Love the rich flavor of chocolate? Thank microbes. Scientists are researching how fermentation affects the flavor of chocolate. An article in Scientific American details how a giant cacao seed pod naturally ferments. 

Cacao has a wild fermentation, meaning the farmers who harvest the pods “rely on natural microbes in the environment to create unique, local flavors.” Just as grapes take on regional terroir (the characteristic flavor imparted by a place), “these wild microbes, combined with each farmer’s particular process, confer terroir on beans fermented in each location.” Demand for high-quality cacao beans is growing, and producers who make small-batch chocolate with distinctive flavors also are seeing sales growth.

Read more (Scientific American)

Trends in Pandemic Eating

Consumers increasingly embraced adventurous and healthy food over the last twelve months, but “a big pandemic winner is fermented foods.” 

An article from the Associated Press details how, now a year into isolation, people are cooking beyond comfort food. They’re “embracing foods long forgotten or rejected for taste, texture or smell.” Anne Alderete (pictured) details how she is finally enjoying natto (fermented soy beans) after rejecting it for years. 

Read more (Associated Press)

New Trend: Performance Beer

Inspired by the beer tents popular at the finish line of high-endurance events like marathons and triathlons, creative breweries are adding electrolytes to beer. They are turning  alcohol into a hydrating drink, but still giving drinkers a buzz. 

The market is small, constituting just 1% of the craft beer market (and craft is just 13% of the total beer market). But performance beer is selling well with consumers wanting alcohol with fewer calories.

Read more (Bloomberg)

The World of Fermented Foods

In the latest issue of Popular Science, a creative infographic illustrates “the wonderful world of fermented foods on one delicious chart.”  It represents “a sampling of the treats our species brines, brews, cures, and cultures around the world,” and is particularly interesting as it shows mainstream media catching on to fermentation’s renaissance. Fermentation fit with the issue’s theme of transformation in the wake of the pandemic.

Read more (Popular Science)

Fermented dairy foods have been shown  to lower the risk of chronic diseases, inflammation and weight gain. And, fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are purchasing more fermented dairy products.

“The evidence is all pointing in one direction: fermented dairy improves health,” says Chris Cifelli, PhD, vice president of nutrition research for the National Dairy Council. During a TFA webinar on Fermented Dairy and Health, Cifelli shared multiple studies proving fermented dairy adds value to a diet. “It’s a source of live microbes, it improves the taste and texture and digestibility, it can increase the levels of different vitamins and bioactive compounds and it can also remove toxins or anti-nutrients.”

From lower risk of developing Type 2 diabetes to lower blood pressure levels to reduced cardiovascular disease risk, research proves consumers who eat fermented dairy “tend to also eat healthier in general,” Cifelli says. “Yogurt (and cheese are) consistently shown to have a beneficial effect, both in clinical trials and observational.”

Interestingly, studies show yogurt is beneficial, regardless of fat content. Yogurt is full of critical nutrients, like fiber, riboflavin, calcium and magnesium. This “halo of health” surrounding yogurt has driven a recent sales surge.

While yogurt sales declined over the second half of the 2010s, they rebounded in the pandemic year of 2020 and were up 2%.

“Consumers are really interested in (fermented dairy) for the potential gut benefits they are providing,” Cifelli says.

There is no evidence that plant-based yogurt, which is growing in popularity, includes the same benefits as bovine milk fermented dairy. 

Kefir sales are on the rise;, too, are also growing. gGlobally, itkefir is expected to reach $1.84 billion in sales by 2027. Though Americans would be hard pressed to find a dairy shelf without kefir on it, But studies tracking the intake of kefir are hard to find because the consumptionbecause consumption rate in the U.S. is still low. Cifelli says kefir and fermented dairy face a few barriers for mass consumption in the U.S. 

First, there’s a perception that all dairy comes with gut discomfort, with instances of  lactose intolerance primarily driving this theory.

“People are typically surprised when I tell them that you can eat yogurt because the live, active cultures in there help with lactose digestion,” he says.

Second, consumers are nervous about hormones coming from cow products. But, Cifelli notes, all food has hormones. 

Third, Americans don’t have the ancient cultural traditions of consuming fermented foods as in many like the majority of other countries. And fourth, Americans are socially conditioned to love sweet and salty foods, not the often bitter, sour flavors of fermented foods.

“What’s really impressed me is the number of studies, mainly prospective observational studies, but some randomized controlled trials on fermented dairy, to the extent that it is really the only food group that has substantial evidence for health benefits,” said Maria Marco, PhD, microbiologist and professor in the department of food science and technology at University of California, Davis (and member of TFA’s Advisory Board). Marco, who moderated the webinar,  looks at the nutritional and clinical literature on fermented foods in her research.

Cifelli said this is because, in the U.S., milk and cheese have been actively consumed and studied for decades. The bulk of yogurt research is only from the last 20 years. Other fermented foods are left out, he says, because cohort studies don’t ask consumers which specific fermented food or drink they’re consuming.

“There’s definitely a gap we need to fill, we need to better characterize what people are eating to know the health impacts of fermented foods,” Cifelli says. “Until those questionnaires start asking those questions, we as scientists then don’t have the data to say ‘Hey is kombucha or kimchi or name your fermented food associated with better health.’”

2021’s Top Superfoods

Fermented foods are still the top dog amongst nutritionists. For the fourth year in a row, fermented foods are No. 1 on Today’s Dietitian list of the year’s top superfoods

The 9th annual What’s Trending in Nutrition survey, conducted by Pollock Communications for the magazine, polled more than 1,165 registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs). They were asked for insight into consumers’ diets and, particularly, how food and beverage choices have changed during the pandemic.

“A year full of staying home and cooking more has influenced consumers to rethink their food and nutrition choices. In 2020, the food and beverage industry saw sales increases in products like green tea, as well as renewed attention on comforting, tried-and-true foods like dairy milk and healthy, fermented foods like yogurt,” says Louise Pollock, President of Pollock Communications. “The plant-forward trend continues to grow, as does demand for clean labels. Our trends survey findings reflect these significant changes caused by COVID-19 that will continue to affect eating habits and the food industry for years to come.” 

Cookbook author Susan Jane White calls fermented foods the “celebrity superfood.” 

“One of the many benefits of eating fermented foods is their gut-supporting role,” White says. “Of course, being uncooked, ferments have their goodness locked into a tango with all those beneficial bacteria. You’re left with a crisp tang that is both bewitching and nourishing.”

Changes to the top 10 superfood list reveals that consumers want more plant-based food. For the first time, nutrient-rich spinach and leafy greens made the list. Green tea jumped from No. 10 to No. 3. Superfoods, Today’s Dietitian notes, “have become dominant in consumer choices to help support immunity. From boosting gut health with fermented foods to reaping the benefits of antioxidants with blueberries and blunting inflammation with green tea.”

“We are witnessing unprecedented times in the world of nutrition, health and wellness,” says Mara Honicker, publisher of Today’s Dietitian. “As the world grapples with how to best manage health and longevity, consumer awareness of beneficial diets and ingredients is growing, and they will be looking to RDNs and the food industry to help navigate these shifting needs.”

Despite a year when cideries around the world were forced to close down taprooms and cancel restaurant sales due to the pandemic, cider sales grew 9% in 2020. 

“I know some of you are barely hanging on — but you are hanging on,” said Michelle McGrath, executive director of the American Cider Association (ACA). “We did not waver, we held our shares and we kept growing.”

McGrath presented industry statistics at CiderCon 2021, the ACA’s annual global cider conference. Because of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, the conference was virtual this year. Nearly 800 people from 18 countries and 41 states attended the three-day conference. 

Smaller, local cider brands sparked consumer interest in 2020. Sales of regional cider brands  grew 33%, while national brands  declined 6%. 

The impact of the pandemic, though, has been severe on certain sectors of the industry. On-premise cider sales (in restaurants, breweries and taprooms) declined nearly 70% from 2019. 

“We’re resilient, we’re tough, we’re savvy. You couldn’t have predicted how your business would have stood up to a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic,” said Anna Nadasdy, director of customer success at Fintech, a data company for the alcohol industry.

Nadasdy’s keynote on expected consumer trends in 2021 cited the key drivers influencing consumer behavior — the economy, politics and natural disasters. Here are seven of her takeaways for cideries: 

  1. Consumers Buying all Alcohol Types

Though consumers have long been loyal to one type of alcohol — beer, wine or spirits — the “beer guy or wine gal” label is disappearing. Over one-third  of consumers are purchasing from all three major categories. 

Hard seltzer is the third largest beer segment (16% of dollar share, behind domestic premium and imported beers), but it’s the fastest growing. This is exciting for cider makers, Nadasdy notes — hard seltzer in 2018 was the size of the cider market today.

  1. Fruit-Flavored Cider is Growing

Though apple cider still dominates the cider market with 52% of sales, fruit-flavored cider grew three points in the past year to 12% of sales. The top three fruit-flavored products are: Ace Pineapple Craft Cider, Incline Scout Hopped Marionberry Cider and 2 Towns Ciderhouse Pacific Pineapple Cider. 

(Other products in the cider category include: mixed flavors, dry cider, seasonal cider/perry, herb/spice cider.) 

  1. Cider is Making Waves in Craft Beer

Cider — tracked as part of the overall  craft beer category — is proving a worthy participant.Cider has 11% of the dollar share, second only to the category leader, India Pale Ale (41% of the  market). 

“That’s really impressive for such a small base,” Nadasdy says. “Even though you guys are a smaller segment, you still have a lot to contribute to the overall beer category. And I think it’s important when you’re having these conversations with retailers that you are able to point out these wins.”

  1. Hard Kombucha is Gaining Ground

Cideries are competing with hard kombucha. Though hard kombucha is a fermented tea and not a cider, retailers consider hard kombucha and cider comparable drinks. And hard kombucha sales are growing quickly.

“Although small now, keep an eye on (hard) kombucha,” Nadasdy said.

  1. Prepare for Changed On-Premise Sales

Once wide-spread vaccination is in place and on-premise dining returns, expect fundamental changes such as  more online ordering, healthier menu choices and a rise in food tech like tablet menus. The National Restaurant Association listed other significant changes that will impact cideries:

  • Streamlined menus. There will be fewer menu items, with 63% of fine dining operators and half of casual and family dining operators saying they will  reduce their offerings.
  • Alcohol-to-go. Seven in 10 full-service restaurants added alcohol-to-go during the pandemic. Thirty-five percent of customers say they are more likely to choose a restaurant that offers alcoholic beverages to-go. 
  1. Rosé-Flavored Cider is Out

Every brand of rosé-flavored cider is losing sales. The top three brands showing the most significant losses in this category are: Angry Orchard, Bold Rock and Virtue. 

  1. Cans Are King

Cans are leading the dollar share of the market, growing at 1.5 times the rate of bottles. Six-pack (11-13 ounce) cans are now the top share item with 29% of total cider sales. This is followed by six-pack (11-13 ounce) bottles and 4-pack (18-ounce) cans. (These figures do remove shares of Angry Orchard, which sells in bottles. Because Angry Orchard dominates 40% of the cider market, they skew the data.)

Yoko Nagatomo Shiomi, president of the fourth-generation Kanena Miso & Soy Sauce Brewery,  is one of few female toji (head brewers) in the miso industry. Japanese traditions delegate that businesses are passed onto male heirs. But when Shiomi’s father suffered a debilitating stroke, she was the only heir left. 

Shiomi’s great-grandparents started the miso and soy sauce brewery in 1877. Shiomi never expected to inherit the company. “I had no expertise or information, and knew it was uncommon for girls to do this type of work, however I needed to strive,” she says. Before officially taking over, Shiomi and her mother spent three years with the company’s brewers learning the intricacies of the business. Like the most effective ways to combine soybeans and barley with koji spores. 

Though miso and soy sauce have long been staples in Japanese dining, Shiomi told the Japan Times she was shocked to learn how much miso consumption had declined in the average household. “Miso is a really nutrition fermented seasoning and really authentic to our tradition,” she said. She began volunteering to teach kids how to cook with miso. It also inspired her to create a new miso product easier to use for the modern shopper: dried miso packets, make-your-own miso kits, and miso-marinated cuts of pork.

Read more (Japan Times)

Results of the first large-scale study of sourdough starters were released last week — and the conclusions are fascinating, challenging myths about sourdough. Scientists from four different universities studied 500 sourdough starters from four continents, with an aim to determine microbial diversity. 

“We didn’t just look at which microbes were growing in each starter,” says Erin McKenney, co-author of the paper and an assistant professor of applied ecology at North Carolina State University. “We looked at what those microbes are doing, and how those microbes coexist with each other.”

The most striking finding: geography doesn’t matter.

Sourdough enthusiasts preach that location and climate will alter  sourdough flavor. San Francisco has long held bragging rights for the most distinctive taste profile. But, of the 500 samples, there was little evidence of geographic patterns.

“This is the first map of what the microbial diversity of sourdoughs looks like at this scale, spanning multiple continents,” says Elizabeth Landis, co-lead author of the study and a PhD student at Tufts. “And we found that where the baker lives was not an important factor in the microbiology of sourdough starters.”

Alex Corsini, CEO and founder of sourdough pizza brand Alex’s Awesome Sourdough (and TFA advisory board member), says the research “demystifies the misconception that sourdough is only good in certain pockets of the world such as San Francisco.” Great sourdough, he says, is about the raw materials.

“It further shows why sourdough is ubiquitous all over the world — starters can thrive anywhere as nature provides the magic and bakers just need to be in a position to coax out a result without ruining the magic — the magic here being the microbial balance needed to ferment and levain baked goods,” Corsini says.

The research also found there is no one single variable responsible for sourdough variations, bucking conventional baking wisdom. 

“What we found instead was that lots of variables had small effects that, when added together, could make a big difference,” says Angela Oliverio, co-lead author of the study and a former PhD student at the University of Colorado, Boulder. “We’re talking about things like how old the sourdough starter is, how often it’s fed, where people store it in their homes, and so on.”

As a commercial sourdough producer, Corsini values the “low and slow” process to master a sourdough batch, especially when making it consistently on a large scale. Alex’s Awesome Sourdough undergoes a 70-hour ferment using high-quality flour, filtered water and a decades-old starter. 

“Although location makes little or no impact on the starters microbial ecosystem, regulating temperature and time is fundamental and adjustments need to be made based on the location you are in (hot climate, cold climate, humidity, etc.) to get a desired result,” Corsini says. “We make slight adjustments throughout the year to ensure a consistent texture and flavor in our dough.”

The study found variations in dough rise rates and aromas were due to acetic acid bacteria, “a mostly overlooked group of sourdough microbes.” The bacteria slowed the rise time and gave the sourdough a vinegary smell. Researchers were “surprised” that 29.4% of the samples contained acetic acid bacteria.

“The sourdough research literature has focused almost exclusively on yeast and lactic acid bacteria,” says Ben Wolfe, co-author of the study, associate professor of biology at Tufts University (and also a TFA advisory board member). “Even the most recent research in the field hadn’t mentioned acetic acid bacteria at all. We thought they might be there to some extent, since bakers often talk about acetic acid, but we were not expecting anything like the numbers we found.”

The 500 sourdough starters studied mostly came from home bakers in the U.S. and Europe. Researchers performed DNA sequencing for each sample, narrowing down to 40 starters as being representative of the diversity of the original array. 

Those 40 were: assessed by sensory professionals for aroma profile, chemically analyzed to determine the organic compounds released by each and then measured for dough rise time.

“I think it’s also important to stress that this study is observational — so it can allow us to identify relationships, but doesn’t necessarily prove that specific microbes are responsible for creating specific characteristics,” says Wolfe. “A lot of follow-up work needs to be done to figure out, experimentally, the role that each of these microbial species and environmental variables plays in shaping sourdough characteristics.”

“And while bakers will find this interesting, we think the work is also of interest to microbiologists,” Landis adds. “Sourdough is an excellent model system for studying the interactions between microbes that shape the overall structure of the microbiome. By studying interactions between microbes in the sourdough microbiome that lead to cooperation and competition, we can better understand the interactions that occur between microbes more generally — and in more complex ecosystems.”

The research, “The Diversity and Function of Sourdough Starter Microbiomes,” was done with support from a National Science Foundation grant. 

Chefs and home cooks are using miso in innovative ways, experimenting with contemporary dishes inspired by traditional Japanese techniques.

“It’s becoming pretty ubiquitous in people’s kitchens now. It’s been a great creative outlet for people trying different misos,” says chef Kyle Connaughton. He joined chef-author Hiroko Shimbo and chef-educator Kirsten Shockey in a TFA webinar organized and moderated by chef (and TFA advisory board member) Robert Danhi Miso: Traditional Flavors with Modern Application

Connaughton uses Saikyo miso as a salt and seasoning in the kitchen at SingleThread, enhancing the natural flavor of the vegetables and meat used in the 11-course tasting menu. SingleThread is a three-Michelin-starred restaurant, inn and 24-acre farm Connaugthon opened with his wife, Katina, in Healdsburg, California. 

“I think chefs and food companies will continue to innovate in new ways and new directions because there are benefits that come way beyond creating a trendy dish,” Connaughton says. Using miso instead of dairy creates a less fatty, more nutritious dish, and miso can be used as a more sustainable substitution for less environmentally-friendly ingredients.

SingleThread’s culinary style is inspired by Japan (where Connaughton lived and trained for years) mixed with the local terroir of California’s wine country. Miso is used frequently , and he shared pictures of “how we go beyond miso soup and miso ramen.” Dishes included a roasted pumpkin puree with miso as a cream base instead of milk, duck liver parfait cured in miso, porridge made with wagyu beef and caramelized miso and a chocolate ganache made by blending in miso for extra umami flavor. 

Shimbo, a world-renowned authority on Japanese cooking and author of “Hiroko’s American Kitchen,” showed off  miso-based dishes from her home kitchen. These included different miso soups, a pastry where miso is mixed in with the flour and a pizza topped with a miso-based tomato sauce.

“Miso culture in Japan is diverse and wonderful,” Shimbo says. There are 16 miso techniques in Japan, each flavor originating from a different region in the country. “This extended geography with associated climate variations contributes to creating regionally unique food culture.”

Miso can vary in sweetness, aroma, saltiness, uses and production processes. Shimbo detailed the flavor, culinary tradition and modern applications of three types of miso: Sendai, Saikyo and Mugi.

“Not all the miso sold at the food stores are made equally or worth purchasing,” she adds. Miso made at the factory level can be cheap, with alcohol added to stop the fermentation. “We can’t expect food flavor or nutritional value in this type of miso.”

Kirsten Shockey, author of “Miso, Tempeh, Natto & Other Tasty Ferments” (and TFA advisory board member) agreed with Shimbo. When purchasing miso, study the source. Unpasteurized miso will provide the most benefits. Shockey studies the traditional uses of any ferment, and says miso should never be cooked beyond 140 degrees because it will kill the nutrients. In Japanese kitchens, miso soup is never brought to a boil.

“The knowledge of the people who were using these foods forever is also important,” Shockey says. “Think about how they’ve been used to keep people very nourished through centuries.”

Shockey shared different types of colorful miso pastes from her home kitchen. She also let viewers peek inside her 5-gallon cedar vat, where she makes long-aged batches of miso. 

“Miso is this beautiful collaboration of microbes, enzymes, time, and all of this acting upon grains and legumes. And it creates something super delicious and, in a lot of ways, more than the sum of its parts,” Shockey said. “Miso is magical…I think of it as a top-level ferment because everybody’s involved, all the microbes.”