A Japanese study published in the British Medical Journal found that people eating higher amounts of fermented soy products (like miso and natto) reduce their mortality risk. Participants with the highest intakes of fermented soy had a 10% lower risk, compared with those who had the lowest intakes. For participants who ate a lot of soy products that were not fermented, no significant association was found between intake of soy products and mortality rate.

Read more (British Medical Journal)

Kombucha has its first international holiday. On February 21, kombucha brewers and consumers around the world will celebrate World Kombucha Day.

Kombucha dates back over 2,000 years to 221 B.C. The fermented tea is one of the fastest growing beverages in the world. Kombucha is estimated to reach $3.5 billion in international sales by 2025, with one third of that  in U.S. sales. Hannah Crum, founder and president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), a non-profit trade association (and an affiliate of TFA), believes 2020 will be the decade kombucha becomes mainstream.

Educating the public, though, is the key step to making kombucha a recognized wellness drink. KBI began the World Kombucha Day initiative and is encouraging brands to host events, offer free tastings and partner with retails for in-store promotions.

Since KBI started six years ago, Crum has watched the small kombucha labels that joined KBI transform into big brands. She sees the kombucha industry growing not with big kombucha labels but with small craft brands. If consumers in small towns all over the world start purchasing kombucha, local producers will need to drive that growth, Crum adds.

“And it opens the door for all these other fermented products to come in,” Crum adds. “Drinking vinegar, shrubs, water kefir, even sauerkraut and fermented vegetables. Local brands will drive the entire fermented food and drink category.”

Below, a Q&A with Crum on World Kombucha Day and how kombucha can maintain their growth momentum. 

Question: Why a World Kombucha Day?

Hannah Crum: Kombucha’s mythological origins hearken back to 221 BC in China. The Chinese are famous for their quest for longevity with their elixirs. It’s been part of the story of kombucha, this mythological origin. So 221, at least in the American system, translates to February 21st. What better year to launch it than in 2020.

Why World Kombucha Day? To celebrate the culture of kombucha. Obviously drinking a commercial brand is how I first heard about kombucha. It’s how most people first experience kombucha, even though home brewing has been around for a long time. It’s a way for people to raise awareness about kombucha, to be excited about what it is, to honor its Asian roots, and to really help more people know about kombucha.

This is the decade when kombucha becomes a household name. Launching this world kombucha day in 2020, in this decade, is that first step towards building excitement around kombucha. Not just the drink being trendy, because i think it’s going to last longer than a trend. It’s getting more people to wake up to how wonderful this product is. 

We think of kombucha as a gateway. Kombucha isn’t an end point. We don’t stop at kombucha, we start with kombucha. From kombucha, people move to other products in the fermentation association, now it’s sauerkraut and kimchi and kvas and water kefir. I don’t even think we could see this many water kefir brands starting to emerge if kombucha didn’t exist. 

Q: Tell me the process of making World Kombucha Day an official “day.”

HC: The process is pretty straight forward and basically just means coming up with the day and promoting it. We have applied to some of the calendars and apparently if you pay enough money, you can even make it onto the National Holiday Calendar.

Q: What are you hoping brands will do to celebrate World Kombucha Day? 

HC: I’m hoping they’ll elevate kombucha into the consciousness. That can be providing education, and education could come in the form of free samples or offering a promo at your favorite store. It’s on a Friday this year — if you happen to be at a farmers market or you happen to have a tap room, why not host an education event. 

Really it’s this opportunity to engage with your community, do this outreach and to help people understand what kombucha is. Because so many people still either haven’t heard the word, they don’t know what it is, they’re afraid of it, they’ve tried it and think its weird, whatever it is, just giving them another touch point, another opportunity to hear about it, another opportunity to try it without having to pay $3-5 per bottle in order to see what it’s like. 

People can add events to our World Kombucha Day calendar based on region. This is free, open to all kombucha producers, not just KBI members. While World Kombucha Day is a KBI initiative, it’s really about the category of kombucha. 

Q: Tell me more about KBI origins. Why did you create KBI ?

HC: It started with our business, Kombucha Kamp, and our mission: changing the world, one gut at a time. 

KBI also comes from looking at our culture which works in symbiosis. We’ve always understood we can’t do this alone, we have to do this in partnership, we have to be in community. Changing the gut one world at a time, knowing we can’t do it alone, and how do most people find out about kombucha? Again it’s through a commercial product.

In 2010, we had that incident where Whole Foods took all the kombucha off of store shelves and it really creates a lot of fear. It’s a trauma point that we’ve continued to have to work through together. That is what inspired us to come together and really make this work.

We know: people don’t really understand what kombucha is. When you don’t know about something, you’re afraid of it. People worry “I’m going to get bad bacteria in my brew and harm myself.” Well, that’s highly unlikely, just like any fermented food. The only reason they still exist today is because they’ve always been so incredibly safe to make and pass around or they would have been on the compost heap of history ages ago.

So knowing that there was a need, we have a unique roll. We’ve already been doing some cross-category marketing. We did a 30-day kombucha challenge, we did a New Years re-evolution, which were all designed to raise awareness about the category.

So I nominated myself to head KBI and Alex (Crum’s husband), God love him, supported me. We started with KKon (KombuchaKon) in 2014, and here we are about to have our 7th annual show, our 5th annual trade show. We’ve grown from 40 members to over 300. We’ve always been international though, which is unique. We’ve always had people from around the world participating with us.

Q: Is the U.S. leading the growing kombucha popularity?

HC: Yes. America leads the world  because this is where the commercial industry started. GT’s is going to celebrate his 25th anniversary this year. Kombucha has been a commercially available product for 25 years. Even now its taken this long, right, even in the early years it wasn’t around until 2010 when it started to pick up steam and we started to see more brands proliferate. Now here in 2020, we’re going to make it a household name.

Just like yogurt wasn’t a household staple, it was something hippies had to make at home on their countertops themselves, then it was turned into a multi-billion dollar industry. And that’s exactly what we see kombucha becoming. What we see isn’t the opportunity for a bunch of processed food companies. Rather its a bunch of small, family-owned businesses that serve local communities with a fresh product. That’s what’s different and unique about all the fermentation businesses.

I love Farmhouse Cultures — I just bought a bottle of their kraut juice — I look on the back and they’re adding vinegar to it. You can’t keep up when you’re a massive brand and you’re going to have to take shortcuts. To me, yes it tastes good, but its not kraut juice, its vinegar and kraut juice. Unfortunately, that’s just what happens when you go too big with certain things.

People in the 21st Century are looking for viable opportunities with a job that makes you feel good about the work you’re doing and that helps your local communities, and it’s important for these communities to have access to really fresh, nutrient-dense foods. So I always advise people: there’s an opportunity, as long as you’re not afraid of hard work. I advise people its a labor of love, emphasis on the labor. But I also think that if you’re someone who wants to be in your community doing good, this is a great way to do it.

Q: Do you think that’s how the kombucha industry is going to  grow — more small producers than large?

HC: Exactly right. There’s always going to be a certain number of large producers and brands that want to pursue that type of dream, but it’s a huge trade off. Sure you might end up with a bigger paycheck in the end, but you also give up so much of your life and energy in order to make it profitable.

You’re never going to have another GT’s Kombucha. He was first to market. That was a rare opportunity. Were not likely to see an individually or privately owned brand get to that type of level unless they have investment and if you take on an investment, now you are beholden to other people’s ideas about your business.

Look at the beer industry and how things have happened there. New Belgium just sold to a major food corporation from Asia because even economies of scale aren’t sustainable if you don’t continue to have capital infusions. So if you’re looking for a model that will stay sustainable over time, I think it is staying small, having a local footprint, and again that’s better for the planet, better for the community. The reason products need super long shelf lives on them is because it’s being shipped massive distances. If you only have to go to your local place to get kombucha fresh, you don’t have to put so much processing into your products.

Q: Tell me what you’re seeing in the industry now — are craft beer brewers entering the market? Bigger commercial soda brands?

HC: All of these entrants, it’s exciting. What they are seeing are dollar signs and opportunities. Especially as they see their sales slipping. It’s true for craft beer as it is for soda. 

That’s just reflecting how consumers are changing their tastes over time. It’s always healthy to diversify. The reality is what we would love — Coca-Cola started as a health drink, selling in pharmacies, with actual essences and things that were good for you. And now it’s turned into a fake version of a real thing, full of fake ingredients. How wonderful would it be for us as an industry, for us to bring them back to the good side. Don’t poison people with your cheap products and aspartame and things that are known to be toxins. Let’s try to make this something that brings about positive change to everybody. 

We love beer too! I think what we’ll also start to see is the benefits of unfiltered beer. I personally believe that pasteurization and these processing steps that remove the yeast or all of the living nutrients from beer basically creates products that don’t deliver on the nutritional promise that was guaranteed for our ancestors.

We crave bubbles because our ancestors understood that meant that nutrients were present in a living form. And so many people have come to find they can’t tolerate carbonated water — well that’s carbonic acid, it’s not natural organic acids, it’s not all of the yeast and nutrients present in yeast. 

The conflict is always these are tough products to control. That’s again where the model of having several small producers is actually better.

Q: What are some of the greatest myths consumers believe about kombucha? How can brands debunk the myths?

HC: In the headlines, we get the two polarizing viewpoints — kombucha is the miracle elixir that will save your life and kombucha is snake oil that is dangerous. The reality is the truth is always somewhere in the middle. This is not a beverage for everybody. That’s because we have so many people dealing with a healing crisis. However, there is a ferment for everyone. So either its a miracle cure — or it will kill you. Both of those are the greatest myths. 

Will you feel a benefit from drinking kombucha? Absolutely. We have a research study we presented last year showing how kombucha impacts inflammation and stress markers. They’ve taken that study to the next step, which we’ll be hearing those results at KKon this year.

People have provided anecdotal information for how kombucha has helped them with a wide range of inclement for hundreds, thousands of years, right. And so often science wants to ignore that information. But truly that’s the jumping off point for studying something, for understanding something. It is because of the anecdotal information.

Science is a method of inquiry. The phenomenon already exists. We just don’t necessarily know what’s driving it until we engage in scientific inquiry. So this idea that science is settled, that we already know everything, is ridiculous. It’s human hubris to think that. What I think is exciting is in this 21st Century, we continue to do the research and validate the anecdotal claims, and again not everything is for everybody. Some people are allergic to shrimp, strawberries, you name it, there are people who can be allergic to anything and all that says is we’re diverse and not everything is for everybody and that’s OK. Honestly, I think what’s exciting about our industry is you try one kombucha and don’t like it — try another. It’s going to taste totally different. It’s not a miracle, but it’s not going to kill you. It’s not for everyone, but it helps a lot of people. And that’s what World Kombucha Day tries to do — to introduce you to kombucha and see where you land on that spectrum. 

Q: What is driving kombucha’s popularity in the past few years?

HC: Microbiome. The rise of autoimmune disease and metabolic disease. People are sick of being sick and start to turn to food to get better because they’ve heard you can get better with certain types of food or by changing their diet. And while they are not getting that advice from their doctors, unless they’re seeing a naturopath or something like that, I think people out of desperation are turning to their diet because they’re just so uncomfortable with where they’re at healthwise. That to me is truly what’s fueling the fueling popularity of this product. So many people consume it, and they say they “Just feel good.” What does that mean, how do you quantify that? Is it just my tummy feels more settled? There’s a whole range of things that could refer to. And I think that’s really what’s driving it.

People are waking up. They realize now they’ve been lied to by packaged foods — I call it poisoned in prepackaging by pretty people. How many sodas is Beyonce drinking to be that shape? You know there’s mythology when they’ve put these packages in people’s hands but that’s not who’s actually drinking this on a regular basis. 

Especially this younger generation is more critical of advertising and more critical of doing what everyone else has done until now. They are starting to recognize “Hey what are all  these weird flavorings and chemicals in my food and water?” and “Hey I thought someone was in charge of and managing this?” and then you find out, no, corporations are actually still allowed to dump toxins into the water supply, we still have lead in Michigan and Flint. This mythology of a government that cares for you is being broken down. For good reason. Unfortunately, the forces that be are trying to maintain a status quo because they make money off people being sick for so long. But that really is that change — I’m not saying kombucha will cure everything. Buts it’s a gateway. It’s a gateway to healing your body, getting some kind of relief, and seeing there’s a world of other choices you can make that are going to yield different health benefits.

Q: The soda industry is rapidly declining. Do you think kombucha can capture those consumers?

HC: One thousand percent. Really Who is our competition? It’s not other kombucha brands. Its soda companies, it’s energy drink companies, it’s soda water companies, it’s seltzer water companies, it’s “smart water” that’s water with some electrolytes, it’s Gatorade. It’s all this manufactured, lab-created junk. Supplements will never be as good as the real thing. And kombucha is a real thing — it’s a real fermented beverage. It’s what soda aspires to be.

The same beneficial gut-friendly bacteria prevalent in yogurt is also in some beer, according to new research from scientists at Amsterdam University. Beer brands that ferment twice — once at the brewery, then a second fermentation in the beer bottle — are rich in probiotic yeast. This creates a sharp, dry taste in the beer that is “bursting with probiotic microbes.” Scientists found the brands using in-bottle fermentation use a different strain of yeast than traditional brewer’s yeast. Pasteurized beer and modern beer production processes have no probiotics. Their findings are supported by researchers from the University of Nebraska, who also found some beers contain a high amount of good probiotics. Professor Eric Classeen, a gut bacteria expert from Amsterdam University, said “You are getting a stronger beer that is very, very healthy. … In high concentrations, alcohol is bad for the gut but if you drink just one of these beers every day it would be very good for you.”

Read more (The Telegraph)

“Science is here to explain why fermenting vegetables is not only perfectly safe but also surprisingly easy and rewarding. Spoiler: Microbes do most of the work.

In our hyper-Pasteurian, expiration date-driven era, it might be difficult to relinquish control over our food to these mysterious forces. But a small measure of understanding yields rich rewards: crisp classic sauerkraut, warmly tart beets, bright preserved lemons and just about anything else you can dream up.” Katherine Harmon Courage writes in her article for the Washington Post “Eat Voraciously” section that fermentation adds a depth to fruits and vegetables. Harmon Courage, author of the book Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome

Read more (Washington Post)

How Alcoholic is Kombucha?

Researchers are studying kombucha to determine whether kombucha brands are unintentionally selling the fermented tea with a high alcohol content. The study, by the British Columbia Center for Disease Control, is testing hundreds of kombucha samples sold at grocery stores and farmers markets for ethanol levels. The fermentation process makes all alcohol slightly alcoholic, but in the U.S. the drink has to be sold below 0.5% to be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage. In Canada the amount is higher, at 1.1%. Researchers are looking at how different control factors affect kombucha’s alcohol content, like how cold refrigeration temperature, where it’s stored in the fridge, how it’s made and type of tea and flavors used.

Read more (CTV News)

For the third year in a row, fermented foods tops Today’s Dietitian list of the year’s No. 1 superfood. The annual “What’s Trending in Nutrition” survey reveals the hottest food and nutrition trends to look for in 2020.

“The 2020 survey results send a clear and consistent message. Consumers want to live healthier lives,” says Louise Pollock, president of Pollock Communications. “They have access to an incredible amount of health information, and they view food as a way to meet their health and wellness goals. Consumers are taking control of their health in ways they never did before, forcing the food industry to evolve and food companies to innovate in response to consumer demand.” 

Consumers are using fermented products as “powerhouse foods,” foods that boost gut health and reduce inflammation. Some nutrition experts recommend fermented foods should be included in national dietary recommendations. 

In April, Today’s Dietitian published an article “The Facts About Fermented Foods.” In it, Dr. Robert Hutkins, a researcher and professor of food science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shared his expert opinion on fermentation. Hutkins wrote what many in the field consider the most exhaustive textbook on fermentation, “Microbiology and Technology of Fermented Foods.” He explained how fermented foods have a long history in the human diet. 

“Indeed, during much of human civilization, a major part of the human diet probably consisted of bread, yogurt, olives, sausages, wine, and other fermentation-derived foods,” Hutkins told Today’s Dietitian. “They can be considered perhaps as our first ‘processed foods.’”

Hutkins, who studies the bacteria in fermented foods, said researchers like himself “are a bit surprised fermented foods suddenly have become trendy.” 

“Consumers are now more interested than ever in fermented foods, from ale to yogurt, and all the kimchi and miso in between,” he says. “This interest is presumably driven by all the small/local/craft/artisan manufacturing of fermented foods and beverages, but the health properties these foods are thought to deliver are also a major driving force.”Fermented foods first appeared in the survey of registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) in 2017, where it was the 4th most popular superfood.

The full superfoods list includes:

  1. Fermented foods, like yogurt and kefir
  2. Avocado
  3. Seeds
  4. Exotic fruit, like acai, golden berries
  5. Ancient grains
  6. Blueberries
  7. Nuts 
  8. Non-dairy milk
  9. Beets
  10. Green tea

Taming the Wild Cheese Fungus

By: The American Society for Microbiology 

The flavors of fermented foods are heavily shaped by the fungi that grow on them, but the evolutionary origins of those fungi aren’t well understood. Experimental findings published this week in mBio offer microbiologists a new view on how those molds evolve from wild strains into the domesticated ones used in food production. 

In the paper, microbiologists report that wild-type Penicillium molds can evolve quickly so that after a matter of weeks these strains closely resembled their domesticated cousin, Penicillium camemberti, the mold that gives camembert cheese its distinctive flavor. The study shows how a fungus can remodel its metabolism over a short amount of time; it also demonstrates a strategy for probing the evolution of other cultures used in food, said study leader and microbiologist Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, Ph.D., a member of the The Fermentation Association advisory board.

“In fermented foods, there’s a lot of potential for microbes to evolve and change over time,” said Wolfe.

Wolfe’s lab at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., focuses on microbial diversity in fermented foods, but he says the new experiments began with an accidental discovery. His lab had been growing and studying Penicillium commune, a bluish, wild-type fungus well-known for spoiling cheese and other foods. Wolfe likens its smell to a damp basement. 

But over time, researchers noticed changes in some of the lab dishes containing the stinky mold. “Over a very short time, that funky, blue, musty-smelling fungus stopped making toxins,” Wolfe said. The cultures lost their bluish hue and turned white; they smelled like fresh grass and began to look more P. camemberti. “That suggested it could really change quickly in some environments,” he said.

To study that evolution in real-time, Wolfe and his collaborators collected fungal samples from a cheese cave in Vermont that had been colonized by wild strains of Penicillium molds. The researchers grew the molds in lab dishes containing cheese curds. In some dishes, the wild mold was grown alone; in others, it was grown alongside microbes that are known competitors in the fierce world of cheese colonization. 

After one week, Wolfe said, the molds appeared blue-green and fuzzy—virtually unchanged—in all the experimental tests. But over time, in the dishes where the mold grew alone, its appearance changed. Within three or four weeks of serial passage, during which mold populations were transferred to new dishes containing cheese curds, 30-40 percent of the mold samples began to look more like P. camemberti. In some dishes, it grew whiter and smoother; in others, less fuzzy. (In the competitive test cases, the wild mold did not evolve as quickly or noticeably.) 

In follow-up analyses, Wolfe and his team tried to identify genomic mutations that might explain the quick evolution but didn’t find any obvious culprits. “It’s not necessarily just genetic,” Wolfe said. “There’s something about growing in this cheese environment that likely flips an epigenetic switch. We don’t know what triggers it, and we don’t know how stable it is.” 

Researchers suspect that the microbes used in most fermented foods—including cheese, but also beer, wine, sake, and others—were unintentionally domesticated, and that they evolved different flavors and textures in reaction to growing in a food environment. Wolfe says his lab’s study suggests that wild strains could be domesticated intentionally to produce new kinds of artisanal foods. 

Starting with cheese, of course. “The fungi that are used to make American camembert are French,” said Wolfe, “but maybe we can go out and find wild strains, bring them into the lab, and domesticate them. We could have a diverse new approach to making cheese in the United States.” 
 ###
The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, composed of more than 30,000 scientists and health professionals. ASM’s mission is to promote and advance the microbial sciences.

ASM advances the microbial sciences through conferences, publications, certifications and educational opportunities. It enhances laboratory capacity around the globe through training and resources. It provides a network for scientists in academia, industry and clinical settings. Additionally, ASM promotes a deeper understanding of the microbial sciences to diverse audiences.

Ever wonder why you crave umami, the savory food taste common in fermented foods? You were born with it.

“When you say taste, it’s actually just as much the nose because were actually using all the five senses when we say taste or taste experience,” says Ole Mouritsen, a professor of gastrophysics at Copenhagen University in Denmark. “Taste and particularly odor is very good to invoke memories, good memories and bad memories, because that’s the way its hardwired in the brain. These senders that store our memories are stored to the limbic center, and the processing center for taste and odor are in the same area. You can be brought back to your grandma’s kitchen in no time.”

The five basic tastes are: sweet, sour, salty, bitter and savory (umami).

He continues: “There are some basic tastes and odors that you prefer. We’re born to like sweet and umami, and we’re born to dislike bitterness and too much sourness. But our preferences change over time.”

Mouritsen and Adam James, founder of fermentation condiments company Rough Rice, spoke with Cooking with Science host Kevin Glidden on the topic of fermentation and taste. Glidden brings researchers and foodies together in an interactive interview for the Tasmanian Institute of Agriculture.

Glidden asked why Mouritsen and James think fermented foods played such a big part in other culture’s diets, but not in the Western diet.

James travelled on a Churchill Fellowship-backed fermentation world tour to study ancient and modern fermentation techniques. He pointed out that fermentation has never been part of Western culture.

“If you look at what my biggest influences are – Japan, Korea, China – they eat fermented foods pretty much with every meal, in the form of a pickle or a soy sauce,” James said. “But again, I think that’s something that’s just been part of their culture. Families would sit down and make kimchi together.”

Mouritsen agreed, adding: “If we want to learn about making old-fashioned pickles, we will not ask our mothers, we’ll ask our grandmothers, because the knowledge is lost.”

In the segment, James made a brown rice congee with Tasmanian abalone and fermented condiments. Congee – an Asian rice porridge – dates back 4,700 years, 1,000 years before shoes were invented. James’ cooked his congee using untraditional methods. Congee is usually made using a chicken stock or duck stock as a base, but James made his congee with shitake mushrooms, fresh tomatoes and kelp. Though no meat was used, the result was an umami-tasting flavor.

A new Kerry Health and Nutrition Institute white paper titled “Umami: The Taste that Perplexes” details why umami is a vital food flavor. Umami’s functions and biological mechanisms are not very well understood. “…Unfortunately the way many people have learned about umami is through the stigma of monosodium glutamate (MSG), the prototypical stimulus of umami taste,” writes author Nancy Rawson, the associate director of the Monell Chemical Senses Center.

The umami flavor, though, extends well beyond MSG. It can be found in every day food, like mushrooms, tomatoes and aged cheese. Umami is popular in Asian cultures, where fermented food is high in the glutamate compound. Fermented fish and fish sauce are a common cooking item in South East Asia cuisine, creating “a more balanced taste.” Miso and soy bean paste are used in North Asia, where they flavor food with “a natural and longer lingering taste and mouthfeel.”

Mouritsen said umami is one of the ultimate dining experiences. He adds: “It gives you appetite, when you stick it in your mouth, the saliva starts running. It’s a very good way of getting appetite. We have receptors in the stomach, in the intestinal system, that signals back to the brain that those umami-rich food, and it will eventually tell you to stop. It’s knowledge one could use to make more healthy eating patterns for people.”

The specialty chocolate market is growing, and research by the University of Copenhagen Department of Food Science found that fermentation conditions affect chocolate flavor. Different fermentation techniques changes the composition and activity of the microorganisms present on the cocoa beans. “Our research confirms this and we have also learned how to fine tune the cocoa by fine tuning the process itself, which means that you can get a higher quality out of your raw materials if you understand these processes,” says Dennis Sandris Nielsen, a professor in the food science departments at the University of Copenhagen. He adds: “…findings show that the treatment the cocoa receives after the harvest is at least as important for the quality and flavour as the genetics of the cocoa. Where the cocoa was grown also has some significance. By varying the conditions during fermentation, we can therefore also reasonably predict the final taste, which provides good opportunities for high-end producers in particular to develop chocolate with different flavours and scents.”

Read more (University of Copenhagen

Summer Bock compares the gut microbiome to a forest. If a fire destroys the forest and forest restoration is attempted by just introducing a few animals, the forest would never rebuild.

“That’s what we’re missing with probiotic pills,” Bock says, adding that relying on a probiotic pill to fix the gut is like telling a few bacteria strains: “’You’re in charge of building our entire gut microbiome,’ you just can’t. if you’re just picking a few probiotics and saying ‘You’re the work horse, you’re going to do all of it,’ they can’t. You have to go think of this bigger picture ecosystem. When we use ferments, we’re bringing in some of the nutrition, the soil and even bringing in a greater variety of probiotics than what you find in most pills. …there’s a huge benefit of ferments that people are missing out on.”

A fermentationist, health coach and founder of Guts and Glory, Bock detailed how fermented foods can improve overall health at the Fairmentation Summit. She coined the word “gut rebuilding” and was the founder of the Fermentationist Certification Program.

Bock started fermenting after becoming incredibly sick. A trained herbalist, Bock began treating multiple food allergies, regular panic attacks and chronic exhaustion with herbs. This was long before terms like probiotics and gut microbiome were a regular part of diet discussions. But Bock was recommended by a naturopathic doctor to try taking probiotics, and “a lot of my symptoms started clearing up very quickly.”

Bock, though, is a purest, and wanted to know how she could ingest probiotics without taking a pill.

“What’s the whole food version of probiotics?” Bock said. “If I’m missing it and I’ve wiped it out with antibiotics, how did my ancestors get this into their body on a daily basis? That’s how I discovered fermented foods.”

So Bock started fermenting everything. During this experimentation process, Bock sold sauerkraut and kimchi from her fridge, launching her first sauerkraut company. She described sharing sauerkraut with her roommate’s friends, skeptics who would initially say “I don’t like it,” but would come back a week later and tell her “I have to come back and but it because I can’t stop thinking about that one bite.”

“This is an addictive healthy food, and I got fascinated by what is happening on your taste buds that makes your body go ‘I don’t like this right now,’ but your body recognizes that health benefit,” Bock said. “If there’s some communication happening through one little bite of food and that person can’t stop thinking about it and they want it, I’m still utterly fascinated by that today.”

Her favorite fermented food is kimchi “because it has all the benefits of lacto-fermented vegetables, it has all the great probiotics in it plus it has prebiotics, it has organic acids and the lactic acid which is a natural microbial.”

Studies during the avian flu outbreak found birds who ate kimchi were not contracting the bird flu. One microbiologist in South Korea found 11 of 13 chickens infected with avian flu who ate kimchi made a full recovery. All birds in the control group died.  

“Fermented foods are really powerful, and I think that what’s fascinating about them for me is they differ from just probiotics. They contain probiotics, but they also have the prebiotics. They have the entire ecosystem,” she said. “We eat it because it’s delicious, but we also eat it because that food assists us in some way.”

Probiotic-rich ferments “acts as a fertilizer” for the gut microbiome, killing off pathogenic organisms. Microbes grow best at room temperature, a temperature the health department defines as a danger zone because it’s the best temperature for pathogenic, food-born illness to grow.

“What we’ve found is, when there’s that acidic environment, these pathogenic food-borne illnesses can’t exist there. They don’t grow,” she adds.

Multiple nutrients are produced through fermentation, like Vitamin B and Vitamin K. Only a few organisms produce these vitamins, Bock notes. They are critical vitamins because they’re not absorbed easily through food. Bok calls them the “star players” of the microbiome. People with an imbalanced microbiome are often lacking in vitamins B and K.

If not fermenting their own food at home, consumers need to practice due diligence when purchasing fermented food brands, Bock says. Kombucha, she shares as an example, is a great “gateway ferment” for most people, but how much sugar is in it? Is it fermented naturally or are lab strains of probiotics added?

“You have to ask yourself, what is the major probiotic we’re talking about,” in the food you’re eating, Bock said. “Is it a naturally-occurring probiotic or a…patented, genetically-modified probiotic?”

Americans have a “Supersize” mentality, Bock said. People shouldn’t be consuming bowls of fermented foods every day.

“Remember that fermented foods are generally a condiment, especially the ones with live organisms, like kimchi and sauerkraut, natto,” she said. “So if you treat it as such, you’re maintaining the respect for these organisms and for these foods,” she said. “Your body knows what it needs.”