Is carbon the real villain in modern diets? One-third of greenhouse gas emissions come from food production, so companies are turning to technologies like precision fermentation and cell-cultured meat to help create a more sustainable industry. But a transition to alternative proteins won’t be easy. 

“The food tech industry has a blind spot,” says John Fasman, U.S. digital editor with The Economist, “they haven’t fully grappled with the fact that food isn’t just fuel, it’s an emotional connection to a lot of people.”

The Economist’s latest cover piece — “Future Food” — explores if and how first-world food systems may adapt. Fasman (who wrote the piece) and Josie Delap (The Economist’s international editor) discussed the business and ethics of alternative proteins in a webinar.

The Conceptual Hurdle of Alt Meat

Though many consumers are adopting flexitarian diets, widespread change isn’t realistic. “Getting people to adjust to their culture expectations of food is a very long task,” Delap adds. 

For example, the Thanksgiving turkey or Christmas ham is a holiday tradition consumers aren’t eager to change — and meat substitutes cannot yet deliver. Alternative proteins have come light years from early days of vegetarian “meat” — which was often a flavorless mash of beans and lentils — and now include flavorful and appealing ground meat products. But no one is producing an entire alternative turkey or steak, in which fat, muscle and sinew are layered together.

According to the Good Food Institute, alternative proteins are made by one of three food technologies:

  • Plant-based is the oldest form of meat alternatives, using plants to recreate meat flavors. 
  • Cultivated meat is produced directly from the cells of animals. Muscle cells are taken from a living animal, then multiplied in a lab to create a meat product biologically identical to meat tissue. 
  • Fermented alternative proteins are made using one of three processes: traditional fermentation (the ancient practice of using microbes in food), biomass fermentation (growing naturally occurring, protein-dense, fast-growing organisms, like fungi or algae) or precision fermentation (uses microbial hosts as “cell factories” to produce specific ingredients.)

“The most striking thing for me as a non-scientist is the extent to which what we eat can be broken into chemical elements and then replicated,” Fasman says. “Replicas of meat look and cook and smell strikingly like meat. You can enhance the flavor through fermentation.”

Consumers have been conditioned to believe foods with too many ingredients are worse for you. Alternative foods create new possibilities — they are built from the ground up, tweaked for nutritional content and made better with supplements. But consumers will have to accept engineered food in order to make a positive environmental impact.

“If you’re going to change the system you’re going to have to reckon with processing at some point and the question is how do you make processing as healthy as possible,” Fasman adds.

Competing on Price

Price is another challenge for alternative proteins. Today, they are often more expensive than meat.

“The risk is that they become a way for middle class and wealthy diners in rich countries to make choices that let them feel good about themselves as opposed to something that really transforms the world’s food system,” Fasman says. “It’s going to be hard for them to compete on price. I don’t think there’s any way around this problem.”

Fasman says the alternative protein industry is at the first stage of a very long process that is made longer by scaling, supply chain, acceptance and regulatory challenges. He estimates it will take at least a decade for alt proteins to compete with meat.

“[Alt-meats] will only be affordable at scale. And that’s why this period right now is the linchpin and it’s so tricky,” Fasman says. Startup companies are operating out of small labs. None of them — outside of Beyond Meat, creator of the Impossible Burger) — is big enough to satisfy a national, or even regional, market. But larger meat companies, like Tyson, Cargill or JBS, have also created meatless products.

Worldwide Adoption

Alternative meat’s acceptance on a global stage is even farther away, agreed Fasman and Delap. Animal-based meat is cheaper in richer countries, and often considered a status symbol or a special occasion dish.

“Burgers are a choice people in middle class cities can make,” Delap says.

Fasman adds that, while it’s unrealistic to think of alt meat being adopted broadly in the short term, it’s a start to offsetting the dangerous greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of meat.

“Cultured meat, plant-based meat and milk substitutes are in their infancy. You want to scale up where the money and market is,” he says. “There’s a reason to start this process in wealthy countries and then have it flow to the rest of the world from there.”

“Human civilization simply would not have been possible without fermented foods and beverages…we’re here today because fermented foods have been popular for humans for at least 10,000 years,” says Bob Hutkins, professor of food science at the University of Nebraska (and a recent addition to TFA’s Advisory Board). 

Hutkins was the opening keynote speaker at FERMENTATION 2021, The Fermentation Association’s first international conference. His presentation explored the history, definition and health benefits of fermented foods.  

Cultured History

The topic of fermentation extends to evolution, archaeology, science and even the larger food industry. 

“The discipline of microbiology began with fermentation, all the early microbiologists studied fermentation,” Hutkins says. 

Louis Pasteur patented his eponymous  process, developed to improve the quality of wine at Napoleon III’s request. The microbes studied back then — lactococcus, lactobacillus and saccharomyces — remain the most studied strains.

“What interested those early microbiologists — namely how to improve food and beverage fermentation, how to improve their productivity, their nutrition — are the very same things that interest 21st century fermentation scientists,” Hutkins says. 

Hutkins is the author of one of the books considered gospel in the industry, “Microbiology and Technology of Fermented Foods.” He says that fermented foods defined the food industry. In its early days, it was small-scale, traditional food production that “we call a craft industry now.” At the time, food safety wasn’t recognized as a microbiological problem.

Today’s modern food industry manufactures on a large-scale in high throughput factories withmany automated  processes. Food safety is a priority and highly regulated. And, thanks to developments in gene sequencing, many fermented products are made with starter cultures selected for their individual traits. 

“But I would say that there’s been kind of a merging between these traditional and modern approaches to manufacturing fermented foods, where we’re all concerned about time sensitivity, excluding contaminants, making sure that we have consistent quality, safety is a vital concern and extensive culture knowledge,” Hutkins says.

Defining & Demystifying

Fermentation — “the original shelf-life foods” — is experiencing a major moment. “Fermented foods in 2021 check all the topics” of popular food genres: artisanal, local, organic, natural, healthy, flavorful, sustainable, entrepreneurial, innovative, hip and holistic. “They continue to be one of the most popular food categories,” Hutkins continues.

Interest in fermentation is reaching beyond scientists, to nutritionists and clinicians. But Hutkins says he’s still surprised to learn how many professionals don’t understand fermentation. To address  the confusion, a panel of interdisciplinary scientists created a global definition of fermented foods in March 2021

“Fermentation was defined with these kind of geeky terms that I don’t know that they mean very much to anybody,” he says. 

The textbook biochemical definition of fermentation that a microbiologist learns in Biochemistry 101 doesn’t work for a nutritionist or clinician focusing on fermentation’s health benefits. The panel, which spent a year coming to a consensus, wanted a definition that would simply illustrate “raw food being converted by microbes into a fermented food.” The new definition, published in the the journal Nature and released in conjunction with the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), reads: “Foods made through desired microbial growth and enzymatic conversions of food components.” 

Fermentation in 2022

Hutkins predicts 2022 will see more studies addressing whether there are clinical health benefits from eating fermented foods. The groundbreaking study on fermented foods at Stanford was important. It found that a diet high in fermented foods increases microbiome diversity, lowers inflammation, and improves immune response. But research like this is  expensive, so randomized control trials are few.

Fermented foods could also make their way into dietary guidelines.

“Fermented foods, including those that contain live microbes, should be included as part of a healthy diet,” Hutkins says.

The Gochujang Debate

The next “it” condiment in the U.S, gochujang is sweet and spicy, fermented for six to 12 months, and adding an umami tang. More restaurants are incorporating gochujang into their dishes, like the Shake Shack chain has done with their new Korean-Style Fried Chick’n sandwich.

But gochujang’s popularity has been a divisive issue. On one hand, many critics say mainstream food culture shouldn’t cherry-pick trends. “Ethnic foods, particularly the fermented variety, have a history of being typecast as unappetizing in the United States,” writes Hanna Park, the article author. She quotes Eric Kim, a food writer for The New York Times who says he hates that gochujang is now popular: “I never like to say a pantry ingredient is ‘trending’ or ‘mainstream,’ because that implies it is new. But new to whom? Gochujang is one of the oldest foodstuffs, beloved by millions of people for centuries.”

Meanwhile, other food experts say it’s wonderful to see Korean food used as inspiration for new dishes. Chef Hooni Kim, who owns Danji and Hanjan restaurants in New York City, says there was a time when Americans didn’t know anything about Korea, confusing it with China and Japan. Gochujang helps people appreciate Korea for its food culture. “It all comes down to execution. If they make it delicious, so people like Korean fried chicken or gochujang, then I thank them,” he said.

Read more (NBC News)

The Dodo of Gastronomic History

Scientists are working to recreate an ancient garum, considered the “dodo of gastronomic history.” Beloved by Mediterranean civilizations, the fish sauce was thought by historians to be extinct, lost along with the Roman Empire.

Food technicians got new insight into this garum when archaeologists discovered sealed dolia (large clay storage vessels) at what is believed to be a former Garum Shop at Pompeii. The eruption of Mount Vesuvius buried the building, preserving the factory. The charred, powdered remains left in the vessels — plus a fish sauce recipe believed to have been from the 3rd century A.D. — has aided food techs in recreating the ancient garum. 

This product uses heavily salted small fish fermented for one week with dill, coriander, fennel and other dried herbs in a closed vessel. The resulting “Flor de Garum” is sold in Spain by the Matiz brand in amphora-shaped glass bottles. 

Top chefs in Spain have been using Flor de Garum in new dishes. Mario Jiménez Córdoba, chef at El Faro in Cádiz, uses it in black-truffle ice cream, a raw sea bass dish and chocolate ganache. 

“When people think of garum,” Jiménez says, “they imagine something that smells disgusting. But we have to think of garum like we would salt, or soy sauce. You use only a few drops, and the flavor is incredible.”

Read more (Smithsonian Magazine)

Foraging for Cocktails

More restaurant owners are offering foraging tours for patrons, a farm-to-table experience where guests pick ingredients for their meal. The Los Angeles Times highlights Central Coast Distillery in Atascadero, Calif. They take visitors on a unique outing around San Luis Obispo County to learn about the “epicurean and medicinal qualities of botanicals.” 

Distillery owner Eric Olson calls the tours “wildcrafting.” He shows guests how tequila is made, by roasting, mashing and fermenting local agave. He takes them through the hills of Paso Robles to pick prickly pears from nopal cactus, then collects bay laurel leaves, fennel, toyon berries and elderberry.

Guests are brought back to the distillery to create cocktails from their foraged goods. “I usually like to stick to the classics, but then put a personal little twist on them with something that we foraged,” Olson says.

Read more (Los Angeles Times)

Alesia Miller wanted her Soul Brew Kombucha to introduce the health benefits of the fermented tea to Black people.

“Doing a little research about the industry, I learned there weren’t a lot of Black people or Black women brewing kombucha. It left out a lot of people – these cultures I felt needed to be educated on the benefits of it,” Miller tells Milwaukee Magazine.

The first kombucha brand in Milwaukee, Soul Brew found a niche with unique flavor combinations.These include Ginger Mango Peach, Cherry Bomb and a flavor called “Black Lives Matter” (a combination of Blackberry, Lemon and Mango).

Read more (Milwaukee Magazine)

FERMENTATION 2021 Wrap-Up

Nearly 300 individuals from around the world participated in The Fermentation Association’s first conference, FERMENTATION 2021. The virtual event included 35 educational keynotes, presentations, and panel discussions from more than 60 speakers over three days. Topics ranged from the science of fermentation to the art of fermenting to create flavor, from how fermented products are selling at retail to what’s next in the world of fermentation.

“I’ve been in this field for 40 years and, in all honesty, this is one of the biggest honors I’ve received, to be the speaker for this opening meeting of this really cool organization,” said Bob Hutkins, professor of food science at the University of Nebraska. Hutkins presented the conference’s opening keynote, Definition & History of Fermented Foods.

Over five years ago, John Gray, TFA’s founder, envisioned a trade show for producers of fermented foods and beverages, to make those artisanal items a more prominent part of the retail space. John connected with Neal Vitale, TFA Executive Director, and the organization was born out of their collective vision. TFA has grown, with a robust website, biweekly newsletter,a series of webinars and, now, an international conference. TFA has an Advisory Board that includes food and beverage producers, academics and researchers, and food and flavor educators and authors. TFA has formed working relationships with a number of other like-minded trade associations and organizations, and established a Buyers Council to create an active dialogue with food and beverage distributors, brokers and retailers.

“I have to tell you what a thrill it is to have you all here to witness and to participate in the beginning of a dream coming true,” added Gray in his welcoming remarks. Gray is the chairman and CEO of Katalina Holding Co., a food incubator and parent company of Bubbies Pickles.

FERMENTATION 2021 content paralleled TFA’s primary missions: first, help consumers better understand fermentation and its potential health benefits; second, work to improve health and safety regulations as they pertain to fermented products and third, connect the science and health research communities with producers, supporting scientific research and for a better understanding of the “state of the art.” 

What made FERMENTATION 2021 unique is that it was the first event to bring together everyone involved in the world of fermentation — producers, retailers, chefs, scientists, authors, suppliers and regulators. The conference was not a how-to fermentation education event, as TFA feels there are numerous, effective resources for the person looking to, for example, make kimchi or learn about using koji. 

“”We were delighted with how well FERMENTATION 2021 met — in fact, exceeded — our goals,” said Vitale. “While we were disappointed that the continuing impact of COVID-19 kept us from meeting in person, we were gratified by how all the participants responded, interacted, and engaged during our three jam-packed days. And, with recording of all our sessions now available online for our registrants, we expect that energy and excitement to continue.”, 

“Fermentation is experiencing a major surge of interest in restaurants and kitchens around the globe,” says Amelia Nielson-Stowell, TFA Editor. “Our conference was a major milestone for the industry and we are already in the planning stages for FERMENTATION 2022 next summer. And, assuming we will be able to meet in person once again, we plan to host a tasting and sampling event for consumers alongside our conference.” 

When Sandor Katz was asked to teach his first fermentation workshops in the early ‘90s, he figured it would have only niche appeal. Instead, people filled his workshops, begging for more information and calling on him to host similar events all over the U.S. “People [were] hungry for more information on fermentation,” he says.

“Humans didn’t invent fermentation. Fermentation is a natural phenomenon that existed before we did,” Katz says, speaking from in front of a wall of ferments and spices in his home kitchen in Tennessee. “Fermentation is an essential part of how people everywhere make effective use of whatever food resources are available to them. Food fermentation is not precious; fermentation is practical.”

Katz was a keynote speaker at the FERMENTATION 2021 conference. He shared his personal journey into the subject as well as his thoughts on fermentation as a natural phenomenon. 

Fermentation as Trend

Katz says people are excited about fermentation for different reasons — some have memories of fermenting with their grandparents and want to try it at home, others are immigrants wanting to recreate  dishes from their native countries, some are farmers hoping to preserve a surplus of produce, others are interested in the health benefits and some are foodies chasing the delicious flavor. 

He hates equating fermentation with trends, preferring the term “fermentation revitalization” — the demographics of people currently making fermentation “trendy” again hasn’t really changed in the last 30 years. 

“Fermentation has been so important to food traditions everywhere, and yet because of factory food production, one-stop shopping convenience foods, fewer and fewer people were practicing fermentation,” Katz said, recalling his workshops in the early days. “It was becoming more mysterious to people. Now there’s no denying that fermentation is trending. There’s a heightened awareness of fermentation, but people don’t realize the products of fermentation have been so integral to how everybody, everywhere eats. Without even thinking about fermentation, people have always been eating products of fermentation.”

The “War on Bacteria”

But  there has long been fear around fermentation from some consumers. Katz says many people “project their anxiety about bacteria onto the idea of fermentation.”

“For people of my generation and older, we never heard anybody say anything positive about bacteria. The degree that bacteria were talked about at all, it was about how dangerous they are and how much they need to be avoided. I grew up in a period that could be described as the war on bacteria, this idea that bacteria are pathogenic, bacteria are dangerous to us, bacteria must be avoided and you know we have an arsenal of chemicals that we can use to kill bacteria as needed to keep us safe.”

The U.S Department of Agriculture has never had a case of foodborne illness from fermented food or beverages, Katz notes. “Statistically speaking, fermented vegetables are safer than raw vegetables.”

Facing people’s questions and fears motivated Katz to write his first book, The Art of Fermentation. This month, he released his 6th title, Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, Techniques, and Traditions from Around the World.

Fermenting the Future

Katz is an advocate for decentralizing food production, replacing a global supply chain with local, farm-fresh sources. Though this will raise the cost of food, it will put fermentation as a key means of preserving a surplus of seasonal crops, Katz notes. 

Even as more and more chefs and producers apply different processes to different substrates and play with flavor, Katz says the fundamental processes remain the same. Nothing new has been invented in fermentation, which dates back 10,000 years. 

“Fermentation of the future grows out of the techniques and traditions of the past,” he says. “Anything you can possibly eat can be fermented, so I’m never surprised when something is fermented.”

Katz shared his story of fermenting a goat on the rural Tennessee farm he lived on in the ‘90s. After the animal was butchered, he took the leftover pieces and fermented them for a few weeks in a mix of miso, yogurt and sauerkraut juice. When cooked, the meat released a strong aroma, a scent that became legendary on the farm. But, Katz says, “It was delicious. Like many things, it had a stronger aroma than flavor.” 

Health Benefits Come with Warning Labels

When asked about the curative health benefits of fermented foods, Katz does not mince words. He wrote in Wild Fermentation that fermented foods were an important part of his healing when he was diagnosed with HIV in 1991. Since then, numerous media outlets have twisted his story, writing that Katz cured himself from HIV with fermented foods.

“I have become much more cautious about how I talk about this,” he says. “There’s a lot of highly speculative information out there…and I’ve never seen data that would suggest that.”

Katz says he’s careful to rely on reputable scientific studies for data on fermentation’s health benefits. He says he’s read articles claiming kombucha will prevent hair from going gray. Pointing to his full head of gray hair, Katz smiles and says “When I started teaching about fermentation, my hair didn’t look like this. Time marches on.”

“Food has profound implications for our health and well-being and for how we feel, but singular foods are very rarely the cure to specific diseases. …There are many benefits to fermentation, whether it is simply from pre-digestion of nutrients that makes nutrients more bioavailable and accessible to us or whether it’s from the probiotics or whether it’s from metabolic byproducts which can be extraordinarily beneficial to us.”

Food Technology’s latest issue features an article entitled “Not Just A Gut Feeling” which details how and why more consumers are buying and making fermented foods and drinks. Spurred by the Covid-19 pandemic, there is growing interest in the gut microbiome and healthier food options.The curiosity around fermentation is buoying the retail category.

“It checks off all the boxes — artisanal, local, natural, sustainable, innovative,” says Bob Hutkins, food science professor of food science at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln (and a recent addition to TFA’s Advisory Board.) “People are making sourdoughs at home; they’re making kimchi at home; they’re going to kombucha bars. It’s definitely got the Gen Xers and the millennials intrigued.”

Included in the article are many insights from TFA — Advisory Board members Alex Lewin and Kheedim Oh, Executive Director Neal Vitale, and Editor Amelia Nielson-Stowell are all quoted.

Read more (Food Technology Magazine)

Fermenting Coffee with Koji?

A two-time Finnish Barista Champion made headlines with his unique cup of joe at the World Barista Championship in Italy — a koji-fermented coffee. 

Aiming to make better coffee than what’s available on the market, Kaapo Paavolainen (pictured) studied how he could maximize the flavor in coffee beans. “Sugar in beans is responsible for coffee’s inherent sweetness but the lack of it results in unpleasant bitterness. But the current methods can extract only 70% of available sugar,” he told Forbes.

After reading about koji in the books Koji Alchemy (by Jeremy Umansky and Rich Shih) and The Noma Guide to Fermentation (by Rene Redzepi and David Zilber), he realized koji can tap into the remaining 30% of sugar in beans. 

Incredibly, this koji-based method was used on subpar coffee beans in experiments and still transformed the coffee. Umansky described the flavor as “deep, earthy and leathery. Depending on the roasting level of the beans, the flavor ranged widely from tropical fruits like pineapple and mango to chocolate and gingerbread. The mouthfeel was strikingly silky and luxurious like butter. The rounded, full-bodied texture made these tastes last very long.” 

Paavolainen aims to scale the koji process with a partner farm in Columbia. This new coffee method could aid coffee farmers, many of whom are financially challenged and are struggling to maintain farms in the face of climate change.

Read more (Forbes)