Fermentation is cloaked in mystery for many — it’s bubbly, slimy, stinky and not always Instagram-ready. In The Fermentation Association’s recent member survey, this lack of

understanding of fermentation and its flavor and health attributes among consumers was cited by 70% of producers as a major obstacle to increased sales and acceptance of fermented products.

“We get so many questions from our readers about fermentation. People are very interested, but have very, very little knowledge about it,” says Anahad O’Connor, reporter for The New York Times. O’Connor has written about fermented foods multiple times in the last few months, and those articles were among The Times’ most emailed pieces of 2021. “I think there’s a huge opportunity to educate consumers about fermented foods, their impact on the gut and health in general.”

O’Connor spoke on consumer education as part of a panel of experts during TFA’s conference, FERMENTATION 2021. Panelists — who included a producer, retailer, scientist, educator and journalist — agreed consumer education is lacking. But the methods of how to fill that gap are contested.

How to Tell Consumers “What is a Fermented Food?”

There are differences between what is a fermented product and what is not — a salt brine vs. vinegar brine pickle, or a kombucha made with a SCOBY or one from a juice concentrate, for example.

“I can tell you that the majority of our customers do not even know [what is a] fermented item,” says Emilio Mignucci, vice president of Philadelphia gourmet store Di Bruno Bros., which specializes in cheese and charcuterie. When customers sample products at the store, they can easily taste the differences between a fermented and a non-fermented product, Mignucci says. But he feels the health benefits behind that fermented product are not the retailer’s responsibility to communicate. “I need you guys [producers] to help me deliver the message.” 

“Retailers like myself, buyers, we want to learn more to be able to champion [fermented foods] because, let’s face it, fermented foods is a category that’s getting better and better for us as retailers and we want to speak like subject matter experts and help our guests understand.”

Now — when fermentation tops food lists and gut health is mainstream — is the time for education.

“This microbiome world that we’re in right now is sort of a really opportune moment to really help the public understand what fermented foods are beyond health,” says Maria Marco, PhD, professor of food science at the University of California, Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board Member).

Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) created a Code of Practice to address confusion over what is or is not a kombucha. KBI is taking the approach that all kombucha is good, pasteurized or not, because it’s moving consumers away from sugar- and additive-filled sodas and energy drinks. 

“That said, consumers deserve the right to know why is this kombucha at room temperature and this kombucha is in the fridge and why does this kombucha have a weird, gooey SCOBY in it and this one is completely clear,” says Hannah Crum, president of KBI. “They start to get confused when everything just says the word ‘kombucha’ on it.”

KBI encourages brewers to be transparent with consumers. Put on the label how the kombucha is made, then let consumers decide what brand they want to buy.

Should Fermented Products Make Health Claims?

Drew Anderson, co-founder and CEO of producer Cleveland Kitchen (and also on TFA’s Advisory Board), says when they were first designing their packaging in 2013, they were advised against using the term “crafted fermentation” on their label because it would remind consumers of beer or wine. But nowadays, data shows 50% of consumers associate the term fermentation with health.

“In the last five to six years, it’s changed dramatically and people are associating fermentation as being good for them, which is good for my products,” he says.

Cleveland Kitchen, though, does not make health claims on their fermented sauerkraut, kimchi and dressings. Anderson says, as a small startup, they don’t have the resources to fund their own research. They instead attract customers with bold taste and striking packaging.

“We’re extremely cautious on what we say on the package because we don’t have an army of lawyers like Kevita (Pepsi’s Kombucha brand), we don’t have the Pepsi legal team backing us here,” Anderson says. Cleveland Kitchen submits new packaging designs in advance to regulators, to make sure they’re legally acceptable before rolling them out. 

O’Connor says taste is the No. 1 driver for consumers. This is why healthful but sticky and stinky natto (fermented soybeans) is not a popular dish in America, but widely consumed in Japan. 

“Many American consumers, unfortunately, aren’t going to gravitate toward that, despite the health benefits,” he says. 

Crum disagrees. “Health comes first,” she says. As more and more kombucha brands emphasize lifestyle, and don’t even advertise their health benefits, she feels they are doing a disservice to the consumer. “Why pay that much money for kombucha if you don’t know it’s good for you too?”

Microbes on our bodies outnumber our human cells. Can we improve our health using microbes?

“(Humans) are minuscule compared to the genetic content of our microbiomes,” says Maria Marco, PhD, professor of food science at the University of California, Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board Member). “We now have a much better handle that microbes are good for us.” 

Marco was a featured speaker at an Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) webinar, “What’s What?! Probiotics, Postbiotics, Prebiotics, Synbiotics and Fermented Foods.” Also speaking was Karen Scott, PhD, professor at University of Aberdeen, Scotland, and co-director of the university’s Centre for Bacteria in Health and Disease.

While probiotic-containing foods and supplements have been around for decades – or, in the case of fermented foods, tens of thousands of years – they have become more common recently . But “as the terms relevant to this space proliferate, so does confusion,” states IAFNS. 

Using definitions created by the International Scientific Association for Postbiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), Marco and Scott presented the attributes of fermented foods, probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics and postbiotics.  

The majority of microbes in the human body are in the digestive tract, Marco notes: “We have frankly very few ways we can direct them towards what we need for sustaining our health and well being.” Humans can’t control age or genetics and have little impact over environmental factors. 

What we can control, though, are the kinds of foods, beverages and supplements we consume.

Fermented Foods

It’s estimated that one third of the human diet globally is made up of fermented foods. But this is a diverse category that shares one common element: “Fermented foods are made by microbes,” Marco adds. “You can’t have a fermented food without a microbe.”

This distinction separates true fermented foods from those that look fermented but don’t have microbes involved. Quick pickles or cucumbers soaked in a vinegar brine, for example, are not fermented. And there are fermented foods that originally contained live microbes,  but where those microbes are killed during production — in sourdough bread, shelf-stable pickles and veggies, sausage, soy sauce, vinegar, wine, most beers, coffee and chocolate. Fermented foods that contain live, viable microbes include yogurt, kefir, most cheeses, natto, tempeh, kimchi, dry fermented sausages, most kombuchas and some beers. 

“There’s confusion among scientists and the public about what is a fermented food,” Marco says.

Fermented foods provide health benefits by transforming food ingredients, synthesizing nutrients and providing live microbes.There is some evidence  they aid digestive health (kefir, sourdough), improve mood and behavior (wine, beer, coffee), reduce inflammatory bowel syndrome (sauerkraut, sourdough), aid weight loss and fight obesity (yogurt, kimchi), and enhance immunity (kimchi, yogurt), bone health (yogurt, kefir, natto) and the cardiovascular system (yogurt, cheese, coffee, wine, beer, vinegar). But there are only a few studies on humans  that have examined these topics. More studies of fermented foods are needed to document and prove these benefits.

Probiotics 

Probiotics, on the other hand, have clinical evidence documenting their health benefits. “We know probiotics improve human health,” Marco says. 

The concept of probiotics dates back to the early 20th century, but the word “probiotic” has now become a household term. Most scientific studies involving probiotics look at their benefit to the digestive tract, but new research is examining their impact on the respiratory system and in aiding vaginal health.

Probiotics are different from fermented foods because they are defined at the strain level and their genomic sequence is known, Marco adds. Probiotics should be alive at the time of consumption in order to provide a health benefit.

Postbiotics

Postbiotics are dead microorganisms. It is a relatively new term — also referred to as parabiotics, non-viable probiotics, heat-killed probiotics and tyndallized probiotics — and there’s emerging research around the health benefits of consuming these inanimate cells. 

“I think we’ll be seeing a lot more attention to this concept as we begin to understand how probiotics work and gut microbiomes work and the specific compounds needed to modulate our health,” according to Marco.

Prebiotics

Prebiotics are, according to ISAPP, “A substrate selectively utilized by host microorganisms conferring a health benefit on the host.”

“It basically means a food source for microorganisms that live in or on a source,” Scott says. “But any candidate for a prebiotic must confer a health benefit.”

Prebiotics are not processed in the small intestine. They reach the large intestine undigested, where they serve as nutrients for beneficial microorganisms in our gut microbiome.

Synbiotics

Synbiotics are mixtures of probiotics and prebiotics and stimulate a host’s resident bacteria. They are composed of live microorganisms and substrates that demonstrate a health benefit when combined.

Scott notes that, in human trials with probiotics, none of the currently recognized probiotic species (like lactobacilli and bifidobacteria) appear in fecal samples existing probiotics.

“There must be something missing in what we’re doing in this field,” she says. “We need new probiotics. I’m not saying existing probiotics don’t work or we shouldn’t use them. But I think that now that we have the potential to develop new probiotics, they might be even better than what we have now.”

She sees great potential in this new class of -biotics. 

Both Scott and Marco encouraged nutritionists to work with clients on first  improving their diets before adding supplements. The -biotics stimulate what’s in the gut, so a diverse diet is the best starting point.

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

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

Cultured History

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Defining & Demystifying

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

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

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

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

Fermentation in 2022

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

Fermented foods could also make their way into dietary guidelines.

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

The Dodo of Gastronomic History

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

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

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

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

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

Read more (Smithsonian Magazine)

Infant “Alt-Formula”

By using precision fermentation, food technology company Helaina is manufacturing proteins nearly identical to those in human breast milk.. And they’ve raised $20 million in their first round of funding.

“We’ve seen a lot of innovation and advancement in the alternative meat and dairy space; however, the infant formula category has been stagnant for decades. I’m proud to be part of the team bringing a new solution to parents that empowers and equips them with more choice in their infant’s nutrition,” said Laura Katz (pictured). Katz, who also teaches food science at New York University, founded Helaina in 2019.

According to a press release: “To-date, precision fermentation has been used to manufacture proteins which enhance foods’ sensory profiles. Helaina is looking beyond sensory properties by leveraging their proprietary fermentation platform to unlock a suite of functional proteins that are clinically proven to boost immunity.”
Helaina bills itself as the “first company to bring human proteins to food,” but they’re not the only one using similar technology for infant formula.ByHeart and Biomilq are developing products that mimic the proteins in breast milk.

Read more (PR Newswire)

Fermented foods have had an impact on human evolution, and they continue to affect social dynamics, according to a new collection of 16 studies in the journal Current Anthropology. This research explores how “microbes are the unseen and often overlooked figures that have profoundly shaped human culture and influenced the course of human history.”

The journal’s special edition, Cultures of Fermentation, features work from multiple disciplines: microbiology, cultural anthropology, archaeology and biological anthropology. Researchers were based all over the globe.

“Humans have a deep and complex relationship with microbes, but until recently this history has remained largely inaccessible and mostly ignored within anthropology,” reads the introduction, Cultures of Fermentation: Living with Microbes. “Fermentation is at the core of food traditions around the world, and the study of fermentation crosscuts the social and natural sciences.”

The impetus for the articles was a 2019 symposium organized by the non-profit Wenner-Gren Foundation. This organization aims to bring together scholars to debate and discuss topics in anthropology.

“Fermentation is at the core of food traditions around the world, and the study of fermentation crosscuts the social and natural sciences,” the introduction continues. The aim of the symposium and corresponding research was to “foster interdisciplinary conversations integral to understanding human-microbial cultures. By bridging the fields of archaeology, cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, microbiology, and ecology, this symposium will cultivate an anthropology of fermentation.”

Here is a listing the included studies:

  • Predigestion as an Evolutionary Impetus for Human Use of Fermented Food (Katherine R. Amato,Elizabeth K. Mallott, Paula D’Almeida Maia, and Maria Luisa Savo Sardaro). Using research on nonhuman primates, researchers conclude that “fermentation played a central role in enabling our earliest ancestors to survive in the forested grasslands in Africa where key anatomical features of our species emerged. Fermentation occurs spontaneously in nature. Most nonhuman primates cannot metabolize fermented products, but humans evolved the capacity to use them as fuel. …By breaking down tough and toxic plant species, fermentation helped humans meet the caloric requirements associated with their growing brains and shrinking guts. These anatomical changes both stemmed from and fueled the emergence of collective forms of know-how — microbial and human cultures fed on one another, in this view of the human past.”
  • Toward a Global Ecology of Fermented Foods (Robert R. Dunn, John Wilson, Lauren M. Nichols, and Michael C. Gavin). This ecological view of fermentation maps the “emergence and divergence of the world’s many varieties of fermented foods.” 
  • Cultured Milk: Fermented Dairy Foods along the Southwest Asian–European Neolithic Trajectory (Eva Rosenstock, Julia Ebert, and Alisa Scheibner). Using archaeological evidence of fermentation, researchers track the “emergence of lactase persistence in sites where dairying made an early appearance. It appears that people ate cheese and yoghurt well before they drank milk: only a small subsection of the human population retains the enzymes needed to digest lactose into adulthood.”

FERMENTATION 2021 Wrap-Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Brewing Coffee-Farming Crisis

Many pressures are building on coffee farmers, making their jobs increasingly difficult. Climate change is causing numerous impacts — temperatures are rising, rainfall is increasingly unpredictable, weather can swing from drought to flood, and new crop pests are emerging. And these problems are on top of existing environmental concerns, as growing coffee requires large amounts of water. 

Further, studies show that, even with “modest declines of greenhouse gas emissions, about 50 percent of the land with conditions suitable for growing the two main species of coffee, arabica and robusta, which account for 99 percent of commercial supply, ‘could disappear by 2050.’ Brazil and Vietnam, major producing countries, would be especially hard hit.”


The Times details several organizations’ efforts to aid coffee farmers by restoring and protecting water resources, supporting more efficient use of water, improving crop yields with targeted fertilization and starting a global breeding network for new coffee species that can withstand tough climates.

Read more (The New York Times)

Applications are being accepted for the 2022 Glenn Gibson Early Career Researcher Prize, sponsored by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP). The winner will receive $1,500 U.S. cash and an invitation to present at the 2022 ISAPP annual meeting. Click here for application details, due Nov. 19.

In 2021, ISAPP launched the Early Career Researcher Prize. As this initiative was spearheaded by ISAPP co-founder and longtime board member Prof. Glenn Gibson, this award was renamed to honor him: “Glenn Gibson Early Career Researcher Prize”. The intent of this award is to recognize excellence in research in early career researchers in the fields of probiotics, prebiotics, synbiotics, postbiotics or fermented foods.

A research team has made the first comprehensive analysis of Mexico’s traditional ferments. Utilizing the country’s native cacti, agaves and maize, these diverse beverages are unique to their region. But they are poorly studied, and some are endangered as they fall out of style with younger generations.

“Many of Mexico’s finest microbiologists and ethnobotanists are giving ever-greater attention to this fascinating but once-forgotten foodscape, but even they are willing to admit that we’re just beginning to scratch below the surface of understanding all the biodiversity in these bottles of blessed ferment,” says Gary Paul Nabhan, research scientist at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona (U of A). 

Researchers in various disciplines (microbiology, ethnoecology and genetics) from five different schools (U of A and four universities in Mexico) took part in the study. The results, Traditional Fermented Beverages of Mexico: A Biocultural Unseen Foodscape, are published in the international journal Foods

Sixteen traditional Mexican fermented beverages were identified: tepache, pulque, hobo, Mexican wines, colonche, nawait, pozol, sidra, tejuino, tesgüino, taberna, cocoyol, tuba, Mexican palm wine, balché and xtabentún. Those 16 drinks were made from 143 plant species and include 102 genre of microorganisms.

In each region, “a distinctive set of plant roots, leaves, fruits and stems were added as fermentation catalysts, flavorants, colorants and stabilizers,” reads the U of A press release. “A large number of bacterial strains and yeasts — in addition to common brewer’s yeasts and water kefir grains — enabled the nutritional transformation of these raw materials into a wide array of unique nutritionally rich, probiotic beverages.” The team mapped the regional variations and ecological niches of the fermented drinks.

Sustainable Future

The study notes this level of analysis is “indispensable” to promote fair trade and sustainable food production. Industrial mezcal, for example, has created a monoculture of blue agave, and farm labor often works in exploitative conditions.

“These products have been embedded as part of the daily lives of many people, including those currently marginalized rural or Indigenous groups,” the study reads. “The diversity of fermented products is an outstanding reservoir of genetic resources that has high potential to obtain secondary products such as extracts, enzymes, dyes, and others compound that can be involved in global markets and could help to solve problems such as hunger and poverty and may play a key role to reinforce cultural identity..”

Traditional Mexican fermented beverages also provide important nutrients for consumers as the globe battles a changing climate.“The naturally-occurring yeasts and kefir-like tibico grains found in association with prickly pear cacti, saguaro fruit, century plants and desert spoons (sotols) likely tolerate much higher ambient temperatures than those from the semi-arid highlands and wet tropical forests,” Nabhan explains.

Extinct Drinks

Some healthier artisanal drinks “have fallen out of fashion and face local or broad extinction,” the press release notes.  In some areas of the country, these “forgotten ferments” are still used in the home, but not commercialized. 

“Now that the days of Prohibition are over and there is a great need for arid-adapted crops with highly-efficient water use, some of these traditional agave and cactus varieties should be revived for the local production of healthful beverages,” Nabhan suggests. “In fact, traditional beverages such as tepache, tesguino and colonche have made a comeback in the Tucson, Arizona, region since it received recognition as a UNESCO City of Gastronomy. These traditional beverages are also being employed by mixologists in novel cocktails now being featured in nearly every state of Mexico.