertise in foods and dietary supplements, says now is the time to plan for legal roadblocks, whether a new product or an existing brand. Wasserman shared his legal expertise during a Natural Products Insider webinar on probiotics regulations and class-action lawsuits.

How Does the FDA Define Probiotics?

It wasn’t until 1994 that probiotics were allowed to be sold as an FDA-approved dietary supplement. But the Dietary Supplement and Health Education Act (DSHEA) of 1994 does not directly define probiotics in their definition of supplements.

“You’ll notice there’s nothing in there about live microorganisms,” Wasserman says.

A line interpreted as a “catch-all” provision covers probiotics. It says a dietary substance can be anything “to supplement the diet by increasing the total dietary intake.” The FDA reviewed DSHEA in 2019, but new draft guidelines don’t provide additional clarification. The draft states: “Bacteria that have never been consumed as food are unlikely to be dietary ingredients.”

Wasserman says that’s not a correct assessment of probiotics. During the review, he noted government leaders who were around during DSHEA’s first passing said dietary supplement should not “be limited to things that are already in the food supply. That would really kill innovation, new strains of probiotics for example that were never in the food supply. It didn’t make sense to them that that would be the intent of congress. It would stifle innovation.”

As the FDA’s time is overwhelming focused on coronavirus, there has been no resolution to the definition of probiotics.

What are the Challenges in Labeling Probiotics?

Current regulations call for labeling probiotics in terms of weight. There is no special provision for live microorganisms; probiotics must be labelled like a vitamin or mineral.

“Unlike milligrams of calcium or vitamin C, we all know weight really isn’t that relevant (for probiotics) because dead bugs have weight, the size of the bug really doesn’t affect its efficacy,” Wasserman says. “It’s really how many live microorganisms you’re getting taking as part of a dietary supplement. That’s how all research is published, that’s how the government refers to it. So CFUs, or colony forming units, has become sort of a defacto way consumers and companies will recognize how much of a live microorganism a probiotic is in a live, dietary supplement.”

The International Probiotics Association petitioned the FDA on this measurement rule, asking for probiotics to be listed in terms of CFUs, not milligrams. The FDA said yes, CFUs would be allowed, but milligrams must also be included.

“It’s just confusing and silly,” Wasserman says.

False Advertising Claims Can Cost Brands Millions

In the past decade, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has actively sent warnings to brands making unverified probiotic health claims. The FTC’s first charge for probiotic advertising was filed in 2010 against Nestle BOOST Kid Essentials. Nestle did not have the scientific evidence to back up their health labelling. The FTC said Nestle used “deceptive advertising claims about the health benefits of the children’s drink,” like claiming it would reduce the risk of colds, flu and other respiratory tract infections, claims unproven by the FDA. Nestle also claimed BOOST would reduce children’s sick-day absences and decrease the duration of diarrhea, claims unverified “by at least two well-designed human clinical studies,” the FTC said.

“You have to be extremely careful not to imply or state disease prevention,” Wasserman says. “Probiotics certainly give a boost to the immune system, but…to the FTC, that was too strong of a claim, that this product can literally prevent children from getting sick. You can get in trouble for both imagery and claims. Be very careful.”

Other deceptive advertising cases include:

  • In 2010, the largest truth in advertising lawsuit was settled against Dannon yogurt. Dannon claimed their Activia and DanActive yogurt products were “clinically” and “scientifically proven” to regulate digestion and boost the immune system. However, Dannon never proved their claims. Dannon had to pay $45 million in damages, and remove the words “clinically” and “scientifically proven” from their labels.
  • In 2018, a class-action lawsuit was filed against Tropicana for marketing the added health benefits in their Essentials Probiotics fruit juices. The drink, though, included nearly the same amount of sugar as soda, and Tropicana did not have adequate scientific evident to support the nutritional claims.
  • In 2019, a lawsuit was filed against Brew Dr Kombucha, alleging the kombucha was “falsely advertised and labeled as having a significantly higher amount of probiotic bacteria than the products sold actually contained.” Brew Dr’s kombucha bottle advertised billions of bacteria per bottle, but the plaintiff’s research found only 50,000 CFU’s of probiotic bacteria per bottle. The case is still pending.
  • In May 2020, the National Advertising Division (NAD) recommended Benefiber remove the claims “100% natural,” “clinically proven to curb cravings” and “helps you feel full longer” from the Benefiber fiber supplements. Metamucil challenged Benefiber’s claims. Though Benefiber had tested their products and could provide scientific evidence, the NAD said the studies were not relevant to the consumer population. Benefiber’s studies were conducted on factory workers in China who live in a controlled living environment at the warehouse 24/7.

In the last few years, the FTC has been relatively quiet filing warnings against probiotic products.  Wasserman theorizes it’s because the benefits of probiotics to digestive health have become well-accepted to the general public. Class-action lawsuits filed against probiotic products have also slowed down.

“That’s not to say they’re not being filed,” Wasserman adds. “We’re not seeing a letdown of those types of letters. Our little law firm is dealing with them on a daily basis for a wide variety of clients in a wide variety of industries. The good news is, because the benefits are so well known of probiotics, we haven’t seen a lot of cases actually being filed against probiotics.”

The world’s most famous fermentation restaurant is serving diners once again during the coronavirus pandemic. But Noma’s reservation-only tables and $400-500 world-class meal has radically changed. Noma is now serving wine and burgers in a walk-up, outdoor patio.

“It’s definitely new territory,” says Rene Redzepi, Noma founder. “I like this thing that it’s doing to us. We’ve become this place where you book, you plan your travels six months ahead of time. The spontaneity of going to a restaurant has completely disappeared for us. I like that people now can say ‘Let’s go to Noma for a glass of wine.’ So who knows, maybe this is part of our future in the long run.”

Redzepi spoke with Denmark-based food bloggers Anders Husa and Kaitlin Orr on Noma’s reopening.

The Noma burger is either a meat patty made with beef ferment, beef garum and smoked beef fat or a veggie burger made with quinoa tempeh patty with fermentation liquids.

Noma’s Nordic cuisine features fermented and foraged food that have earned Noma the World’s Best Restaurant award four times. Noma has been closed since March 14 because of the coronavirus.

Redzepi is one of the first chefs of his caliber to reopen a fine-dining restaurant during the coronavirus pandemic. The burger and wine menu is intended to transition Noma to the July summer season, when the restaurant hopes to again serve diners in the restaurant.

When the coronavirus first shutdown countries all over the globe, Redzepi said “it was really, really scary.” Would Noma have to wait six months to open? A year? About 3-4 weeks in, though, the atmosphere turned.

“There was a little positivity coming through,” Redzepi said. “I started asking myself ‘What do I want to do? What am I missing in my life?’ And the funny thing is I wasn’t at all missing going to a fine-dining restaurant, sitting for 3-4 hours. That was not on my mind at first. I wanted to be with people, I want to be out. … So when you have that feeling, it was just like, there was no way we can open Noma as it was before COVID-19.”

It’s an unusual sight at the exclusive restaurant – Noma is serving burgers in paper wrappers and chefs are wearing disposable gloves.

A burger was picked because Redzepi says: “I have yet to meet anybody that doesn’t like a burger.” In the future, Noma will add a deep-fried chicken burger to the menu as well as oysters and shrimp.

As tourism is still closed in Denmark, Redzepi envisions the new Noma bar as a place where Copenhagen locals can eat and visit with friends again.

“It’s not about us showing what we can do, it’s just about cooking the best we can so people feel great and feel alive again.”

How to make fermentation practical for modern people? That’s a culinary goal Alex Lewin is passionate about reaching. Lewin is the author of “Real Food Fermentation” and “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond” (and member of TFA’s Advisory Board). His mission is “lowering barriers to fermentation.”

“Most of the ways we control the environment is lowering the barrier of fermentation for the microbes, like adding salt to the cabbage or keeping yogurt at the right temperature,” Lewin says. “But a lot of what I’m doing is lowering the barrier of fermentation for the humans.” 

Lewin began fermenting as a hobby, and it turned into a passionate side career. Lewin works in the tech industry for his day job, then spends his spare time immersed in fermentation projects. His schedule parallels his interests. Lewin studied math at Harvard University, then studied cooking at the Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. He’s often tinkering with a microbe-rich condiment in the kitchen after office hours, and attending new fermentation conferences during his vacation time. 

“Fermentation gives me direction in my life, but there’s also something about tech that nourishes me. And I don’t have to choose,” Lewin says. “The fermentation world, it is a huge amount of community. The community of fermenters really reflects the community of microbes. There’s some very interesting, very open-minded people who are outside of the mainstream in the fermentation world. And a lot of them feel they have a calling, that they were called to do this.”

Below, excerpts from a Q&A with Lewin from his home in California’s Bay Area:

The Fermentation Association: What got you first interested in fermentation?

Alex Lewin: I’d always been interested in food and started cooking a little in college. My dad had heart disease and later diabetes and he was on these diets and pills, but things didn’t seem to be getting him any better. When I got interested in health and nutrition during this time, I partly did it out of fear for my own life. 

I started reading books about health, nutrition, diet, food. What struck me was they all said different things. I had studied math, physics, and generally the experts agree more or less on the obvious stuff. There’s discussion on the origin of the universe, yes, but no disagreement about what happens when you drop something and it hits the floor. I was surprised at the difference. One cookbook would say what would really matter in your health is your blood type — another would say the ratio from carbs to fat to protein that you eat, you have to eat them at a certain ratio at every meal. Then another book says don’t eat protein and carbs together, have space between them. I would read and was intrigued and frustrated. I had this idea that it should make sense and it didn’t make sense.

I was in a bookstore one day and I saw the book “The Revolution Will Not Be Microwaved” and thought it was such a fantastic title. It was about food politics and underground food movements and food subcultures. It was written by Sandor Katz and he writes with so much heart, very intelligently. He writes about radical food politics and has this way of keeping it very balanced and measured. Some books about radical politics can be shrill, but there’s nothing shrill or strident about anything Sandor does.

I wanted to read what else Sandor had written and found “Wild Fermentation,” and made my first jar of sauerkraut. In the meantime, there’s another book that affected me a lot, “Nourishing Traditions” by Sally Fallon. And that book similarly blew my mind. That book took all these diverse threads of diet, health and nutrition and pulled them all together in a way no other book has or has since. I felt like I finally understood what to eat, where before it was a free-for-all.

One of the things I learned to think about when you’re eating are foods with enzymes, microbes and live foods that weren’t processed with modern processing techniques. That really set me on my path.

TFA: After that, you spent the next decade diving into fermentation. You went to cooking school, started teaching fermentation classes, got involved with the Boston Public Market Association. How did your book “Real Food Fermentation” come about?

Lewin: A friend of mine who had a chocolate business recommended me to a book publisher. That was for “Real Food Fermentation,” my first book, in which I made it as easy as possible for people to ferment things. I knew from my class, making sauerkraut is not very complicated, and once people see it and how easy it is, they’re likely to keep doing it. So in my book, there are lots of pictures. There are lots of people with kitchen anxiety who are more comfortable if they see pictures of everything — pictures of me slicing the cabbage and putting it in the jar. I’m not a visual learner, I want to see words and measurements and numbers. So the book has both. 

As time went on, I ended up meeting Raquel Guajardo (co-author for Lewin’s book “Kombucha, Kefir, and Beyond), and we decided to write a book about fermented drinks. I think it’s a great book because we both got a chance to share our ideas about food and health and what is happening in the world. Then we got to share recipes from my experience and her experience as a fermented drink producer in Mexico, where some of the pre-Hispanic traditions are very much alive.

Fermented drinks I think are also easier. They’re a little less weird to people than sauerkraut and kimchi, they’re less intimidating. We all drink things that are fizzy, sweet and sour. But like kimchi, it is so far outside of the usual experience of eating. Most people know they shouldn’t drink five Coca-Colas a day, so fermented drinks are the answer.

TFA: Tell me more about your goal to lower the barrier into fermentation.

Lewin: What is it about kombucha that is familiar? It’s fizzy, sweet and sour. What is soda? It’s fizzy, sweet and sour. I’m certainly not the first to observe that, but I’m connecting the dots on how we can integrate these ancient foods into our modern lives.

For me, I always considered myself an atheist. Then when I started fermenting, I started letting go and thinking there are things outside of our control and we just need to accept them. There are things we will never understand completely, there are forces we don’t even know about. I came to faith and spirituality through the practice of fermentation.

A lot of the problems that we face today have been created by application of high technology to the food system, then we try to solve them by using more food technology — like growing fake meat. The problems caused by high tech are not going to be solved by high tech, they’ll be solved by low tech. And fermentation is one of my favorite low tech technologies. You pretty much just need a knife.

Fermentation also gets away from the western, scientific, medical paradigm that’s so reductionist, where we’re looking for some small isolated problem in the body and then trying to counter it. Looking for some metabolic issue and trying to neutralize the symptoms. “Your blood pressure is high, let’s lower it with a pill.” If the underlying causes of all these things are eating bad food, trying to attack the symptoms one at a time is not the easiest way to make progress. We have to move away from this reductionist mindset where we’re playing whack-a-mole with our symptoms. We’re healthier looking for the underlying problems and addressing them.

Gut health is a big one. All sorts of other problems caused by high-tech, processed foods. Eastern medicine has more of an idea of holistic health, what’s going on in the system. I think that’s the future. I think a lot of the health problems will be solved through system-type thinking. This balance of energy. There’s a dynamic of equilibrium in our gut.

TFA: You mentioned Sandor Katz’ book “Wild Fermentation” introducing you to fermentation. What about his book appealed to you?

Lewin: There’s something rebellious about making food and leaving it out on the counter. I hadn’t been to cooking school yet at that point when I read it. But you read about food safety and there are rules, you can only leave food on the counter for so long at this temperature. There are all these things you’re not supposed to do with food. But in order to ferment, you have to violate these rules to grow the microbes. There’s something rebellious about fermentation.

Another part of it is the utterly low tech aspect to it. All the trouble we go to to process our food in high tech ways today, turns out we can do it better without preservatives, without heat packing things, without the refrigerator. 

When you ferment something, every time it’s a little different. And you can keep doing it again and it doesn’t matter if it wasn’t perfect. And a lot of times you can do something interesting with it. I made pickles the other day, they turned out soft, so I’m going to make them into relish. Too much sourdough starter? Turn it into a porridge. Your kombucha got too sour? Turn it into vinegar. Sometimes something can be ruined, but often you can turn it into something else. Being able to make kombucha that’s better than most of the store-bought kombucha is pretty cool — I discovered that ability. 

TFA: Why do you encourage people to incorporate fermented foods in their modern diet?

Lewin: One of them is just coming back to the kitchen. During the coronavirus pandemic, people are coming back to their kitchens. That’s an unqualifiedly good thing, it means that much less processed food and that much less fast food. Fermentation also brings people back into the kitchen. And fermentation is in the limelight during the pandemic. Especially sourdough right now. Fermented projects are great things to do with families, kids. When you talk to the older generation about making sourdough, pickles, bread, they have these stories. My mom never made pickles, but her father did. It’s not too late to get these stories. Food is one of the things that connects generations of people, that reminds us of our roots and grounds us, literally.

Making anything with your hands, it’s a cure for all sorts of things. Not even getting into physical, digestive health. Just making something and liking it is psychologically healthy. You feel empowered in the face of so many disempowering things. If you can turn cabbage into sauerkraut, you have power.

And then there are all the concrete, physical health benefits of eating fermented foods. You get more enzymes, more vitamins, more microbes, you get more of the good microbes and fewer of the bad microbes. You get probably less processed food, less sugar, you get all these trace substances that you really don’t get from processed food. Like nattokinase, which is this enzyme you only find in natto and might protect against heart disease and cancer. Depending on the ingredients you use when fermenting, if you use the right salt and right sweeteners, you can get minerals. Fermenting in some cases creates vitamins. You can straighten out a lot of digestive problems in my experience by introducing fermented foods, gradually. 

TFA: You’ve watched Americans’ diets adapt (or not adapt) over the past few decades to changing health standards. How have Americans’ perception of fermented food and drink changed in that time?

Lewin: Americans are absolutely more accepting of it. The story of kombucha is a good one. You can follow annual kombucha sales. You used to say “kombucha” and people would say “Ew” or “What’s that?” or “My crazy aunt makes that.” Now, it’s a billion dollar business. You can get it in mainstream supermarkets in most of the country, it’s not a fringe thing anymore. Fermentation is coming to the mainstream. Kimchi is not a fringe thing. I think the rise of food culture, with food reality TV shows, has really helped fermented things like kimchi. When food trucks in LA started having kimchi and Korean BBQ tacos, for me I felt like something had turned the corner. The rise of microbreweries and the interest in natural wines and the movement away from like super-oaky chardonnays and ginormous reds to more natural wines. I think people are a lot more sophisticated about food than they were 20 years ago, and a lot of that is leading to increased interest in fermented foods.

Fermented foods are no longer fringe. We’ve come a long way in 20 years. Kombucha and kimchi are two of the flag bearers of fermentation. I think fermentation is on the rise. People will say “I think it’s just a fad,” and I’ll say “It’s absolutely not a fad.” People were fermenting 10,000 years ago. It never left. Every drop of alcohol you’re drinking, that’s fermented. It never went away, it was under the surface and now it’s on the surface again. People are just realizing it’s important. 

TFA: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?

Lewin: I think the more people ferment at home, the more people are going to want to buy fermented things. The more people ferment at home, the more they’ll appreciate fermented products and seek them out. It’s not like there’s a competition between home fermenting and commercial producers. If anything, there’s a symbiosis. I’ll make kimchi sometimes, but I’ll buy it sometimes, too, because it’s messy and there are people that make very good kimchi. Same with kombucha or high alcohol kombucha. I could make it if I wanted to, but it requires time and patience. Miso is another example, I don’t have the patience to wait six months to make miso.

The current global health and economic situation is a far cry from business as usual. “Pivot” will be the new buzzword in the food and beverage industry, as fermentation brands and food service institutions must implement creative manufacturing and marketing solutions to maintain sales during the coronavirus pandemic.

“We are in a real-time focus group situation. …We’ve seen an acceleration of trends,” says Emmanuel LaRoche, vice president of marketing and consumer insights for Symrise, an international producer of flavors and fragrances. “This current situation will lead to new, large structural trends that are going to impact the next 15 years.”

Solving economic challenges posed by the coronavirus outbreak will be the “new normal” in the food and beverage industry. Here are six ways to adapt.

  1. Create More Online Instruction

As a brand, are you helping your consumer cook with your product? And what about the products you don’t sell. Canned goods and frozen foods are flying off grocery store shelves. Can consumers pair your product to create a meal with the pack of canned beans they panic bought or the pound of frozen berries?

“Consumers may be stockpiling shelf stable products, but it doesn’t mean that they know how to use them,” says Melanie Bartelme, global food analyst at Mintel. “Brands have an opportunity to help consumers who suddenly find themselves surrounded by dried foods and frozen foods. Direction and support, in the way of webinars, YouTube videos or Pinterest links, will help them feel confident cooking meals with these staples.”

2. Position Your Product into Consumer’s Home Routines

Though some states are lifting stay-at-home orders, allowing businesses to reopen, social distancing will alter regular business through 2020 – and likely beyond. Many people view dining in a restaurant, working in an office and exercising in a gym as too risky. Consumers are now eating, working and exercising at home. They’re also spending more time on self-care routines and home cleaning. How can businesses join the home-based routine?

“The formation of routine, it’s an action that typically takes 60 days to form. If we repeat something on a daily basis, we turn it into this new habit,” Laroche says. “So the question here is how quickly, if ever, will consumer behavior return to pre pandemic levels or are we at the beginning at a shift of how we spend our time?”

It’s unknown whether the affects likely becoming permanent. But brands should adapt to home living. Product delivery and e-commerce sales are essential to fermented food and beverage brands. But brands should also think outside the box. Marketing must pivot from “on the go” to “staying at home.” More than ever, consumers want their products to be convenient.

“The new normal at home may create many opportunities for companies and brands to provide a new and exciting product connected directly to what consumers are experience,” says Dylan Thompson, marketing and consumer insights manager with Symrise.

3. Create Business Opportunities for Consumer’s Shift in Spending

Many of the new consumer spending trends mirror what happened during the 2008 recession. During the Great Recession, consumers shifted their spending habits in the food and beverage industry. Consumers:

  • Valued cost more than convenience.
  • Switched from mainstream to value brands. There was a big increase in private label purchases especially, as consumers searched for better deals. Premium and top brands were more insulated as consumers sought affordable luxuries.
  • Bought smaller, lower-priced food and beverage packages. Manufacturers switched to smaller packages as they downsized to improve margins.
  • Shifted to purchasing at value channels, like big club stores (Costco, Sam’s Club).
  • Stopping shopping frequently at gas station stores, correlating with dropping gas prices.
  • Declined eating at restaurants, increasing eating at home.

Already, new shopping trends are emerging during the COVID-19 outbreak. These include:

  • Decreasing brand loyalty. Consumers buy whatever brand is available when their favorites are out of stock.
  • Revival of the center store. As consumers stock up and try to keep their pantry full of shelf-stable items, they’re shopping in the center of the store again.
  • Stock up behavior. Sales at mass and club stores are increasing while sales at restaurants are decreasing.
  • Increased sale of comfort items. Consumers are indulging in purchasing things they can enjoy from home.
  • Greater shift to ecommerce. Online shopping and “click and collect” pick-up have become a popular option during the pandemic, especially in urban areas.

“There are opportunities for retailers to fill the void of what consumers are missing out on,” adds Thompson.

4. Restaurants Must Create a New Business Model

Restaurants have been dramatically hurt by the pandemic, especially non-chain restaurants. Estimates by Technomic show that, at the end of the pandemic, restaurants sales will decrease by 14-29%.

For comparison, at the end of the Great Recession from 2008-2009, restaurant sales only failed by 1.2%.

“We know that social distancing will have a long-lasting impact on food service,” Laroche says. “Social distancing has been particularly disastrous for on-premise beverage, alcohol sales as the dining, drinking side of the business has essentially disappeared.”

At the end of the pandemic, Technomic estimates 15% of restaurants will not reopen.

Restaurants must reformat their business model to allow takeout, curbside pickup, no contact delivery, cashless pickups and alcohol to-go. Some restaurants are even offering DIY kits, selling materials to recreate favorite restaurant dishes at home. Others have decreased dining space to expand the kitchen.

5. Capitalize on what People are Already Buying.

Shopping trends are falling into two categories: survival and sanity. There’s been explosive growth in the food and beverage category during the pandemic (74%), especially for alcoholic beverages (24%), according to IRI. Fermented products like foods like coffee (60.6%), spirits/liquor (37.3%), beer ale/cider (37.8%), chocolate (21.2%) are all top purchases. There are bigger trending categories where a fermented food or drink could get creative, like pasta (229.8%), soup (212.7%), salty snacks (51.5%) and cookies (50.3%).

Increased “beer and liquor at home is one of those sanity categories, and it’s always been well-known that it’s recession proof,” Thompson says. Alcohol flies off shelves during recessions. Consumers are looking for comfort and want a way to cope with uncertainty.”

Alcoholic drinks like hard seltzers and craft brew were not popular enough to track in 2008, but in 2020, are not proving to be a permanent part of consumer alcoholic beverage purchases.

6. Consider Consumer’s Storage Space

Storage at home has become a premium, especially for consumers in densely populated areas that have been hit the hardest by the pandemic. Think of younger, Millennial and Generation Z shoppers living in urban areas with limited storage space.

 “The Propensity to stockpile food is a challenge to those without a place to store such products. There is an opportunity for condensed, dried foods, like bone broth soup and contemporary bouillon cubes, to be positioned as more viable alternatives,” says Dasha Short, a global food analyst with Mintel.

Fermented food and drink brands should consider selling items in single-service packages and snack sizes.

Fermentation was the No. 2 trend on the North America Flavor Trend Report for 2020, but with a twist: sweet foods are the new star of fermentation. The trend report was released by Symrise, an international producer of flavors and fragrances. 

“Over the past few years, we’ve seen fermentation has really come to dominate the condiment category with foods like kimchi, that have really led the charge,” says Julia Gorman, Symrise digital marketing specialist. Now, “fruit is getting funky.”

Pickling berries, fermenting tropical fruits, using sour fruits and incorporating pulp byproduct into fermented dishes are some of the key flavor trends among chefs. Adds Dylan Thompson, Symrise marketing and consumer insights manager: “It’s all about the evolution of fermentation.”

Fermentation was particularly high on the list because of gut health components. Fermentation encompasses some of the mega trends Symrise is seeing this year. Consumers are buying simple foods that benefit a healthy lifestyle. Fermentation’s “health benefits remain a huge bonus,” Gorman says.

Symrise polled chefs and mixologists for their survey, and found four fermented fruit flavor trends:

  1. Pickled Berries. Made popular through the cookbook “Noma’s Guide to Fermentation,” Scandinavian cuisine is making a major impact on America’s acceptance of fermented fruit.
  2. Tropical Fermentation. Mixologists have been particularly experimenting with tropical fruits in drinks. Fermented pineapple, for example, is used to “add flavor funk to what is otherwise a classic beach cocktail,” Gorman adds.
  3. Ume (and Ume Boshi). More chefs are using Ume, the salty, sour Japanese plum. It can be pickled, brined or traditionally served with rice.
  4. Fermented Cacao Pulp. Usually a wasted byproduct of cacao bean production, the pulp has an array of health benefits. Chefs are salvaging the pulp to use in a variety of dishes.