The olive oil, wine and beer industries each create an enormous amount of waste. Producers, vintners, and brewers dispose of millions of tons of pomace and spent grains every year, often at a big cost.
To a crowd of food industry professionals at Natural Products Expo West, professors at University of California, Davis, shared their research into how these byproducts can be upcycled.
“There’s a lot of waste that can be generated doing agriculture and food processing,” said Selina Wang, PhD, Cooperative Extension Specialist in the Food, Science and Technology department. Globally, good waste is estimated at 140 billion tons a year. “That is a lot, but also a lot of opportunities for us to explore.”
Olive Oil Waste
Wang, who researches small-scale fruit and vegetable processing, says olive oil needs a byproduct solution. Oil is only 20% of an olive’s weight – the other 80% is discarded in olive oil production. Globally, the industry generates 20-30 million tons of olive pomace a year.
What industry, Wang questions, would operate using only 20% of their commodity?
“This is an industry that has been made to use the minor product. But we know there’s a lot of values in the byproduct,” Wang says. Olive pomace has numerous active health compounds which, when consumed, are proven to prevent disease like cancer, Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease. But disposing of this byproduct creates a large carbon footprint. “Can we have a solution to climate change while at the same time improving our health?”
Many producers use the waste as animal feed, giving it away to ranchers. But often, the cost of transportation is too high to justify the benefits. And using olive pomace for compost is not ideal, as it has a negative effect on soil microbes.
In a recent UC Davis study, olive pomace was added to pasta, bread and granola bars, which were then tested for consumer acceptance. Tastes were strong and the grains turned purple when the pomace was added, so the amount of pomace added was low (7% in the pasta and 5% in the bread and granola bars). Consumers didn’t hate the products – they liked them slightly less than the unfortified versions – but the majority said they wouldn’t pay more for the items made with olive pomace.
“I would challenge us to think outside the status quo,” Wang says. “Olive oil was an industry developed with tradition, love and passion. But does it make sense to have an industry where we’re using only 20% of raw material? Or do we actually have an industry focusing on the 80% and the 20% is a wonderful gift we give to family and friends?”
Further UC Davis studies are also looking at wine byproducts The global wine industry produces 10-13 million tons of grape pomace annually.
That waste is rich in flavonoids and oligosaccharides. UC Davis and Iowa State are currently studying the flavonoids as natural antioxidants and the oligosaccharides as prebiotics, and if they would have a synergetic effect on gut health.
“It basically shows there’s a second life to winemaking and the wine byproduct that’s generated,” she said.
Researchers at UC Davis who have studied feeding cows seaweed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have proposed to the California Research Dairy Foundation that they use grape pomace instead. It’s cheaper than seaweed and cows burp less after consuming grapes.
Other industries, such as cosmetics, pet food and construction, could also use the byproducts. For example, a new study shows how construction companies could use olive pomace in asphalt paving and building materials.
Waste streams are an even bigger problem for the brewing industry, says Glen Fox, PhD, the Anheuser-Busch endowed professor of Malting and Brewing Science at UC Davis. Brewers globally produce over 49 million tons of spent grain a year.
That waste is high in water content (about 80%), but most brewers don’t have the ability to store wet grain. Similar to olive and grape pomace, it’s cheap feed for animals. But the cost of transporting spent grain outweighs the benefits for most breweries.
“At the moment, they’re giving it away,” he says. “They would like to get something back for it.”
Fox sees big opportunities for food producers to use brewing grains, which are packed with nutrients. Compounds can be extracted, such as dietary fiber for supplements, hydrocinnamic acid for makeup and even cellulose pulp for toilet paper. Fox is working on a patent for a process that would allow grains to be applied directly to soil.
The craft brewing industry is “the most viral business in America,” Fox said. There are breweries everywhere – some 9,000 craft brewers in the U.S., with over 1,000 in California alone. But there are not nearly as many food production facilities that can collect the spent grains.
“This industry is in an advantageous position because it has that waste stream every day,” Fox says. “If you want to potentially use this in your business, you don’t have to look far for your supplier.”
When Will the Food Industry Innovate?
“We have to start rethinking our food systems – farm to mouth,” Fox said. “It’s a big challenge.”
There’s no shortage of high-quality research on options for olive oil, wine and beer byproducts, Wang points out. The food industry needs to innovate profitable, desirable products made from upcycled ingredients. At one point whey – a byproduct of cheese production – was dumped down the drain, Wang said. Now it’s a popular protein supplement, in powders and bars.
“The key is we need to go from a linear economy – which is just made to waste – to a circular economy where we can avoid generating these wastes by upcycling every waste or every byproduct that we generate,” Wang said.
In a food industry where greenwashing is common, Local Culture Live Ferments doesn’t pad their sales sheets with environmental fluff. Sustainability is core to their business practices.
“I never want to stray away from the connections with our farmers. I never want to stray away from the quality of our ferments,” says Chris Frost-McKee, director of operations for the Northern California-based vegetable fermenter. Sauerkraut is their top seller. “We take a lot of pride from the fact that we don’t ferment in plastic. We are doing our part to be as plastic-free as possible and leave the smallest footprint that we can.”
The company began as a passion project of Chris’ sister, Sarah. She recruited her brother, a home fermenter since his early 20s, and they envisioned creating two Local Culture fermentation hubs on the west coast — one where Sarah lives, in Bend, Ore., and a second in Grass Valley, Calif., Chris’ home. True to their name, they wanted to ferment with local produce. But, with the colder climate in Central Oregon cutting Bend’s growing season short, this proved impossible.
“In Grass Valley, we’re able to source cabbage eight miles from our facility, eight months out of the year. We’ve created partnerships where every year the farm is planting more and more acreage for us, rotating their cover crops. It’s a beautiful thing, it’s real regenerative farming,” Chris says. And Sarah is now creating a separate project, fermented salad dressings, under the Super Belly Ferments brand.
Local Culture started as a farmers market side hustle, but Chris and his business partners (wife Cristina and friend Elissa Wolf Blank, pictured with Chris) dove into scaling the business in 2020. They’re now in over 100 grocers in the west, including Whole Foods. Though sales boomed during the pandemic, 2022 is shaping to be their biggest year. At the recent Expo West, Local Culture was one of 40 brands selected by food distributor KeHe for the exclusive “Golden Ticket” at their TrendFinder Event This designation fast-tracks small businesses into KeHe’s product portfolio, giving them exposure to over 30,000 retail locations.
Below is a Q&A with Chris Frost-McKee, who spoke with The Fermentation Association on the Expo West show floor.
TFA: Congrats on the KeHe “Golden Ticket” win! What are you going to have to change about scaling?
Chris Frost-McKee: The tricky thing with scaling the way that we do, our fermenters are stainless steel, variable capacity fermenters. We currently have 66 of them. We’ll need to get more as we scale, but they’re only sold once a year during wine making season. They ship them over from Italy. So that presents difficulties for sure. Producing in the same size fermenters, that’s part of the integrity we’re going to keep, that’s very important to me. We ferment for a minimum of 4-6 weeks in a very regulated, temperature-controlled environment. That really helps with the consistency of our product.
We are also keeping the values the same with our farmers, making sure they can scale while staying sustainable. We’re scaling up our acreage with our main farmer next year. They rotate three successions of a summer variety of cabbage for us and then one succession of winter storage. And with those four successions, we can work about eight months directly with them, never going into cold storage.
You just returned from a planning meeting with the local farm that supplies your cabbage. Tell me more about the farmers you work with.
CFM: We’re trying to only work farmer direct. One of our closest connections is the farm Super Tuber. They are Nevada City-based. They focus on regenerative farming practices and they focus on staple root crops and cabbage. So from the very beginning, as we first started with these smaller products, we started buying cabbage from them. Twice a year we sit down with them with the planting planning: What do you think it’s going to look like this year? How many plugs on your side can you plant for us?
Super Tuber is really into this idea and I love it — they harvest in reusable bins in the field, then bring them straight to us in reusable bins. When you work with farms, produce comes in paraffin or wax boxes. Those go straight in the landfill. We are trying to have as little waste as possible. We’d love to never receive anything in wax boxes, and we’re there about 95% of the time. We compost everything that comes out of the kitchen.
Another thing, the cabbage isn’t wrapped in plastic packaging. We peel off the outer cabbage leaves as we prep in the kitchen. Those outer leaves are what I like to layer on top to seal everything. It weighs the ferment batch down and provides a nice layer if there’s ever an impurity — which really doesn’t happen — so if we ever discard anything, it’s those top leaves that would normally get composted.
What was the biggest turning point for your brand to go from selling at farmer markets to getting in stores?
CFM: Honestly, as corporate as Whole Foods is, they have a wonderful way of supporting small brands. The west coast is filled with small ferment companies trying so hard and not succeeding at getting in. Whole Foods saw potential in us. That was really the turning point for our company. And they’ve continued to be loyal to us. Not all chains are pleasant to work with, but we made big moves through Whole Foods. It opened up this door to the Bay Area independents, like the Good Food Mercantile and the Good Food Awards. The Bay Area independents are so cutting edge in a way that I think a lot of these big chains strive to be as far as the products that they bring in and the diversity they really search for in craft products. At this point, we’re almost everywhere in the greater Bay Area that we’ve set out to be in — and I do think that started with getting in Whole Foods in 2020.
TFA: How were you distributing before that?
CFM: We were driving all over Northern California. We would drive five hours round trip to drop off like 10 cases of kraut. It did not make sense long term. Now we work with Tony’s Fine Foods to distribute to the pacific region. Tony’s has been supportive from the beginning.
We still self distribute locally, but only whatever we can do in a 20 minutes drive. The local support that we have, that started with our stands at the farmers market and then our storefront, that support has been amazing. Like we honestly sell more in our local co-op then we do in 40 stores in the Pacific Northwest. That kind of local support will always be there.
TFA: That’s great that you have a big local fan base.
CFM: When we decided to get going in Grass Valley, we opened up a store front for a year-and-a-half and had this really great interface with our community. We were really experimental in those years. That was the year I was coming up with a lot of small batches. When we were invited to be in the Whole Foods, we had to move to a distributor and palletize. Things were not so small batch anymore. Right as the pandemic hit, we started being received really well in the west coast. We streamlined the products that people really wanted. We’ve got our favorite line of krauts, our different kimchis. We still do a lot of hot sauces and brine tonics.
TFA: What is your favorite flavor?
CFM: Turmeric Ginger Jalapeno is my go-to, everyday. My body craves it. Our Beet Fennel though outsells anything we carry. People love it.
TFA: You’ve gone from fermenting in your home kitchen to distributing regionally. What do you think has been your biggest lesson in all of this?
CFM: Not giving up. Listening to the ferments — it sounds really weird, but I literally have studied patterns in the life within the fermenters. For example, we have these variable capacity lids that have an airlock on the top where the brine can spit out. In certain ebbs and flows, I think it’s astrological, all the fermenters will come to life, no matter how old they are. Or in a certain cycle of the moon, all of them will compact and leave an air pocket that I have to reset. It is crazy, witnessing the nature and patterns.
Through all the trial and error and discouragement, it’s the life of the microbiology itself that is really the inspiring thing. I could never get it right, it’s always going to be different no matter what. But I’m getting a lot better at creating that perfect environment for consistency. If you ask me — I’m living and breathing it because I digest this all the time.
TFA: Where do you see the future of fermentation?
CFM: I see it growing. It is beyond all the trends, it’s something that’s been around for ages, for centuries, and there’s a reason why it’s always been incorporated in our diets. There’s this sense of awakening that so many people in the mainstream are feeling — if it’s kombucha, if it’s sauerkraut, if it’s kefir, if it’s yogurt — people are really feeling the benefits. The pandemic has had a huge influence on that, too. I think everyone in grocery would agree fermentation is a big thing right now and it deserves to be a big thing.
Big food companies are “eager to tap into the magic of fermentation,” says chef David Zilber. They’re hungry to hire culinary experts who can use fermentation to enhance existing products or mold the flavor profiles of new ones.
“These big companies are all waking up to the trend of fermentation and it is on us, on anyone who understands this craft intimately, to be the ones to engage them and guide them towards better solutions,” Zilber said at KojiCon. Fermenters could go the traditional route and open a local shop to feed a small number of people. But “there’s also a lot to be said for working within an existing system and fermenting the change you want to eat in the world. The biggest food producers in the world are responsible for nourishing most of mankind.”
The former head of the Noma fermentation lab, Zilber co-authored The Noma Guide to Fermentation with Noma’s founder Rene Redzepi. In the fall of 2020, Zilber surprised the food world when he left his job at Noma to join Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of bioscience ingredients.
Zilber said he understands the push-and-pull between working in traditional fermentation vs. large-scale food production. Though he cherished his time at Noma, he realized fine dining is “a minuscule fraction of the amount of food people eat” and, if he wanted to influence any big change in the food industry, he needed to move away from restaurants. He compared it to being “the punk rocker that rails against the system” when instead “subverting it from the inside is an amazing way to effect change extremely quickly.”
“When you learn to speak bacteria or when you learn to speak fungus, the hardcore food scientists don’t have this intuition,” he continues. “They grow these things in petri dishes and with colony pickers in €20,000 machines. It’s not the same thing, and we are a little bit at a watershed moment where there is enough community knowledge…that we can start to broach these players and try and change it.”
Streaming into KojiCon from his state-of-the-art kitchen at Chr. Hansen’s Copenhagen headquarters, Zilber shared his latest project: a tomato sauce for a client, improved through fermentation. In his kitchen, he works with chefs and food companies to use fermentation to develop healthier and more sustainable products. Holding up a sample of tomato sauce to the KojiCon attendees, Zilber shared how he was able to amplify the flavor profile of the canned tomato sauce using fermentation. He eliminated added white sugar and created a flavor with hints of parmesan cheese.
“We haven’t added anything but a culture onto it,” he said. “At the end of the day, should this tomato sauce go into production, millions of people overnight will be eating a tastier, probiotic (filled), more nutritious food on their pasta. And I never had to teach them how to lacto-ferment a single thing.”
Chr. Hansen is building one of the largest collections of cultures in the world, currently totalling 40,000 specimens. Zilber describes it as a seed bank, “the Noah’s Ark of Life for microbial diversity.” Chr. Hansen works with companies to select the optimal culture for their food item.
Smaller-scale producers, too, purchase cultures, often to mitigate risk. A fermentation mistake in a one-ton batch of kimchi could destroy thousands of dollars worth of product. Using a guaranteed culture strain will allow them to produce kimchi of consistent quality. But Zilber acknowledges there is no wild fermentation, no son-mat – a common phrase in Korean cooking that literally translates to “the taste of one’s hands.”
“There are aspects of the world of fermentation that are decidedly unwild, there are aspects of the world of fermentation that are nothing but wild,” he says.
Zilber believes we’re in the era of the democratization of fermentation, where books and educational courses are teaching the public about fermentation. He mentioned the new Sex and the City reboot featured a scene where a character was angry that sourdough challah was “too hipster.”
“It’s funny that it’s permeated public consciousness that much where we can now make jokes about it in multi-million-dollar, prime-time television shows. It means that the idea of fermentation in that respect has reached fixation. The world has woken up to this.”
New research has explored how lactic acid bacteria (LAB) in sauerkraut and tibicos survive digestion and change gut microbiota composition.
This work, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, investigated how a fermentation production process affects LAB and yeast microbial viability and probiotic potential. Though there are studies that demonstrate health benefits of fermented foods, few “explore how being part of a whole fermented food matrix affects microbial viability during fermentation, storage and gastrointestinal (GI) transit.”
The study focused on non-dairy, botanical fermented foods, defined as “microbially transformed plant products rich in health-promoting components.” Tibicos and sauerkraut were chosen because recent research had found the microbial diversity of the two ferments “far exceeded that of dairy-based ferments, as well as containing the largest numbers of potential health-promoting gene clusters.” The tibicos studied was sugar-based while the sauerkraut was brine-based, and both contained various strains of LAB and bioactive components.
Ginger, cayenne pepper and turmeric added to tibicos were all found to have different survival rates in the digestion tract. These functional spices are often added to fermented products for their anti-inflammatory and sensory properties, but their microbial proliferation had never been adequately explored. Cayenne was the clear winner, as adding it to tibicos “significantly improved the survival rate of LAB during simulated gastric and small intestinal digestion compared to ginger and turmeric.” Ginger in tibicos had a higher rate of LAB survival than turmeric, though neither had a significantly higher LAB survival rate than plain tibicos. But adding ginger significantly increased and sustained microbial viability of LAB.
The research team — from University of Melbourne — did not perform the study on human subjects, but simulated upper gastrointestinal digestion and colonic fermentation tests using pig feces.
Some other significant findings:
- For an optimal microbial survival rate of 70-80%, tibicos should be consumed within 28 days, and sauerkraut within 7 weeks.
- Sauerkraut made with different salt concentrations did not show any significant variation in LAB counts.
- Inoculating sauerkraut with a starter culture increased LAB counts during fermentation and storage. But, by the end of storage, the LAB counts in the inoculated sauerkraut “dropped to undetectable levels.”
- Spontaneously-fermented sauerkraut LAB counts remained stable through the storage period.
“Botanical fermented foods are cheap, easily made, and consumed globally,” the study concluded. “This makes them excellent candidates for the dietary management of pro-inflammatory noncommunicable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.
Homebound during the Covid-19 outbreak, budding home bakers around the globe made sourdough baking their new hobby. Hailed as the “breakout star of pandemic-era kitchens” by The New York Times, sourdough became a national fascination as more people experimented with the microbe-enabled, tangy bread.
We asked three experts to share their thoughts on the sourdough craze — educator Vanessa Kimbell (of The Sourdough School), bakery owner Azikiwee Anderson (Rize Up Bakery) and Karl De Smedt, curator of the world’s only sourdough starter library.
The question: How did the pandemic change the market for professionally-baked sourdough? Are more people making their own or are they buying from professional bakers?
Vanessa Kimbell, founder The Sourdough School
The pandemic changed the market in several ways. The first thing is, some of the large manufacturers that I’ve been talking to have been starting to appreciate and understand that people want real sourdough. And by that I mean sourdough that is genuinely long, slow fermented with wild yeast and lactic acid bacteria. They’ve also begun to appreciate the connection between bread and health. Authenticity and integrity are the two words that come to my mind when I think about how the pandemic has impacted the professional sourdough market.
There’s no question that there was an exponential increase in home bakers making sourdough during the pandemic. It’s rather beautiful. I think when we were gifted the time to make those connections, so many of us used that. Will there be sudden change in behavior? People have now gone back to work and now I’d say there’s almost been a backlash against people wanting to take up sourdough. It became almost too trendy to the point where there can be a backlash. I have noticed there was a significant drop off as life has returned to normal. But that’s only to be expected. The joy of discovering we have a little freedom as a home baker making their own bread, I’d say it’s leveling back out again to pre-pandemic numbers.
Azikiwee Anderson, founder Rize Up Bakery
I started baking like most of the world did during the pandemic. Normally we would all just go to the store and pick up whatever mediocre bread they had on hand, never thinking twice [that] it was full of preservatives and made with cheap industrial flour. Then all of sudden we had the thing that is always in short supply “TIME”! So we all tried to connect to the nostalgia of being self-sufficient since we had no real control over most things.
The sheer amount of people connecting to their food and what it is made of is what made it amazing for small new found bakers like me! The uptick in sourdough baking taught millions of people how hard it is and how good it could be. What more is there to say!
Many consumers today are excited about sourdough bread. During the pandemic, many have started baking it at home and, on social media, sourdough reached a massive peak as a sign of consumer engagement. No wonder because it truly has a unique, rich taste. According to research by Puratos, 52% of today’s consumers know sourdough . Approximately 45% of consumers associate sourdough with “better taste” and nearly 30% associate sourdough with “Rustic,” “Healthier,” and “More Natural” – opening an excellent opportunity for value creation.
For professionally-baked sourdough, there are immense opportunities. The most considerable evolution we see is that it will not matter who makes the bread in the future, but how it’s made — going from fast processes in two to three hours with only baker’s yeast. Or long processes with sourdough from 12 to 48 hours. A project like the Puratos sourdough library aims to discover more about the use of sourdough in all its aspects. We are sharing knowledge, preserving, and protecting the biodiversity of sourdough and bringing back the tradition used by more than 250 generations of bakers who used sourdough as their most precious ingredient in bread baking. That’s why, at Puratos, we believe the future of bread lies in its past.
More international fermented foods and beverages are entering the American food scene, an exciting development in an expanding market. But the origins of many of these traditional dishes get blurred by western producers.
In a panel on diversity and cultural appropriation during TFA’s conference FERMENTATION 2021, BIPOC food professionals encouraged fermenters to innovate with food from different countries, but to be mindful of their approach. A dish’s culture must be respected, its history acknowledged and negative stereotypes eliminated. The talk “Is Fermentation ‘So White’…or Not?” included panelists Miin Chan (educator and writer working on her PhD), Jiayang Fan (staff writer for The New Yorker), Mara Jane King (director of fermentation for IE Hospitality), Kheedim Oh (founder of Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, and TFA Advisory Board member) and Sebastian Vargo (founder of Vargo Brother Ferments).
Last year, two articles helped propel a conversation on diversity among fermenters. One was Fan’s New Yorker article “The Gatekeepers Who Get to Decide What Food is Disgusting,” which highlights how a western view of “disgusting” food requires immigrants to assimilate to local food cultures. Another was Chan’s Eater article “Lost in the Brine,” which explores cultural appropriation in fermentation.
Oh expressed his frustration watching companies produce kimchi without any cultural ties to or acknowledgement of its Korean history. Vargo agreed.
“Whether it is financial or just overall exposure, you really can’t deny the fact that oftentimes…a white face or a white person borrowing off the culture will oftentimes achieve higher amounts of success,” Vargo says. Kimchi has exploded in popularity in the U.S. the past few years – and some white producers receive more funding than traditional Korean companies. “They’re overshadowing the people that actually deserve to have their stories told in the first place.”
Traditional ferments can get watered down, tailored to follow food trends instead of staying true to their historical roots. Chan pointed out that, in Australia, there’s no regulation around labeling certain foods. Pickled cucumbers could be labeled as kimchi, appealing to western consumer tastes.
“Whether it’s in fermentation or the food industry or just any industry that we exist in within this capitalist system, there’s systemic racism and there’s some historical forces that mean that BIPOC basically often have less access to social and financial capital,” she adds.
Cookbook author Alison Roman came under fire when she released a curry recipe she labeled as a stew. There was no history detailing curry’s Southeastern Asian roots and no context of where the recipe idea originated.
“She literally whitewashed all of the culture out of it and made it into something that she could sell,” King said. “Labeling something to suit you and to suit your benefit and your profit can be harmful to people of color.”
It’s a problem in restaurant reviews too, Fan pointed out. Food critics tend to draw a western comparison to more exotic cuisines, comparing an Asian rice dish to a pasta, for example, offering their own translation. She recently wrote a review on a hot pot restaurant in New York and felt compelled to compare it to fondue. She had a limited word count and wanted to be succinct. But a coworker asked: Why not just explain what it is?
“In the process of being a writer, a critic, (I need) to introduce those words in the cultural lexicon so that the western standard isnt kind of the defacto comparison for everything,” she said.
Who decides French cuisine is more elevated than Chinese, Oh questions.
“I think that’s the huge problem is that there’s so much inherent cultural bias that even we as minorities too will have within ourselves that keeps getting perpetuated,” Oh says, noting people of color are not pigeonholed to only cooking their traditional food, too.
Society needs to value traditional cooking arts so food history and knowledge – especially from more rural parts of the world – isn’t lost, Chan adds.
“I think we’ve come around now, the work that (the panelists) and many other fermenters do shows we want to be connected to our traditional food system, we don’t want to lose these tastes and we want to understand our microbial heritages,” she says.
We’re on the cusp of a new generation of health-promoting foods, foods that will harness the power of microbes present in fermented foods and beverages.
Paul Cotter, head of Food Bioscience Department at Teagasc Food Research Centre in Ireland, envisions a future system where fermented foods are made with strains having scientifically-proven health-promoting benefits. His lab is integrating microbiome and metabolic data and using DNA sequencing to drill down to specific health benefits.
“We’ve really only scratched the surface as to the real potential of all those different microbes and what they could be doing,” says Cotter, who is also the principal investigator with the APC Microbiome Ireland. “Whether a particular food is health promoting or not will be dictated by what microbe is in there and can only be proved by carrying out the appropriate studies.”
Cotter was a speaker at TFA’s conference FERMENTATION 2021. He made a case for establishing minimum standards for fermented foods and beverages. In his scenario, kombucha or kefir couldn’t be labeled as such without using a scientifically-backed combination of microbial strains.
“That ensures that the kind of pseudo fermented foods — the foods that are fermented but not really with the right microbes — don’t get on the market or can’t be distinguished,” Cotter says.
Not all Fermented Foods are Equal
There is scientific evidence of the health benefits of frequently and regularly consuming fermented foods and beverages. They can prevent illness, provide a source of live and active microbes, improve the digestibility of foods, increase certain vitamins and bioactive compounds and remove or reduce toxic compounds like lactose.
“Ultimately, I’m a scientist and so I want to see proof that underpins the claims associated with a particular food,” Cotter says. “While there’s a lot of good information out there, I think also some of the claims are doing a disservice to the fermented food industry and to those who make fermented foods in their homes because they’re overstating the potential health benefits.”
Problematic, too, are fermented foods made with shortcuts and additives. Cotter’s lab is currently studying kefir, and they found that not all are equal. Traditional kefir has been documented as helping to reduce weight and improve cholesterol and liver triglyceride levels. But some brands of commercial kefir they studied didn’t produce those same health benefits. And they found that some of the kefir on the market was nothing more than watered-down yogurt.
“Consumer beware: the benefits weren’t the same for each kefir and differ depending on what the microbes present in the kefir were,” says Cotter, a self-described fermented foods nerd. ”I think that’s a problem for lots of other fermented foods too, and I really feel for consumers who don’t have a microbiological background and are reading a label and assuming that they are consuming a fermented beverage or fermented food that has lots of beneficial microbes in there and is made in the artisanal way that that food has been made over hundreds of different years.”
What are the health benefits?
Cotter’s lab has used in-depth analyses to detail the microbial composition of a food, including naming the microorganisms present and their capabilities. They’ve identified “completely novel species that had never been found previously,” Cotter says. An example is African fermented food, which contains a huge diversity of microbes, including ones not typically found in fermented foods in the West.
The highest level of what’s called “Health Associated Gene Clusters” are in fermented foods, specifically those brine- (like sauerkraut and kimchi) or sugar-based (kefir and kombucha). Cotter notes the genes in fermented foods are health promoting because the microbes are closely related to probiotics.
“What we can do is to try to harness the microbes that are present and use them in a way that facilitates large-scale production,” Cotter says.
As more companies enter the alternative protein marketplace, and more government leaders debate what should be legally considered meat, dairy and egg products, businesses need to be careful with their product names and label and advertising claims.
“It’s hard to think of anything more important than what you’re going to call the product. However, your freedom of invention is not limitless,” says Ricardo Carvajal,a food regulatory lawyer and director at the law firm Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, P.C. “The name must accurately identify or describe the basic nature of the food or its characterizing properties or ingredients. And this can be trickier than it sounds. What’s the composition of the product? What are its essential attributes? What’s it made from? How’s it made?”
Carvajal spoke on labeling and advertising at the Fermentation-Enabled Alternative Protein Innovation conference. Regulations for the young alternative protein industry are broad and confusing, he pointed out. Alternative foods have not been given a “standard of identity” by the FDA – the legal definition that dictates the composition of a food product, how it’s made and its name. Without formal federal direction regarding alternative foods, legislators across the country are making their own rules.
Governing Alt Food
A majority of states have considered regulating the labeling of alternative food products. So far, 32 states have proposed guidelines, and 15 of those have enacted legislation.
“It’s a bit of a smorgasbord in terms of the content of these state laws,” Carvajal adds. “This is going to remain a difficult issue for companies to navigate. If there’s a standard of identity, a federal law, that’s going to take precedence over state laws. But what we’re seeing is an absence of a federal law or a regulation to cover some of these issues or some of these product categories. That’s leaving the door open for the conventional industry to push for laws at the state level.”
This year the USDA plans to issue guidelines for labeling claims on food products made using animal cell culture technology, which will establish nomenclature and labeling requirements for those alternative proteins. The USDA also plans to provide direction on the labeling of plant-based milk alternatives by June 2022.
Carvajal points to the “soy milk saga” as a cautionary example. Milk is a formal FDA standard of identity, defined as ““the lacteal secretion, practically free of colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows.” Plant-based milk brands have been sent warning letters by the FDA, arguing a plant product is misbranded as milk. The soy industry has petitioned the FDA to establish soy milk as a common name, but the dairy industry has lobbied aggressively to enforce preserving traditional dairy product names.
Those FDA warning letters can be a big blow to a company — they’re published on the FDA website, so potential investors and customers can review. Letters are monitored by plaintiff’s lawyers, too. These attorneys specialize in suing companies on behalf of consumers, alleging consumers were misled by false claims. “Those actions can be quite expensive to defend,” Carvajal notes.
“Selecting or devising an appropriate name for a product can be a tricky exercise that requires simultaneous consideration of a number of factors,” he says. “The FDA does not view a name as a marketing opportunity.”
Types of Labeling & Advertising Claims
Though there are no formal legal definitions of alternative foods, alt brands do need to follow FDA, FTC and USDA labeling rules. These regulations include:
- Nutrient content (FDA oversight). A nutrient must have an established daily value to make a particular claim. For example, “Excellent source of protein” on a label requires the product to provide 20% of the recommended daily value of protein, while “Good source of protein” requires only 10-19%.
- Health (FDA oversight). This is a tightly-regulated area, Claims that imply a cause-and-effect relationship between a specific nutrient and a disease or health condition require scientific studies on humans. This research can take years to receive FDA approval.
- Structure/function (FDA/FTC oversight). This is the most popular type of claim on a food label because it doesn’t require review or approval in advance of going to market. Examples here are “Protein helps build strong muscles” and “Promotes a healthy immune system.” Still, a structure/function claim must be substantiated.
- Environmental benefit (FTC oversight). Green claims need to comply with the FTC’s Green Guides, which give guidance on environmental marketing claims. Carvajal advises brands to avoid using terms like “eco-friendly” on a product label or in advertising because “they’re impossible to substantiate.” There are a variety of environmental certifications and seals that are better options for a product label.
- Organic (USDA oversight). Organic food must meet USDA standards through the National Organic Program (NOP). Violations result in costly penalties.
- Natural (no official definition). Natural does not have a legal definition — the FDA permits use of “natural” if the food does not contain anything artificial or synthetic. Meanwhile, the USDA views natural as a minimally processed product with no artificial ingredients, with the determination based on the specific product c rather than a category. Carvajal says a natural claim is a “very high risk” for a brand because “the absence of a legally binding definition has enabled plaintiffs lawyers in a wide range of circumstances.”
“You should assume that virtually any claim that you use on labeling or advertising will be subject to regulation of some kind,” he adds. “The requirements that apply might be general in nature or highly specific. So to protect your business, you should have a formal internal review process to ensure that you properly vet all your claims.”
Miso, frozen yogurt and pickled and fermented vegetables are driving growth in the $10.97 billion fermented food and beverage category. The fermented products space grew 3.3% in 2021, outpacing the 2.1% growth achieved by natural products overall.
“It really highlights how functional products have become the norm for shoppers when they’re in stores,” says Brittany Moore, Data Product Manager for Product Intelligence at SPINS LLC, a data provider for natural, organic and specialty products. Moore notes there’s an “explosion of functional products” in the market — “[they] are appearing everywhere. And fermented products have been leading that space in the natural market for years.”
The data was shared during TFA’s conference, FERMENTATION 2021. SPINS worked with TFA to drill into data covering 10 fermented product categories and 64 product types (an increase from last year). [A note that wine, beer and cheese sales are excluded from the data. These categories are very large, and would obscure trends in smaller segments. Wine, beer and cheese are also well-represented by other organizations.]
Yogurt dominates the fermented food and beverage landscape with 75% of the market, but sales growth is soft. Frozen yogurt and plant-based offerings, though small portions of the yogurt category, are fueling what growth there is. “Novelty products are catching shopper’s eyes,” Moore notes.
Kombucha, the fermented tea which led the U.S. retail revival of fermented products, still rules the non-alcoholic fermented beverages market, with 86% of sales. But growth is slowing. Moore points out that this slowdown is due to kombucha having penetrated the mass market with lots of brands on grocery shelves.
“There’s opportunity in kombucha for new innovations to catch the progressive shopper’s eye,” Moore says. “Shoppers are looking for an innovative twist to their functional product.”
Moore points to successful twists like hard kombucha, which grew nearly 60%, and probiotic sodas, which grew 31%.
Growth is slowing for hard cider, too, though hard cider leads the alcoholic beverages category with 83% share of sales.
All sectors of the pickled and fermented vegetables category are growing, totalling nearly $563 million in sales. Refrigerated products are nine of the top 10 subcategories here. The “other” pickled vegetable subcategory is increasing at a 60% growth rate, “other” being the catch-all for vegetables that are not cucumbers, cabbage, carrots, tomatoes, beets or ginger. Fermented radish, garlic and seaweed fall into this subcategory.
Soy sauce is not surprisingly still the largest product in sauces, representing 58% of the category. But that share is dropping. Gochujang is the growth leader, increasing at rate of nearly 20%.
Miso and tempeh are also performing well, which Moore attributes to the growing plant-based movement and the Covid-19 pandemic pantry stocking boom. Miso products — soups, broths, pastes and mixes — totaled over $24 million in sales in 2021. Though instant soups and meal cups represented only 8% of sales, they grew more than 110%.