It’s absurd to call fermentation a new food trend, says Sandor Ellix Katz, author of “The Art of Fermentation” and “Wild Fermentation.” Fermenting practices date back to early man. But, after decades of active pasteurization and a war on bacteria, fermentation is experiencing an awareness as a food phenomenon, Katz says.
Katz – who calls himself Sandorkraut, the fermentation revivalist – spoke at a TEDx Talk in Sao Paulo on wild fermentation and the power of bacteria. Coffee, bread, cheese, beer, wine – Katz points to these as examples of “the greatest delicacies that people around the world enjoy, products of fermentation that have never gone out of style and have not recently just come into style.”
No one needs to master biology or study microorganisms to practice fermentation, Katz stresses. Before microbiology became a field, fermentation historically was viewed as mysterious or mythical because no one understood the mechanisms of it. He adds: “I cannot find one single example of a culinary tradition anywhere the does not incorporate fermentation.”
Microbiology has illuminated and harmed fermentation. For decades, the information surrounding bacteria and microorganisms was negative. People were taught the dangers of bacteria and disease – and grew to fear fermentation. But discoveries in microbiology also found that everything we eat, plant and animal, is populated by microorganisms. All life is descended and created from bacteria.
“In a way, we’re bacteria super structures,” Katz said. “For the first time, from the scientific analysis, we began to understand that fermentation is the transformative action of microorganisms.”
Fermentation often gets a bad reputation because people consider fermenting the process rotten or spoiled food. But fermentation is manipulating environmental conditions to encourage the growth of good organisms and discourage the growth of bad organisms, Katz explains.
“Fermentation is making food that is more stable than the raw product of agriculture that we began with,” Katz says. “We’re creating something that is more delicious, we’re creating something that is more easily digestible, we’re creating something where some toxic compound in the food and the otherwise dangerous food is made safe.”
For the first time in history, science is revealing the benefit of eating the live bacteria in fermented foods. The prevalence of antibiotic drugs, antibacterial cleaning products and chlorinated water now kill all bacteria in food. This war on bacteria narrows the diversity of bacteria in our intestines, Katz points out.
“If they were to kill all those microorganisms, we couldn’t possibly exist because we rely on those microorganisms for our digestion, for our immune system, our ability to withstand disease our brain chemistry,” he says. “Yet this chemical exposure…narrows biodiversity that we have inside of us.”
Katz focuses his work on public education of fermentation, helping shed light on its safety and effectiveness. More people today are seeking fermented foods because of the growing recognition of the benefits fermentation, Katz says. He teaches that the greatest benefit of fermented products are the bacteria themselves. Eating fermented foods – foods that haven’t been cooked or heat processed, since that kills the bacteria – restores the biodiversity in our intestines.
“In addition to being this important mode of transformation of food and beverages which enables people to make effective use of the food resources that are available to them, fermentation is also an engine of social change. And all of us are the starter cultures,” Katz said.
The gut microbiome is pivotal to human health, and the biggest aid to nourishing a healthy microbiome is our diet.
“The tools of our diet…are a really valuable resource for our microbiome,” says Maria Marco, professor in the UC Davis Department of Food Science and Technology. “They’re noninvasive, easy to use, low cost. We can improve our microbiome using specific ingredients, targeting microorganisms, using foods like living fermented foods or probiotics to directly contribute to our microbiome.”
Marco, a speaker at Natural Products Expo West, shared insight from her research at UC Davis’ Marco Lab, where Marco and a team of students study microorganisms impact on food safety, food quality and gut health. Their cutting-edge research is scratching the surface of the complex microbiome.
Microbiome research has transformed in the past 10-15 years. Marco says scientists had relied on 19th Century microbiology of the prior hundred years. New advancements in chemistry, engineering, data science and DNA sequencing “revealed this hidden world.”
“We’re riding a wave right now. We’re appreciating more than ever before that we are living in microbial world,” Marco said. “The magnitude of what these microorganisms can be doing…is tremendous.”
Our bodies are only 1 percent human – the rest of our body structure is made of trillions of microorganisms. Every human carries about 1 kilogram of their bodyweight in microbial biomass.
Marco said for years we’ve thought of the intestines as an empty tube, but these microorganisms reside in our digestive tract. The microbiome performs critical functions, like digestion, detoxification of food, synthesis of vitamin and development of immune system and brain.
But our microbes may not always aid our body. The beneficial organisms that create a rich microbiome have changed over human history because of the prevalent use of antibiotics, and changes to diet, hygiene and lifestyle.
There are only a few ways to improve the microbiome, Marco says – drugs, fecal transplants or diet. Marco said the best way to achieve a healthy microbiota is through the diet, by eating the microorganisms our gut needs.
The diet, she says, needs to be full of fermentable fiber. Humans eat diet-associated microbes in prebiotics and probiotics.
One study from Marco Lab found that, when adults added fermentable fiber to their diet, the microbes thrived off these nutrients, and the good bifidobacteria thrived. The microbiome was significantly altered.
“How do we get microorganisms? First of all, just by eating fresh foods and vegetables,” Marco says. The second is eating “fermented foods (which give us) exposure to a higher number of these organisms. They hey have to be foods where the microbes are still alive, such as in yogurt or fresh sauerkraut. And then lastly, we can have probiotics, organisms that we either take in supplements or put into foods in an even higher number so were getting an even higher doses of these organisms over time.”
There are specific bacteria strains found in fresh fermented foods, and some are sold today as strains in probiotic supplements. Thousands of clinical studies show probiotics are beneficial to digestive health – but today, microbiologists are seeing probiotics aid other areas of the body, like vaginal health and neurocognitive function.
“As we study these organisms, we’re really guided by a couple questions, practical questions that need to be answered in order to take probiotics to the next level of where we need to have them in our food and medicine,” Marco said. Like what strain should be used, what dose taken and how long should it be used. “We don’t really have answers to this and it’s really hard as a consumer to know which to use.”
Marco Lab studied 42 strains of lactobacillus bacteria, and found each strain has different properties. “The breadth of what we saw was really outstanding,” Marco said.
The future of the field of research is knowing the individual properties of these strains, Marco said. Like can a certain strain alter our mood, another prevent obesity and another support our immune system? The strains are so complex, “we’re starting to get a handle on what specific things they’re doing.”
Safety of the strains is critical. Marco noted the next generation of probiotics need food safety standards. These are organisms that are not found in foods, and Marco said “the bar needs to be quite high.”
“More studying needs to be done. In the microbiome world, we’re really at the starting stages,” Marco says. “But we need the right science so we know if we’re giving the right organisms to the right people at the right time.
When Drew Anderson was ready to sell sauerkraut he homemade with brother-in-law Luke Visnic, Drew knew just where to start — the farmers market. His mother started farmers markets all over Northeastern Ohio, markets where Drew and his little brother Mac spent their weekends working as kids.
“We saw how small food businesses would start. Farmers markets a great way to test your products, to pitch, to get direct feedback on what’s working and what’s not. You’re getting paid for market research,” says Drew, who started Cleveland Kraut with Luke and Mac (chief marketing officer) over six years ago. “Farmers markets are going to be some of your most honest customers, and those original farmers market customers are still some of our best customers to this day. We raised our first capital at farmers markets.”
Sage advice from the fastest growing brand in the fermented foods industry. Cleveland Kraut continues to grow since its humble beginnings in 2013 as a side hobby of three brothers. Back then, when Cleveland Kraut was ready to expand to retail, Drew liquidated his savings to buy equipment, slept in the warehouse and drove truckloads of kraut himself to avoid shipping costs. Today, Cleveland Kraut will produce 4 million pounds of sauerkraut this year, thrives on capital from backers like NBA star George Hill, employs a growing staff of 20 full-time employees and will expand internationally later this year.
Check out our Q&A with Drew, a Forbes “30 Under 30” honoree and board member of The Fermentation Association.
Q: What is your advice for other fermented food producers who want to sell in retail stores?
Honestly, you have to grind. It’s a category that buyers are just now waking up to, so getting in the door is difficult. Especially when you have established players who are doing really well. You have to go in and say “How am I going to compliment the competition? How am I going to add these other flavors?” It takes time. It’s a lot of grind, you’re going to lose some sleep.
Q: Where do you see the future of the industry for fermented products?
Obviously, you have a lot of beverages out there that really paved the way, kombucha has been a huge success story. But fermented vegetables I think are, one, you’re getting a ton of free press from dietitians and doctors who are saying you need to eat this stuff, the rest of the world eats this every day, Americans need to eat it, too. Second, gut health is tied into everything, and that’s pushing fermented product sales. There are studies proving gut health is linked to your mental well-being, its liked to weight managements, its linked to your skin health. Then third, exciting flavors and new and exciting brands. Fermented products need to be approachable products for the American palate, and I’m proud to say that we’re a big driver of that. We’re showing what can be done with a simple product.
Q: What problems do you see facing the fermentation industry?
It’s not a huge category right now. The challenge is continuing to push consumers. We have to taste test, teach consumers what is this, what are the benefits, we need to get the mass market to understand what real fermented foods are and to test them out. We need to expand the category by showing people how good fermented foods are and how good they are for you. That’s going to be a big challenge.
I also think, the challenge on the retail side, buyers are continuing to expand the set. I think there’s room for a lot of different brands in one fermented set. When we go in to the market, we have a lot of competition. But competition brings the whole category up. It’s less cannibalization, it’s opening up a category and growing it.
Q: What about strengths, do fermented producers have unique strengths for the food industry?
There are not many co-manufacturers that make a quality product. So you have young companies who are still manufacturing their product. It’s not just a brand with a manufacturing facility miles and miles away. These young companies are putting really quality products out there. And I think that’s a real strong suit. The product is the same as everybody else when you have co-manufacturers involved. Brands that own their manufacturing, I think you get more interesting, higher-quality products.
Another strength is fermented foods can be something that’s delicious and exciting but also super beneficial for you. This is true health food, this is not fake healthy. This directly impacts people. If more people were eating fermented food products every day, our country would be a lot healthier. I think that’s a huge strength for us and we’re going to lean on that hard.
Q: Tell me about Cleveland kraut. What makes it so unique?
We are a manufacturer but we’re culinary branded. We really care about taste, texture and health. If you’re doing fermentation right, then its always going to be healthy. But we want the crunchiest, most vibrant sauerkraut. We’re the taste leader, we’re the fastest growing brand in fermented foods. We’re about flavor. You go to Asia and they eat fermented foods every day. For us, we’re creating the fermented foods that Americans will eat every day. And we’re seeing that with our customers. They’re eating it with their eggs for breakfast, they’re putting it on their salads for lunch, they’re making it traditionally and eating it with meat and sauerkraut for dinner. It’s fast, quick meals, throwing it on rice bowls, soups, burgers.
Q: A lot of Americans are still scared to eat a fermented food. They’re unsure of trying the food, they don’t know what it is. Do you think that’s starting to change?
Oh yeah. One of our taglines here is “People try it, they like it.” You walk into a room and ask 100 people “Do you like sauerkraut?” and 75 percent of them are going to say no. We flip that after they try it. They try our product, they go “Wow, I never knew that was what sauerkraut tasted like.” It’s a natural fermentation, its crunchy, its vibrant, its bright, its fresh – that’s real sauerkraut. We change minds.
Q: You have a business background and were an analyst in finance industry. What made you decide to move over to the food industry?
Our mother started farmers markets in Northeastern Ohio. She was a chef, she had a degree in biology and she was super into where food comes from and what she’s feeding her kids. We grew up running farmers markets on the weekends, cooking in the kitchen, everything was central around food. We learned early on how to cook, how to prepare our own food and how to identify good products. It kind of helps you see why we’re so tall, we ate really well.
Fast forward, I went to school at Cleveland State University. I have a degree in statistics, so I was hired by a bank to build models and forecast. I moved to Virginia on the east coast where I couldn’t really get authentic, Eastern European fermented food, the sauerkraut and sausages which we grew up with in the Midwest. I started fermenting my own sauerkraut and making my own sausages. I got hired by a bank, moved back to Cleveland, and I found out my brother-in-law (COO Luke Visnic) was also making sauerkraut. He has a history – his grandmother is from Germany and they always had a crock bubbling away. One night over a beer in 2013, we’re eating some really fresh sauerkraut right out of a Mason jar. We’d been reading about this huge movement of fermented foods and probiotics. So we said “Let’s take it to the farmers markets.”
For a couple years, we would work our day jobs – Luke’s an architect, me in finance and my brother Mac who had just graduated college and was working in finance. We were teaching Mac how to ferment while he was in college. So all three of us, we’d work our day jobs and then come to the commercial kitchen in suits and start making sauerkraut until 2 in the morning, packing, processing. And then on the weekends we’d sell it at the farmers markets and to restaurants.
Q: When did you finally decide Cleveland Kraut was big enough to make the switch from your day jobs to working on Cleveland Kraut full-time?
In the second half of 2015, when we launched retail. We built a new commercial kitchen in this big factory, this old warehouse, that we cleaned out and made a nice fermentation space. I slept in an office way above the floor. There were no showers, so I joined the Y up the road, and I would shower there and then go into work and sleep in the office at night. It was great.
Q: Tell me about your unique flavors.
We have the traditional Classic Carraway that’s very Bavarian style. We have a Whiskey Dill where we add a little bit of whiskey, it gives it a subtle sweetness on the back end and a lot of dill up front. Roasted Garlic is probably our best seller besides the classic. It’s made of raw garlic, black pepper, its fantastic, super savory, people put that on everything. Beet Red is huge for us – it’s red cabbage, beets, carrots. This is the really fresh, super healthy sauerkraut that people are throwing on salads. Think of like an arugula salad with a little bit of spice, a goat cheese, almonds and then a light vinaigrette then with a Beet Red sauerkraut on there. Oh, its beautiful. Curry Kraut, that’s definitely going to be our healthiest. You have turmeric in there, ginger, garlic, it’s got a little bit of zip to it, a beautiful yellow color.
But our game changer, our conversion kraut is the Gnar Gnar. This one’s interesting. We knew we had to make a spicy kraut because our favorite is to eat a spicy sauerkraut like a kimchi. When we were first testing out flavors in my mother’s cellar, we had this spicy concoction going and this super, super potent smell and we were like “Man, this is going to be so gnarly!” and my mom starts saying “What’s that gnar gnar down there?” So we had to name it Gnar Gnar. That’s the one chefs are using. Iron chef Michael Symon, he’s got a BBQ restaurant at the Palms in Vegas, every plate serves Gnar Gnar.
We’re bringing excitement and life with our flavors, our crunch, our branding. We’re really brightening up this category and bringing a lot of new consumers.
When we go in to the market, we have a lot of competition. But brings the whole category up. It’s less cannibalization, it’s opening up a category and growing it.
Q: Your brand name, you wanted to true to the Cleveland area?
For us, fermented foods really come from the Midwest. It’s a lot of Eastern European roots, it’s a working-class food that comes from farmers. It’s a blue-collar food, its simple food, cabbage is cheap. It’s a way to preserve foods when you didn’t have refrigeration. People have been surviving on cabbage for thousands of years.
For us, growing up, sauerkraut was a food that was local. It comes from the Midwest. We have glacial till soil here, super nutrient-rich soil. All our cabbage is hearty, it’s delicious, you eat the raw cabbage and it has a spice to it, it’s fantastic. We’re super proud of where we are in the Midwest. Building a factory and putting our city on the front of the package has been key to us. Honestly, it creates a local vibe wherever you go. People in Southern California are buying us at Lazy Acres and Gelson’s and Bristol Farms and they’re saying “I like the Cleveland stuff. They know what they’re doing in the Midwest. They know how to ferment things.”
Q: Tell me about the Cleveland food scene.
The Cleveland food scene is growing. We have a lot of good chefs, we get a lot of ex-New York chefs who want to open their own spot and they come to Cleveland because there is a lot of wealth there so it can support the fine dining and experimental restaurants.
And the business food scene, the manufacturing, its growing. There’s a popsicle company from Cleveland that’s taking off, Chill Pop. Nooma is an organic electrolyte beverage that is taking off nationwide, they’re in stores like Walmart and Whole Foods. There’s a lot of us, we’re paving the way. Then the Akron, Canton, Cleveland areas, there’s a lot of big, big manufacturers that are behind the scenes, you’ve never heard about them, but there’s a lot of food being made here. Cleveland is young – we’re not a Boulder, we’re not a San Francisco, but its popping up. We’re going to give Brooklyn a run for their money in 10 years.
Q: Last year, you started putting your kraut in new packaging, you switched from glass jars to resealable pouches. Tell me about that.
The issues with glass jars is you’re putting in a live product. When you’re at natural stores, a Whole Foods, and you have early adopters buying it, they understand that when you twist that lid, it might bubble it, it is still alive. But when you get into a place like Walmart, Giant Eagle, Target, these people are later on the adoption curve, they may not know so much about what a fermented live product is, so when they open it up and see a bubble, they think “Whoa, something’s wrong.”
The other thing is we couldn’t fully automate the jar the way we wanted too. Our demand was so high, we were in there packing jars, and we couldn’t find the right equipment to automate it. We searched for years. And so the pouch solved the issue, because it has a vent and allows the kraut to breath, to exhale. And it can be automated.
We’re cutting down our carbon footprint significantly. A full truckload of glass takes so much diesel because it’s so heavy. Pouches can fit on a single palate and they’re fully recyclable. We have a great customer base, so I trust people are going out and recycling.
Q: What’s next for Cleveland Kraut.
We’ve got a lot of new products coming out. We’re going to really take hold of the fermented space, the fermented category, were going to drive a ton of growth. I’m excited for the next year and a half, you’re going to see some exciting things out of us, we’re going to keep pushing the brand.
We don’t just play in natural stores anymore. We love those stores, that’s where we started, we’re always going to be there, that’s where our best relationships are. But were pushing into conventional heavily. That means mass market people are getting the experience. On the back of our products, it says “Fermented foods for all.” This is not just a high-end product that only wealthy people who are super focused on health need. This is going to sell at Walmart, this is going to sell at Whole Foods. We’re going to get fermented foods everywhere. We’re going to push it very hard. In five years, people are really going to be eating fermented foods every week, every day, and were going to be a big driver of this.
The voices of organic and natural advocates are critical to public policy, and change in the food system starts with farmers, food producers and even parents feeding their family in a healthy, sustainable way.
“Your voices matter more than ever. You are the reason we’ve seen so many changes in our food system over the past 85 years,” said Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Michigan), keynote speaker at Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif. Stabenow is the Ranking Member of the U.S. Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry and the co-author of the 2018 Farm Bill. “We’ve made progress, but there’s a lot more to do. That’s where all of you come in. “
Legislation is catching up with consumer desire. For the first time in U.S. history, organic food is permanently protected and protected under the current farm bill. The farm bill is the government’s primary food and agriculture policy tool, and it’s renewed every five years.
Organic food is a movement that’s been rising for decades, Stabenow said. Though it may feel like the organic industry just took off, Stabenow said “It’s moving more quickly now because of the incredible demand from the public. … Organics is the fastest growing part of our farm economy, so we made it a priority in the farm bill.”
“Now more than ever before people are paying attention to what they eat. They want to know where their food comes from and how it’s grown. … People are also becoming more interested in the hands that plant the seed, the soil in which they grow and the impact on our family’s health.”
The farm bill is the best example of how food policy has changed. The first farm bill was established in 1933, during the Great Depression. A national organics program wasn’t put in the bill until the 1990s.
The organic industry has grown from $3.6 billion in 1997 to over $50 billion today.
Stabenow is proud of the policies added to the 2018 Farm Bill, passed in a difficult political climate. Republicans control all parts of the federal government. And President Donald Trump has pushed for such tight regulations on the organics program that he’s been accused of “waging war” on the organics industry. But bipartisan support helped pass what Stabenow called “the most progressive farm bill yet.”
The major bill highlight for the organic industry was the establishment of permanent, mandatory funding for organics. Stabenow compared it to organics previously sitting at the “kid’s table” with temporary funding for organics that was depleted and reevaluated every five years.
“I’m proud to say we’re now at the adult’s table,” Stabenow said. “What does that mean? It means organic research and provisions will live on past the current farm bill. It means farmers markets and food hubs and community food provisions will continue to grow the local food movement.”
With organics finally protected, Stabenow said, it’s time to look at new ideas. What can propel the next farm bill with healthy and sustainable policies?
“As creators, as innovators as advocates you really are the engine driving our country to a more sustainable future, and I can’t think of anything more important than being able to do that,” she said.
The fermentation industry is on the cusp of a renaissance. Engaged consumers are seeking functional food and drink with health benefits. And fermented products provide the nutritional value and unique flavors today’s consumers crave.
Staff at The Fermentation Association attended Natural Products Expo West in Anaheim, Calif. this month. Expo West is the world’s largest organic and natural healthy products event, and we spent four days with 88,000 other attendees listening to industry experts in education sessions and meeting fermented food and beverage brands on the show floor.
Here are six takeaways from Expo West for the fermentation industry:
- Natural Products are King. Natural food and beverages grew 6.6 percent in 2018, for a total of $152 billion in sales, according to info from the Nutrition Business Journal. The category is growing so much that organic supply is lagging behind consumer demand. Meanwhile, for the first time in history, the conventional food and beverage category began to shrink last year.
- Major Focus on Gut and Microbiome Health. Once terms only used by scientists, prebiotics and probiotics are at the forefront of consumer’s grocery list. Digestive health is critical for modern consumers, as more nutritionists focus on the gastrointestinal tract’s critical immune system support. Consumers want food and drinks that nourish their microbiome. Sales numbers show people are moving away from purchasing pills and supplements to aid their gut; they’re instead looking for prebiotics and probiotics in actual food.
- Ancient Foods are Experiencing a Revival. The future of food is in practices of the past. From turmeric, ashwagandha, ghee and fermentation, the foods of our ancestors are back on our plates. These old-world cooking styles and ingredients are standing the test of time and coming back in modern cuisine.
- Industry is Selling to Educated Consumers. Today’s consumers know more about the food they eat than ever before. Consumers are studying ingredient lists, seeking product sources and researching brands. Clean food and clean labels are not a trend; they’re a movement. People are becoming more aware of the dangers of eating processed food. They want nutritious ingredients from ethical brands. The functional health benefits of fermented products are piquing consumer interest.
- Snacking Trumps Mealtime. Snacking today is a $1.2 trillion-dollar industry. The modern consumer is busy, and convenience food readily accessible in a grab-and-go format is a grocery store staple. Snacking in 2019 is not filling up on a soda and a bag of fried chips. Consumers want healthy, fresh snacks, especially refrigerated snacks in the produce aisle. This is great news for fermented brands. Grabbing a bottle of kombucha or kefir and a bag of snacking pickles or miso soup fits into the convenient dining lifestyle.
- Brands Need More Plant-Based Products. A major shift in food philosophy, more consumers are buying plant-based products – whether or not they’re vegetarian or vegan. Plant-based options are becoming tastier and readily available. Brands are experimenting with fermenting vegetables for plant-based cheeses, spreads, sauces and drinks.
It’s an exciting time for fermented food and beverage producers. The aromatic, tangy flavors and healthy, live bacteria in fermented products are qualities propelling fermentation to become one of the most popular food categories.
The New Mainstream: Natural & Organic “Defining the Future of Food”
Once specialty items only found in small nutrition shops, today natural products are the new normal for consumers. Annual consumer sales in 2018 were $219 billion across the natural and organic products industry, a 7 percent increase.
“Natural and organic has tipped into the mainstream and is now defining the future for food, nutrition and CPG,” said Carlotta Mast, senior vice president of content and insights for the New Hope Network which. Mast shared an overview of 2018 sales and growth at “The State of Natural and Organic” education session during the 2019 Natural Products Expo West.
The 39th Expo West hosted 88,000 attendees and 3,600 exhibitors. Mast shared sales and growth numbers from the Nutrition Business Journal, research that estimates the natural products industry will surpass $250 billion in sales by 2021.
That’s rapid growth – and amazing news for the fermentation industry. Food and beverages remain the largest category for the industry (numbers include food and beverage, supplements and natural living). Food and beverage make up 70 percent of the industry.
Natural food and beverage sales grew 6.6 percent in 2018 to $152 billion in sales. Organic food and beverage grew 5.6 percent in 2018 to $45 billion in sales. Organic has burgeoned into a huge force – organic supply is lagging behind growing consumer demand. Mast noted: “That’s a challenge the industry needs to continue to address.”
Sales for conventional food and beverage products began to shrink for the first time in history in 2018. Major conventional food brands – like Kraft Heinz – are reporting losing billions in sales.
Consumers are looking for functional ingredients in their food and drink. They’re viewing their food as medicine, and they want health benefits from the food and beverages they consume. Functional food and beverage sales grew 7.5 percent last year to $68 billion in sales.
Great news for fermentation producers: probiotics are of the fastest growing functional ingredients. And consumers are moving away from supplements and pills. They want their probiotics in food and drink.
“The growth in probiotic food and beverages, this represents the continued blurring of the line between dietary supplements and food and beverages as consumers show a growing preference for non-pill and non-capsule delivery form for function products,” Mast said.
Mushrooms, Hemp and CBD and ashwagandha are other growing functional ingredients categories.
Though e-commerce is currently driving less than 5 percent of industry sales, those numbers will flip. Growth of e-commerce sales are outpacing brick and mortar sales.
E-commerce is the ideal platform as the “launch pad” for new brands and products, Mast said. Half of all new natural companies that entered the market between 2015-2018 started selling online before moving to retail. Mast notes: “That’s a huge shift for our industry.”
Mast outlined seven “staying trends to shape the industry.” She noted these are not fads, but “big shifts that are shaping who we are and what we sell and how consumers are driving what’s happening in our industry.”
The macro forces and trends include:
- Plant Wisdom. Mast: “This is one of the most powerful macro forces in our industry today as consumers are waking up to the social, environmental and health benefits of plant-based foods. And natural and organic brands are meeting this growing interest with innovative products that make is easier, healthier and more delicious than ever to ditch traditional meat and dairy, even if it’s only temporarily.”
- The World is Fat. Brands are “responding in creative ways to changing consumers perceptions around nutrition, including the growing appreciation for healthy fats,” Mast said. Consumers are realizing sugar is dangerous for health and weight management.
- A Life of Vitality. Mast: “Amidst the pressure of modern life, consumers are seeking out diets to help stave off and prevent disease, treat conditions and perhaps most important optimize how they feel today and every day. This is leading to many opportunities for innovative products that support a healthy microbiome.”
- Modern Pantry. “Today’s pantry looks very different than perhaps the pantry that our parents have.” There are opportunities for brands to update stale product categories, meeting the need for convenience with the need for nutrition and taste. Modern pantry products incorporate more veggies and less sugars.
- The Power of Science. “Science and technology are improving nearly every category in our industry,” Mast says. Science is connecting consumers with “science-based products and values-driven innovation that has the potential to change the world for the better.”
- Material Optimization. Brands are looking at ingredient waste, creatively reinventing packaging in creative ways to reduce, reuse and recycle.
- Inventive Business Models. Companies are running mission-driven brands that work for a higher purpose.
The natural and organic industry is shaping the future of consumer’s diets and lifestyle. Fermented food products – which are full of functional nutrition and science-backed microbiome benefits – are a major part in the industry’s growth.
When Katherine Harmon Courage began investigating the microbiome 10 years ago as a writer for Scientific American, gut health was barely a blip on the public’s radar. It’s hard to believe today. You can’t walk by a grocery store shelf without reading dozens of labels advertising probiotic health benefits.
Today, gut health is at the forefront of the food industry. The probiotics supplement market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 9.7 percent in the next seven years. And the market for probiotic-rich fermented foods is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.98 percent in the next five years.
Gut health research from scientists and dieticians surged in the past decade. Courage was fascinated. “Looking at the food around the world and the connection between our ancient diet and microbes, that is really, really exciting,” she says. Courage spent a year travelling the world, exploring the traditional, gut-friendly cuisine of different cultures. She paired her culinary investigation with modern science into an engaging book: “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome.”
Below, highlights from a Q&A with Courage on her new book, and her findings on the fermentation industry’s role in American’s evolving diets.
Q: You have been covering the microbiome since 2009. How has the scientific research progressed?
When I started covering it, there were small studies here and there, a lot from the Human Microbiome Project. Researchers were taking a census at the time, that we share our body with trillions of organisms. It was this niche area that I found super fascinating, but no one was talking about it much.
In the past decade, so much has changed. Science has evolved so much to learn about the connection between our health and our microbiome. We were raised to think germs are bad, bugs are bad, but we live with these commensal organisms.
Q: The food industry is taking notice of this research. What do you think of so many food products marketed with a gut health focus?
Talking to researchers, it’s interesting to see their perspective as scientists. They see the extreme of people thinking probiotics and microbes that are a marketing ploy to other people thinking probiotics and microbes will cure every health issue under the sun.
Microbiologists look at this critically. We’ve seen positive impacts on our health from it, but it won’t solve everything. We’re just at the beginning of understanding this relationship between these amazing and delicious fermented foods and our health.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about microbes and our microbiome?
One of the misconceptions — and the one I had when I was thinking about this book — was the notion that if we eat something labeled probiotic, like a cup of yogurt, that we’re reinoculating our gut and restoring our gut health. Like if we eat a cup of yogurt, we’re good to go.
These microbes that we eat don’t stick around permanently. They’re just along for the ride. Weeks after we consume these, they’re not there anymore. When I learned this, I thought “There goes my research.” But when I looked into it more, in traditional culture and cuisines, people are eating fermented foods all the time, every day. It’s not about that one special food you eat or that one magic pill. It’s having those foods part of your daily cuisine and part of your life.
It’s great for fermentation producers. You don’t eat one jar of kimchi and call it good — you need to keep integrating it into your diet.
Q: Can a pill really fix our gut health?
Not being a scientist, I can’t say if it will or won’t fix our gut health. But talking to microbiologists who study this, it really is about exposing our bodies to these bacteria. We live our lives in such clean and pasteurized lives that we don’t get that microbial exposure. Their perspective is eating as many bugs, exposing ourselves to as many bugs, it will have a positive impact on our immune system as long as we’re healthy. A lot of the probiotic pills have been studied and they have positive health correlations, but we’re still learning so much about it.
Eating fermented foods, especially wild fermented foods, can be even more beneficial. Microbiologists and researchers in this field are really just starting to see what microbes are beneficial to our health. We can expose our bodies to more microbes through wild fermented foods because they’re so much more complex and have so many more microbes, rather than a yogurt with just three different microbes in it. We’re getting so much exposure through wild fermented foods.
Q: Why is it bad if we don’t properly feed our microbiome?
There’s the old friends hypothesis which is similar to the hygiene hypothesis. Our bodies have evolved to expect microbial exposure. But now our immune systems have gotten on this overactive trajectory, attacking these things they don’t need to.
We need to remember our native gut microbes, to feed them the nutrients they need to thrive. When we don’t feed our native microbes the fiber they need to thrive, they’ll eat the mucus lining in our gut, leading to more inflammation and asthma. We need to eat more microbes and feed the native microbes we do have.
Q: Can our native microbes change if we don’t feed them?
There’s been some interesting research out of Stanford’s Sonnenburg Lab. Mice fed on a diet with less fiber tend to have decreased microbiomes. Over generations, as the mice have pups, they pass that microbiome on to their pups. Generations later, these pups have super impoverished microbiomes. And they can’t come back and have a healthy microbiome by feeding them more fiber.
Q: Fermented foods are making waves in the food industry as the next big superfood. Tell me about fermented food in the book?
For the book, I got tor travel all over and explore these different cultures that have different fermented food traditions. I picked four main food places with quintessential fermented food — Greece to research yogurt, Korea to research kimchi, Japan to research miso and Switzerland to research cheese.
One of the cool discoveries I made travelling to these places was I discovered other aspects of the local diet that nourish the microbiome, other fermented foods and whole foods. These countries have different ways of thinking about eating than we do in America.
Q: What was the most eye-opening aspect of exploring other culture’s cuisine?
There were a couple. One, touring one of the big food markets in Seoul, Korea. Kimchi is their national food, but I was shown all these different fermented foods, different sauces, fermented soybean paste similar to miso, fermented veggies. It permeates their culture. Looking from far away in American grocery stores and farmers markets, you wouldn’t see it.
Second, in Japan, speaking with another author, we were talking about nato. Some people find nato challenging because it’s made with basic fermentation rather than acidic fermentation. The Japanese approach to fermented food, they teach at a very young age that “This is a wonderful, healthy food.” In America, we teach food as “Try this because it’s gratifying and yummy.” There’s this dichotomy of healthy foods versus gratifying goods. In Japan, there’s more of an understanding that there’s a wide variety of foods and you’re expected to eat all of them because that’s how you have a healthy life.
Q: Do you think this surge of fermented foods is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?
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.
Q: Ancient foods are making an appearance in our diet again. Tell me what you found most fascinating in your research for this book on ancient foods.
One of the interesting things was how they are being incorporated into contemporary culture and cuisine. I went to a fermentation based restaurant in Tokyo, and I talked to the chef about how he’s integrating more traditional practices into contemporary cuisine and making very elegant meals out of them.
Q: Tell me more about your travels to Greece to learn about traditional yogurt. Modern yogurt is often criticized for the scientifically added probiotics. What did you find about traditional yogurt?
My image of yogurt was this fermented product with a few strains. But I wondered, with fermented yogurt products, are they just dumping strains in after they produced it?
Touring a family-owned, small-scale yogurt making facility in Greece, it was interesting seeing their process. They use backslopping, which is using part of the previous batch to inoculate the next batch. Traditionally, that was the way all of these products were made. It makes a richer microbial environment. We don’t know what strains are in it unless it’s sent off to a lab. Their strains come from the batch before and the batch before. Their yogurt would have strains unique to that product since they’ve made it for decades in that same place.
Q: Can better gut health help Americans notoriously destructive eating habits?
I think one of the keys is getting more fiber, especially prebiotic fiber from whole foods, not just a supplement, to really nourish a diverse gut microbiome. And, of course, eating more fermented foods.
Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword, it’s a movement. Consumers care about the environment, and they want the brands they buy to care, too.
A recent Nielsen ratings report found that 81 percent of people around the world feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. For proof consumers are pledging their support for companies that are Mother Nature’s advocates, look at their wallets. Nielson ratings found product sales grew twice as fast for companies with specific environmental impact claims.
“No matter what, sustainability is no longer a niche play: your bottom-line and brand growth depend on it,” the report reads.
Nielson looked at three products sustainability efforts, two which are fermented: chocolate, coffee and bath products. Chocolate was the main focus of the report.
Cocoa is grown in difficult circumstances. Of the world’s cocoa supply, 90 percent of it is grown on small family farms by about 6 million farmers. Cocoa farmers work in rough circumstances. Cocoa is a fragile crop that grows in hot, rainy, tropical environments and the trees don’t yield cocoa pods until its fifth year. Farmers work hard and profit is low.
Research drilled down to specific consumer sentiments about chocolate, from environmental claims (like ethically sourced, made with renewable energy or carbon neutral), to the absence of artificial ingredients and fair trade.
Chocolate with environmental claims account for an extremely small percent of the chocolate category, only 0.2 percent. But it grew four times the rate of sales, from 22 percent from March 2017 to March 2018. Unit growth is also huge. Chocolate with environmental claims is “flying off the shelves at a rate five times faster than the overall market.” Environmental chocolate had a 15 percent unit sales growth compared to the competition with just 3 percent sales growth.
Fair trade chocolate is performing well, too. Fair trade chocolate only makes up 0.1 percent of the total chocolate market, but dollar sales growth for fair trade chocolate doubles the rest of the category (10 percent versus 5 percent). Unit sales are five times higher for fair trade chocolate (15 percent versus 3 percent).
No artificial ingredients
Unit sales of chocolate made without artificial ingredients are growing at the same 3 percent rate as the rest of the chocolate category. But dollar sales of clean chocolate are triple the market (16 percent versus 5 percent). The report infers that, because clean chocolate is priced higher than chocolate made with artificial ingredients, consumers will pay more for a sustainable choice.
The report reads: “In many ways this space is evolving; however, what we do know is that sustainability presents an opportunity to be creative about innovative growth. Embedding consumer demand for sustainability into your company strategy and product pipeline requires data specific to your brand footprint and consumer profile.
Sustainability: “Life and Death Matter”
Consumers are empowered by evidence that “sustainability has become a life and death matter.” The World Health Organization estimates 12.6 million people die every year from environmental health risks. Air pollution and water quality are listed as top concerns for people around the world, the survey found. Increasing cases of asthma and typhoid are linked to deteriorating air and water quality.
“In light of these concerns, consumers around the world are making adjustments in their shopping habits,” the report reads. “While still juggling convenience, price and awareness along with their need to better the world, they’re looking for companies to step up as partners in their quest to do good.”
Another finding of note: though protecting Mother Earth is an important issue for survey respondents globally, consumers in developing countries are more concerned. The percentage of European and North American respondents who said they were “extremely” or “very concerned” about environmental issues was lower than respondents in third-world countries, like Latin America, Asia-Pacitic and Africa/Middle East.
Other interesting finds: environmentally advocacy is typically attributed to Millennials. Millennials are the generation most vocal advocating for corporate social responsibility. But the ratings found every generation and every gender cares deeply about the health of the planet. While 85 percent of Millenials (age 21-34) ranked a company’s environmental responsibility as “extremely” or “very” important, other generations weren’t far behind. Generation Z (15-20) was at 80 percent, Generation X (age 35-49) was at 79 percent, Baby Boomers (age 50-64) were at 72 percent and the Silent Generation (age 65+) was at 65 percent.
Forbes shares a detailed list of how companies can “champion” climate change. Their tips relevant to food producers include:
- Measure your carbon footprint annually through a third party audit.
- Develop an action plan, from reducing supply chain emissions to improving energy efficiency to cutting unnecessary transportation environmental hazards, like shipping by sea freight instead of air or using regional warehouses.
- Set emission reduction goals, then monitor your progress.
- Support environmental change politics by using lobbying influence for policymakers who are working to improve the health of the planet.
More consumers are eating at home, a food industry movement that has remained unchanged for nearly 10 years. Today, 82 percent of American meals are home cooked, according to research by the NPD group. Restaurant sales are in their worst slump since the Great Recession. Today’s diners eat out 185 times a year now, compared to its peak in 2000 at 216 times a year.
Numerous factors are kindling the drop.
- High cost of restaurant meals. Eating out is expense — restaurant meals are almost three times as expensive as a home-cooked meal. And the cost for a restaurant meal is likely to increase as the minimum wage across the country increases.
- Convenience of streaming from home. Diners would rather eat in their own space watching a favorite show rather than eating in a public space with strangers.
- Comfortable home surroundings. Diners are practicing “Hygge,” the Danish art of coziness. Americans want to stay in their house “to find comfort and shelter from the maddening crowd,” the study notes.
- More people work at home. The American workforce is increasingly based at a home office, dropping the amount of workers who grab a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant on their lunch break.
- Healthy food is trending. Clean and healthy lifestyles are topping food prediction lists, like vegetarian meals, vegan milk and probiotic-packed everything.
- Popularity of pre-made meals. Meal kits continue to dominate the market, generating $1 billion in revenue worldwide in 2015. Predictions show meal kits will hit $10 billion by 2020.
- Ease of online grocery delivery. Fast, home grocery services are available nationwide now, with some retailers offering same-day delivery.
- Consumers changing preferences. New generations of diners prefer cooking at home more than their elders. And if they’re going out to eat, they prefer fast casual over a sit-down restaurant, another change from their parent’s generation.
This creates more opportunities for food companies, though. Today’s home cooks are itching for unique, healthy food — a niche fermented product fills. Here are five ways fermented food producers can capitalize on the growing eat-at-home trend:
1. Advertise Quality and Health Benefits
Health and wellness are leading the food industry — natural, organic, whole, gluten-free, preservative-free, sugar-free and clean are all buzzwords visible on labels at grocery store shelves. According to a Forbes article, this healthy eating trend is not slowing down. Eighty-eight percent of consumers say they’d be willing to pay more for healthier foods.
Fermented food producers must actively promote the health benefits of fermentation. Consumers are craving the probiotic-packed, nutrient-dense ingredients in fermented foods. Advertising a product’s health impacts will attract consumers.
2. Partner with Meal Delivery Service or Ready-to-Eat Meal Producer
According to Nielsen data: “ While the food retail landscape isn’t one that sees an over-abundance of frequent, market-shifting innovation, meal kits are proving to be just that. In just a few short years in fact, they have carved out a unique — and profitable — niche in the U.S. grocery landscape.”
About 9 nine percent of Americans purchased a meal kit in the last six months, totalling 10.5 million households. And 25 percent say they would consider buying a meal kit in the next six months, totalling more than 30 million households.
Fermented food producers who get their products into ready-to-eat meal kits will see big returns. David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of “Eating Patterns in America,” says: “We don’t look for this trend to change anytime soon and operators and foodservice manufacturers can take advantage of the stay-at-home movement by offering at-home eaters with innovative ready-to-eat meal solutions and a greater degree of convenience.”
3. Post Recipes Online
Don’t tell consumers why your product is so great — show them. Post recipes and an accompanying enticing finished meal picture on your website regularly. These recipes should feature your food product as a key ingredient. The internet is a powerful tool for promoting food — “food” was the second most searched category on the internet. Consumers are looking on the internet for recipes rather than relying on family favorites. A study found 40 percent of consumers learn about food via websites, apps or blogs, and half use social media sites to find recipes.
4. Share Quality Product Pictures or gastroporn
In the food industry, presentation is everything. Sharing a quick, blurry photo snapped in poor lighting will not appeal to consumers. Use “food porn” tactics. The term (meaning a glamourized image of food) is changing food advertising. A study found the most attention-grabbing shots feature:
- Moving food. A picture of a glass of orange juice being poured is more appealing than a picture of a static glass of orange juice. This is because, to viewers, it implies freshness. “Protein in motion” is another term used to capture successful food photography, like oozing egg yolk, melting cheese and steaming meat.
- First-person perspective. Feature food as if the viewer can pick it off their screen and eat it rather than a picture from a third-person perspective of someone else eating the dish. Adding a spoon approaching from the right, for example, results in a consumer being 15 percent more willing to buy the product than if the spoon approaches from the left.
- Healthy food. The food porn movement is famously dominated by unhealty eats, like pizza and desserts. But a study by university researchers called “Fetishizing Food in the Digital Age” found that healthy food garners more “likes” than unhealthy food.
- Market to Right Audience
The population segment most often eating at home: families and groups of five or more people. Single adults with incomes above $100,000 drive restaurant sales. It’s no major surprise — it’s much cheaper for one person to eat out than a family — but should be noted in marketing plans. Cooking at home is still synonymous with cooking for a group.
Photo from: Foodies Feed
When in doubt, throw it out? Smell check? Taste test? Eyeball it? Food date labels have become so confusing that many consumers use their own sensory check to decode food expiration dates.
The food industry noticed. “Use By” dates are becoming uniform, with nine in 10 grocery store products now printing consumer-friendly labels. By 2020, all products will carry a simplified date. The 10 date-label categories will pair down to two – “Best if Used By” and “Use By.”
From Farm to Trash
Critical to food product relabeling is curbing massive amounts of food waste. A study by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than 90 percent of Americans are throwing away food before it goes bad because they misinterpret the food label.
“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busting because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said Dana Gunders, NRDC staff scientist. “Phrases like ‘sell by,’ ‘use by,’ and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety. It is time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective food date labeling system to get a makeover.”
Over 40 percent of the American food supply doesn’t even make it to a plate. That amounts to $165 billion worth of food that’s thrown away annually. Food waste has become the single largest contributor of solid waste in U.S. landfills. The USDA and EPA set the first national food waste reduction goal in 2015: 50 percent less food waste by 2030.
The product labeling initiative was launched in 2017 by the two largest grocery trade groups – the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute. Geoff Freeman, GMA president and CEO, called it a “proactive solution to give American families the confidence and trust they deserve in the goods they buy.”
The standardized labels are not mandatory. They are voluntary.
The USDA Food Inspection and Safety Service made the recommendation in 2016 for food manufacturers to to apply “Best if Used By” to product label. But the industrywide label standardization is not government mandated.
“Virtually every discussion included concerns regarding waste generated as a result of consumer confusion about the various date labels on foods and what they mean,” said Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the House Agriculture Committee Chairman. “I am pleased to see the grocery manufacturing and retail industries tackling this issue head on. Not every issue warrants a legislative fix, and I think this industry-led, voluntary approach to standardizing date labels is a prime example.”
Dozens of consumer packaged goods brands and retail companies voted unanimously to change expiration dates exclusively to “Use By” by January 2020. Major brands like Walmart, Campbell, Kellogg and Nestle all spearheaded the change.
The 2020 date was set to give companies time to change dates on their packaging. It also coincides with the release of the new FDA nutrition facts panel.
The old labels – which included options like “Sell By” and “Display Until” – left consumers in a guessing game. Most products don’t include an explanation of the date, like whether it’s a descriptive feature for the store or the consumer. Even grocery store workers were confused. Employees were polled and reported they, too, cannot distinguish dates on food labels.
The new labels mean:
- “Best If Used By” – quality designation. This is the date the food manufacturer thinks the product should be consumed for peak flavor.
- “Use By” – safety designation. Perishable food is no longer food after this date.
Legal Change on Horizon
Is a government mandate likely?
Currently, the only product federally regulated for expiration dates is infant formula. There is no legal definition for food expiration dates in most states. And state food labeling standards vary widely – 20 states restrict stores from selling products after the expiration date, while 30 states don’t enforce such a rule.
The Food Date Labeling Act was introduced to Congress in 2016, but no further action has happened. The act would legally require food date standardization, and require the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services to educate consumers on date label meanings.
Interesting, the proposal also questions the subjective nature of expiration dates. It states no one could “prohibit the sale, donation or use of a product after the quality date for the product has passed.”