Health and wellness professionals are recommending food and drink to aid chronic health conditions with a centuries-old cooking legacy – fermented dairy.
“Fermentation is back. In fact, we have over 10,000 years of fermentation history and we aren’t done because, right now, it is a hot culinary and nutrition topic,” said Andrew Dole, chef, dietitian and owner of BodyFuelSPN. “Today, fermented foods have found a resurging popularity. The combination is based in the unique taste profile, the artisan aura, and the health benefits that have secured fermented foods in the top spots with trend spotters.”
Dole spoke at the “Get Cultured on Fermented Dairy Foods” webinar with National Dairy Council representatives Sally Cummins and Chris Cifelli. Using independent, clinical studies, the trio highlighted how fermented dairy – especially dairy with the “nutrition powerhouse” of milk – can boost gut health, decrease inflammation and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Fermented Food Just as Important as Fiber
Fiber is the shining star of the health world to aid the complex gut microbiome, but fermented food and drink are equally as important said Cifelli, PhD, vice president of Nutrition Research for the National Dairy Council.
“When we think about food, we think about fiber and we know the benefits of fiber in terms of helping our microbiota, but we also don’t think about getting those live and active cultures the same way and we really should,” he said.
The microorganisms that come from fermented foods are just as critical as fiber. He pointed out the Live & Active Culture seal as an important indicator of how to find dairy products with good bacteria. That seal – a voluntary seal by the National Yogurt Association – identifies a yogurt product that contains at least 10 million cultures per gram at the time of manufacturing. Some yogurt brands are heat treated after fermentation, killing any good bacteria. The seal is “the industry validation of the presence and activity of significant levels of live cultures,” according to the National Yogurt Association.
Fermented Dairy as Preventative Food
The human digestive tract contains 100 trillion bacterial cells. But modern practices like sanitation, antibiotics, processed food, c-section births and baby formula use have altered microbiota composition. Cifelli said scientists still don’t understand whether disease is a cause or consequence of an imbalance of good and bad bacteria (known as dysbiosis).
Fermented dairy foods, though, are linked to numerous positive health benefits. As plant-based milk products become increasingly popular, Cifelli noted the research all studied dairy milk products. He called milk “a foundational ingredient in all fermented dairy.” The essential nutrients in milk give it a unique health profile, the reason the Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend three daily servings of dairy food.
Diabetes and cardiovascular disease – two of the major disease plaguing Americans today – both have beneficial health outcomes when a patient consumes fermented dairy products.
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Consuming more dairy products reduces risk for Type 2 Diabetes by 7%. Eating 80 grams of yogurt daily compared to 0 grams of yogurt daily reduces risk for Type 2 Diabetes by 14%.
- PLOS One (Public Library of Science): Eating 30 grams of cheese daily and 50 grams of yogurt daily reduces risk of Type 2 Diabetes by 6%.
- BMC Medicine: One serving of yogurt a day is associated with a 17% reduced risk for Type 2 Diabetes.
- American Journal of Clinical Nutrition: A high daily intake of regular-fat cheese for 12 weeks did not alter LDL cholesterol levels of metabolic syndrome, both risk marks of cardiovascular disease risk.
- European Journal of Clinical Nutrition: Cheese consumption reduces the risk of: cardiovascular disease by 10%, coronary heart disease by 14% and stroke by 10%.
- Journal of Hypertension: Higher total dairy intake (3-6 servings a day), especially in the form of yogurt (at least 5 servings a week), associated with a lower risk of incidence of high blood pressure in middle-aged and older adult men and women.
- American Journal of Hypertension: Hypertensive men and women who consumed 2 servings per week of yogurt, especially while eating a healthy diet, were at a lower risk for developing cardiovascular disease.
Cifelli called the studies “significant. He added: “there’s been a huge body of evidence looking at dairy guidelines and (diabetes and cardiovascular disease) risk. … We’re really scratching the surface of what (fermented foods) means for health in the long run.”
Incorporating Fermented Foods
Dole, a chef, said you’re “bringing science to the table when it comes to fermented dairy foods.” Fermented foods enhance food by providing an increased concentration of vitamins, adding delicious flavor and increased texture. He shared multiple recipes using yogurt. Yogurt can be used for dip, spread, sauces, dressings, soups and marinade.
“Yogurt is a culinary powerhouse, from a chef’s perspective. We’re always looking for what has the most bang for its buck in versatility, and yogurt is ready-made everything,” he said.
“The (yogurt) fermentation process from a culinary perspective that creates that lactic acid, it works to tenderize meat. Indians have used it in their tandoor for a really long time. Another reason, the sugar caramelizes…and it completely changes the flavor profile and the color. And we get the unique taste of that yogurt tang, it imparts a different balance and depth, which is something home cooks can struggle to get.”
The New York Times asks: are there benefits to drinking kombucha? The article explores hard kombucha and the health claims of drinking the fermented tea. “But for those interested in integrating a variety of microbes into their diet, Dr. Emeran Mayer, author of ‘The Mind-Gut Connection,’ recommends doing so naturally. ‘I personally drink it occasionally,’ he said. Instead of using pills or supplements, he said, alternate different fermented foods, including sauerkraut, kimchi, cultured milk products, and, yes, kombucha.
Read more (New York Times)
If just 10% of the population chooses to eat fermented foods, could the food industry be disrupted? Fermentation guru Sally Fallon says: absolutely.
“With fermented foods, you could get rid of all this huge medical industry selling you antacids and digestive aids, and this huge industry that’s grown up around IBS and celiac disease. We can destroy that industry by eating the right foods, and that means eating fermented foods,” Fallon says. The author of cookbook and nutrition guide “Nourishing Traditions” is often credited with bringing ancestral diet methods back into vogue.
Fallon, president of the Weston A. Price Foundation, founder of A Campaign for Real Milk and author of the new book “Nourishing Diets,” discussed fermentation during The Fermentation Summit. Below, selected highlights from Fallon’s interview with Paul Seelhorst, host of the summit.
Seelhorst: Tell us more about yourself and how you got into the fermentation topic.
Fallon: Well, when I was writing “Nourishing Traditions,” I wanted to make sure I was really describing traditional diets and not something people just think they are. I was very fortunate to find a book in French about fermented foods. I had never read about these before, lacto-fermented foods.
Recipes were very complicated – keep them at certain temperature for this many hours, then switch temperature for another few hours.
I kind of took this principle and worked out a way that was easy and fool-proof, using glass jars, we use way of innocuous so they don’t go bad while they’re starting to ferment.
Tried all these recipes, experiments, made children try – kids have funny stories about trying all these
The neat thing about fermentation is that it is a practice that’s traditional. When you ask traditional people why they do this, they wouldn’t know what to say or how to answer you, they just do it. But it totally accords to modern science. We have seen a complete paradigm shift in the last 20 years. In the past, bacteria were evil and they attacked us and made us sick. Now we realize that bacteria are our best friends, and we need at least 6 pounds of bacteria lining our guts in order to be healthy.
The way traditional people made sure that they had plenty of this good bacteria restocking everyday was to eat these raw fermented foods full of this healthy bacteria. They ate them in small amounts with the rest of their meals. This is how they did it, they had really healthy guts. We know when you have a healthy gut, everything goes better in life. You feel better, you digest better, you have more energy.
I recently wrote this book called “Nourishing Diets” which is about diets all over the world and what really struck me was the fermented foods. Every single culture in the world without exception eats fermented foods. Now some of these foods are pretty weird – like fermented seal flippers. Africa is the land of fermented foods. Almost everything they eat in traditional culture is fermented in Africa. They’ll kill an animals and ferment every part of the animal — the blood, the bones, the hoofs, the skin, the organ meats, the fat, the urine. Everything is fermented when they kill an animal.
Seelhorst: That’s pretty easy because its warm?
Fallon: Its warm, the bacteria like it. They have a saying – a rich man needs 10 animals to feed the wedding feast because he feeds everything fresh, but a poor man can feed the same feast with one animals because he ferments everything
Seelhorst: Do you know what they make out of urine, like a probiotic lemonade?
Fallon: I don’t know, they didn’t say. There’s two wonderful books on fermented foods – one is the “Handbook on Indigenous Fermented Foods” by Keith Steinkraus. He was at Cornell and is retired now. I fortunately talked to him while I was working on “Nourishing Traditions” and what he shows, he has a bunch of students from all over the world, especially Africa, and they do studies on the food. For example they take a food like cabbage and they’d measure the Vitamin c and the amino acids then they’d ferment it and measure it again. The vitamins goes way up – some 10-fold increase – and the amino acid increase.”
The other thing fermentation does with grains and meats, it releasees the minerals so they’re easily available.
There’s another wonderful book called “The Indigenous Fermented Foods of the Sudan: A Study in African Food and Nutrition.” The author was a student of Dr. Steinkraus. He reminds me a lot of Weston Price – he’s going to these traditional people not to, you know, lord over them and tell them how superior Western culture is. He goes with hat in hand saying “You guys have the secret here. You know how to eat; you know how to prepare food. Not only that, these foods can be done at the homestead, they can be taken to the market and sold, they are a good income for millions of people.” So he’s not pushing the industrial system, he’s pushing artisan food.” I just thought what a wonderful man, how humble. That’s how we need to come to these traditions – not how to make millions of dollars on them, but how to make a decent living for thousands of people and provide a healthy food for millions of people.”
Seelhorst: What I also like about fermentation is the sustainability aspect. People can make food sustainability and do not need fridges to keep the food good and not get it moldy.
Fallon: Foods like grains are impossible for humans to digest unless they are fermented. So many people can’t do grains, they’re sensitive to gluten. But when you ferment, as in the case of a sourdough bread or soaking your oats or pressed cakes all over the Southeast and Africa, these are fermented grains pressed into biscuits, this takes a food where most of the nutrients are unavailable to us and makes it readily available.
Seelhorst: Nowadays, people have fancy equipment to
ferment food. How did people ferment food back in the day?
Fallon: Usually they did it in large terracotta pots. And the culture was sort of in the holes of the pots, they didn’t have to add a culture, it was just hanging out there. When I started this in the late 1990s, this book I read in French was talking about these big pots. You couldn’t get these pots in the states when I was writing this book. I thought this isn’t going to work, the pots are heavy they’re expensive and they make a very large quantity which you may not be able to use. I thought we need a different method for the modern house wife or modern father. I thought “Let’s try to do this in Mason jars, the big quart jars with the wide top. Instead of having the culture hanging out in the holes, we didn’t have that. You had to add something in your culture, so that’s where we came up with adding whey. You have your cabbage or pickle or carrots or whatever it is you want to ferment, you put them in a bowl, you toss them with salt and a little bit of whey. You toss them, pound them a little bit, push them in the jar, push down heavily so the liquid comes and covers the top, this is an anerobic fermentation. Leave it at room temperature for a few days and its done.
Seelhorst: Where do people get the whey from?
Fallon: We teach people how to make it. You start with yogurt or with raw milk or something fermented like yogurt or kefir and you poor it through a fine cloth and the whey will drip out. From a quart of yogurt, you get about two and a half cups of whey. You’re only using a little bit at a time – a tablespoon or two – so that will keep a long time in the fridge. That’s your culture. There are other cultures, too. People are selling powders in culture. The only thing I would warn you is don’t try to do this without salt. Because the only time I heard about someone getting sick from fermented foods is when they didn’t use salt.
Seelhorst: Simply put – what happens during fermentation.
Fallon: What happens during fermentation is lactic acid is created by the fermentation. And in some foods, the lactic acid is already there. Like cabbage, cabbage juice is full of lactic acid. This makes whatever you’re fermenting get sour, it lowers the pH to under 4 and no pathogens can exist at a pH under 4. It makes the foods very safe and they don’t spoil after that. Lactic acid is a preservative just like alcohol is a preservative, but lactic acid doesn’t make you drunk. So, at the same time, these bacteria that are fermenting in there, they’re creating vitamins. Vitamin C, b vitamins. They’re breaking down what we call anti nutrients that block the simulation of minerals. They’re creating digestive enzymes that help you digest your food. The interesting thing is these bacteria and these enzymes do get through the stomach, they do get through and are passed into the small intestines where they are really useful. We’re not sure how that happens, they’re buffered in some way, but we do know these bacteria do get through
Seelhorst: How do you think fermented foods can fit into a modern diet.
Fallon: You can include them every day. One of my favorites foods is a fermented beet juice, I first noticed it in Germany, it’s called beet kvass. I have that every morning for breakfast. Sauerkraut is a really easy way, that’s the way most people do it, they just have sauerkraut with their meal. And then the fermented dairy foods like yogurt or kefir, those are wonderful fermented foods. You have a little bit with every meal.
Seelhorst: Are those the oldest fermented foods that we ate?
Fallon: In Europe, yes. We don’t have a tradition of eating fermented bones or fermented blood. But we definitely had fermented vegetables like sauerkraut, that dates to Roman times at least. And also fermented fish, the fish sauce, the universal seasoning, they found it in the ruins of Pompei where they were making it.
Seelhorst: What’s the difference between industrialized and self-made fermented food.
Fallon: once you industrialize something, they start to take shortcuts because they want to lower the cost. Typically, what they’ll do is eat something. So they’ll heat the sauerkraut and package it in plastic bags or something horrible or they’ll can it. So it will last forever and be shelf stable. Typically, the industry has not done genuine fermented foods because its not something that lends itself to an industrialized process. The things we consider true fermented foods in the united states, they’re being made by small companies.
Now the one exception to that might be yogurt. Yogurt is big business, it’s made by the big conglomerates. I would never even eat that yogurt because apparently the cultures are not even any good and the milk has been pasteurized.
Seelhorst: What’s your favorite fermented food.
Fallon: Kombucha. I make my own kombucha. I have a 30-day kombucha, I call it kombucha like fine champagne. It gets these tiny, tiny bubbles in it, it gets really, really sour and a little thick. I also make sauerkraut. It’s interesting – I’m a lot busier than I was when I wrote my book, I don’t have as much time as I used to have, but I still make my own fermented food. I do carrots and cabbage, I’m just about to pull some carrots and make some fermented cabbage.
I forgot to mention cheese. And cheese. Cheese is a fermented food. Here on our farm, we make cheese. I’d have to say cheese is my favorite fermented food. And also, traditionally made salami. A charcuterie is fermented. They hung these sausages up and fermented them. So they are fermented foods, they’re full of bacteria, good bacteria. They should be kind of sour, they’re very good for you.
Seelhorst: Do you want to add anything for people that just found the Fermentation Summit and may not know what fermentation is, they want to try it
Fallon: I will say this – you don’t have to make it yourself, there’s a lot available, in the states there’s now hundreds of artisan producers making sauerkraut. I love to see that – I love to seen an individual be able to start a little business without a big capital investment and make food that’s really good for people and make a decent living. Here on our farm, we have a store and we sell sauerkraut made by a Russian lady who has just made a wonderful living doing this. I love to see that. Just like artisan cheese. I love see small production of cheese; I love small production of fermented goods. Bread is another one, we now have a lot of artisan bread makers. This is the future of food – its sustainable food, its moral food, its food that makes you healthy, its good for the economy, it keeps the money in your community. I think people need to realize that every morsel of food they put in their mouth is a political act. It’s a decision they make. What are you going to support? Are you going to support Monsanto and Kraft and Unilever? These huge corporations who don’t care about you at all, all they care about is making a profit. Or are you going to support local artisan producers? People just like you making a decent living and providing a healthy food. And you’re also deciding whether you’re going to put something healthy or unhealthy in your body and in your children’s bodies. The traditional cultures, they had no choices in what they ate. They ate what was there, they ate according to their traditions. Today, we are not traditional people. We have left all that behind. We have to think what we eat, everything we eat is a choice. They didn’t have a choice, they just had healthy food. Now we always have this choice between healthy artisan food and unhealthy corporate food. So what kind of society do you want to live in?
Dietician Lisa Valente writes in Eating Well the seven must-eat fermented foods for a healthy gut. Her list features: sauerkraut, kimchi, kefir, kombucha, miso, tempeh and yogurt. She writes: “Fermented foods are a hot health topic—and for good reasons. These good bacteria—particularly those in our gut—may improve digestion, boost immunity and help us maintain a healthy weight. Research is still emerging on just how important these mighty microbes might be for our health, but the early results are promising. Take care of your gut, and in turn, it will take help take care of you.”
Read more (Eating Well)
One question commonly posed by consumers starting to eat fermented products: How do I incorporate fermentation into my daily meals?
Alana Holloway, founder of Fermented By Lab, provides a great overview on how she uses fermented food and drinks. Hollaway’s food diary illustrates that it’s possible to include fermentation as a key element to every meal. Her simple meals are easy, delicious and highlight ways the average consumer can pair fermented food and drink with their regular food. Her dairy is also a great example of creative marketing fermented food brands can use to showcase ways to use their food.
Here’s Alana’s food diary, showcasing what she eats to keep her gut in good health.
Approach to food: I love to eat intuitively, according to the seasons… not only that, but according to the weather and how I’m feeling on any given day. After a lifelong battle with eczema, I have now found the key to managing it with the right foods for my body, and a complimentary lifestyle, too. I like to maintain a balanced, healthy gut and so eat/drink ferments every day… just as well I run a company that makes them!
DAY 1 – FRIDAY
I tend to start day with about a pint of warm water. I really find it gives me immediate energy following sleep. I’m really not a lover of cold water, so will always drink it at room temperature or warm/hot.
I usually have breakfast about 10.30 as I struggle to eat too early in the morning. I like to allow my body time to build up a good hunger! Now that Spring is here, I’ve swapped my porridge for smoothies. This morning’s is organic cooked beetroot (I cook up a batch and then freeze it for smoothies), organic frozen strawberries from last Summer, a green banana, which is a great source of prebiotic fibre, coconut yoghurt, goats milk Kefir for the all-important probiotics, Plenish cashew milk (my favourite) and a little raw honey for a some more prebiotic love! I also take an omega 3 supplement; generally speaking, I’m not a massive supplement advocate and prefer to get what I need from my diet, but as I am prone to really dry skin, I find this one helps.
I grab a small handful of Brazil nuts as I head out the door.
At 1pm I have a chunk of goats Gouda and another pint on warm water whilst waiting for my lunch to cook. I can tell it’s going to be a hungry day for me today!
At 1.30, I have a lunch of sliced avocado roasted chickpeas with nigella seeds, soft boiled egg, roasted sweet potato, Fennel + Lemon Kraut from the Fermented by LAB Spring Collection, steamed broccoli & kale.
3.30 small glass of Kombucha as I need a bit of a kick!
At 7pm I have dinner – it’s lentil Dahl with Carrot + Coriander Kraut from last year’s Autumn Box (one of my favourite things about fermenting foods is getting to eat them months later!)
I drink a Golden Mylk before bed and soak some oats for tomorrow morning’s porridge… I mentioned Spring too early and hear it’s due to snow tomorrow!
DAY 2 – SATURDAY
10am – I start the day with two huge mugs of warm/hot water again and follow it with the porridge I soaked last night. I always soak my grains/pulses/legumes to make them easier on my digestive system. My porridge toppings are roasted rhubarb, coconut yoghurt, a little raw honey and some chopped Brazil’s.
3pm – Lunch is a chunk of goat’s milk Gouda (I can’t get enough of it!) and roasted broccoli, carrot, fennel, sweet potato and nigella seeds with a soft-boiled egg (again!) Despite it being the weekend, I’m working and need something easy to cook which doesn’t require too much thought!
5pm – I have a bottle of Red Grapefruit + Rosemary Kefir from the Spring Box. I’m lucky enough to be able to delve into a good selection of seasonal ferments… it means I don’t get bored with eating the same Kraut all the time!
7pm – I try to stop eating by 8pm so that I can give my digestive system a break overnight. As I had a late lunch, I’m not overly hungry so make a beetroot, carrot (both cooked and frozen), blackcurrant, green banana and goats kefir smoothie and have a mug of chicken bone broth.
I drink a small Golden Milk just before bed. They really relax me and as I have a history of eczema, find they really help keep my inflammation at bay.
Best piece of advice about health + wellbeing?
Don’t search for all the answers in one place. Every day, I try to remind myself that it’s not just about a healthy diet, a good exercise regimen, good quality sleep or daily meditation practice, for example, it’s a combination of all of them that allows you to live your healthiest and happiest life.
Ask Lauren Mones for business advice and the founder of Fermenting Fairy will say “go grassroots.” In less than two years, Mones has grown her home-based business selling bottles of kefir outside a yoga studio to a USDA certified organic brand sold in dozens of Los Angeles health food stores and online.
Success, Mones says, did not come because she implemented scaling tactics or hired a sales manager. Instead, Mones did everything in the beginning – producing, packing, selling, inventory, money management – so she quickly learned how to troubleshoot.
“You as the founder should do everything for the business in the beginning,” She said. “When you start expanding and hiring on people, you know the pitfalls and blackholes. It’s harder. You’re going to put in a lot of work. But the payoff is big.”
In an increasingly corporate world where consumers want to support local brands, staying grassroots has been key to Fermenting Fairy’s success. Forming relationships with customers and retailers has been key for Mones to sell her coconut milk kefir, probiotic lemonade and unpasteurized sauerkraut. She still answers the company email, handles in-store demos and pitches retailers.
“What I see a lot of companies doing is they start hiring out really quickly and then they don’t see where things can go wrong, they don’t know where to create solutions,” she says. “Nowadays, customers want to support the little guys. They want artisans. They want to know who they’re buying from. And my customers know me because I answer their questions, I handle the social media account. And, if you do that, customers will go to bat for you.”
Read below for our Q&A with Mones, whose business tagline is: “A simple solution that works hard for your health.”
Q: You are open about your diagnosis with Crohn’s Disease. Tell me how that first got you interested in fermented foods.
About 5 years ago, I was actually the healthiest I’ve ever been in my life. Then, out of the blue, I was the sickest I had ever been. It was one extreme to the next. I was working full-time as an occupational therapist, racing 3-4 triathlons a year, training 20-30 hours a week plus, I was engaged to a man I loved at the time. Everything was seemingly great.
Then I started showing signs of really bad gut health. I was having bowel movements 20 times a day; I was afraid to leave the house because I never knew when I had to go. Then my bowel movements became super urgent. I was in my mid-30s and pretty much incontinent. I wasn’t absorbing any nutrients, I was losing so much weight, I could barely walk two stairs before felt like my heart was leaping out of my chest.
I finally had a colonoscopy and I was diagnosed with Chron’s. I didn’t even know what that was. The doctors told me food was irrelevant, that it had nothing to do with my disease. They said “Go eat ice cream and bread, gain your weight back.” I knew that wasn’t true. From years and years of taking part in natural, homeopathic medicine, I knew food had a lot to do with how I felt.
I went to Barnes and Noble in the cooking section and came across the book “Paleo approach.” It had a little paragraph that fermented foods might be a good idea for autoimmune diseases. I bought my first jar of good sauerkraut. I had never had good, raw sauerkraut before, just the sauerkraut you’d get at like a New York hot dog stand. I took my first bite, and it was magical. I felt this surge of energy. I felt something shift in me. I knew it was a good sign, so I started adding it 2-3 times a day to my diet. It changed my bowel movements; I was going less and less and finally had formed stools.
That really opened my eyes to fermented foods. I started making my own kefir, making my own kombucha. I was transforming my physical body. I got off all my medications after 4 months. Now fermented foods are my medicine, I don’t go a day without one of them at least.
Q: Why did you turn to live, raw fermented foods instead of a probiotic pill?
I was taking probiotic pills way before they were even a pill, starting about 25 years ago. I was getting colonics and taking probiotics before gut health was even something. I was really into natural forms of healing and optimal health. I was still taking probiotics everyday when I was diagnosed, but it occurred to me that they weren’t helping. If they were, I wouldn’t have had such a serious diagnosis. And Chrons is a serious disease.
I stopped taking the probiotic pills and turned to fermented foods because I realized, in food form, the body absorbs it better. I also really appreciated the diversity I was getting in the food, not in the pill. And it was just better for me. I loved the taste of fermented foods. Adding it to everything I ate was way easier than taking a pill. I was done with putting foreign things in my body.
Q: When did you first start Fermenting Fairy? And how?
I started in September 2017, so it’s been about 2 years. I started in this yoga studio in Santa Monica, Calif., Bhakti Yoga Shala. I had never intended to have a food company; it was never on my radar. I have always been in the health field, I’m a certified yoga teacher, but I’ve never been a foodie. When I started fermenting at home and creating these incredible recipes, I was giving food to friends, including the owner of the yoga studio. He would come back to me and say “I feel so good eating your food, why don’t you start a food company?” and I said “No way, I don’t even know how to do that.”
One day, I took a yoga class with him and I had given him this kefir. This was a big class, and he told me at the beginning in front of the class “You have to sell this, it’s so good.” About 50 people came up to me after class and asked where they could buy my food. And I thought “OK, I’ve got to start this company.”
My friend offered to have me setup a stand outside of these yoga classes. Back then, I was selling pickles and my almond kefir. I had really good responses, so I took a shot at getting into a farmers market. It happened to be one of the best farmers market — the Brentwood Farmers Market. It was serendipitous, it’s hard to get in there. And within a month I had a lot of return customers, I was selling out of products. It happened very quickly, we were doing very well off the start.
In December, I decided to fill out the Erewhon intake form online. I knew nothing about selling products in stores, I just thought “Let me try. I knew it took people 1-2 years to get into Erewhon. And then, a couple hours after I sent in the intake form, the buyer said “Wow, these look amazing — can you bring in a sample?” By February, we were in three Erehwhon stores. It was in record breaking time to get in the stores.
Eventually we pulled out of all the farmers markets and focused on wholesale. In September 2018, we started online sales so people could order from our website. And in June 2019, we received our USDA Organic certification
Q: Why do you think your products were so popular, so fast?
Because there was a major hole in the beverage sector that we fulfilled. And I honestly didn’t know that at the time. I was creating these products and these recipes for myself; it was a personal thing to heal my body. I love kefir and was playing around with non-dairy forms. I didn’t realize at the time that there was no vegan milk kefir on the market. Now the dairy industry is collapsing, more people want vegan alternatives. The other thing is our lemonade, it’s a probiotic health drink. It’s something that spans all generations that people love. We made it in a very healthy, healing way with no added sugar. I think that’s why Fermenting Fairy really took off — we fulfilled these holes that were left in the beverage industry.
Q: I love the name and logo. Tell me where the idea came from?
When I was really sick and started fermenting, I realized there was an unseen world that is working really hard in my benefit: the microorganisms, the probiotics. To me, it completely changed my life in a spiritual way. When I was really sick and in pain and constantly going to the bathroom and hating my life, those microorganisms gave me hope. It gave me hope that this reality right in front of me wasn’t it for me. There were these beings working on my behalf that brought safety and goodness to my life — like fairies. Fairies are mystical beings that bring joy and goodness to people’s lives, and I really feel that’s the energy we put into my products.
Q: Tell me about your future, where do you see Fermenting Fairy expanding?
Right now, we’re really local. We’re Los Angeles-based. we want to expand nationally and then internationally. Health stores, and then conventional stores. I would love for the entire world to get a hold of my products.
But my true, honest hope and for me the ultimate goal is to penetrate Western medicine. To get the Western doctors on board, to see my drinks on the food tray of patients at a hospital, that’s when I will really feel like I’ve done my part in shifting the world. I also see my products getting into clinical trials for cancer, autoimmune disease, researching how our products can help healing and preventing those diseases. I see a lot of research into mental health possibilities.
Q: Using fermented foods as a healing tool is very common in other countries. Why do you think the U.S. is behind in that science?
Our FDA considers fermented foods risky. Even when California passed the Cottage Food Law, which allows you to start a food company at home, the law still won’t allow you to start a fermented food company at home because they consider fermented foods a dangerous food. Things are not going to shift quickly until we realize eating fermented foods is safer than eating a salad. The U.S. is a ways behind in realizing how safe and healing fermented foods are. Europe is way ahead of us on that.
Q: What myths do you think the public believes about fermented foods?
One, that they’re dangerous. Eating raw vegetables are more dangerous than fermented foods. When done right, fermented foods actually prevent any kind of Listeria or E.coli infection.
Another myth people tell me is “I tried kombucha and didn’t like it, so I don’t like fermented foods.” To people that say that, I ask well do you like yogurt? The biome of the ocean is the same as the biome of the forest. It couldn’t be more different. If one fermented food didn’t work for you, then try some others because they’re all different.
Q: How can we as an industry do a better job educating the public about fermented foods?
Before fermented foods really exploded — because we’re right on that cusp of explosion — there needs to be a ton of education. I think having more organizations like The Fermentation Association is really amazing. You bring light to things that are happening, highlighting great companies where great things are happening.
I don’t see a lot of fermented food companies doing a lot of social media education. I’d like to see more of that, I’m diving into it myself, doing educational videos on Instagram. I’m all about education on social media.
I think it’s important for all these companies creating these ferments to try and talk to the people that are so closed off to it. I’m friends with a lot of doctors because of my job history. They have so much power and influence, but they are the most closed off people to fermented foods that I know. Penetrating that medical community will be huge for us. That education piece will unleash a whole new set of people that we can really help.
Q: Do you think consumer awareness of fermented foods is increasing?
Oh yeah, for sure. It’s definitely on the increase. I think, as gut health becomes more relevant to all health, I think fermented foods will just ride that opening. I think consumers are definitely getting more savvy in that awareness of fermented foods. But there’s still a lot of fear around it. All the time still, when I’m doing in store demos, and I say “Do you want to try a sip of kefir?” still there are people who respond “Oh my god, no.” I get that reaction all the time still and it’s so heartbreaking. Awareness is increasing, but fear is still a major factor.
Q: From your Cardamom Rose Coconut Milk Kefir to Apple Cinnamon Sauerkraut, tell me about your unique flavors. Where do you draw flavor inspiration?
Nowhere special. I love plants, I love flowers, I love herbs, I love studying the synergistic qualities of them. I know about the healing properties of plants. I’ve picked plants and herbs that not only have major healing qualities but they work well together. I don’t really get my inspiration from anyone else. It comes to me and I study what works.
I can’t think too much out of the box because it doesn’t work for people. If it’s too strange for people, it won’t sell. We had a cacao basil kefir and it was delicious, but it didn’t sell. It was an odd combination for people. They have to work together synergistically for people, and spin it so it’s right outside the box but not too far out. On July 4th, we’re launching our newest flavor kefir, a turmeric chai spice.
Q: Where do you see the future of the fermented food industry going?
I think it’s only going to go up from here. I see it really booming in a big way. I see a lot of activity happening in the future with new companies coming up on the horizon. I also am excited for the gut-brain connection, how ferments can really affect mental health disorders, like depression and bipolar and anxiety. I think that’s a field that were not even breaking into at all and it’s coming.
I think we’re pretty far from this but I think fermented foods can be incredibly potent in preventative medicine as well, like preventing certain diseases that are on the rise, like diabetes and cancer. I don’t want to make health claims, but i think that’s where we’re going with the industry.
Q: What challenges do fermented food producers face?
The No. 1 challenge is global warming. It’s harder and harder for farmers to produce the quality and quantity that we as small fermented food companies need because of the extreme weather patterns. So one day in California that’s 115 -120 degrees can completely fry all the fruit trees. Then what happens to us is we try to get this organic produce and either the prices are extremely high because of that heat or there’s no good quality produce anymore. I think it’s only going to get worse if we don’t do something about it. I see that as the No. 1 challenge for small — and even the big ones — fermented food companies in general. We have to be a part of that solution, we can’t let that go.
I am adamant about getting certified organic. And if you’re not getting organic, at least using it. A lot of fermented food companies are getting the cheap ingredients and they’re adding to the problem of global warming and poor soil health. I highly disagree with it. It’s only going to make it worse for them in the future. We’re part of the solution, if you’re not doing it for the life of your company, at least do it for the life of yourself and your customers.
Q: What unique strengths do fermented producers bring to the food industry?
I think most of us are probably nature-loving people. I think we see a connection between nature and human health, so we can be really passionate about that and passionate about elevating the quality of food that’s out there. Because now it’s poor quality food that’s out there, but artisanal, handcrafted fermented food companies can change that. Here’s really high-quality, fermented foods. The more people that catch on to that, the more people that will move away from the cheap food and to more boutique food that provide health benefits.
The strengths are loving and respecting nature, respecting the tie between human health and nature and also being super passionate about creating more quality in the food world.
As Consumer Distrust in Probiotic Pills Grows, Fermentation Brands Need to Educate on Benefits of Live Bacteria
Probiotic supplements have been the hype of the health industry for the past few years, but the rage is dissipating. Consumers are starting to distrust probiotic pills, realizing a pill alone doesn’t deliver on promised health benefits.
“The thing is, you can’t just pop in a probiotic and get better health,” said Ashley Koff, a registered dietician and CEO of the Better Nutrition Program. “Consumers are waking up to the fact that our digestive health is more complicated than this. We need to start looking beyond probiotics.”
Good gut health requires more than just a single daily probiotic pill. Fermentation brands need to consider all the nutrients needed for a healthy gut as products are evaluated, marketed and advertised.
“You’re actually not what you eat. You are what you digest and absorb…The demands of our digestive health go so far beyond the probiotics,” said Koff, who spoke at Expo West on “Gut Health Revolution: A Radical New Approach Beyond Probiotics.” “When we walk about gut health, we often think about our stomach or our colon. But what were really talking about here are a bunch of different organs. We have to nourish multiple organs with complementary nutrient demands.”
The digestive system is the core to the entire body system. Koff said: “We cannot get and stay healthy without better digestion.” Most digestive health products isolate nutrients specific to one organ, she added. So while a probiotic may help the small intestine, for example, what feeds the probiotic? What makes the probiotic thrive?
Koff said most probiotic supplements and probiotic-infused products ignore other nutrients. What about magnesium, that helps relax the digestive tract? Probiotic supplements have been marketed as a one-time solution when other critical minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, fatty acids and alkaline are just as critical for gut health.
“We want to make sure we’re getting those nutrients that nourish the microbiome,” Koff said. Live, active bacteria will nourish the good bacteria in the gut, building the immune system. “If we’re getting probiotics, we need to get in prebiotics as well.”
Probiotics made $2 billion in sales in 2018, but their sales are slowing. Prebiotics, however, are doubling sales growth.
Simply put, prebiotics are the foods microbes in the gut like to eat. Mayco Clinic describes prebiotics as “specialized plant fibers (that) act like fertilizers that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.” Probiotics, on the other hand, are living organisms in specific straings of bacteria. Fermented foods are full of live, active cultures, like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.
Koff said people shouldn’t be getting all their prebiotics from a supplement. Most prebiotics should come from food.
“It should be deliciously easy for us to get the nutrients that help our gut,” Koff said. “No supplement in the world can override a poor-quality diet. …That’s why it’s so important when you look at a prebiotic that you’re looking at something that’s a whole food, (especially) if a whole food gets fermented.”
Relying on food for all nutrients, though, is hard for the majority of people, Koff revealed. If your probiotic choice is granola, for example, are you going to continue eating that same granola and that same service every day to consistently meet your probiotic needs? And a very small number of people actually eat gut-boosting foods daily. “I find that’s a limiting factor,” Koff said.
Koff specifically touted Country Life’s new line of digestive aids, called Gut Connection. The prebiotics contain EpiCor, a whole food prebiotic. The Gut Connection line contains eight products consumers can take for their needs, like balancing digestive, mood, sleep, stress or weight. Country Life sponsored Koff’s education session.
Craft brewers are catering to a new beer drinker: healthy, active lifestyle drinkers. Though craft brewers are thriving, it’s a smart adaption to add low calorie beers to their products. A study found 52 percent of beer drinkers want to reduce their alcohol consumption this year, the top reason being: “opting for healthier lifestyle.” Beer brands have often ignored the development of watery, light beers. But as millennials – who drove craft brewery growth – enter their 30s and focus on health and wellness, lower calorie beers are becoming an important part of breweries flavor lineup.
Read more (New York Times)
Seniors are driving the kefir market, a surprising industry stat since marketing of the fermented dairy drink is targeted at millennials. But new research from the Grocer found 40 percent of kefir sales in the UK were consumed by adults over the age of 65. People aged 16 to 44 accounted for 27.9 percent of kefir consumption. Analysts speculate its because kefir is likely to be consumed for particular health needs, which range from bone-strengthening nutrients to digestive aids, all factors people focus on as they age. “Add that the fermentation process makes it much easier to digest – because humans lose some of the ability to digest cows milk beyond age three – and even in the absence of multimillion-pound marketing budgets, the word of mouth marketing has spread like wildfire,” Bio-tiful Dairy founder Natasha Bowes.
Read more (The Grocer)
When Katherine Harmon Courage began investigating the microbiome 10 years ago as a writer for Scientific American, gut health was barely a blip on the public’s radar. It’s hard to believe today. You can’t walk by a grocery store shelf without reading dozens of labels advertising probiotic health benefits.
Today, gut health is at the forefront of the food industry. The probiotics supplement market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 9.7 percent in the next seven years. And the market for probiotic-rich fermented foods is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.98 percent in the next five years.
Gut health research from scientists and dieticians surged in the past decade. Courage was fascinated. “Looking at the food around the world and the connection between our ancient diet and microbes, that is really, really exciting,” she says. Courage spent a year travelling the world, exploring the traditional, gut-friendly cuisine of different cultures. She paired her culinary investigation with modern science into an engaging book: “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome.”
Below, highlights from a Q&A with Courage on her new book, and her findings on the fermentation industry’s role in American’s evolving diets.
Q: You have been covering the microbiome since 2009. How has the scientific research progressed?
When I started covering it, there were small studies here and there, a lot from the Human Microbiome Project. Researchers were taking a census at the time, that we share our body with trillions of organisms. It was this niche area that I found super fascinating, but no one was talking about it much.
In the past decade, so much has changed. Science has evolved so much to learn about the connection between our health and our microbiome. We were raised to think germs are bad, bugs are bad, but we live with these commensal organisms.
Q: The food industry is taking notice of this research. What do you think of so many food products marketed with a gut health focus?
Talking to researchers, it’s interesting to see their perspective as scientists. They see the extreme of people thinking probiotics and microbes that are a marketing ploy to other people thinking probiotics and microbes will cure every health issue under the sun.
Microbiologists look at this critically. We’ve seen positive impacts on our health from it, but it won’t solve everything. We’re just at the beginning of understanding this relationship between these amazing and delicious fermented foods and our health.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about microbes and our microbiome?
One of the misconceptions — and the one I had when I was thinking about this book — was the notion that if we eat something labeled probiotic, like a cup of yogurt, that we’re reinoculating our gut and restoring our gut health. Like if we eat a cup of yogurt, we’re good to go.
These microbes that we eat don’t stick around permanently. They’re just along for the ride. Weeks after we consume these, they’re not there anymore. When I learned this, I thought “There goes my research.” But when I looked into it more, in traditional culture and cuisines, people are eating fermented foods all the time, every day. It’s not about that one special food you eat or that one magic pill. It’s having those foods part of your daily cuisine and part of your life.
It’s great for fermentation producers. You don’t eat one jar of kimchi and call it good — you need to keep integrating it into your diet.
Q: Can a pill really fix our gut health?
Not being a scientist, I can’t say if it will or won’t fix our gut health. But talking to microbiologists who study this, it really is about exposing our bodies to these bacteria. We live our lives in such clean and pasteurized lives that we don’t get that microbial exposure. Their perspective is eating as many bugs, exposing ourselves to as many bugs, it will have a positive impact on our immune system as long as we’re healthy. A lot of the probiotic pills have been studied and they have positive health correlations, but we’re still learning so much about it.
Eating fermented foods, especially wild fermented foods, can be even more beneficial. Microbiologists and researchers in this field are really just starting to see what microbes are beneficial to our health. We can expose our bodies to more microbes through wild fermented foods because they’re so much more complex and have so many more microbes, rather than a yogurt with just three different microbes in it. We’re getting so much exposure through wild fermented foods.
Q: Why is it bad if we don’t properly feed our microbiome?
There’s the old friends hypothesis which is similar to the hygiene hypothesis. Our bodies have evolved to expect microbial exposure. But now our immune systems have gotten on this overactive trajectory, attacking these things they don’t need to.
We need to remember our native gut microbes, to feed them the nutrients they need to thrive. When we don’t feed our native microbes the fiber they need to thrive, they’ll eat the mucus lining in our gut, leading to more inflammation and asthma. We need to eat more microbes and feed the native microbes we do have.
Q: Can our native microbes change if we don’t feed them?
There’s been some interesting research out of Stanford’s Sonnenburg Lab. Mice fed on a diet with less fiber tend to have decreased microbiomes. Over generations, as the mice have pups, they pass that microbiome on to their pups. Generations later, these pups have super impoverished microbiomes. And they can’t come back and have a healthy microbiome by feeding them more fiber.
Q: Fermented foods are making waves in the food industry as the next big superfood. Tell me about fermented food in the book?
For the book, I got tor travel all over and explore these different cultures that have different fermented food traditions. I picked four main food places with quintessential fermented food — Greece to research yogurt, Korea to research kimchi, Japan to research miso and Switzerland to research cheese.
One of the cool discoveries I made travelling to these places was I discovered other aspects of the local diet that nourish the microbiome, other fermented foods and whole foods. These countries have different ways of thinking about eating than we do in America.
Q: What was the most eye-opening aspect of exploring other culture’s cuisine?
There were a couple. One, touring one of the big food markets in Seoul, Korea. Kimchi is their national food, but I was shown all these different fermented foods, different sauces, fermented soybean paste similar to miso, fermented veggies. It permeates their culture. Looking from far away in American grocery stores and farmers markets, you wouldn’t see it.
Second, in Japan, speaking with another author, we were talking about nato. Some people find nato challenging because it’s made with basic fermentation rather than acidic fermentation. The Japanese approach to fermented food, they teach at a very young age that “This is a wonderful, healthy food.” In America, we teach food as “Try this because it’s gratifying and yummy.” There’s this dichotomy of healthy foods versus gratifying goods. In Japan, there’s more of an understanding that there’s a wide variety of foods and you’re expected to eat all of them because that’s how you have a healthy life.
Q: Do you think this surge of fermented foods is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?
It’s here to stay. I expect to see it expanding and incorporating into more people’s lives. There is really compelling research with the health benefits, but there’s also these amazing flavors for those of us who weren’t raised with it. Like kimchi. Once you eat kimchi, food seems bland and lacking without it. Koreans describe it as “You need kimchi with every meal.” They can’t imagine eating it without. The flavor and texture experience is a big part of eating. We shouldn’t be forcing it down for our health, but truly enjoying it.
Q: Ancient foods are making an appearance in our diet again. Tell me what you found most fascinating in your research for this book on ancient foods.
One of the interesting things was how they are being incorporated into contemporary culture and cuisine. I went to a fermentation based restaurant in Tokyo, and I talked to the chef about how he’s integrating more traditional practices into contemporary cuisine and making very elegant meals out of them.
Q: Tell me more about your travels to Greece to learn about traditional yogurt. Modern yogurt is often criticized for the scientifically added probiotics. What did you find about traditional yogurt?
My image of yogurt was this fermented product with a few strains. But I wondered, with fermented yogurt products, are they just dumping strains in after they produced it?
Touring a family-owned, small-scale yogurt making facility in Greece, it was interesting seeing their process. They use backslopping, which is using part of the previous batch to inoculate the next batch. Traditionally, that was the way all of these products were made. It makes a richer microbial environment. We don’t know what strains are in it unless it’s sent off to a lab. Their strains come from the batch before and the batch before. Their yogurt would have strains unique to that product since they’ve made it for decades in that same place.
Q: Can better gut health help Americans notoriously destructive eating habits?
I think one of the keys is getting more fiber, especially prebiotic fiber from whole foods, not just a supplement, to really nourish a diverse gut microbiome. And, of course, eating more fermented foods.