Baltimore-based Wild Kombucha has grown massively since their founding almost five years ago, increasing sales 466 percent in the last three years. The founders hard work and the drink’s delicious flavor helped propel the brand into 1,000 stores in eight states and Washington D.C.
At Natural Products Expo East, Wild Kombucha’s three co-founders point to another factor in their success: the city of Baltimore.
“A big piece was telling people we’re a local kombucha company, it’s Baltimore made,” says Sergio Malarin. “People here are super focused on local, they really love it. A lot of the initial accounts we worked with didn’t even bat an eye about bringing us in. Eddie’s Market, Charmington’s, One World Café, all the healthier, vegan and vegetarian independently-owned grocery stores and cafes, they brought us in and started selling us, fast.”
Co-founders Malarin, Adam Bufano and Sid Sharma are all first-generation Americans raised in Baltimore. The trio (Bufano and Malarin are step-brothers – Sharms is a childhood friend) take great pride in their hometown, praising the locals as a factor in Wild Kombucha’s success. They started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in February 2015 as a side gig, brewing in the evenings after their day jobs. They officially left their former careers for Wild Kombucha in August 2016, the day Whole Foods agreed to sell Wild Kombucha.
Today, Wild Kombucha employs 21 people and is brewing 10,000 bottles and 50 kegs of kombucha each week. They’ve moved to a 13,000-square-foot brewery and taproom in Baltimore. They will release their new flavor — a CBD kombucha flavor — in October.
“We’ve focused on how to educate the community around us on the health benefits of kombucha,” says Bufano. “So many people come to our demo tables and say ‘I don’t like kombucha, but then they try ours and they buy a bottle because it’s very approachable.”
Below is a Q&A with Bufano, Malarin and Sharma, who spoke with The Fermentation Association at their booth during Expo East.
Q: How did you start Wild Kombucha?
Bufano: Sergio and I are stepbrothers. Our family brewed kombucha when we were younger; our parents taught us when we were like 10 years old. And then I continued to brew from then basically until now, perfecting the recipe every time. I started selling it to my friends and then, at a certain point, I was trading it for rent. I was selling it to Hopkins students (John Hopkins University of Medicine). I had this big group of Hopkins students that would come to my house, grab a six-pack and bring me the empty bottles, I’d sanitize and refill them. And then I reached a point where I had to start charging people a little bit more to make it an actual business. That’s when Sergio and I hooked up and came up with a plan to expand and make it a little more legit. Sid is a childhood friend of ours, so we brought him on, too.
Q: You started with your parent’s kombucha recipe. Where did this kombucha recipe originate from?
Malarin: Our parents learned about fermented foods was from this woman, Sally Fallon, who wrote this famous book called “Nourishing Traditions.” She is a best-selling author, and my mom actually became one of her top volunteers and became friends with her.
Bufano: So we would make like sauerkraut, kefir…
Malarin: Water kefir, milk kefir, sourdough…
Bufano: And it went beyond fermentation. Our fridge was pretty crazy.
Q: Sounds like your parents were very health.
Malarin: Yes. They were super into fermented foods.
Bufano: And this was in the ‘90s, before it was cool.
Q: Where did your kombucha recipe originate from?
Bufano: My parents learned from Sally Fallon how to make it, but they really made it their own. I used their recipe, which wasn’t very good at that point, and improved it.
Q: What makes Wild
Malarin: It’s a lot more approachable than other kombuchas. So the taste, but also the package. Our mission is to make kombucha approachable and available to everyone. So not necessarily the Whole Foods crowd, we want this something the average joe in Baltimore can grab.
Sharma: It has a fresher flavor profile. So because of that, we also have lower sugar, so really the fruit comes out so you don’t need to add sugar after the fact.
Malarin: What really differentiates us as a company is we are one of the few cause-driven kombucha companies. We donate 1% of our sales to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation – that’s what makes us Wild Kombucha.
Q: Why did you decide on the Chesepeake Bay Foundation?
Malarin: Since we were kids, we’ve gone swimming on the Eastern Shore. For us, it’s super important. It’s where we live, it’s a huge ecosystem. We really feel our community goes beyond the people in it, it extends to the ecosystem and the wildlife as well.
Sharma: We want to put resources back into the place where we’re using the resources.
Malarin: For us it’s very important to be more than a bottom line. We want to be a business that gives back in many, many ways in the community. We are located in Northwest Baltimore, which is a bit of a food dessert. We opened a taproom out there and we’ve been hosting yoga classes there, we’ll do a speaker series soon. We want the community to be able to participate and be a part of wwat we’re doing.
Q: Tell me how important that was to be in Baltimore. You moved a few years ago from Baltimore to the suburbs, and now you’ve moved back to Baltimore.
Bufano: We tried to stay in Baltimore at that time, but in order for us to push ourselves forward, the only option for us was to move to this space that we found in the Timonium area outside of Baltimore. Just moving back into Baltimore was a huge thing for us. We’d been looking for a space for a while, anticipating our move back. We feel a connection here, we want to support the city. A lot of businesses are moving out of Baltimore, so Baltimore really needs support right now.
Q: Why does Baltimore need the support of local businesses like Wild Kombucha?
Malarin: Baltimore is getting a lot of negative attention in the media. From Freddie Gray and all the craziness that came out of that as well as just the stuff Trump has been saying, and there’s been a big focus on the violence. A lot of other big cities have a lot of negative things too, but you don’t hear people saying those things about, like Chicago. People say the sausages are good in Chicago, the jazz and blues music are good, but there are a lot of murders in Chicago, too. The media doesn’t focus solely on the negative in other cities like in Baltimore.
Sharma: There’s this unfortunate migration out of the city. And there’s a wealth gap, this poverty gap that exists within Baltimore. By employing people in the city, we’re able to make a difference there. By putting local products into the economy, we keep the dollars inside Baltimore as well. It’s about helping the people around us, helping the people who have supported us and allowed us to grow, and paying it forward.
Q: Your sales have skyrocketed since your start in 2015. How do you think you’ve grown so much?
Malarin: A lot of hands-on work on our part. We very much went out and met people and talked to people and shook hands and pounded the pavement and made real connections instead of going through a broker. We didn’t cut corners. Another reason is our product is delicious and approachable. And finally, the last reason is kombucha in general, it’s the fastest growing sector of the non-alcoholic beverage industry, so we’ve been very fortunate that we’ve gotten to ride that wave a little bit. We don’t have a lot of natural competition where we are. Kombucha is still a lot of west coast companies, and shipping is really expensive across the country. So we’ve been able to compete very directly in terms of price point with these multi-million dollar companies that are backed by Coca Cola and Pepsi.
Q: That’s impressive you can compete with the big brands.
Bufano: We started selling under the Wild Kombucha label in 2015. We were in Whole Foods in August 2016.
Malarin: We were selling at the side of a juice shop, initially. We didn’t have any starting capital. We were a bunch of 24 year olds, so no bank wanted to give us loans. We found a way to get around a lot of the licensing from the health department. We went to an active juice shop that had all the licensing, and we were able to circumvent all those costs by operating through a sublease from them. We initially rented a space that was tiny.
Bufano: We were making enough kombucha that we couldn’t fit it in the fridges we had, so we actually had to sell them when they finished fermenting, on the same day, since it needs to be refrigerated. So when the fermentation day was done, we’d immediately have to put the kombucha in our cars and drive it around to stores.
Q: Most new food brands I talk to have to start at a farmer’s market to get their name out there. You guys were able to get Wild Kombucha into local stores very quickly.
Bufano: We didn’t really go the farmers market route. We area in some now, but it’s really been in the last year that we started doing the farmers market thing because we felt like we weren’t connected as much as we liked to be to the community, we felt we took a step back in the wrong direction after a certain point. that’s why we started the farmers market program so we could be back in it.
Q: Your production and offices are on the same site; you’re not using a copacker. Why was that important to you, to have everything on site?
Bufano: Company culture to us is really important. Creating a team of people that all have a common goal that we’re all working towards, you really feel more unstoppable in that sense. If you separate people – we noticed this with some of our offsite sales people that were in Philly – we felt disconnected. We always had trouble making them feel like they were a part of the team. We wanted to make them feel a part of the team as much as possible. We want to keep everyone as close as possible. A lot of our demo team actually works out of our facility and we pay for them to travel farther away to do demos and come back to the Baltimore office.
Malarin: With the copacking, or lack thereof, we produce everything in house. It’s been really important because, initially for us, it was very important to have full control of the product. Learning how to scale up and how to control it. At the end of the day, if you’re not making your own product, you’re just the middle man. We saw that go into effect in very negative ways for people that we’re friends with, people at other local companies. Once the copacker realized they were doing well, they’d raise their prices.
Bufano: Just relying on someone like that for your whole company and your whole product, that’s too big of a risk for us. Quality control is super important to us. We are right there all the time, making sure everything is how we like it.
Q: That enables you to be out on the production floor, too, monitoring brewing.
Bufano: Oh yes, I am right there. Watching the mother kombucha, singing to the cultures.
Q: How did you get funding to start Wild Kombucha?
Bufano: It was about $5,000 a person that we just put in.
Malarin: Shortly after, we signed a lease for a new space, but we did not have the money for it. We needed like $30,000 in the beginning. So we entered a business competition and the top prize was $30,000. So we signed the lease, then we went to the business competition and we won. It was called the Shore Hatchery at the Salisbury University Perdue School of Business, it’s a one-minute timed pitch, “Shark Tank” style. But they don’t take any equity, they just give you money, a grant. The most you can get it $45,000, but the most you can get at one time is $30,000. So we came and got the other $15,000 during the next competition.
Bufano: If that didn’t happen, we would have had to pull out of that lease. We would been a very different company.
Q: What would be your advice to other entrepreneurs wanting to start a fermentation brand.
Malarin: Don’t do it alone.
Bufano: I’d agree. Having the three of us was so amazing. If one of us was having a tough time, we could lean on the other person. You really feel lonely if you do something alone especially up to this caliber, you sacrifice your social life. Have a partner, give them some equity, do it together.
Q: Where do you see the future of the fermentation industry?
Malarin: It’s only going up. Soda sales have been tanking for a better part of the decade, if not longer, and there’s a lot of things coming in to fill the void. This whole expo is a testament to that.
Bufano: The awareness for kombucha seems to be growing faster than the industry is growing, the market share doesn’t seem to be getting smaller even with more companies popping up. More people are getting educated about kombucha.
Malarin: A lot of the other kombucha companies on the market help us, if they’re doing it the right way. Because they educate people on it, then those people, when they come into our area, they’re much more likely to try our product.
Bufano: It’s between 5 and 10 percent of the U.S. population that doesn’t know what kombucha is.
Sergio: Very few people know about it still, so there’s a lot of room for growth.
Q: What challenges do you think fermented drink producers and kombucha producers face?
Bufano: It might not be as big as an issue anymore, but just educating the government agencies about what kombucha is, that’s been a huge hurdle for us. Especially in smaller cities if you’re the first fermented beverage company that opens there. Educating them about it, especially the health department, that was huge for us. You have to create a whole other category for yourself.
Malarin: It will be nice too when there’s more regulation on labeling kombucha. Right now, people throw kombucha on whatever they want and it’s not kombucha at all. Its misleading and it’s confusing to people.
Bufano: We look forward to the day that kombucha is labeled correctly, so you can see what is authentic kombucha and what isn’t.
Q: What strengths do you think kombucha producers bring to the industry?
Malarin: I feel like a lot of kombucha producers in one way or another are very tied to the communities they produce in. Much more than these huge conglomerates, so I think it brings this much more dynamic side to business that a lot of these huge corporations just can’t have. It’s changing the whole way business is done, reverting to something a little more personal.
Bufano: What I’ve seen from other kombucha companies, they treat their employees really well, at least what we’ve seen so far. I think that’s kind of been a norm in the industry, which is pretty cool.
Summer Bock compares the gut microbiome to a forest. If a fire destroys the forest and forest restoration is attempted by just introducing a few animals, the forest would never rebuild.
“That’s what we’re missing with probiotic pills,” Bock says, adding that relying on a probiotic pill to fix the gut is like telling a few bacteria strains: “’You’re in charge of building our entire gut microbiome,’ you just can’t. if you’re just picking a few probiotics and saying ‘You’re the work horse, you’re going to do all of it,’ they can’t. You have to go think of this bigger picture ecosystem. When we use ferments, we’re bringing in some of the nutrition, the soil and even bringing in a greater variety of probiotics than what you find in most pills. …there’s a huge benefit of ferments that people are missing out on.”
A fermentationist, health coach and founder of Guts and Glory, Bock detailed how fermented foods can improve overall health at the Fairmentation Summit. She coined the word “gut rebuilding” and was the founder of the Fermentationist Certification Program.
Bock started fermenting after becoming incredibly sick. A trained herbalist, Bock began treating multiple food allergies, regular panic attacks and chronic exhaustion with herbs. This was long before terms like probiotics and gut microbiome were a regular part of diet discussions. But Bock was recommended by a naturopathic doctor to try taking probiotics, and “a lot of my symptoms started clearing up very quickly.”
Bock, though, is a purest, and wanted to know how she could ingest probiotics without taking a pill.
“What’s the whole food version of probiotics?” Bock said. “If I’m missing it and I’ve wiped it out with antibiotics, how did my ancestors get this into their body on a daily basis? That’s how I discovered fermented foods.”
So Bock started fermenting everything. During this experimentation process, Bock sold sauerkraut and kimchi from her fridge, launching her first sauerkraut company. She described sharing sauerkraut with her roommate’s friends, skeptics who would initially say “I don’t like it,” but would come back a week later and tell her “I have to come back and but it because I can’t stop thinking about that one bite.”
“This is an addictive healthy food, and I got fascinated by what is happening on your taste buds that makes your body go ‘I don’t like this right now,’ but your body recognizes that health benefit,” Bock said. “If there’s some communication happening through one little bite of food and that person can’t stop thinking about it and they want it, I’m still utterly fascinated by that today.”
Her favorite fermented food is kimchi “because it has all the benefits of lacto-fermented vegetables, it has all the great probiotics in it plus it has prebiotics, it has organic acids and the lactic acid which is a natural microbial.”
Studies during the avian flu outbreak found birds who ate kimchi were not contracting the bird flu. One microbiologist in South Korea found 11 of 13 chickens infected with avian flu who ate kimchi made a full recovery. All birds in the control group died.
“Fermented foods are really powerful, and I think that what’s fascinating about them for me is they differ from just probiotics. They contain probiotics, but they also have the prebiotics. They have the entire ecosystem,” she said. “We eat it because it’s delicious, but we also eat it because that food assists us in some way.”
Probiotic-rich ferments “acts as a fertilizer” for the gut microbiome, killing off pathogenic organisms. Microbes grow best at room temperature, a temperature the health department defines as a danger zone because it’s the best temperature for pathogenic, food-born illness to grow.
“What we’ve found is, when there’s that acidic environment, these pathogenic food-borne illnesses can’t exist there. They don’t grow,” she adds.
Multiple nutrients are produced through fermentation, like Vitamin B and Vitamin K. Only a few organisms produce these vitamins, Bock notes. They are critical vitamins because they’re not absorbed easily through food. Bok calls them the “star players” of the microbiome. People with an imbalanced microbiome are often lacking in vitamins B and K.
If not fermenting their own food at home, consumers need to practice due diligence when purchasing fermented food brands, Bock says. Kombucha, she shares as an example, is a great “gateway ferment” for most people, but how much sugar is in it? Is it fermented naturally or are lab strains of probiotics added?
“You have to ask yourself, what is the major probiotic we’re talking about,” in the food you’re eating, Bock said. “Is it a naturally-occurring probiotic or a…patented, genetically-modified probiotic?”
Americans have a “Supersize” mentality, Bock said. People shouldn’t be consuming bowls of fermented foods every day.
“Remember that fermented foods are generally a condiment, especially the ones with live organisms, like kimchi and sauerkraut, natto,” she said. “So if you treat it as such, you’re maintaining the respect for these organisms and for these foods,” she said. “Your body knows what it needs.”
Today, everyone is a natural and organic shopper. The natural products industry has experienced incredible growth over the past 20 years that, today, 99 percent of American consumers buy natural products.
“More than ever now, we’re hearing people talk about seeking top products, seeking unique products, seeking trending products and even seeking quote unquote ‘better’ products,” says Christine Kapperman, senior content director with New Hope Network.
SPINS released their latest State of the Natural Industry report in August, sharing industry trends and highlighting areas of growth. Leaders with SPINS (a data provider for natural, organic and specialty products) hosted a webinar discussing the report.
The natural products industry has seen incredible growth and evolution over the 20 years, more than doubling in dollar volume in the past decade,” says Molly Hjelm, vice president of marketing at SPINS.
Hjelm notes the current natural foods movements is increasingly personalized to consumer’s lifestyles. Consumers want their specific version of natural, like plant-based, grain-free, paleo or free form.
“In this moment in natural, consumers have the power and they’re increasingly personalized preferences have become a movement, disrupting previously untouchable boundaries like milk, immediate consumption beverage and pasta,” she says. “Products once relegated to specific retail outlets are now proliferating to the mainstream.”
Here are four trends in the natural food industry for fermented food brands to implement.
1. Natural Products Driving Market Growth
The latest statistics (tracking three years from May 2017 to May 2019), show the natural industry is selling $47.2 billion a year, growing 5 percent year over year. The conventional food marketplace is selling $448.2 billion a year, but only growing at 1.7 percent year over year. Natural foods have a 10.5 percent sales volume, and 29.3 percent of total market growth.
“Looking back at recent years, the trend is clear – natural products have been outpacing their conventional counterparts for some time in terms of dollar growth,” says Jessica Hochman, the senior manager for natural insights for SPINS.
The top 10 natural product categories: produce, refrigerated yogurt and kefir, shelf-stable chips, pretzels and snacks, refrigerated eggs, refrigerated juices and functional beverages, shelf-stable wellness bars and gels, shelf-stable water, frozen desserts, refrigerated milk and frozen and refrigerated meat, poultry and seafood.
Fermented products are exhibiting some of the strongest dollar share growth. Yogurt and kefir and functional beverages both over index in their respective categories.
2. Convenience Channel Growing
Conventional retailers are embracing natural products – and their returns are incredibly strong. The convenience channel stocks a small volume of natural products, but sales of natural products are growing three times faster than natural and specialty gourmet channels. Natural products are just 4.6 percent of volume in convenience channels, but contribute 15.9 percent of dollar growth.
“The real growth fueling the top line trend comes from the support received by the vendor community,” says Jeff Crumpton, SPINS’ retail solutions manager. The convenience channel is growing at a whopping 10 percent year over year. “Natural products have migrated from the innovation channels all the way to convenience.”
3. Consumers Want Grab-n-Go Options
Why is the convenience channel overdelivering in high amounts? Consumers want grab-n-go options in convenient locations.
“(It) aligns with our knowledge that consumers purchase natural products where it’s easier for them,” Crumpton says. “Retailers and other outlets should be mindful that the competitive pressure to their business means adjusting their assortment with innovative products and monitoring categories and items cross channel, which ensures they’re paying attention to the migration and planning accordingly.”
Traditional retailers are experiencing high growth in food service options, “they’re looking to it as a competitive edge,” Kapperman says.
Fifty-seven percent of retailers said strong sales come from their food service, like hot bars, grab-n-go shelves and in-store deli and cafes.
4. Mainstream Consumer
“Everybody to some extend is buying natural organic,” says Patrick Knight, SPINSprincipal of consumer insights. “And in that regard, we are truly mainstreaming. But not all natural consumers are created the same.”
The core of the natural segment is dominated by consumers defined as true believers and enlightened environmentalists, who make up 28 percent of natural/organic product sales. Next, aspiring natural shoppers defined as healthy realists and strapped seekers make up 16 percent of sales. Mainstream consumers, defined as indifferent traditionalists, struggling switchers and resistant non-believers, total 56 percent of natural/organic sales.
The mainstream category, Knight says, is where the greatest potential resides for the natural market growth.
“Our hypothesis is that mainstream consumers are starting to grow more than core natural organic consumers in purchasing of paleo position products,” Knight says. “Core natural/organic consumers are the first on the latest trends in the marketplace, and therefore can be a barometer for what’s coming.”
As more people battle digestive problems, they’re turning to brands offering gut health solutions. Digestive health is the third most sought after health benefit in the latest International Food Information Council Food & Health Survey, behind weight loss and energy.
Though it’s a hot topic, it’s a space challenged with unsupported health claims and confusing ingredient additives. During a panel hosted by Food Navigator, four industry leaders shared insight into the growing gut health category.
“What we’ve learned is that many of our consumers come into our brand typically with serious, long term digestive health challenges. Bloating, regularity challenges, IBS,” said Mitchell Kruesi, senior brand manager for Goodbelly, which creates probiotic drinks and snacks. “They’ve tried supplements in the past, but weren’t super enthusiastic about them because often times taking a supplement felt medicinal to them. After that, they continue to seek out other probiotic options that are both effective, but also food-based so that it’s easy to fit in their routine.”
Plagued with health issues and fed-up with pills, consumers are desiring food brands that aid digestive health. Flavor, though, is key.
“That delicious taste…it sets up an everyday usage routine, which is critical with probiotics,” Kruesi said.
Probiotics is a confusing territory for consumers. Should probiotics be consumed in pills or as a strain added to food? How much should be taken?
Elaine Watson, Food Navigator editor, quoted GT Dave, founder of GT Kombucha: “In my mind, anything raw and fermented deserves to use the term ‘probiotic.” Watson asked the panelists if there’s a perception that all fermented foods contain probiotics because they contain live, active cultures – and should food advertising probiotics be verified by clinically proven studies?
“I think consumers are quite confused still around the whole topic, in all honestly. Live, active cultures are used to make fermented food beverages – but unlink probiotics, they’re typically not studied and shown to provide a health benefit,” said Angela Grist, Activia US marketing director. Really in order to be considered a probiotic, they would need to meet the criteria of survival and research-validated health benefits and also this point around strain specificity.”
Grist said probiotics need to survive the passage through the digestive track to the colon. Activia has five survival studies showing the benefits of probiotics.
Ben Goodwin, co-founder of Olipop, added he’s conducted genetic assays around the underlying culture banks of fermented food and beverages and “there have definitely been organisms in the culture banks which are deleterious for human health. So not everything that’s fermented is automatically good for human health, there’s all sorts of different biological modes that organisms can interact with each other and some become parasitic or become determinantal to your probiotic when consumed, so something to keep in mind.”
Note that the panel did not feature a raw, fermented food brand; the companies included on the panel all add probiotic strains to their food and drink product.
In a separate interview with The Fermentation Association, Maria Marco, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, said there is a lot of confusion around probiotics, even among industry representatives. Marco, though, agrees with Grist and Goodwin. She says clinical studies on fermented foods are necessary.
“Although it might be possible to separate out the individual components of foods for known health benefits (e.g. vitamin C), the benefits of many foods are likely the result of multiple components that are not easily separated,” Marco said. “Yogurt consumption is a great example of a fermented food that, through longitudinal studies, was shown to be inversely associated with CVD risk.”
In one of Marco’s studies at UC Davis titled “Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond,” Marco and her research associates concluded that fermented foods: are “phylogenetically related to probiotic strains,” “an important dietary source of live microorganisms,” and the microbes in fermented foods “may contribute to human health in a manner similar to probiotics.” The study adds: “Although only a limited number of clinical studies on fermented foods have been performed, there is evidence that these foods provide health benefits well-beyond the starting food materials.”
The panel said that the food industry is responsible for displaying integrity in their marketing on probiotic benefits.
“We believe it’s critical for leading brands in the space…to really educate consumers on, first, what probiotics are,” said Kruesi with Goodbelly. Consumers are seeking out probiotics for a specific health benefit, but most don’t know what strain they need to address their issue, he noted.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that aid the digestive system by balancing gut bacteria.
Currently, the demographic of consumers buying products geared toward gut health are millennial females in coastal cities. Both Activia and Olipop sell to more women than men (Activia customers are 60 percent female and 40 percent male; Olipop customers are 55 percent female and 45 percent male).
Goodwin said Olipop is hoping to tap into the rapidly declining soda market. Soda is a $65 billion industry, with 90 percent household penetration. But more consumers are turning to healthier options than unnatural, sugar-filled soda.
“We’ve tried to take on the extra responsibility as a brand of formulating something that’s spun forward, delicious and really approachable so that we can meet a real health need in a way that’s actually supported by research,” Goodwin said. “(Olipop) is not only low sugar, low calorie, it also has this digestive health function but obviously doesn’t taste like vinegar because it’s not a kombucha.”
Solving Digestive Stress
Products by Activia, Goodbelly, Olipop and Uplift Food (the fourth panel member) are “meant to be a mass solution for the lack of fiber prebiotics and nutritional diversity in the modern diet,” Goodwin said. Fiber contains prebiotics, which aid probiotics.
The USDA’s dietary guidelines recommend adult men require 34 grams of fiber, while adult women require 28 grams of fiber (depending on age). The reality, though, is that most Americans get about half the recommended fiber a day, only 15 grams. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 60-70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases.
Compare that to the diet of hunter-gatherers, who eat about 100-150 grams of fiber each day and maintain incredibly healthy guts or microbiome. The microbiome is the community of commensal microorganisms in our intestines, fed by fiber, probiotics and prebiotics.
“As it stands now, basically we’re putting in a starvation system for a lot of the microorganisms currently in your gut,” Goodwin said. “The average industrialized consumer has about 50 percent less diversity and abundance of beneficial microorganisms than the hunger-gatherers alive on the planet tonight.”
Future of Gut Health Products
Grist with Activia said probiotics need to be consumed in adequate, regular amounts to provide health benefits, or else probiotics will not consume the digestive track.
Kara Landau, dietitian and founder for Uplift Foods which makes prebiotic foods, added that each individual has a unique bacterial make-up, and providing diverse food to support the microbiome is critical.
Landau said the future of gut health probiotics will be selling a specific probiotic strain, one that a consumer can target for their desired health benefit. Prebiotics – “the fuel for the probiotics” – are also key, and a new part of the digestive health puzzle that brands need to communicate and simplify for consumers.
“Prebiotics are still very much in their infancy when it comes to consumer understanding,” Landau said. “Seeing them alongside probiotics enhances the clarity of their benefits.”
We asked the co-founders of three fermentation brands where they see the future of the fermentation industry. Though all noted consumers are seeking fermented products for health properties, these brand leaders all gave their own interesting insight into fermentation’s growth.
Where do you see the future of the fermentation industry?
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.
I think it’s only going to go up from here. I see it really booming in a big way. I see a lot of activity happening in the future with new companies coming up on the horizon. I also am excited for the gut-brain connection, how ferments can really affect mental health disorders, like depression and bipolar and anxiety. I think that’s a field that were not even breaking into at all and it’s coming.
I think we’re pretty far from this but I think fermented foods can be incredibly potent in preventative medicine as well, like preventing certain diseases that are on the rise, like diabetes and cancer. I don’t want to make health claims, but i think that’s where we’re going with the industry.
The trend is going to continue, that people are going to continue to eat more fermented foods, that they’re going to eat more diverse and types of fermented foods that will be in the American diet. I think people are going to start caring more about where their food comes from. Fermented foods that come from farmers and soil that is improving and helping climate change rather than contributing to it. We only have about 12 more years to figure that out. People are going to really start to understand that and make choices based on that.
Our gut microbial communities are being killed off by antibiotics, to the extent that “the most affluent children in the world have a variety of autoimmune diseases,” says Bruce German, a professor of food science and technology at the University of California Davis. In today’s advanced age of science, medicine and technology, rates of allergies, asthma and eczema are all increasing.
“By every criteria, humans should be enjoying the best health in human history,” says German, who has spent decades studying the infant gut microbiome. But instead, “most of us are suffering from a variety of chronic and degenerative conditions that are the result of inappropriate diets.”
German – also the director for the Foods for Health Institute and the co-founder of Evolve Biosystems – shared insights on the future of personalized diets at Natural Products Expo West. He said we shouldn’t be asking should diets be personalized, but why hasn’t it been done yet?
Antiobiotics & Unintended Consequences
He points to the unintended use of antibiotics. Though antibiotics have been hugely successful in eradicating nutrient-deficient diseases – like scurvy and goiters – we’ve now become too relent on vitamins.
“From a public health perspective, the strategy that made sure everyone got enough of essential nutrients just overdosed the population. Everyone gets more than they need. It’s been our public health strategy – and it’s worked,” German says. “But the consequences of that decision is that nutrients are more important than foods.”
Though infectious diseases no longer plague the human population, antibiotics have had unintended consequences.
“Antibiotics kill pathogens, but they also kill commensal organisms,” German says. “And our entire microbial community in and outside of us are now seeing the consequences that huge success of antibiotics.”
Adding to that disruption of the human microbial community: food product branding. German says that, by the end of the 19th Century, the No. 1 cause of infectious disease was contaminated food. Food had no value as an enterprise. Branded food products became important, “then we start to get the impression that foods are either food or bad. And, of course, that’s not true. It’s your diet that’s good or bad. An individual packaged food product has very little opportunity to make a significant dent in that. But the consequences of this wonderful economic brand model is we tend to overestimate the power of individual foods.”
Science today must address the consequences of the spectacular success of antibiotics, German says.
Health Answers in Human Milk
To improve human health, the faculty at UC Davis is taking an integrative approach to agriculture. They’re trying to answer the question “What should we eat in the 21st Century?” by bringing together various tool sets across campus, like biology, physics, business, chemistry and law.
“The problem is, for the past 70 years, we have not been investing in health,” German says.
Human milk, German believes, could provide answers to restoring damaged microbiomes. German has spent the past two decades studying lactation and its role in evolution. With the help of Carlito Lebrilla, chemistry professor at UC Davis, scientists found human milk contains a large proportion of oligosaccharides. Babies, though, are unable to digest oligosaccharides. These oligosaccharides, findings showes, exist to nourish bacteria.
That bifoda bacteria fuels the baby, protects the baby from pathogens, educates the immune system and provides nutritional components.
“Mothers are literally recruiting another lifeform to babysit their baby,” German said. “It’s as important to feed the bacteria in the baby as the baby. …
“The future is going to therefore be in microorganisms, using food as a delivery system. So it’s both bacteria for health and bacteria for delight,” German said.
Some of the great food success stories are a “combination of commodities plus organisms” German says, like chocolate, coffee, bread, beer and cheese. All are fermented foods.
Personalized Diets Core of Future Health Industry
A knowledge-based health industry is what personalized diets will look like, German said. He compared it to Google Maps, the massive, public, cloud-based database accessible by databases. Personalized diets could one day look the same, providing information on current health status, comparing it to an end goal and detailing foods that help achieve the end goal. The individual algorithms will highlight preference, highlighting needed nutrients based on an individual’s favorite food.
“In essence, we don’t think you have to personalize food. You have to personalize the diet,” German says.
Probiotics “Not Particularly Effective”
Could probiotics restore human’s microbiomes? German said studies find, though probiotics are safe, they’re not effective. Probiotics don’t colonize the intestines.
“You probably ingest more bacteria from oral cavity from saliva everyday than probiotics,” German says.
The creative genius behind Noma’s Fermentation Lab, David Zilber says one of the best parts of fermenting is “to get very nerdy and go really deep and taste the whole Patheon of flavors that the microbial world produces.”
Zilber, author of “The Noma Guide to Fermentation” with Noma founder René Redzepi, spoke to Science Friday about his extensive knowledge of the food science craft. When Zilber started at Noma in 2014, he had extensive experience working in high-end restaurants. He had made kimchi working in an Asian restaurant and cooked with amazing soy sauce imported from Japan, but he never gave a second thought as to where the ingredients came from. At Noma, Redzepi noticed Zilber “had a knack for science…I was usually the gut that had the far too detailed answer,” Zilber says laughing as he describes answering colleague’s food questions. Redzepi movied Zilber to the fermentation lab, a world-famous lab that has helped secure Noma’s Michelin ranking as the 2nd best restaurant in the world.
In the radio interview, Zilber details the fermenter’s roll as a scientist, gives advice on preventing mold and shares why he thinks everyone should have a koji started on their counter. Below are highlights from Zilber’s interview with Science Friday host, Ira Flatow.
What is fermentation?
Zilber: The most succinct way I can define fermentation, in Layman’s term, is it’s the transformation of one ingredient into another by way of a microbe. If you imagine you start out with cabbage, then you get lactic acid bacteria to grow in and alongside your cabbage, in two or three week’s time, you end up with sauerkraut. It’s not the same as it was going in. You’ve cultivated — cultured really — this microorganism in your container with your cabbage. And low and behold, this transformation has taken place.
The Noma book says there’s a fine line between rot and fermentation.
Zilber: The rest of the analogy is that, as a fermenter, there’s actually three people in play in the definition of fermentation: the ingredients, the vegetables or the food stuff, the microbes, but also the person whose acting on that situation and actually wiling the ferment into existence. As the fermenter, you’re kind of the bouncer outside of the nightclub. The guy with the velvet rope, the big muscly dude, and you’re deciding who gets into the club and makes a great evening where everyone is sipping champagne and beautiful people all around and all the drunkards and rowdy boys stay outside. So that velvet rope that you use as a fermenter, those are all sorts of control points. Whether that be salt or access to oxygen or temperature or PH and acidity levels, these are all things you have at your disposal as a fermenter to make sure you’re actually fermenting and not rotting. Rot’s a club where everyone gets in; fermentation is where the party is popping.
Take us through lactic acid bacteria and fermentation.
Zilber: Fermentation, it’s one of the simplest processes you could undertake. By adding a little bit of salt to let’s say were talking like sauerkraut. You have your cabbage, you shred it to rupture the cabbage cells, and it makes it easy for bacteria to get inside there. Now lactic bacteria are all around us. They live on your skin, they’re on the skins of fruits and vegetables, they’re basically ever present in our environment. And as you add salt to that shredded cabbage, you’re making sure that any malevolent microbes — things that might cause the mixture to rot — are kept at bay. Salt is a really great anti-microbial, but lactic acid bacteria have a little bit of resistant to it, they can tolerate salt up to a certain point. So, you kind of clear the playing field for lactic acid bacteria to do their thing. They start consuming the carbohydrates and sugar in that cabbage and in doing so they leave something else behind, and that something else is an exclusionary chemical. That’s lactic acid. It sours the mixture and then makes it even harder for different things to grow. And overtime, that fermentation process peters out, they consume as much sugar as they can, the PH drops because of all the lactic acid they’ve produced, you have sour cabbage literally translated from German sauerkraut.
What’s the difference between pickled and fermented?
Zilber: Anyway you break it down, a pickled product is fermented. Now there’s two routes to picking — you can either do a quick pickle, which is making vinegar and then boiling your vinegar with a bit of salt and sugar and spices and then pouring that over your vegetables, or you can sour your vegetables into a pickle. Now the difference is there’s two different acids at play in there. With a quick pickle, a vinegar pickle, you’re using acetic acid. But with a sour pickle, you’re using lactic acid. So, a vinegar pickle, you have to first make the vinegar, and that is the sugars of fruits first transformed into alcohol by yeast and then another fermentation process happens. You have acetic acid bacteria, another ever present bacteria that is floating on dust in the air that will settle on an open bottle of wine and eventually sour it into vinegar. That gets poured over your vegetables, whether that’s carrots or radishes or cucumbers, and the PH drops so much so that its effectively preserved.
Lactic acid fermentation, the sour pickle, that’s the process I just described with sauerkraut, you’re getting it all to happen at once, you’re getting that bacteria to grow in and around the vegetable you’re looking to ferment, and it sours the brine, it sours the plant matter itself, and in one shot you have a pickle you can keep in your fridge for months.
Does fermentation always produce alcohol as a byproduct?
Zilber: No, it does not. There are many different types of fermentation, and some types of fermentation have nothing to do with alcohol at all. Now a biochemist might say, technically, that’s wrong because the very strict, textbook definition of fermentation is the transformation of glucose into ethanol in an enzymatic pathway by yeast. But, in the real world, in the much broader sense, as I said there’s all sorts of different metabolites or byproducts that you end up with in fermentation. Sometimes its sugar or MSG, the actual flavor of umami. Sometimes its alcohol. Other times it’s acids. So there’s a whole plate of different end products in the world of fermentation. And the more you understand it, the more you can kind of paint with these flavors and really tweak the world of food to your will.
What are are your recommendations for someone getting into fermentation?
Zilber: For the novice, start with the things you like eating before you start making things you’ve never really had before, before you try and get into the first half into the process of making soy sauce, start with something you really like eating, if you love pickles on your hot dogs, make pickles for the first time. It’s really easy. It’s something you can do on your kitchen counter, you can watch it happen before your eyes. For a citizen scientist who wants to go a little deeper, I think it’s really fun to take like craft brewing and really try to understand the world of yeast, which there really are like tens of thousands of different varieties that all have these different flavor profiles.
And the coolest thing about fermenting at home, and really getting into it and getting really nerdy with it, is you almost get to taste places on earth in your own garage or in your own apartment. You can get yeasts from Belgium and taste a piece of history because these yeasts have been cultivated in the rafters of abbeys that Belgian monks are famed for making their beers in. So it is really cool to get very nerdy and go really deep and taste the whole Patheon of flavors that the microbial world produces. But that’s one of the funest parts about fermenting. Once you start making fermenter friends, people are just sharing culture and having a good time and you get to taste a little big or someplace else.
What are you excited about in fermentation?
There’s a lot of things that people in the world of fermentation know really well, that’s because all of these ferments that we consume on the regular — whether it’s chocolate or coffee or pickles or wine — these are all very traditional products that have been passed down through generations over hundreds of years, that’s why we still make them today. But in the same way that that makes fermentation amazing, I also think of the way pharmaceutical companies send out teams of scientists into the Amazon jungle to find a rare type of mushroom that might produce some type of miracle drug that will change the face of the pharmaceutical industry. I wish there was someone like that in the world of fermentation, looking for that rare microbe that would produce a flavor no one has ever tasted yet.
What exactly is kombucha?
Zilber: Kombucha is a sweet and sour microbial tonic, I guess you could call it. But folklore goes back to an ancient Korean physician that would travel around Asia, again I don’t even know when in history this would have taken place, but that this physician would brew this drink and kind of heal people with it. Kombucha is basically sweetened tea that is then fermented in a symbiotic way by yeast, which converts the sugar into alcohol, and then acetic acid bacteria that convert that alcohol immediately into acetic acid, the acid that you taste in vinegar, like white vinegar. Now if you drink kombucha and you buy it off the store shelf, sometimes it might taste really vinegary and that is probably because, in my opinion, it’s over fermented. The thing you have to understand about fermentation is fermentation is cooking, it’s just cooking that happens much more slowly. So just in the same way you can overcook a piece of chicken by roasting it in a pan for too long, you can also over ferment something like a kombucha and make it too sour by letting it ride out on your kitchen counter for three weeks instead of two. And sometimes if you taste a kombucha and you’re like “Oh, this it a little hard to get down,” try making it yourself with some of the guidelines in the book and you might find that’s its really, really pleasant to drink.
Are there live probiotics in kombucha?
Zilber: There can be. Kombucha can be pasteurized, just like you know milk can be pasteurized or canned goods can be pasteurized. You can heat it and kill everything in it and not really affect the taste that much. If they say that there are live cultures in it, it means that it was fermented and nothing was really done to it after it was put in a bottle. Now there’s a lot of conflicting information about kombucha out there. And I’ve read a lot of pretty hardcore studies that say, well, a lot of this is a bit bunk. But at the end of the day, I’d probably say that drinking kombucha is probably better for you than drinking a can of Coca-Cola.
How do you handle mold in homemade kombucha?
Zilber: That is something you are constantly trying to fight back, especially when you lacto-ferment in something like a crock. There are so many variables that go into making a successful ferment. How clean was your vessel before you put the food in there? How clean were your hands, your utensils? How much salt did you use? How old was the cabbage you were even trying to ferment in the first place? Every little detail is basically another variable in the equation that leads to a fermented product being amazing or terrible. It’s a little bit like chaos theory, it’s a little bit like a butterfly flapping its wings and Thailand and causing a tornado in Ohio. But with lots of practice, you’ll begin to understand that, if it was 30 degrees that day, maybe things were getting a little too active, maybe the fermentation was happening a little bit too quickly. Maybe I opened it a couple times more than I should of and it was open to the air instead of being covered. So there’s lots of variables. But I would say that, if you’re having a lot of trouble with mold, just up the salt percentage by a couple percent. It will make for a saltier sauerkraut, but it will actually help to keep those microbes at bay.
In the book, you say koji is indistinguishable from magic. What is koji?
Zilber: It’s the biggest microbe you’ve never heard of it. Koji is responsible for everything tasty that comes out of east Asia. From China to Korea to Vietnam to especially Japan, it is a mold, a helpful mold called aspergillus oryzae. It is responsible for turning the starches in rice and barley and all sorts of grains into sugar. And it’s turning the protein in those same grains into the flavor umami. It’s responsible for soy sauce, for sake, for rice wine vinegar, for miso and it can be used in all sorts of novel and inventive ways as well. But you never see it as a finished product because it usually is kind of the first step in that process. I liken it to the step of molting barley when you make beer or whiskey. That’s basically how ancient Asia’s civilization came about that process of turning grains into something sweet that you can then ferment with yeast. They found a mold instead of finding the process of molting, and it’s absolutely remarkable for the flavors it brings to the table themselves.
How do you get koji?
Zilber: There’s a line that I say when people ask “How do start growing koji.” All life comes from life, all life comes from cells. At the end of the day, everything living on earth today has been an unbroken chain of succession for three and a half billion years, and koji is no exception. If your kid wants a golden retriever puppy for Christmas, you have to find a golden retriever mom. And it’s the same for koji, you’re going to have find a koji breeder and actually get some spores from them. We buy ours from a laboratory in japan, and we have them shipped over to Copenhagen.
When Marcus McCauley started fermented hot sauce brand Picaflor, he knew he wanted to go beyond the organic label. The 40-acre McCauley Family Farm in Longmont, Colorado where McCauley grows thousands of pounds of red peppers a year for the hot sauce is fully regenerative.
“When I started, l knew all the best foods are fermented,” McCauley says. “My favorite hot sauces were fermented, but they are pasteurized and filled with preservatives. I thought it would be great to have one that was alive and full of probiotics.”
McCauley began selling Picaflor in 2014 at farmers markets in Colorado. Today, the hot sauce is sold in 400 stores in 12 states. The farm where McCauley, his wife and their 7-year-old son Hawk live, is central to Picaflor’s mission to heal bodies and the earth.
Check out our Q&A with McCauley, whose live culture hot sauce won a coveted Nexty Award at ExpoWest for best new condiment.
Q: How did Picaflor first get started.
Picaflor started as we faced this age old dilemma as farmers and growers of food — what do we do with the things that we don’t sell or how do we preserve the harvest for the winter?
A Farmer friend of mine had a couple thousand pounds of peppers that he wasn’t selling because they were past the time to sell and he said if you can do something with them you can have them. I immediately thought fermentation because All the best foods are fermented
I didn’t have to have a lot of equipment, I could do it with limited resources and low energy input. Just add salt and wait.
Q: Tell me about McCauley Family Farms.
We started seven years ago — we have a vision to be ecologically and economically sustainable for generations. We realized that very early on we needed to be regenerative. So a farm where it’s is a whole farm system — a place where animals, perennials, ruminants, birds, insects, fungi, humans all play a part and a roll together to create something more than the sum of the parts.
We’re trying to create a functioning whole farm ecology here.
We have a volunteer program on the farm too, for people who want to get involved who are inspired by regenerative farming and want to give more. They want to feel a part of a community that’s a part of the land and nourished by the land. We have a lot of programs — we host local culinary students each week, sponsor farm yoga Fridays and just had some of the Google here for a team build experience. They all work with us on the farm, then have a meal with us. The give back to us. It’s all about the reciprocity, reciprocity with people and reciprocity with the land.
Q: You have so many different people coming to the farm. What are people most surprised about when they come to the farm?
People are very surprised that the chicken that they eat at the store that is organic and free range is not required to be outside at all, let alone on a functioning pasture. They are surprised to learn that organic, free range chickens are 30,000 birds in a barn. I think people are surprised to learn that their organic, free range chickens live their life in a cramped barn.
We utilize a rotation of sheep and chickens to regenerate fragile front range pasture land. We call it carbon farming. That’s also what helps fertilize our pepper fields. We use some of the extra pepper mash and stems that goes back to the soil, so we’re creating these loops, these cycles, just like how our ecosystem works. But part of that is creating this fertility from living, thriving animals.
And I think people are surprised to learn that their plants, their organic plants, are basically fertilized from fish emulsion primarily. The fertility for organic agricultural is based off fish emulsion, so that bycatch from our ocean.
That’s where I’m talking about this living, whole farm functioning ecology that we have. Our whole farm system, the output for one part of the system is the input for another part of the system. Rather than having it shipped in from other parts of the world and screw up those parts of the world.
Q: So you are reusing your food waste?
There’s a number of our ferments that are based off of capturing waste streams and producing amazing food from it. We do a beet green kimchi, for example. Local farmers often top off the beets and compost it. Which beet greens are my favorite green to cook with. Another thing is radishes. Once spring starts to turn into the summer, radishes start to molt and farmers have to get them out of the field, so we come in and provide them cash for that lost yield of radishes that would normally get turned under and go into the compost pile. We make a radish kimchi out of it.
That’s how our pepper flakes came into being too. We kind of upcycled something we didn’t plan on having. It turned into the product that won the best new condiment at ExpoWest this year.
Q: Where did the name Picaflor come from?
I had a real vision to do the live fermented hot sauce, after I had already experimented with it when I was in Colombia on a vision quest in South America. That’s where it came really, really clear. The hummingbird in that tradition and culture is important as the bringer of life.
Picaflor means hummingbird in Spanish. But “pica” means picante like spicy in spanish and also “flor” is like gut flora.
Q: Your logo is so distinctive, people remember that. How did the logo come about?
That was Andrea at Moxie Soso, she did that. They’re a local design company here in Boulder. I said to them “I don’t know how you do your design process, but I want to tell you two things then do your thing.” One is how I kind of had the vision for the farm what I wanted it to be, about my mission is to heal people with delicious food. And I told them the history of peppers. Peppers want to be bird food. They co-evolve with birds to spread their seed. That’s why they’re colorful and they’re spicy spicy to deter mammals, but then humans came along very late in the game after that defense had been working for tens of thousand of years and we fall in love with the spice. We start to spread those seeds, much further than the birds ever did. In that process we start to change the pepper and the pepper starts to change us and becomes part of our culture. That co-evolution between birds, peppers and humans continues. The love of peppers and birds is reflected in our logo.
A lot of our food crops come from this long, long thousands and thousands of years free border crossing, migration, cultural exchange of movement of people and seeds. We are recognizing that, honoring that history.
Q: How did you learn to ferment?
I learned how to ferment by reading Sandor Katz, through trial and error, being self taught and experimenting.
We were doing a lot of experimentation on the farm, we had tried a lot of different things, and it wasn’t clear to me exactly what we were going to do, what our focus was, what our path forward was. There are a lot of farms in this area that don’t make it — there are farms all over that don’t make it. We knew It was a pivotal time and I was really thinking about where we should focus. That’s what I was holding in my heart and on my shoulders when I went on this vision quest. That was the first I had done a vision quest, it’s a long time commitment for me. It actually led me into farming and my family, all of that came from that vision quest. My farm, my family, my mission in life to serve the earth — it all came from this trip, I felt it strongly and wanted to give back. To give back to the earth and serve.
Q: What are the growing conditions like for your pepper seeds in Longmont.
We’re north of the historical range of the chili trail — as people and seeds moved north gradually away from the crop origin from Mexico and Central and South America, that migration didn’t quite make it here to Colorado. The horticultural culture wasn’t established in Boulder County. So we’re on the edge of it. We select seeds to be at home here, but high altitude, a shorter growing season, alkaline soils. It’s difficult to reliably get peppers to go red, to ripen all the way to red here. So green chili is here in Colorado for a reason, we love our green chili. So we’ve had to carefully select heirloom varieties that will grow red here in this part of Colorado. And We select seeds every year to help us do that.
Q: How important was it to you to become a certified organic brand?
I think it was important to at least do that. To give the consumer — we’re one step removed from our consumer than what we’re used to because we have a lot of connections with our neighbors and our local community in providing food. They know us. They know were beyond organic. They know organic is the bare minimum, and that standard is getting watered down all the time. It was important to at least start with that as a certification, but we really hang our hat and pride ourselves on being beyond organic.
Q: What do you mean by going beyond organic?
In whole farm systems, to truly walk that talk and to be regenerative. We are dedicated to improving soil fertility over time, increasing soil carbon over time.
Q: Tell me about the fermentation process for your sauce.
We add salt and let the microbes do the magic. They’re our coworkers. In a sense I think of myself as a microbe farmer or rancher. I’m a microbe rancher. We add some salt, we use real salt. We’re happy to be working with Redmond Salt and utilizing them, it’s our local pink sea salt from the Utah desert. We inoculate with a couple super star strains. So we use lactobacillus plantarum and locatobasiliam rhamnosus. We don’t go through a kill step, so there’s also the diversity of wild microbes included as well.
Q: How long are the peppers fermenting before bottled?
Because we do a blend and we’ve had bumper crops and less than bumper crops at different times. So It dependents – it be anywhere from 6 months to 2 years, sometimes even longer. We have a fermentation facility in Boulder, we call it a fermentarium.
Q: Why was it important to Picaflor to be a fermented hot sauce?
It gives you flavor you cannot get any other way. And we need more probiotics in our diet as Americans. We need a lot more live, fermented floods. Knowing that the popular Srirachas are fermented, but then it’s pasteurized and filled with preservatives. You’re taking this thing that could be inoculating and boosting the gut biome, but you’re adding preservatives to it and potentially harming it. We thought it ought to be alive. Plus it tastes better if it’s a raw ferment rather than a pasteurized ferment.
Q: Where do you see the future of Picalor and McCauley Family Farms?
I see us being a national brand and continuing to get delicious, live probiotic foods into people’s diets, I see us continuing to give people a compelling reason to choose to ingest more probiotics because they’re so delicious. We’re wanting to bring life back to people’s daily meal while bringing life back to the soil. While we’re doing that, getting this out there, we want to heal more land. We want to have a bigger impact on more acreage and bring more regenerative farm systems to the earth.
Q: What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs starting their own fermentation business?
I would say that really try to find a way to get started with the least amount of overhead as possible, that’s No. 1. And trial and error, start small, if you have a cottage food law in your state and you can operate under that, great, do it. If you don’t, move to a state that does. We didn’t have that, so we had to start a big fermentation facility at the beginning. It cost a lot of overhead. We had to get into distribution and sell a lot more just to be able to do that. It can be hard to find a commissary kitchen that will let you ferment because of the smell fermenting generates. Try to start with small overhead so you can keep iterating and improving your formulation, your packing, your labeling, your bottling processes. Build relationships through farmers market or small retailers locally, too.
Fermentation is a small food business community generally, and there are a lot of people who are very very helpful, it’s a supportive community. If you can join a networking group locally or even online, and just ask questions, meet people, go to a company and transparently tell them what you’re up to and maybe you can learn from them. We’ve had a lot of people come and stagiaire — which is common in restaurants — and they come and help and learn.
Q: Where do you see the future of the fermented food industry going?
The trend is going to continue, that people are going to continue to eat more fermented foods, that they’re going to eat more diverse and types of fermented foods that will be in the American diet. I think people are going to start caring more about where their food comes from. Fermented foods that come from farmers and soil that is improving and helping climate change rather than contributing to it. We only have about 12 more years to figure that out. People are going to really start to understand that and make choices based on that.
Q: What challenges do fermented food producers face?
One of the main things is just like an uncertainty in the food safety, health department world around fermented foods and how to deal with it. Some think that you have to have a hazardous plan and others think it’s not even a hazard. You could have your state thinks one thing, but your local municipality thinks another.
Q: Most food brands I interview mention food safety and regulation as a challenge. Will the government continue to regulate it more? What’s going to happen?
It’s interesting because it’s one of the easier ones. There’s never been a case of a foodborne illness from a live fermented foods. It’s been in the human diet for thousands of years. Not only is it safe — we need it. It is an incredibly easy and safe food, but one of the challenges is just to deal with the different, the degrading of knowledge in the public health sector.
Q: What unique strengths do fermented producers bring to the food industry?
Maybe we learn this from microbes, but our community ethic and cooperative ethic to help each other out. And so I think that’s the no. 1 thing. And our willingness to experiment and try new things out and our commitment to quality. The fermenters that I meet, they’re all obsessed with creating the best — the most nutritious and delicious food that they possibly can. There’s this aspect to bringing something back that we really need.
Q: Do you think consumer’s awareness of fermented foods is increasing?
Oh definitely. Our knowledge is increasing, we’ve waged an all out war on microbes for decades, which has had some benefits, but it’s had some drawbacks. We only sequenced the human microbiome in 2011, that was the first time we got a little peek into the diversity that’s in our gut. And that was just a small glimpse on the map. What does it do? We have no clue, but we’re finding out more and more everyday. And that is seeping into public awareness and mainstream consciousness. People are realizing “On my God, I’m not just a me, I’m a we.” All of that has a role to play in our health, our vitality, our wholeness.
Q: What myths do you hear the public still believing about fermented foods?
I think people are afraid that it’s going to make them sick and its rotting. I think there’s still a lot of fear around foodborne illness. I think that people are kind of confused when is food good and when is it bad.
Q: What can the fermentation industry do to better educate the public about fermented foods?
First of all, we’re doing a great job. But we need to work together. It’s not competitive, it’s not fighting over one piece of the pie but growing the pie. There’s so much we still have yet to do in educating the public about the role of fermented foods and why they’re important. How do we do that? I’m doing it one person at a time at the farmers market every single Saturday, sparking up a conversation about it. But there’s still a lot of people that don’t know and there’s a great opportunity for us to educate people. Of course the old channels of doing that aren’t as effective as they used to be. The most effective way for me is to connect with people one-on-one through farmers market, in-store demos, classes.
I think another thing, one of the things that really lights me up, working with schools and getting these kind of foods in schools. The literature is overwhelming about the benefits of probiotic foods in kid’s diets, for brain development and immune systems, there are such better health outcomes for kids who have that in their diet. I want to work with schools to provide them with these foods and also educate them on why it’s important. No one told me why it’s so important at my age. Let’s start a school program.
“I’ve Never Seen Such A Time of Challenge” Grocery Industry Ripe for Disruption from Small- to Mid-Sized Brands
The grocery market is being disrupted in a way never seen before – and the opportunity for success is great for small- to medium-sized food brands wanting to get in the door.
“I’ve never seen such a time of challenge up and down the value chain from the seed all the way to the table,” says Walter Robb, former CEO of Whole Foods and the founder of investment firm Stonewall Robb. “We’re going to see a whole explosion in the new types of foods that are coming to market.”
A report by Biodiversity International found that three-quarters of the world’s food supply comes from just 12 crops and five livestock species. That jarring lack of diversity in the average diet is changing, Robb said. We’re in a frontier where food “will come back in a way we’ve never imagined.” More than 10,000 new products are introduced to the grocery market every year, and customers Robb said are “clamoring” for something new.
“We have a disruption up and down the value chain like I have never seen,” Robb said. “Your chance to come and bring a new product to market is there.”
Robb spoke at the NOSH Live event in New York, and shared insights into where the food industry is headed. Here are Robb’s five main points.
- Integrated Shopping
“The integrated retail is the table stakes for the future,” Robb said. “We’re going to see the line between digital and physical is going to collapse and it’s really going to be all about the customer and how you’ll serve the customer.”
The food industry will thrive on an “extended experience,” a term Robb came up with in the ‘90s while at Whole Foods. The extended experience extends outside the four walls of the stores. The problem at Whole Foods, Robb pointed out, was the natural grocer didn’t digitize fast enough. So in 2017, Amazon bought Whole Foods in a $13.7 billion deal.
Though customers are making more digital purchases, they are not abandoning physical stores. In five years, 50-60% of business will be done via retail stores.
“The future is one that integrates humanity and technology,” Robb said. “Why? because human beings are human beings and they want connection and community and that’s simply not available online. The most successful brands today and the ones that do more physical and digital.”
He pointed to Target as an excellent integration example for modern shoppers. Shoppers can still go to the store, where Target is remodeling physical locations to enhance the in-store experience, but they can use the Target app to prepopulate a shopping list, check real-time stock and order at home for drive-up pickup.
“Data shows the customers likes to do both (online and in-store shopping),” Robb said. Brands who want a lifetime legacy need to be in both places. “The customer is clearly saying ‘Let me do what I want, when I want.’ And brands that don’t serve them in that way will not see the type of growth that they could if they would. The customer is in charge of the choices now.”
- Microbiome is the Future
The microbiome will “completely revolutionize the food industry” as the future of grocery retail is driven by customers who want to see authenticity with the brand they’re supporting.
Robb pointed t a New York Times article on personalized diets, “The A.I. Diet.” As more research publishes on the microbiome, personalized diets will play a huge role in shopping habits. Medicine and technology are converging with food.
- Create Purpose-Driven Brand
Brand leaders in the 21st Century must be authentic, vulnerable and humble. They must be purpose-driven to be successful, Robb said.
“The whole reason you’re in business is not to make money, money is a byproduct,” Robb said. “What you’re in business to do is to bring change to the world. That’s what purpose is. Purpose is the why, why do you exist as a company. You damn well better have a good answer to that question as to what you’re doing in business. You better be here for some great reason to make an impact on the world. And if you’re not playing on that level, either w your customer or your team members, you’re going to fall behind because the companies that are going to lead with some sense of purpose are going to be the companies that win in the next number of years.”
He advised brands to get fired-up about principles that support values. The company culture is a result of that principles and values, and culture is dependent on how team members feel working for the brand and customers feel buying from the brand.
“The winning formula today is road runners and roots,” Robb said. Roots ground a brand in purpose, but brands can’t cement themselves in the ground. They must be a road runner and change on a dime as the marketplace shifts.
- Solve Customer Confusion
The International Food Council found 80% of customers are confused on their food choices. There are dozens of food tribes dominating grocery shelves, like gluten-free, keto, paleo and Whole 30. With an overload of information, customers don’t know exactly what to buy for their desired health benefits.
Robb said one of the business opportunities for brands today is to figure out how to communicate more clearly with the consumer. Consumers want to make informed choices, but “that last mile of data has not been solved for.”
He pointed to solutions in connected homes devices like Amazon that will now populate a shopping list for the consumer based on past purchases. Consumers don’t even need to pick out what they want, their only roll will be to confirm the purchase.
- Natural Reigns
Organic has grown to a $65 billion industry, with a 7-8% growth rate; conventional food, meanwhile, is only growing at 1-2%. Major mainstream retailers are rushing to get into the natural food business today.
Robb said the best way for brands to get on the shelves at Whole Foods is to push the envelope. Whole Foods continues to lead the natural market, and the grocer wants to see edgy, new products with a new take.
Customers expect food brands today to be transparent, accountable and responsible. Robb said there are 2,000 natural flavors approved for use in food by the Food and Drug Administration. But Robb encouraged brands to solve that problem – use less processed ingredients and more natural ingredients, “let’s continue to lead by showing there’s a new edge in the food industry.”
Restrictive diets aren’t the secret to staying slim. The key is diversity says Tim Spector, professor and author of the book “The Diet Myth.” Eating foods high in fiber, fermented products and food loaded with micronutrient polyphenols are scientifically proven to improve weight and help the complex microbiome flourish.
“This is where we’ve lost track, we’ve tried to simplify it and we’ve tried to say that calories in equals calories out and that one-size-fits-all and that if everyone has these 2,000 calories a day, they’ll be perfect. And of course, that advice has led to the whole world getting fatter,” Spector says in an interview on webisode Health Hackers. “[People have been taught] erroneous advice that fat is bad for you therefore avoid all things with fat, even healthy things.”
The Health Hackers episode is titled “Why your diet may never work until you get to know your microbiome.” Journalist Gemma Evans interviews Spector in his London research lab. Spector is a professor of genetics at King’s College in London. He has published over 800 research articles, and Reuters ranked him as the top 1% of the worlds must published scientists.
Spector began researching the microbiome seven years ago, when he became sick and wanted to know which diet would help him heal. His early delve into the microbiome fascinated him.
“We hadn’t understood the gut microbiome, which is this whole new organ in our bodies that was previously ignored,” Spector says. “I really got into this whole field and diverted my group’s research interest into discovering more about that microbiome that we all have. We’re all so different in our microbes, and this difference is how we all respond differently to foods and it explains a lot of mysteries.”
Microbiome is a Living Community
Spector describes the microbiome as a living community of trillions of microbes that produce chemicals, vitamins and hormones. Ninety-nine percent of microbes are in the gut, most in the lower gut or colon. Human cells only make up 43% of the human body — the rest are microbe cells.
Healthy microbiomes are full of diverse species. They help avoid overeating or under eating because a healthy microbiome self regulates.
“The healthier your microbiome, the healthier your body is in general because it means that your immune system is being well balanced and not overresponding,” he says. “It’s giving you resistance against its infections; it’s not overreacting to give you allergies.”
Researchers like Spector study the microbes with fecal samples. He says you can tell more about a person and what they’re eating through their fecal matter. Many commercial companies today advertise accurate health measurements by measuring genes through DNA samples.
“As a geneticist, that’s rubbish,” Spector says. “Statistically, it might be true, but actually at a personally level, it’s virtually no use. Our microbes are so much different than our DNA makeup. We share any, for example, 20 to 30 percent of our microbes [between] any two people. And so, understand how that community is and what’s different should mean that I can tell whether someone is healthy or whether they’re more likely to get fat or diabetes, [by] looking at the general diversity [of their microbes]. And I can also try and now use this information when you’ve got thousands of people to predict what the best foods are for people.”
Healthy Eating Myth Busting
It’s fascinating insight into the future of predictive health. Spector’s book, “The Diet Myth,” detailed how the health industry has failed the general public for roughly the past 30 years. People were told to eat low-fat foods, count their calories and get lots of exercise. Spector calls that advice “very old-fashioned, very 20th Century.”
“We only really understood food around those primitive concepts in these very broad categories of fats and sugars and proteins and we’ve ignored one of the big ones, which is fiber,” Spector says.
Diets cannot revolve around the three blocks of fats, sugar and protein. What matters, Spector says, is the total amount of chemicals consumed and the effects on the body. Take, for example, a banana. A banana can’t be defined in one of the three categories because it’s made up of 600 chemicals. Once a banana is ingested and combines with gut microbes it converts to 6,000 chemicals.
Making the microbiome more complex: everyone will react differently to that same banana. The effects of the chemicals produced will present differently in each individual.
Diversifying Diets — and Microbes
“Virtually all diets, people end up restricting what they eat which actually has a long-term effect of reducing your microbes and therefore they’re less able to cope with modern living,” he adds.
Spector said you cannot generalize healthy eating guidelines with broad generalizations when it comes to the microbiome because everyone will react differently. Human genetics shape the gut microbiome.
“But if you had to have one rule, people on very restrictive diets don’t do well and people who have the more diverse diets…are healthier,” he says. This is because a diverse diet is full of different nutrients and, in turn, build a diverse group of microbes. Spector compares the microbiome to a garden – the nutrients consumed are like the fertilizer helping the plants or microbes grow.
As the head of the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, Spector has studied the effect of microbes in twins. In one study, two mice with different weights were analyzed. The overweight mouse with less diverse microbes was given a fecal transplant from his twin, the skinnier mouse with a healthier microbiome. Once that healthier mouse was given the fecal transplant, the overweight mouse continued to lose weight, even when overfed.
“So those microbes are doing a really good job working overtime to convert metabolically to keep that stuff away from going into fat. They’re burning it up in ways we don’t really understand,” Spector says. “Your chances of having good microbes will increase the more you’ve got of them. So the people who have very limited number of microbes, who have very limited diets where they’re just on processed foods, have an increasingly smaller amount of nutrients in there and only a few microbe species like that restrictive species and they elbow the others out and then they can’t react in healthy ways:
Society has to stop demonizing junk food, Spector says, “we have to get away from the idea that these things are so deadly.” Eating a fast-food burger once a year could actually be good for the microbiome, Spector argues, because it will “wake up your system.”
Another study on mice found that mice who consumed lots of fiber (chickpeas, lentils), then were given a high-fat meal didn’t put on weight. Spector said it’s because they had a solid base, and then were given a high-fat meal once in moderation.
Spector is against the concept of clean eating (“There’s no such thing.”) and even processed food (“What’s processed food? It’s cheese. It’s milk. It depends where you draw the line.”). But he says ultra-processed food with harsh chemicals should be kept to an absolute minimum. Ultimately, no one should take a black and white view on food and limit what they eat.
What Should We Eat?
So what should we eat? Spector highlighted four food and drinks that help gut health: foods high in fiber, complex plants, fermented foods and polyphenols.
Fiber is important because it’s what microbes live off. Fiber is hard to digest early in the digestive track, so the nutrients reach the colon before being absorbed. Most ultra-processed foods are so full of sugar that they are absorbed extremely early in the digestive process. Microbes are destroyed by starving them of fiber — microbes can be wiped out if not fed fiber for long periods of time.
Complex plants, Spector advises, prioritizing vegetables first and fruit second. Fermented foods are full of the live bacteria critical for gut health. Spector suggests fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, Japanese fermented soy and even quality fermented chocolate. Polyphenols are an energy source for microbes, and can be found in any food like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, olive oil, dark chocolate, seeds, coffee and green tea.
As far as pill supplements, Spector points out that there’s no scientific evidence yet that probiotic supplements benefit healthy people.
“I’m generally in favor of using food – yogurt, kefir, cheese — rather than expensive supplements,” he says.