There are thousands of molecules in the food we eat, but most have yet to be identified. This is especially true in the world of fermentation. 

“Lactic acid is not the only byproduct of lactic acid fermentation,” says Suzanne Johanningsmeier, a research food technologist with USDA-ARS. During a TFA webinar, Johanningsmeier presented  her research into health-promoting pickled vegetables. “There could be hundreds or thousands of byproducts of this lactic fermentation. As an analytical chemist and someone who is very interested in the composition of foods, I find that fascinating and exciting and a world to explore.”

Johanningsmeier, a leading expert on the chemical and sensory properties of fermented food and veggies, notes that fermentation is a trending food technique. Consumers today want food that is plant-based, enhances gut health, introduces new flavors, made with simple labels and returns to tradition. 

“All these things have aligned and intersected for a fermented foods megatrend. It’s exciting to see so much momentum in the Americas rolling for fermented foods,” she says. “All of these trends are based on the belief that these are health promoting foods for consumption.”

The USDA-ARS office in North Carolina State University is staffed by five research scientists, and there are an additional 2,000 more affiliated scientists across the country. Their mission is to deliver scientific solutions to national and global agricultural challenges. 

“My long-term goal is to develop science-based technologies that enable the sustainable preservation of fruits and vegetables for production of high-quality, health-promoting consumer products,” Johanningsmeier says.

The most recent USDA-ARS study explored the potential health benefits of fermented cucumbers. Cucumbers are one of the top five vegetables preserved in the U.S. but the only one that’s not canned or frozen. The USDA-ARS found that fermented and pickled cucumbers include many beneficial by-products, including proline, bioactive peptides and GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, which works as a neurotransmitter in the brain). 

“Food processing has a negative connotation. But, actually, fermentation is processing and, as you can see, processing can be good. Processing can add things and certainly make food available to people year round,” Johanningsmeier says. “I think the idea here is how do we preserve [food] so we retain or enhance those inherent, health-promoting properties? The abilities we have now to more comprehensively look at composition are going to help us understand that in the future.”

Maria Marco, professor of food science and technology at University of California, Davis (and TFA Advisory Board member), moderated the discussion. Marco praised Johanningsmeier’s use of analytical techniques to implement fermentation technologies.

“These are exciting compounds, and we know that they have neuroreactive properties or antihypertensive properties,” Marco says. 

Coffee Conquers Colon Cancer?

A new study links drinking coffee to higher survival rates from colon cancer. Researchers found that in 1,171 patients treated for metastatic colorectal cancer, patients who drank two to three cups of coffee per day were likely to live longer. They also had a longer time before their disease worsened. Patients who drank four or more cups of coffee a day had an even greater benefit.

“It’s known that several compounds in coffee have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other properties that may be active against cancer,” says Chen Yuan, study co-author and research fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The study results, published in the peer-review journal JAMA Oncology, said coffee benefits were both for caffeinated and decaffeinated varieties. “Study authors emphasize the report was only able to find an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship. Experts say the study doesn’t provide sufficient evidence to recommend drinking coffee on a daily basis for people who have cancer.”

Read more (USA Today)

Healthy Cheese?

“Cheese is finding new ground as a ‘health’ food,” writes John Lucey, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the director of the Center for Dairy Research. Cheese has received a bad stereotype as a dairy food high in saturated fat and carbs, but Lucey notes cheese is high in vitamin C, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and folate. Studies show fermented cheeses reduce cancer rates, and fermented cheese contains bioactive peptides that reduce blood pressure, enhance the immune system and improve cardiovascular health.

Read more (Dairy Foods)

What’s the difference between the fuzzy mold that grows on leftovers forgotten in the fridge and the mold koji that creates the umami-rich flavors soy sauce and miso? Controlled growth.

“That’s an important parallel,” says Rich Shih, the koji guru behind Our Cook Quest and co-author with Jeremy Umansky of the book “Koji Alchemy.” Shih spoke during a recent webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association, “Demystifying Fermentation — Learning to Love Mold.” “You create these very specific conditions where the components are food safe…they’re made in a fully controlled, clean environment…when you allow it to go through a fermentation process, it ends up being preserved in a way that is delicious and nutritious for us. That’s the key to fermentation in general. What’s nutritious and delicious to us is a result of these microbes that we persuade in this specific direction to create a circumstance that’s pleasing to us.”

Koji is also known by its scientific name, aspergillus oryzae. Incubating it, Shih says, creates a “blank slate” for the koji spores. He compares it to adding yeast to a bread or beer.

“We’re basically leveraging their ability to be able to do this work on an exponential basis to yield something for us because they’re trying to survive based on the food stuff we give them,” Shih says, explaining the koji fermentation process. “But we’re introducing them to this pool of wonderful, delicious things that they get to convert — and then we take the benefits.”

More chefs are experimenting with koji as a seasoning or marinade. It is empowering and easy to incorporate into dishes, Shih adds, noting: “Once people realize this, koji is really going to explode.” He recommends beginners start with a koji paste. 

Alex Lewin, moderator of the webinar, author of fermentation books and TFA Advisory Board member, agrees. He compares koji to the medieval alchemy of the philosopher’s stone, which could transform lead into gold. Koji mold is transforming ingredients into flavorsome food.                    

“Where bacteria and yeast are very specific and  narrow in focus, koji and mold in general have a much broader set of capabilities,” Lewin adds.

Shih shared one of his latest koji kitchen experiments: a cucumber sorbet. He added koji spores to the cucumber, then froze it for a texture similar to shaved ice. He stressed koji “can be a seasoning for any food, regardless of preparation, locale or cuisine. It’s easily translated.”

“Koji, basically it’s magic,” Shih says. “It really changes the game overnight in terms of the flavors you get out of it. It opens a whole world of possibilities.” 

Most people are familiar with koji and don’t even know it, Shih says. Koji is an ingredient in soy sauce, a common condiment in home pantries. There’s a huge commercial industry for soy sauce. But Shih says people should learn to experiment with koji outside of a soy sauce bottle. He points to artisan cooks and chefs, who take control of their food by sourcing ingredients from local farms. By fermenting them, they create nutrient-dense food with a long shelf life.

“That’s the gap we fermenters are encouraging people to bridge. You have the power to create  nutrition in a way that you enjoy ingredients in your locale,” Shih says. Follow some simple rules with koji and “it’s really hard not to make it taste good. If you know how to boil water and mix things, you can make something super delicious, and that’s empowering.” 

A new study links lower COVID-19 deaths to countries where the diet is rich in fermented vegetables. Researchers in Europe found in countries where the national consumption of fermented vegetables is high, the mortality risk for COVID-19 decreased by 35.4%. Results are currently preliminary and undergoing peer review. But, if the hypothesis is confirmed, “COVID-19 will be the first infectious disease epidemic to involve biological mechanisms that are associated with a loss of ‘nature,'” reads an article in News Medical. “Significant changes in the microbiome caused by modern life and less fermented food consumption may have increased the spread or severity of the disease, (researchers) say.”

The study was led by Dr. Jean Bousquet, a professor of pulmonary medicine at Montpellier University in France. After researching that diet may play a big role in determining how well people can fight the coronavirus, Bousquet says he now eats fermented foods multiple times a week.

Read more (News Medical Life Sciences

A food science professor weighs in on the Sqirl restaurant mold scandal. The trendy Los Angeles eatery is famous for serving toast on a housemade jam without preservatives. But allegations surfaced that Sqirl was making the jam in an unlicensed kitchen where buckets of jam were covered in mold. Dr. John Gibbons, an assistant professor of food science at University of Massachusetts Amherst, is an expert on beneficial and detrimental molds. He says: “Because I study this stuff, and I’ve seen some of the really bad effects of different toxins, I don’t really take chances with it. That being said, fungal-fermented foods are some of my favorite foods — I just don’t trust it happening spontaneously.”

Read more (Grub Street)

A new study shows kefir affects the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Researchers at APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre at University College Cork and Teagasc published their results in the journal Microbiome. They found that feeding mice kefir reduced stress-induced hormone signaling, reward-seeking and repetitive behavior. Interestingly, different types of kefir affected mice behavior and changed the abundance of gut bacteria. The researchers concluded that kefir should be studied as a dairy intervention to improve the mood and behavior in humans.

Read more (APC)

“You are what your bacteria eat.” – Donna Schwenk, author of “Cultured Food for Life”

When consumers buy beverages today, they want drinks that go beyond simply quenching thirst. Drinks today need to meet consumer’s health needs, too — improving sleep habits, aiding gut health, lowering stress levels and boosting energy.

 “There’s this real explosion of outcome-based beverages in the industry at the moment,” says Howard Telford, head of soft drinks for Euromonitor International. “Ten years ago, it was easy to identify what was an energy drink. That’s no longer the case, clearly. Because every category now has some form of products on the shelf with a functional proposition. These ingredients-based category lines are blurring. Consumers are rethinking what’s our morning option, what’s our late afternoon option, what’s our evening beverage.”

Clean ingredient lists with functional appeal will differentiate brands. In a beverage trends webinar hosted by FoodNavigator, brand leaders in the beverage industry shared their insight. Here are six beverage trends for 2020:

1. More Consumer Need States for Different Ingredients

Modern beverages straddle between food and dietary supplements.

“Every time (consumers) spend a dollar on a drink or a food item, they want that food or drink item to do more for them,” says Chris Fanucchi, co-founder of drink brands Limitless and Koia. “Brands are starting to put more marketing on the front of their labels, that say ‘Hey, we help you with calming you or with inflammation or with pain or anxiety.’ As consumers start to see that more and more, they’re going to start to expect that. And the second they start to expect that is when the consumers are going to be demanding that their beverages have more and more function to them. So a functional beverage right now I think is definitely about identifying those need states that are more relevant to consumers today.”

2. Mindfully Purchasing Natural Health Products

Consumers are looking for ingredient lists without artificial ingredients (33%) and with limited or no sugar (35%), according to research by Euromonitor International. Sixty percent are following diets – lowering carbs and saturated fat, monitoring weight and tracking calories.

Holly McHugh, marketing associate with Imbide, thinks consumers will seek out healthier products at the end of the coronavirus pandemic. “Like a detox that you see in January because people have overindulgences over the holidays…I do think there will be a bump when people go back to their normal lives.”

“There’s absolutely a stigma against sugary products for your overall health. And people are really concerned about their health right now,” McHugh says.

However, McHugh doesn’t think brands will completely abandon sugar. Instead she hypothesizes brands will provide more options. Like a full-sugar, low-sugar and no-sugar drink, then drinks with alternative sweetener like stevia and natural sweetener like honey.

3. Rise of Cannabis/Hemp in Beverages

Consumers are experiencing mounting stress due to the pandemic and are seeking drinks with stress-reducing ingredients.

Estimates show legal cannabis sales will rise to $150-170 billion by 2023 according to Euromonitor International, mostly from North America. Huge innovations in CBD industry as proving hemp-derived drinks is a growing market. CBD-infused beverages grew by 500% last year.

“I think CBD is going to be a very big category,” adds Thomas Hicks, chief growth officer for Ojai Energetics, which produces various CBD products, including a CBD drink. “The consumer demand is phenomenal and you can see that online. About 90% of our business is direct to consumers.”

Ojai Energetics has seen sales increase 20% during the pandemic.

CBD is poised to become as big of a category as energy drinks. However, more clarity around CBD needs to be provided by the Food & Drug Administration. Thomas notes the FDA has not yet defined the different elements of CBD.

“It’s a race to the bottom if you don’t have really good branding and, quite honestly, a patented process,” says Hicks, who has formerly worked with big drink giants like Hansens and Coca-Cola.  

4. Cost Major Factor During Health, Economic Crisis

Brands looking to add more premium ingredients to their drinks need to note consumer’s pocketbooks. Howard Telford, head of soft drinks for Euromonitor International, said he predicts certain drink categories will decline because of cost in a COVID-19 era.

“This event (coronavirus pandemic) is translating to an economic crisis more than a public health crisis, I think we have to be very cognizant of price,” he says.

Comparing sales during the 2008 Great Recession, Telford says consumers will trade down premium products. “Affordable luxury” needs to be the focus of new drink launches, adds McHugh.

“I think cost will be a really important consideration given the uncertainty of the economy right now,” McHugh says. “Brands will need to introduce products that are affordable and meet those clean, quality, functional qualities during this time.”

5. Brands Need to Better Educate Consumers

As more consumers routines are impacting during the outbreak and they turn to healthy eating during, will they turn to kombucha over Coke? Telford believes so. Long-term, consumer’s beverage choices will change because of COVID-19. They’re reducing sugar, trusting health ingredients.

“When we decide to indulge, we’re conscious of the ingredients in those products,” he adds.

Especially CBD.

“There’s still so much education around CBD with the general public,” Hicks adds.

Research provides CBD helps regulate the immune system, and consumers are becoming savvier and seeking out that research, Thomas says. Key, he adds, is researching the specifics behind CBD brands. Brands should publish their lot number certification online. Consumers should easily be able to research CBD batches should go through two different labels to make sure they are acceptable and organic, he advises.

6. Shelf Brand Launch Until Post Pandemic

Faccuchi, who sold Limitless to Pepsi/Keurig last year, said smaller companies are struggling securing capital to launch. An entrepreneur, Faccuchi invests in beverage companies.

“Lots of clients, especially in the energy category, are having zero luck with retail meetings, confirmation of placement on shelves,” Faccuchi says. “They’re seeing around waiting for those opportunities. It makes it all the more difficult when there’s really no light at the end of the tunnel. These brands could lose a lot of cash over the next several months, they could go belly up.”

His advice to people wanting to launch a new beverage company: “Make sure the category you’re jumping into actually has a need. I run into a lot of entrepreneurs who build this awesome product out of different ingredients that you’d never hear of, and the unfortunate truth is some of those ingredients are just not supply chain ready. So you can’t get the price point necessary for consumer to actually try the brand, which is the No. 1 thing when you’re launching a new company. So make sure you’re identifying a need space that people actually have. Your best way to test that is online marketing.”

Find people in food and beverage industry that are looking to champion brands, he advices. “Those people do exist.”

Researchers in China found probiotics from lactobacilli bacteria in traditional Chinese pickles prevent dental cavities. The study, published in the journal “Frontiers in Microbiology,” evaluated 14 different types of Sichuan pickles from southwest China. Of the 14 pickles, 54 Lactobacilli strains were detected. But only one  (plantarum K41) was found to significantly reduce “the incidence and severity of cavities.” The strain reduced the cavity-causing Streptococcus mutans bacteria by 98.4%. The S. mutans bacteria is found in plaque on human teeth.

According to the study: “Pickles are an integral part of the diet in the southwest of China. When fruits and vegetables are fermented, healthy bacteria break down the natural sugars. These bacteria, also known as probiotics, not only preserve foods but offer numerous benefits, including immune system regulation, stabilization of the intestinal microbiota, reducing cholesterol levels, and now inhibiting tooth decay.”

Read more (Science Daily