When Katherine Harmon Courage began investigating the microbiome 10 years ago as a writer for Scientific American, gut health was barely a blip on the public’s radar. It’s hard to believe today. You can’t walk by a grocery store shelf without reading dozens of labels advertising probiotic health benefits.

Today, gut health is at the forefront of the food industry. The probiotics supplement market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 9.7 percent in the next seven years. And the market for probiotic-rich fermented foods is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.98 percent in the next five years.

Gut health research from scientists and dieticians surged in the past decade. Courage was fascinated. “Looking at the food around the world and the connection between our ancient diet and microbes, that is really, really exciting,” she says. Courage spent a year travelling the world, exploring the traditional, gut-friendly cuisine of different cultures. She paired her culinary investigation with modern science into an engaging book: “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome.”

Below, highlights from a Q&A with Courage on her new book, and her findings on the fermentation industry’s role in American’s evolving diets.

Q: You have been covering the microbiome since 2009. How has the scientific research progressed?

When I started covering it, there were small studies here and there, a lot from the Human Microbiome Project. Researchers were taking a census at the time, that we share our body with trillions of organisms. It was this niche area that I found super fascinating, but no one was talking about it much.

In the past decade, so much has changed. Science has evolved so much to learn about the connection between our health and our microbiome. We were raised to think germs are bad, bugs are bad, but we live with these commensal organisms.

Q: The food industry is taking notice of this research. What do you think of so many food products marketed with a gut health focus?

Talking to researchers, it’s interesting to see their perspective as scientists. They see the extreme of people thinking probiotics and microbes that are a marketing ploy to other people thinking probiotics and microbes will cure every health issue under the sun.

Microbiologists look at this critically. We’ve seen positive impacts on our health from it, but it won’t solve everything. We’re just at the beginning of understanding this relationship between these amazing and delicious fermented foods and our health.

Q: What’s the biggest misconception about microbes and our microbiome?

One of the misconceptions — and the one I had when I was thinking about this book — was the notion that if we eat something labeled probiotic, like a cup of yogurt, that we’re reinoculating our gut and restoring our gut health. Like if we eat a cup of yogurt, we’re good to go.

These microbes that we eat don’t stick around permanently. They’re just along for the ride. Weeks after we consume these, they’re not there anymore. When I learned this, I thought “There goes my research.” But when I looked into it more, in traditional culture and cuisines, people are eating fermented foods all the time, every day. It’s not about that one special food you eat or that one magic pill. It’s having those foods part of your daily cuisine and part of your life.

It’s great for fermentation producers. You don’t eat one jar of kimchi and call it good — you need to keep integrating it into your diet.

Q: Can a pill really fix our gut health?

Not being a scientist, I can’t say if it will or won’t fix our gut health. But talking to microbiologists who study this, it really is about exposing our bodies to these bacteria. We live our lives in such clean and pasteurized lives that we don’t get that microbial exposure. Their perspective is eating as many bugs, exposing ourselves to as many bugs, it will have a positive impact on our immune system as long as we’re healthy. A lot of the probiotic pills have been studied and they have positive health correlations, but we’re still learning so much about it.

Eating fermented foods, especially wild fermented foods, can be even more beneficial. Microbiologists and researchers in this field are really just starting to see what microbes are beneficial to our health. We can expose our bodies to more microbes through wild fermented foods because they’re so much more complex and have so many more microbes, rather than a yogurt with just three different microbes in it. We’re getting so much exposure through wild fermented foods.

Q: Why is it bad if we don’t properly feed our microbiome?

There’s the old friends hypothesis which is similar to the hygiene hypothesis. Our bodies have evolved to expect microbial exposure. But now our immune systems have gotten on this overactive trajectory, attacking these things they don’t need to.

We need to remember our native gut microbes, to feed them the nutrients they need to thrive. When we don’t feed our native microbes the fiber they need to thrive, they’ll eat the mucus lining in our gut, leading to more inflammation and asthma. We need to eat more microbes and feed the native microbes we do have.

Q: Can our native microbes change if we don’t feed them?

There’s been some interesting research out of Stanford’s Sonnenburg Lab. Mice fed on a diet with less fiber tend to have decreased microbiomes. Over generations, as the mice have pups, they pass that microbiome on to their pups. Generations later, these pups have super impoverished microbiomes. And they can’t come back and have a healthy microbiome by feeding them more fiber.

Q: Fermented foods are making waves in the food industry as the next big superfood. Tell me about fermented food in the book?

For the book, I got tor travel all over and explore these different cultures that have different fermented food traditions. I picked four main food places with quintessential fermented food — Greece to research yogurt, Korea to research kimchi, Japan to research miso and Switzerland to research cheese.

One of the cool discoveries I made travelling to these places was I discovered other aspects of the local diet that nourish the microbiome, other fermented foods and whole foods. These countries have different ways of thinking about eating than we do in America.

Q: What was the most eye-opening aspect of exploring other culture’s cuisine?

There were a couple. One, touring one of the big food markets in Seoul, Korea. Kimchi is their national food, but I was shown all these different fermented foods, different sauces, fermented soybean paste similar to miso, fermented veggies. It permeates their culture. Looking from far away in American grocery stores and farmers markets, you wouldn’t see it.

Second, in Japan, speaking with another author, we were talking about nato. Some people find nato challenging because it’s made with basic fermentation rather than acidic fermentation. The Japanese approach to fermented food, they teach at a very young age that “This is a wonderful, healthy food.” In America, we teach food as “Try this because it’s gratifying and yummy.” There’s this dichotomy of healthy foods versus gratifying goods. In Japan, there’s more of an understanding that there’s a wide variety of foods and you’re expected to eat all of them because that’s how you have a healthy life.

Q: Do you think this surge of fermented foods is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?

It’s here to stay. I expect to see it expanding and incorporating into more people’s lives. There is really compelling research with the health benefits, but there’s also these amazing flavors for those of us who weren’t raised with it. Like kimchi. Once you eat kimchi, food seems bland and lacking without it. Koreans describe it as “You need kimchi with every meal.” They can’t imagine eating it without. The flavor and texture experience is a big part of eating. We shouldn’t be forcing it down for our health, but truly enjoying it.

Q: Ancient foods are making an appearance in our diet again. Tell me what you found most fascinating in your research for this book on ancient foods.

One of the interesting things was how they are being incorporated into contemporary culture and cuisine. I went to a fermentation based restaurant in Tokyo, and I talked to the chef about how he’s integrating more traditional practices into contemporary cuisine and making very elegant meals out of them.

Q: Tell me more about your travels to Greece to learn about traditional yogurt. Modern yogurt is often criticized for the scientifically added probiotics. What did you find about traditional yogurt?

My image of yogurt was this fermented product with a few strains. But I wondered, with fermented yogurt products, are they just dumping strains in after they produced it?

Touring a family-owned, small-scale yogurt making facility in Greece, it was interesting seeing their process. They use backslopping, which is using part of the previous batch to inoculate the next batch. Traditionally, that was the way all of these products were made. It makes a richer microbial environment. We don’t know what strains are in it unless it’s sent off to a lab. Their strains come from the batch before and the batch before. Their yogurt would have strains unique to that product since they’ve made it for decades in that same place.

Q: Can better gut health help Americans notoriously destructive eating habits?

I think one of the keys is getting more fiber, especially prebiotic fiber from whole foods, not just a supplement, to really nourish a diverse gut microbiome. And, of course, eating more fermented foods.

For more information on Katherine Harmon Courage, visit her webpage. To purchase “Cultured,” visit Amazon.

Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword, it’s a movement. Consumers care about the environment, and they want the brands they buy to care, too.

A recent Nielsen ratings report found that 81 percent of people around the world feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. For proof consumers are pledging their support for companies that are Mother Nature’s advocates, look at their wallets. Nielson ratings found product sales grew twice as fast for companies with specific environmental impact claims.

“No matter what, sustainability is no longer a niche play: your bottom-line and brand growth depend on it,” the report reads.

Driving Growth

Nielson looked at three products sustainability efforts, two which are fermented: chocolate, coffee and bath products. Chocolate was the main focus of the report.

Cocoa is grown in difficult circumstances. Of the world’s cocoa supply, 90 percent of it is grown on small family farms by about 6 million farmers. Cocoa farmers work in rough circumstances. Cocoa is a fragile crop that grows in hot, rainy, tropical environments and the trees don’t yield cocoa pods until its fifth year. Farmers work hard and profit is low.

Research drilled down to specific consumer sentiments about chocolate, from environmental claims (like ethically sourced, made with renewable energy or carbon neutral), to the absence of artificial ingredients and fair trade.

Environmental Claims

Chocolate with environmental claims account for an extremely small percent of the chocolate category, only 0.2 percent. But it grew four times the rate of sales, from 22 percent from March 2017 to March 2018. Unit growth is also huge. Chocolate with environmental claims is “flying off the shelves at a rate five times faster than the overall market.” Environmental chocolate had a 15 percent unit sales growth compared to the competition with just 3 percent sales growth.

Fair trade

Fair trade chocolate is performing well, too. Fair trade chocolate only makes up 0.1 percent of the total chocolate market, but dollar sales growth for fair trade chocolate doubles the rest of the category (10 percent versus 5 percent). Unit sales are five times higher for fair trade chocolate (15 percent versus 3 percent).

No artificial ingredients

Unit sales of chocolate made without artificial ingredients are growing at the same 3 percent rate as the rest of the chocolate category. But dollar sales of clean chocolate are triple the market (16 percent versus 5 percent). The report infers that, because clean chocolate is priced higher than chocolate made with artificial ingredients, consumers will pay more for a sustainable choice.

The report reads: “In many ways this space is evolving; however, what we do know is that sustainability presents an opportunity to be creative about innovative growth. Embedding consumer demand for sustainability into your company strategy and product pipeline requires data specific to your brand footprint and consumer profile.

Sustainability: “Life and Death Matter”

Consumers are empowered by evidence that “sustainability has become a life and death matter.” The World Health Organization estimates 12.6 million people die every year from environmental health risks. Air pollution and water quality are listed as top concerns for people around the world, the survey found. Increasing cases of asthma and typhoid are linked to deteriorating air and water quality.

“In light of these concerns, consumers around the world are making adjustments in their shopping habits,” the report reads. “While still juggling convenience, price and awareness along with their need to better the world, they’re looking for companies to step up as partners in their quest to do good.”

Another finding of note: though protecting Mother Earth is an important issue for survey respondents globally, consumers in developing countries are more concerned. The percentage of European and North American respondents who said they were “extremely” or “very concerned” about environmental issues was lower than respondents in third-world countries, like Latin America, Asia-Pacitic and Africa/Middle East.

Other interesting finds: environmentally advocacy is typically attributed to Millennials. Millennials are the generation most vocal advocating for corporate social responsibility. But the ratings found every generation and every gender cares deeply about the health of the planet. While 85 percent of Millenials (age 21-34)  ranked a company’s environmental responsibility as “extremely” or “very” important, other generations weren’t far behind. Generation Z (15-20) was at 80 percent, Generation X (age 35-49) was at 79 percent, Baby Boomers (age 50-64) were at 72 percent and the Silent Generation (age 65+) was at 65 percent.

Environmental Champions

Forbes shares a detailed list of how companies can “champion” climate change. Their tips relevant to food producers include:

  • Measure your carbon footprint annually through a third party audit.
  • Develop an action plan, from reducing supply chain emissions to improving energy efficiency to cutting unnecessary transportation environmental hazards, like shipping by sea freight instead of air or using regional warehouses.
  • Set emission reduction goals, then monitor your progress.
  • Support environmental change politics by using lobbying influence for policymakers who are working to improve the health of the planet.

The cider market will grow at a CAGR of 3.5% until 2022. Driving the market is the increasing number of pubs and bars. Women are key to the industry, as they prefer cider’s sweeter, fruity taste.

Read more (Market Research Future)

Wall Street Journal called 2018 “The Year of Fancy Water and Kombucha.” Beverages were one of few climbing categories in low supermarket sales. Drinks, according to Nielson, “must now be purpose-fulfilling, light and fizzy.” Kombucha sales rose a huge 43% in 2018 for $400 million in sales. Sparkling water and “value-added water” (beverages with vitamins and electrolytes) rose 17.5% in 2018 for an impressive $2 billion in sales.

Read more (Wall Street Journal)

More consumers are eating at home, a food industry movement that has remained unchanged for nearly 10 years. Today, 82 percent of American meals are home cooked, according to research by the NPD group. Restaurant sales are in their worst slump since the Great Recession. Today’s diners eat out 185 times a year now, compared to its peak in 2000 at 216 times a year.

Numerous factors are kindling the drop.

  • High cost of restaurant meals. Eating out is expense restaurant meals are almost three times as expensive as a home-cooked meal. And the cost for a restaurant meal is likely to increase as the minimum wage across the country increases.
  • Convenience of streaming from home. Diners would rather eat in their own space watching a favorite show rather than eating in a public space with strangers.
  • Comfortable home surroundings. Diners are practicing “Hygge,” the Danish art of coziness. Americans want to stay in their house “to find comfort and shelter from the maddening crowd,” the study notes.
  • More people work at home. The American workforce is increasingly based at a home office, dropping the amount of workers who grab a bite to eat at a nearby restaurant on their lunch break.
  • Healthy food is trending. Clean and healthy lifestyles are topping food prediction lists, like vegetarian meals, vegan milk and probiotic-packed everything.
  • Popularity of pre-made meals. Meal kits continue to dominate the market, generating $1 billion in revenue worldwide in 2015. Predictions show meal kits will hit $10 billion by 2020.
  • Ease of online grocery delivery. Fast, home grocery services are available nationwide now, with some retailers offering same-day delivery.
  • Consumers changing preferences. New generations of diners prefer cooking at home more than their elders. And if they’re going out to eat, they prefer fast casual over a sit-down restaurant, another change from their parent’s generation.

This creates more opportunities for food companies, though. Today’s home cooks are itching for unique, healthy food a niche fermented product fills. Here are five ways fermented food producers can capitalize on the growing eat-at-home trend:

1. Advertise Quality and Health Benefits

Health and wellness are leading the food industry natural, organic, whole, gluten-free, preservative-free, sugar-free and clean are all buzzwords visible on labels at grocery store shelves. According to a Forbes article, this healthy eating trend is not slowing down. Eighty-eight percent of consumers say they’d be willing to pay more for healthier foods.

Fermented food producers must actively promote the health benefits of fermentation. Consumers are craving the probiotic-packed, nutrient-dense ingredients in fermented foods. Advertising a product’s health impacts will attract consumers.

2. Partner with Meal Delivery Service or Ready-to-Eat Meal Producer

According to Nielsen data: “ While the food retail landscape isn’t one that sees an over-abundance of frequent, market-shifting innovation, meal kits are proving to be just that. In just a few short years in fact, they have carved out a unique and profitable niche in the U.S. grocery landscape.”

About 9 nine percent of Americans purchased a meal kit in the last six months, totalling 10.5 million households. And 25 percent say they would consider buying a meal kit in the next six months, totalling more than 30 million households.

Fermented food producers who get their products into ready-to-eat meal kits will see big returns. David Portalatin, NPD food industry advisor and author of “Eating Patterns in America,” says: “We don’t look for this trend to change anytime soon and operators and foodservice manufacturers can take advantage of the stay-at-home movement by offering at-home eaters with innovative ready-to-eat meal solutions and a greater degree of convenience.”

3. Post Recipes Online

Don’t tell consumers why your product is so great show them. Post recipes and an accompanying enticing finished meal picture on your website regularly. These recipes should feature your food product as a key ingredient. The internet is a powerful tool for promoting food — “food” was the second most searched category on the internet. Consumers are looking on  the internet for recipes rather than relying on family favorites. A study found 40 percent of consumers learn about food via websites, apps or blogs, and half use social media sites to find recipes.

4. Share Quality Product Pictures or gastroporn

In the food industry, presentation is everything. Sharing a quick, blurry photo snapped in poor lighting will not appeal to consumers. Use “food porn” tactics. The term (meaning a glamourized image of food) is changing food advertising. A study found the most attention-grabbing shots feature:

  • Moving food. A picture of a glass of orange juice being poured is more appealing than a picture of a static glass of orange juice. This is because, to viewers, it implies freshness. “Protein in motion” is another term used to capture successful food photography, like oozing egg yolk, melting cheese and steaming meat.
  • First-person perspective. Feature food as if the viewer can pick it off their screen and eat it rather than a picture from a third-person perspective of someone else eating the dish. Adding a spoon approaching from the right, for example, results in a consumer being 15 percent more willing to buy the product than if the spoon approaches from the left.
  • Healthy food. The food porn movement is famously dominated by unhealty eats, like pizza and desserts. But a study by university researchers called “Fetishizing Food in the Digital Age” found that healthy food garners more “likes” than unhealthy food.
  1. Market to Right Audience

The population segment most often eating at home: families and groups of five or more people. Single adults with incomes above $100,000 drive restaurant sales. It’s no major surprise it’s much cheaper for one person to eat out than a family but should be noted in marketing plans. Cooking at home is still synonymous with cooking for a group.   

Photo from: Foodies Feed

 

Are There Really Carbs in Wine?

Short answer: it depends. Carbs come from the unfermented sugar that’s left over after the alcohol is produced. The amount of carbs will vary by brand, but dry wine has the lowest carb count.

Ilovewine.com shares details behind whether or not a glass of wine is safe for the health-conscious drinker. Wine only has roughly 2-5 carbs per glass, but multiple glasses can become a problem for anyone trying to maintain a healthy diet.

Read more at Ilovewine.com where this article was originally published. (Photo: Foodies Feed)

When in doubt, throw it out? Smell check? Taste test? Eyeball it? Food date labels have become so confusing that many consumers use their own sensory check to decode food expiration dates.

The food industry noticed. “Use By” dates are becoming uniform, with nine in 10 grocery store products now printing consumer-friendly labels. By 2020, all products will carry a simplified date. The 10 date-label categories will pair down to two – “Best if Used By” and “Use By.”

From Farm to Trash

Critical to food product relabeling is curbing massive amounts of food waste. A study by Harvard Law School’s Food Law and Policy Clinic and the Natural Resources Defense Council found more than 90 percent of Americans are throwing away food before it goes bad because they misinterpret the food label.

“Expiration dates are in need of some serious myth-busting because they’re leading us to waste money and throw out perfectly good food, along with all of the resources that went into growing it,” said Dana Gunders, NRDC staff scientist. “Phrases like ‘sell by,’ ‘use by,’ and ‘best before’ are poorly regulated, misinterpreted and leading to a false confidence in food safety. It is time for a well-intended but wildly ineffective food date labeling system to get a makeover.”

Over 40 percent of the American food supply doesn’t even make it to a plate. That amounts to $165 billion worth of food that’s thrown away annually. Food waste has become the single largest contributor of solid waste in U.S. landfills. The USDA and EPA set the first national food waste reduction goal in 2015: 50 percent less food waste by 2030.

Industry Move

The product labeling initiative was launched in 2017 by the two largest grocery trade groups – the Grocery Manufacturers Association and the Food Marketing Institute. Geoff Freeman, GMA president and CEO, called it a “proactive solution to give American families the confidence and trust they deserve in the goods they buy.”

The standardized labels are not mandatory. They are voluntary.

The USDA Food Inspection and Safety Service made the recommendation in 2016 for food manufacturers to to apply “Best if Used By” to product label. But the industrywide label standardization is not government mandated.

“Virtually every discussion included concerns regarding waste generated as a result of consumer confusion about the various date labels on foods and what they mean,” said Mike Conaway, R-Texas, the House Agriculture Committee Chairman. “I am pleased to see the grocery manufacturing and retail industries tackling this issue head on. Not every issue warrants a legislative fix, and I think this industry-led, voluntary approach to standardizing date labels is a prime example.”

Dozens of consumer packaged goods brands and retail companies voted unanimously to change expiration dates exclusively to “Use By” by January 2020. Major brands like Walmart, Campbell, Kellogg and Nestle all spearheaded the change.

The 2020 date was set to give companies time to change dates on their packaging. It also coincides with the release of the new FDA nutrition facts panel.

Simplified Labels

The old labels – which included options like “Sell By” and “Display Until” – left consumers in a guessing game. Most products don’t include an explanation of the date, like whether it’s a descriptive feature for the store or the consumer. Even grocery store workers were confused. Employees were polled and reported they, too, cannot distinguish dates on food labels.

The new labels mean:

  • “Best If Used By” – quality designation. This is the date the food manufacturer thinks the product should be consumed for peak flavor.
  • “Use By” – safety designation. Perishable food is no longer food after this date.

Legal Change on Horizon

Is a government mandate likely?

Currently, the only product federally regulated for expiration dates is infant formula. There is no legal definition for food expiration dates in most states. And state food labeling standards vary widely – 20 states restrict stores from selling products after the expiration date, while 30 states don’t enforce such a rule.

The Food Date Labeling Act was introduced to Congress in 2016, but no further action has happened. The act would legally require food date standardization, and require the USDA and Department of Health and Human Services to educate consumers on date label meanings.

Interesting, the proposal also questions the subjective nature of expiration dates. It states no one could “prohibit the sale, donation or use of a product after the quality date for the product has passed.”

Grocery store food prices are expected to rise this year. Projections by the USDA show prices increasing 1-2% in 2019. Still, that’s the fourth straight year of deflating or lower-than-average inflating retail food prices. The biggest price increase for fermented products are dairy products (3-4%) and bakery products (2-3%). A few fermented products are projected to decrease in price: meats (-0.25% to +0.75%), processed fruit and vegetables (-1-0%) and nonalcoholic beverages (-0.25% to +0.75%). Dairy products will be a particular concern for the U.S. food industry. Because of trade tariffs imposed on Mexico and China, dairy exports are declining. In the U.S., demand for dairy products is “relatively weak,” but expected to recover.

Read more (Supermarket News)

Fermented food producers, it’s time to be vigilant. Economists predict America is on the cusp of a recession. Thankfully, sectors of the food industry remains strong in an economic downturn. Food is a basic necessity consumers won’t cut out of their budget.

But that’s no reason to wait out a recession without caution. That recession-proof statistic only applies to select parts of the food industry. During the Great Recession of 2007-2010, household food spending declined by 7 percent. The United States Department of Agriculture reported it was “the largest inflation-adjusted decline in food spending that accompanied a recession since 1984.” Food purchase patterns also changed, as budget-conscious consumers focused on money-saving methods.

Based on food spending data, there are key lessons fermentation leaders can use to prepare for an impending economic downturn. Here are five ways consumer food spending will change in a recession.

1. Grocery Store Spending Remains Fairly Steady

When the economy is bad, more consumers cook their own food. Spending at grocery stores dropped minimally during the Great Recession, falling only 1.3 percent from 2006 to 2009. The number of home-cooked meals increased, as did the amount of meals eaten in the home with family members.

2. Restaurant Spending Plummets

Restaurant spending rises and falls along with income levels. Dollars spent on food away from home declined 18 percent ($47 billion) during the Great Recession. This large dip in restaurant sales didn’t recover for 10 years. Restaurant sales began decreasing in 2006, and didn’t return to pre-recession levels until 2016. Restaurant Business Online said 2009 and 2010 “would prove to be the

worst two years in the modern era for the restaurant industry.”

3. Consumers Focus on Health

During an economic crisis, consumers are not turning to cheaper, unhealthier food options. USDA data shows adults had “increased concern” for their nutrition during the Great Recession. When the economy was at its worst, more adults were rating their diet as excellent, very good or good as compared with fair or poor. Food quality also improved. Total calories from fat and saturated fat declined; cholesterol content dropped, while fiber intake increased. More adults were also using the Nutrition Facts Panel on food packaging, too.

4. Discount Retailer Sales Rise

As consumers cut their budget, they trade high-end stores for discount, big-box retailers. Sales at Costco, Wal-Mart and Target all climbed 15 percent from 2007 to 2008. Economists point to the purchasing power of big-box retailers. Big-box prices help the retail giants outlast luxury stores and small shops during a recession. Natural supermarket Whole Foods, once criticized for premium prices, shed their “Whole Paycheck” reputation after the recession decreased their sales. In 2008, they began offering discounts, adding store brands and emphasizing value in their marketing.

5. Cost-Cutting Methods Reign

Consumers eliminate discretionary spending in a recession. They clip coupons, watch food sales, shop for generic brands and buy items in bulk. Interestingly, the average number of shopping trips to the grocery store increased during the latest recession, but the amount paid per transaction was 12 percent less. Private-label products (or generic or store brands) expanded faster than well-known, national brands during the recession. A record number 810 new private label food and beverage products was released during the recession, seven times more than the amount released in 2001.

(Photo: Foodies Feed)
(Graph: USDA)

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