Fermented Foods FAQ

The New York Times breaks down “The Dos and Don’ts of Fermented Foods” in a new article. Food science writer, Anahad O’Connor, was interviewed to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about fermented foods. For example: What are the differences in sugar content of yogurt brands? How can fermented foods be incorporated into daily life? 

O’Connor says there are “thousands of different types of fermented foods consumed around the world” that “are chock-full of live microorganisms, known as probiotics, and they are widely available at grocery stores, supermarkets and farmers’ markets.” 

He shared his advice for shopping for fermented foods, pointing out: “Not all foods that are made through fermentation contain live microorganisms when they reach store shelves or your kitchen table.” Sourdough, for example, loses all fermented bacteria once baked. Most wine is filtered and processed to make any live microbes disappear. Fermented foods packaged with statements like “containers probiotics,” “contains live cultures” or “naturally fermented” are good products to look for — and most are in the refrigerated aisles.

Read more (The New York Times)

Fermented Fungi Forge Forward 

The alternative protein industry continues to explode in growth — and fermented mushrooms are leading the pack as the preferred meatless protein. In a recent article, the World Economic Forum highlighted mycoprotein, the protein-rich, flavorless “foodstuff” made from fermenting mushrooms. Companies creating alt proteins with fungi “are starting to sprout almost overnight,” the article notes.

Mycoprotein has a big advantage over plant-based proteins, as it has a meat-like texture that can then be flavored to taste like animal meat. Plant proteins must go through further processing to replicate a meat-like texture, and many plant proteins retain the taste of the original plant.

The mycoprotein production process was developed and patented by UK brand Quorn in 1985. But their patent expired in 2010, and  the food technology is now available for all.

Read more (World Economic Forum)

Tequila sales last year were 60 million gallons, 800% higher than two decades ago. This agave-based spirit has become so popular that distillers are “selling it at the price of gold.” What caused the boom? Celebrity endorsements.

From George Clooney to Arnold Schwarzenegger, LeBron James to Nick Jonas and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to Kendall Jenner, celebrities have made billions off their tequila brands.

A Los Angeles Times article highlights the pros (a booming local economy in Mexico,  tequila being introduced to more people) and the cons (environmental concerns, agave plants harvested too young, diverse crop fields and forests turned into monocultures of agave, foreigners taking over a traditional drink) of this growth. The article continues: 

“Pre-Hispanic Indigenous groups in Mexico had been fermenting agave into a viscous alcoholic drink known as pulque for centuries when Spanish conquistadors arrived in the 16th century and first distilled tequila. It has since evolved into an $10.8-billion-a-year industry.”

Read more (Los Angeles Times)

In America, where 40% of the population identifies as nonwhite, why do grocery stores still have an ethnic aisle? The outdated aisle initially began after World War II as a way for soldiers to buy the food they ate while in Italy, Germany or Japan. But the European foods, like pasta sauces and sauerkraut, eventually became integrated with the rest of the store, while foods from BIPOC countries stayed put. 

Heads of ethnic food brands and grocery chains have been pushing for a change, but it’s been a hard sell. Doing away with the aisle is a layered problem — and still not the most popular approach with food professionals.

“Several food purveyors of colors see the aisle as a necessary evil — a way to introduce their products to shoppers who may be unfamiliar with, say, Indian food — though a barrier to bigger success,” reads an article in The New York Times

Some ethnic brands come to store buyers with little capital to get their products on the shelf, so the only spot for them is on the ethnic aisle. They will never break out unless they’re acquired by a larger company. Larger corporations, like Pepsi or Nestlé, can afford to pay stores to put their products on shelves with prime product placement. And large ethnic brands (like Goya beans and Maruchan ramen) are placed on both ethnic aisles and their respective traditional product section because they’re considered broadly recognized.

But many products with international flavors made by nonwhite brands are not placed on the ethnic shelf. The Times shares the story of Toyin Kolawole, who runs the African ingredients brand Iya Foods. Kolawole tried to get her cassava flour into the flour aisle with a Midwestern retailer with no success. But when cassava flour began trending as a substitute for traditional flour, bigger companies launched their own cassava brands — which were put in the flour aisle. 

On the flip side, other food professionals note that consumers turn to the ethic aisle in search of international flavors. Customers like the convenience. There is a fear that unique ingredients (like tamarind or pomegranate molasses) without a clear spot in a grocery store would get lost in a conventional aisle. And, even worse for some brands, integration in an American grocery store means being “divorced from its cultural background.”

Read more (The New York Times)

Three weeks ago, The Fermentation Association shared results of a Stanford study that found fermented foods improve health. Numerous media outlets picked up on the study results, too, and now The New York Times has shared them as well, reporting: “Now scientists are discovering that fermented foods may have intriguing effects on our gut. Eating these foods may alter the makeup of the trillions of bacteria, viruses and fungi that inhabit our intestinal tracts, collectively known as the gut microbiome. They may also lead to lower levels of body-wide inflammation, which scientists increasingly link to a range of diseases tied to aging.”

The Times article pointed out that the study results challenge the long-held belief that fiber-rich foods are good for the gut. A high-fiber diet instead showed little impact on the makeup of the gut microbiome. In fact, study participants who “had the least microbial diversity had slight increases in inflammation when they ate more fiber…” suggesting they lacked the microbes to digest the amount of fiber consumed. 

Meanwhile, the participants that consumed a diet high in fermented foods had a greater number of microbial species develop in their gut. And only 5% of those new microbes were directly from the fermented foods they ate. “The vast majority came from somewhere else, and we don’t know where,” says Justin Sonnenburg, an author of the new study and a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford.

Read more (The New York Times)

Will fermentation be key to the future of the food industry? A third of food produced globally is thrown out, but an article in Forbes explores a promising solution — more companies are using fermentation as a way to decrease food waste. 

A new Danish startup, Resauce, gives companies the resources to turn their food waste into fermented products. Their success stories include a farmer who made fermented onion paste and sauerkraut from excess onions and cabbages, and a vineyard owner who converted grapes into a honey-fermented grape syrup. Each producer then sold their product under their own brand.

Resauce founder Philip Bindesbøll said: “Now we can give companies an innovative product, financial benefits, as well as a positive sustainable story.”

Read more (Forbes)

“If there were a country whose cuisine excels in the realm of fermented foods, it’s Japan,” highlights an article in Discover Magazine. In Japan, hakkо̄ (which translates to “fermentation”) forms “the very basis of gastronomy in the island nation,” continues the article.

Tsukemono (pickles), miso (fermented soy bean paste), soy sauce, nattо̄ (fermented soy beans), katsuobushi (dried fermented bonito flakes), nukazuke (vegetables pickled in rice bran), sake and shōchū (liquor distilled from rice, brown sugar, buckwheat or barley) are all staples of traditional Japanese meals. 

Nattо̄ in particular has been proven to lower obesity rates, boost levels of dietary fiber, protein, calcium, iron and potassium and reduce diastolic blood pressure.

Though the article highlights the few, limited studies on the effects of other fermented foods, it also noted how difficult it is to study them. There little money behind the study of traditional foods (outside of yogurt), and participants in any such research would need to be on the same diets and exercise programs in order to produce objective results. A study would also need to take place over multiple years — “the cost would be vast, the ethics questionable.”

Read more (Discover Magazine)

Beer’s Complex Makeup

German scientists have found at least 7,700 different chemical formulas — translating to tens of thousands of unique molecules — in 467 commercial beer types.. Researchers with Technical University of Munich (TUM) and Helmholtz Zentrum München, Neuherberg, Germany (HZM-Neuherberg) used state-of-the-art mass spectrometry techniques to reveal the vast metabolic complexity, according to a study published in Frontiers in Chemistry. 

The beers tested came from all over the world — U.S., Latin America, Europe, Africa and East Asia — and were brewed with barley alone or from a mix of barley and wheat, rice or corn. 

Of the distinct molecules discovered, 80% had not yet been described in chemical databases. 

“We show that this diversity originates in the variety of raw materials, processing, and fermentation,” said first author Stefan Pieczonka, a PhD student at TUM. “This complex reaction network is an exciting focus of our research, given its importance for food quality, flavor, and also the development of novel bioactive molecules of interest for health.”

Read more (Tech Radar)

A diet high in fermented foods increases microbiome diversity, lowers inflammation, and improves immune response, according to researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.The groundbreaking results were published in the journal Cell.

In the clinical trial, healthy individuals were fed for 10 weeks, a diet either high in fermented foods and beverages or high in fiber. The fermented diet — which included yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, kimchi, kombucha, fermented veggies and fermented veggie broth — led to an increase in overall microbial diversity, with stronger effects from larger servings.

“This is a stunning finding,” says Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford. “It provides one of the first examples of how a simple change in diet can reproducibly remodel the microbiota across a cohort of healthy adults.”

Researchers were particularly pleased to see participants in the fermented foods diet showed less activation in four types of immune cells. There was a decrease in the levels of 19 inflammatory proteins, including interleukin 6, which is linked to rheumatoid arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and chronic stress. 

“Microbiota-targeted diets can change immune status, providing a promising avenue for decreasing inflammation in healthy adults,” says Christopher Gardner, PhD, the Rehnborg Farquhar Professor and director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. “This finding was consistent across all participants in the study who were assigned to the higher fermented food group.”

Microbiota Stability vs. Diversity

Continues a press release from Stanford Medicine News Center: By contrast, none of the 19 inflammatory proteins decreased in participants assigned to a high-fiber diet rich in legumes, seeds, whole grains, nuts, vegetables and fruits. On average, the diversity of their gut microbes also remained stable. 

“We expected high fiber to have a more universally beneficial effect and increase microbiota diversity,” said Erica Sonnenburg, PhD, a senior research scientist at Stanford in basic life sciences, microbiology and immunology. “The data suggest that increased fiber intake alone over a short time period is insufficient to increase microbiota diversity.”

Justin and Erica Sonnenburg and Christopher Gardner are co-authors of the study. The lead authors are Hannah Wastyk, a PhD student in bioengineering, and former postdoctoral scholar Gabriela Fragiadakis, PhD, now an assistant professor of medicine at UC-San Francisco.

A wide body of evidence has demonstrated that diet shapes the gut microbiome which, in turn, can affect the immune system and overall health. According to Gardner, low microbiome diversity has been linked to obesity and diabetes.

“We wanted to conduct a proof-of-concept study that could test whether microbiota-targeted food could be an avenue for combatting the overwhelming rise in chronic inflammatory diseases,” Gardner said.

The researchers focused on fiber and fermented foods due to previous reports of their potential health benefits. High-fiber diets have been associated with lower rates of mortality. Fermented foods are thought to help with weight maintenance and may decrease the risk of diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The researchers analyzed blood and stool samples collected during a three-week pre-trial period, the 10 weeks of the diet, and a four-week period after the diet when the participants ate as they chose.

The findings paint a nuanced picture of the influence of diet on gut microbes and immune status. Those who increased their consumption of fermented foods showed effects consistent with prior research showing that short-term changes in diet can rapidly alter the gut microbiome. The limited changes in the microbiome for the high-fiber group dovetailed with previous reports of the resilience of the human microbiome over short time periods.

Designing a suite of dietary and microbial strategies

The results also showed that greater fiber intake led to more carbohydrates in stool samples, pointing to incomplete fiber degradation by gut microbes. These findings are consistent with research suggesting that the microbiome of a person living in the industrialized world is depleted of fiber-degrading microbes.

“It is possible that a longer intervention would have allowed for the microbiota to adequately adapt to the increase in fiber consumption,” Erica Sonnenburg said. “Alternatively, the deliberate introduction of fiber-consuming microbes may be required to increase the microbiota’s capacity to break down the carbohydrates.”

In addition to exploring these possibilities, the researchers plan to conduct studies in mice to investigate the molecular mechanisms by which diets alter the microbiome and reduce inflammatory proteins. They also aim to test whether high-fiber and fermented foods synergize to influence the microbiome and immune system of humans. Another goal is to examine whether the consumption of fermented foods decreases inflammation or improves other health markers in patients with immunological and metabolic diseases, in pregnant women, or in older individuals.

“There are many more ways to target the microbiome with food and supplements, and we hope to continue to investigate how different diets, probiotics and prebiotics impact the microbiome and health in different groups,” Justin Sonnenburg said.

Other Stanford co-authors are Dalia Perelman, health educator; former graduate students Dylan Dahan, PhD, and Carlos Gonzalez, PhD; graduate student Bryan Merrill; former research assistant Madeline Topf; postdoctoral scholars William Van Treuren, PhD, and Shuo Han, PhD; Jennifer Robinson, PhD, administrative director of the Community Health and Prevention Research Master’s Program and program manager of the Nutrition Studies Group; and Joshua Elias, PhD.

Researchers from the nonprofit research center Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub also contributed to the study. Here’s the complete press release from Stanford Medicine News Center.

Forty years after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) released its first legal definition of yogurt, the government agency has now updated that standard of identity. But, according to the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), this new final rule is so outdated and out-of-touch with yogurt makers that popular products could be removed from grocery store shelves. The IDFA, which represents the nation’s dairy manufacturing industry, submitted an 87-page formal objection to the FDA.

“The result is a yogurt standard that is woefully behind the times and doesn’t match the reality of today’s food processing environment or the expectations of consumers,” says Dr. Joseph Scimeca, senior vice president of IDFA’s Regulatory and Scientific Affairs. 

The IDFA is particularly concerned that the FDA crafted its final rule using comments made when the agency first pitched the guideline 12 years ago. Scimeca continues: “the final rule is already out of date before it takes effect…as if technology has not progressed or as if the yogurt making process itself has been trapped in amber like a prehistoric fossil.”

The revised standard does not include IDFA’s recommended revisions.

Read more (IDFA)