Fermented Foods FAQ

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

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

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

Read more (The New York Times)

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

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

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

Read more (The New York Times)

The Fermentation Association recently surveyed our community to better understand who has engaged with us, how their businesses are doing and to gauge the impact of the pandemic. We want to share the very interesting results.

A few qualifying comments first, however. This survey should not be interpreted as producing a profile of the fermented industry — it reached only those with whom we have connected since TFA was launched in 2017. This group is heavily weighted to Food and Beverage Producers and those in the Science, Health and Research fields. And, even as we note surprisingly high response rates below, the quantities of responses to certain questions were small and would not meet standard analytical thresholds of statistical significance. So please treat the comments and conclusions that follow as directional rather than definitive. 

We received 450 full or partial responses — nearly twice the number we had expected and what we would have considered “good.” Not surprisingly, the bulk of these were from Food and Beverage Producers — just under half — with a strong representation of the Science, Health and Research community, a little less than one-fifth. The balance of the respondents were classified as Supplier or Service Provider (9%); Chef/Writer/Educator (8%); Retailer/Distributor/Broker (3%); Food Service/Hospitality (3%); or fell into a miscellaneous Other category (12%).

We will be presenting further analyses and follow-up discussions in the coming weeks. This article focuses on the two largest segments: first, Food & Beverage Producers; then, Science, Health, and Research. 

FOOD & BEVERAGE PRODUCERS

  • We found that over 80% of our Producers are small businesses with 25 or fewer  employees, and 65% had 2020 sales of less than $500,000. That said, over 11%  of the companies represented are toward the other end of the spectrum, with 100 or more on staff, and 13% with revenue of over $10 million.
  • We reach a lot of Owners/Founders/Senior Executives, over 70% of respondents. The next most well-represented functional areas are Operations and Product Development.
  • These businesses are spread across the developmental timeline — a little over 40% are selling at the local level, or earlier in their growth cycle (selling at farmers market or still in testing/pre-launch mode). Yet 45% are selling regionally, nationally or internationally.
  • Retail is still the largest (45%) channel of sale for these producers, but Direct-to-Consumer (DTC) is just slightly behind at 40%, with the remaining 15% through Food Service/Hospitality.
  • Sauerkraut/Kimchi, Pickles, Condiments/Sauces and Kombucha were the most frequently-listed product categories, each mentioned by more than 20% of the producers. Kefir, Vinegar/Shrubs, Wine and Miso also were mentioned often. Of the 25 product categories listed, we had respondents involved in every one — except poor, slimy, and unrepresented natto.
  • Nearly half of producers selling at retail and/or DTC had sales gains in 2020 and another third maintained their revenues. Not surprisingly, nearly 40% of producers selling into food service saw sales take a hit — only 15% reported gains. 
  • The Covid-19 pandemic caused a host of issues for producers, though their prevalence seemed to vary depending on the size of the company. Among larger producers, over 90% had issues meeting demand, with the primary problems being shortages of raw materials, packaging and staff, as well as distribution delays. Fewer of the small producers reported issues, but their problems fell into the same categories. Financial difficulties were cited more often among small producers.
  • Nearly 30% of producers took advantage of the government’s Payroll Protection Plan.
  • This year appears to continue or build on the sales levels achieved in 2020 for most producers. Nearly 40% report first quarter 2021 sales at the same level as last year, and nearly 50% reported further increases. And producers are optimistic about continuing these trends, with a mere 5% anticipating sales declines.  
  • Most (nearly two-thirds) of responding producers did not participate in tradeshows and conferences, and therefore felt no business impact from show cancellations in 2020.
  • The producers that did participate in events favored the Natural Products Expos, Fancy Food Shows and IFT Show. While some felt that they lost short-terms sales and their future growth was hurt by the shows being cancelled, nearly 30% noted that they saved money and time by not attending. Some of those savings were reinvested in increased marketing, DTC sales and virtual events.
  • Interestingly, half of the producers plan to continue their involvement as events resume at the same level as before the pandemic, and fully one-third plan to increase activity.
  • Looking ahead, producers see numerous challenges on the horizon, led by a need for expanded distribution. They expect many of the recent shortages to continue to challenge, compounded by production, facility and financial constraints. While Covid protocols and food safety concerns persist, they are joined by the need for product development, e-commerce skills, and consumer marketing
  • The clearly-articulated top priority for producers is a better-educated consumer. When asked what would foster increased consumption of fermented foods and beverages, the top item for nearly 70% is consumer education as to the nature and benefits of fermentation. The next highest priorities all support this same goal — more research into health impact (+40%), greater familiarity with flavors of fermentation (+40%) and more exposure at retail (+30%).

SCIENCE, HEALTH & RESEARCH

  • The bulk — nearly 75% — of these respondents work in an academic environment, with very small clusters in government and medical/health organizations. It’s a well-educated group, with over half holding doctorates, plus another quarter with Master’s degrees. Roles are split quite evenly into thirds — professors, science/technical support and students/postdocs.
  • Over 60% of these respondents are looking into connections between fermentation and health; roughly half are specifically focused on gut health and the human microbiome. Overall, three-quarters are currently researching fermentation and fermented products. Their activities, though, span the full spectrum of product categories. All the key categories among our producers — Sauerkraut/Kimchi, Pickles, Condiments/Sauces, Kombucha and Kefir — were well-represented in research. But they were joined by meaningful work across the board — Yogurt, Beer, Cheese, Alternative Proteins, Koji, Wine, Sourdough, Tempeh, Tea — even Natto!
  • Slightly more than a third of this group is involved with fermented alternative proteins – an important, emerging category.
  • Funding for research showed more declines (30% of respondents) than gains (under 15%) over the last year. But half of our sample expects funding to increase in the coming 12-18 month.
  • Our Science, Health & Research respondents were split in how they viewed the interest in fermentation research — 60% felt the focus was increasing, but the topic was not yet a top priority. Yet a third saw fermentation as a hot topic, with more emphasis and activity than ever. 
  • Respondents in this group shared the views of producers that the key activities that would drive increased consumption of fermented products are:
    • Consumer education about fermentation
    • More research into health benefits
    • Greater consumer familiarity with fermented flavors

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

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

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

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

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

Microbiota Stability vs. Diversity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Designing a suite of dietary and microbial strategies

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

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

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

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

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

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

Natto Stops Covid-19?

Natto — the sticky, slimy fermented soybeans, commonly eaten in Japan inhibits infection by the coronavirus, according to the Tokyo University of Agriculture and Technology (TUAT). Researchers found that natto contains extracts that break down proteins on the surface of the coronavirus, preventing it from infecting cells. 

Their results, published in the journal Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, note further studies are needed to determine if there are antiviral properties in the food. But the trial found natto also limited infection by Bovine herpesvirus-1 (BHV-1), a cause of outbreaks of respiratory disease in cattle around the world.

Important to note: the study was funded by Takano Foods Co., Ltd., a Japanese company that makes natto commercially.

Read more (Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications)

Researchers with the USDA have found that fermented cucumber pickles contain more of the naturally-occurring gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) than do their acidified counterparts. Results of this study of commercially-available pickles were recently published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis.

GABA works as a neurotransmitter in the brain. It has been scientifically proven that GABA, when consumed in foods or supplements, reduces blood pressure, improves decision making, reduces anxiety and boosts immunity. 

Fermented cucumber pickles undergo a lactic acid fermentation, whereas acidified cucumber pickles are submerged in an acidic brine. The fermented pickles with the most GABA were made in a low-salt fermentation, and the products were prepared for direct consumption. GABA content also was found to remain stable during storage for fermented cucumbers.

“Worldwide, people are interested in consuming fermented foods as part of a healthy lifestyle. Most often, we associate the healthfulness of fermented foods with probiotic microbes. But many fermented foods contain few to no microbes when consumed,” said Jennifer Fideler Moore, North Carolina State University graduate research assistant and one of the study co-authors, in a USDA-ARS press release. “Our research shows that the health-promoting potential of lactic acid fermented cucumbers reaches far beyond the world of probiotics. This opens the door to more research into health-promoting compounds made during fermentation of fruits and vegetables.”

Adds Suzanne Johanningsmeier, study co-author and USDA Agricultural Research Service (USDA-ARS) Research Food Technologist: “Fruits and vegetables are made up of thousands of unique molecules. These molecules rule the flavor, texture, and nutritional value, but it is difficult to study them in such complex systems. To tackle this problem, we use advanced analytical chemistry techniques like mass spectrometry to study food molecules and figure out the best food processing methods for improved quality of fruit and vegetable products.”

[Johanningsmeier presented further details of the study during a TFA webinar.]

Can you imagine dairy-free milk without a nut or oat? An Israeli start-up is using precision fermentation to create animal-free milk “indistinguishable from the real thing.”

Imagindairy’s technology recreates the whey and casein proteins found in a mammal’s milk. The fermentation time is quick at 3-5 days, and the final product mimics the taste and texture of traditional dairy milk, without cholesterol or GMOs. The product is expected to be in stores in the next two years.

“Many food products are produced in fermentation, including enzymes, probiotics and proteins,” says Eyal Afergan, co-founder and CEO of Imagindairy. He emphasized how safe the product is. “In fact, on the contrary, fermentation process produces a cleaner product which is antibiotic free and reduces the exposure to a potential milk borne pathogens.”

Read more (Food Navigator)

Investments in alternative protein hit their highest level in 2020: $3.1 billion, double the amount invested from 2010-2019. Over $1 billion of that was in fermentation-powered protein alternatives. 

It’s a time of huge growth for the industry — the alternative protein market is projected to reach $290 billion by 2035 — but it represents only a tiny segment of the larger meat and dairy industries.

Approximately 350 million metric tons of meat are produced globally every year. For reference, that’s about 1 million Volkswagen Beetles of meat a day. Meat consumption is expected to increase to 500 million metric tons by 2050 — but alternative proteins are expected to account for just 1 million.

“The world has a very large demand for meat and that meat demand is expected to go up,” says Zak Weston, foodservice and supply chain manager for the Good Food Institute (GFI). Weston shared details on fermented alternative proteins during the GFI presentation The State of the Industry: Fermentation for Alternative Proteins. “We think the solution lies in creating alternatives that are competitive with animal-based meat and dairy.”

Why is Alternative Protein Growing?

Animal meat is environmentally inefficient. It requires  significant resources, from the amount of agricultural land needed to raise animals, to the fertilizers, pesticides and hormones used for feed, to the carbon emissions from the animals. 

Globally, 83% of agricultural land is used to produce animal-based meat, dairy or eggs. Two-thirds of the global supply of protein  comes from traditional animal protein.

The caloric conversion ratios — the calories it takes to grow an animal versus the calories that the animal provides when consumed — is extremely unbalanced. It takes 8 calories in to get 1 calorie out of a chicken, 11 calories to get 1 calorie out of a pig and 34 calories to get 1 calorie out of a cow. Alternative protein sources, on the other hand, have an average of a 1:1 calorie conversion. It takes years to grow animals but only hours to grow microbes.

“This is the underlying weakness in the animal protein system that leads to a lot of the negative externalities that we focus on and really need to be solved as part of our protein system,” Weston says. “We have to ameliorate these effects, we have to find ways to mitigate these risks and avoid some of these negative externalities associated with the way in which we currently produce industrialized animal proteins.”

What are Fermented Alternative Proteins?

Alternative proteins are either plant-based and fermented using microbes or cultivated directly from animal cells. Fermented proteins are made using one of three production types: traditional fermentation, biomass fermentation or precision fermentation.

“Fermentation is something familiar to most of us, it’s been used for thousands and thousands of years across a wide variety of cultures for a wide variety of foods,” Weston says, citing foods like cheese, bread, beer, wine and kimchi. “That indeed is one of the benefits for this technology, it’s relatively familiar and well known to a lot of different consumers globally.”

  • Traditional fermentation refers to the ancient practice of using microbes in food. To make protein alternatives, this process uses  “live microorganisms to modulate and process plant-derived ingredients.” Examples are fermenting soybeans for tempeh or Miyoko’s Creamery using lactic acid bacteria to make cheese.
  • Biomass fermentation involves growing naturally occurring, protein-dense, fast-growing organisms. Microorganisms like algae or fungi are often used. For example, Nature’s Fynd and Quorn …mycelium-based steak.
  • Precision fermentation uses microbial hosts as “cell factories” to produce specific ingredients. It is a type of biology that allows DNA sequences from a mammal to create alternative proteins. Examples are the heme protein in an Impossible Foods’ burger or the whey protein in Perfect Day’s vegan dairy products.

Despite fermentation’s  roots in ancient food processing traditions, using it to create alternative proteins is a relatively new activity. About 80% of the new companies in the fermented alternative protein space have formed since 2015. New startups have focused on precision fermentation (45%) and biomass fermentation (41%). Traditional fermentation accounts for a smaller piece of the category (14%). There were more than 260 investors in the category in 2020 alone.

“It’s really coming onto the radar for a lot of folks in the food and beverage industry and within the alternative protein industry in a very big way, particularly over the past couple of years,” Weston says. “This is an area that the industry is paying attention too. They’re starting to modify working some of its products that have traditionally maybe been focused on dairy animal-based dairy substrates to work with plant protein substrates.”

Can Alternative Protein Help the Food System?

Fermentation has been so appealing, he adds, because “it’s a mature technology that’s been proven at different scales. It’s maybe different microbes or different processes, but there’s a proof of concept that gives us a reason to think that that there’s a lot of hope for this to be a viable technology that makes economic sense.” 

GFI predicts more companies will experiment with a hybrid approach to fermented alternative proteins, using different production methods. 

Though plant-based is still the more popular alternative protein source, plant-based meat has some barriers that fermentation resolves. Plant-based meat products can be dry, lacking the juiciness of meat; the flavor can be bean-like and leave an unpleasant aftertaste; and the texture can be off, either too compact or too mushy.

Fermented alternative proteins, though, have been more successful at mimicking a meat-like texture and imparting a robust flavor profile. Weston says taste, price, accessibility and convenience all drive consumer behavior — and fermented alternative proteins deliver in these regards. 

And, compared to animal meat, alternative proteins are customizable and easily controlled from start to finish. Though the category is still in its early days, Weston sees improvements coming quickly  in nutritional profiles, sensory attributes, shelf life, food safety and price points coming quickly.

“What excites us about the category is that we’ve seen a very strong consumer response, in spite of the fact that this is a very novel category for a lot of consumers,” Weston says. “We are fundamentally reassembling meat and dairy products from the ground up.”

Is there a connection between a happy gut and a healthy heart? The University of North Florida Department of Nutrition and Dietetics is conducting a study to determine what impact a diet rich in fermented vegetables has on cardiovascular disease and markers of inflammation.

Participants will be placed in two groups — the first consumes their regular diet for eight weeks, then receives fermented vegetables at the end of the study. The second will eat a half cup of fermented vegetables every day for eight weeks.

 “These studies are the only way nutritionists can determine if certain foods can help with prevention and/or treatment of common health problems faced by our community, such as cardiovascular disease,” says Dr. Andrea Arikawa, associate professor at the university.

Read more (University of North Florida)

A new peer-reviewed study from researchers at the University of Illinois and Ohio State University found 66% of commercial kefir products overstated probiotic count and “contained species not included on the label.”

Kefir, widely consumed in Europe and the Middle East, is growing in popularity in the U.S. Researchers  examined the bacterial content of five kefir brands. Their results, published in the Journal of Dairy Science, challenge the “probiotic punch” the labels claim.

“Our study shows better quality control of kefir products is required to demonstrate and understand their potential health benefits,” says Kelly Swanson, professor in human nutrition in the Department of Animal Sciences and the Division of Nutritional Sciences at the University of Illinois. “It is important for consumers to know the accurate contents of the fermented foods they consume.”

Probiotics in fermented products are listed in colony-forming units (CFUs). The more probiotics, the greater the health benefit. 

According to a news release from the University of Illinois: “Most companies guarantee minimum counts of at least a billion bacteria per gram, with many claiming up to 10 or 100 billion. Because food-fermenting microorganisms have a long history of use, are non-pathogenic, and do not produce harmful substances, they are considered ‘Generally Recognized As Safe’ (GRAS) by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and require no further approvals for use. That means companies are free to make claims about bacteria count with little regulation or oversight.”

To perform the study, the researchers bought two bottles of each of five major kefir brands. Bottles were brought to the lab where bacterial cells were counted and bacterial species identified. Only one of the brands studied had the amount of probiotics listed on its label. 

“Just like probiotics, the health benefits of kefirs and other fermented foods will largely be dependent on the type and density of microorganisms present,” Swanson says. “With trillions of bacteria already inhabiting the gut, billions are usually necessary for health promotion. These product shortcomings in regard to bacterial counts will most certainly reduce their likelihood of providing benefits.”

The news release continues:

When the research team compared the bacteria in their samples against the ones listed on the label, there were distinct discrepancies. Some species were missing altogether, while others were present but unlisted. All five products contained, but didn’t list, Streptococcus salivarius. And four out of five contained Lactobacillus paracasei.

Both species are common starter strains in the production of yogurts and other fermented foods. Because those bacteria are relatively safe and may contribute to the health benefits of fermented foods, Swanson says it’s not clear why they aren’t listed on the labels.

Although the study only tested five products, Swanson suggests the results are emblematic of a larger issue in the fermented foods market.

“Even though fermented foods and beverages have been important components of the human food supply for thousands of years, few well-designed studies on their composition and health benefits have been conducted outside of yogurt. Our results underscore just how important it is to study these products,” he says. “And given the absence of regulatory scrutiny, consumers should be wary and demand better-quality commercial fermented foods.”