For decades, scientists and astronauts have studied if living on Mars is feasible. The harsh environment on the planet suggests few – if any – living things can survive. But new research has revealed something interesting: kombucha can survive in extraterrestrial conditions.

Scientists found the bacteria in a kombucha SCOBY, Komagataeibacter, can survive on Mars. The research, part of the Biology and Mars Experiment (BIOMEX), began in 2014, when kombucha cultures were sent to the International Space Station. Scientists hoped cellulose, “the genomic architecture of kombucha” could survive in space, and Komagataeibacter produces cellulose.

“Based on our metagenomic analysis, we found that the simulated Martian environment drastically disrupted the microbial ecology of kombucha cultures,” said Bertram Brenig, professor at University of Göttingen’s Institute of Veterinary Medicineand head of the study . “However, we were surprised to discover that the cellulose-producing bacteria of the genus Komagataeibacter survived.”

The cultures lived eighteen months outside the ISS, were reactivated on earth and cultivated for another two and a half years.

The study, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, “provides the first evidence that bacterial cellulose could be a biomarker for extraterrestrial life and cellulose-based membranes or films could be a good biomaterial for protecting life and producing consumer goods in extraterrestrial settlements.”

Read more (University of Göttingen)

Naked Wine

Olfactory properties are central to the wine drinking experience. But a chemical reaction known as light strike can ruin the rich aroma. When wine is exposed to ultraviolet or high frequency visible light, its smell can resemble marmalade. Sauerkraut or even wet dog. 

This is why wine is stored and aged in dark bottles – the color glass is crucial to producing a great wine.

“Every technician knows about it,” says Fulvio Mattivi, a food chemist at the Edmund Mach Foundation in Italy. “But then the final decision as to what goes on the market is up to the head of marketing.”

Mattivi and collaborators recently published a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences detailing how bottle color affects light strike in wine on grocery store shelves.

Clear bottles made of a refractive material called flint glass are often used to sell white wine and rosé, to show off the fermented beverage’s color. The new research shows that just a week on supermarket shelves in clear bottles can produce smelly compounds. “With exposure, you can have a very bad wine,” Mattivi said. This chemical origin of light strike, including the speed and conditions, has been unknown until Mattivi’s study. In his team’s research, more than 1,000 wine bottles in different grocery store conditions were studied.

Despite consumer preferences for clear bottles, Mattivi gives a hard “no.” He compares it to the folk tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes.” In the Hans Christian Andersen story, the emperor is conned by swindlers into believing the new clothes they bring him are beautiful – but, in reality, there are no clothes and the emperor is naked. 

Mattivi said: “Wine in clear bottles is naked.”

Read more (New York Times)

The gut microbiome is the “black box” of nutrition research, according to the new study “Rethinking Healthy Eating in Light of the Gut Microbiome.” We will never fully understand the science behind nutrition without understanding the bacteria living in the gut.

“Given the worldwide epidemic of diet-related chronic diseases, evidence-based dietary recommendations are fundamentally important for health promotion,” reads the study. “Despite the importance of the human gut microbiota for the physiological effects of diet and chronic disease etiology, national dietary guidelines around the world are just beginning to capitalize on scientific breakthroughs in the microbiome field.”

The study, published in the journal Cell, Host & Microbe, was conducted by researchers and scientists from Canada’s Department of Agriculture, Food & Nutritional Science; Ireland’s University of College Cork Centre for Vitamin D and Nutrition Research; and the APC Microbiome Ireland. It discusses “contemporary nutritional recommendations from a microbiome science perspective, focusing on mechanistic evidence that established host-microbe interactions as mediators of the physiological effects of diet.” 

Though research on the microbiome and gut health has increased in the last decade, “there has been limited consideration of diet-microbiome-host interactions.” Researchers propose an “experimental framework that integrates the microbiome into nutrition research.”

Below are some of the challenges researchers found in creating a microbiome-focused diet.

More Fermented Food Research

Fermented foods are an excellent approach for microbiome restoration, the study notes. In individuals who have a diet rich in fermented foods, the organisms from the fermented foods are well-represented in their microbiota.

But more research is needed on fermented foods – especially non-dairy ones. Published studies link fermented foods to more favorable gastrointestinal health, lower risk of type 2 diabetes and cancer, increased microbiome diversity and weight management.

“Evidence from random control trials is extremely sparse, and fermented foods are just beginning to be recommended in dietary guidelines,” the study notes.

Lacking Dietary Guidelines

The study details different countries’ food recommendations and healthy eating guidelines in relation to the gut microbiome. Interestingly, though the regions have diverse food cultures, similarities were found: vegetables, fruit and grains should make up half a diet; whole grains should be prioritized over refined grains; animal protein and plant-based proteins should be consumed in small portions; foods high in sugar, salt and saturated fat should be limited or avoided.

But only one country – South Africa – mentions the gut microbiome.

Personalized Nutrition

Still, dietary guidelines are not a one-size-fits-all approach. There’s a greater need for personalized nutrition (also referred to as precision nutrition) because the gut microbiota is highly individualized. National dietary guidelines currently do not consider personalized nutrition.

As technology improves and microbiome sequencing increases, it’s possible a smart phone app could help the public monitor their diets, with recommendations personalized to their needs.

“Precision-nutrition approaches will depend on continued collaboration between nutrition and microbiome disciplines, and their population-wide implementation will require significant additional input from regulatory bodies, professional societies, and policymakers,” the study says.

Unknowns of Fermented Plant-Based Protein

There are “promising findings” regarding plant-based proteins’ interaction with the microbiome. Because these products are less digestible than animal-based proteins, they produce beneficial metabolites in the gut. However, the study points out more research is needed into these fermented alternative proteins that are fueling current innovation in alt meats. 

Ancestral vs. Industrialized Diets

Modern diets – also known as industrialized diets – are far from those of our hunter-gatherer ancestors. Ancestral diets included more plants, higher dietary fiber and fewer refined carbs and sugar. The chronic disease epidemic, researchers note, can be attributed to modern diets being “evolutionarily mismatched with human physiology.” 

“Evolutionary considerations also lay the foundation for microbiome restoration strategies,” the study continues. “Although it will likely be impossible, and perhaps not advisable, to return microbiomes to their ancestral states, there is heightened interest in the development of microbiome restoration strategies that re-establish health-related functional characteristics.

Beauty Embraces Bacteria

Beauty brands continue to capitalize on a trend: putting prebiotics, probiotics and postbiotics into skin-care products. This “wave of new products” that tout -biotics is filling the cosmetic aisle, according to The New York Times.

“It’s like ‘Star Wars’ happening on the surface of skin,” says Dahlia Devkota, founder of the Los Angeles-based skin-care brand Editrix. “‘Good’ and ‘bad’ bacteria both excrete postbiotics, which are their weapons of war. The goal is a balance of both with no one species taking over.”

Devkota adds that she finds skin care products with -biotics are gentler on the skin. Many traditional skin-care brands strip the skin of natural oils, “weaken(ing) the skin barrier.” 

Some brands are experimenting with using fermented ingredients in their skin care products. Venn, another Los Angeles-based skin-care brand, has a scientific advisory board that has spent decades studying the microbiome. Venn’s Synbiotic Defense Mist face spray uses water with probiotic ferments.

“Because fermentation makes the molecules smaller, the product can penetrate the skin surface more deeply,” says Jeff Rosevear, the head of skin-care research and development for new brands at Unilever. The company’s new line, Ferver, has a serum made with fermented collagen.

Read more (The New York Times)

There’s a huge amount scientists worldwide still need to learn about fermented foods. “We’re really at the tip of the iceberg, as far as I’m concerned,” says Paul Cotter, professor and head of Biosciences at Teagasc Ireland.

“If you think of the vast variety of fermented foods from all across the globe – from East Asia, from Africa, from South America – we really haven’t studied these in any great degree at all, maybe some very basic study, but no microbiome analysis,” Cotter continues. “So really not fully appreciating what’s in there or really harnessing those foods for broader society.”

Cotter, Bruno Pot (science director at Yakult Europe) and Maciej Krol (founder of mac.ferments) discussed fermented foods at a panel at this year’s Probiota conference in Copenhagen. In an interview with NutraIngredients – which wrote “fermented foods took center stage” at the conference – Cotter and Pot discussed the opportunities and challenges of fermented foods.

Expanding the Study of Fermented Foods

Modern technology continues to advance, allowing DNA sequencing and complex analysis of food. It’s of “critical importance” that we further study fermented foods, Cotter adds.

For example, there have been numerous  randomized controlled trials with dairy kefir that confirm health benefits. But the results  were shown to be dependent on the probiotic strains used – one  could help reduce cholesterol, while another would address the gut-brain axis.

“If you don’t happen to have the right one in your kitchen, you’re not benefiting from it,” he says. “By carrying out in-depth investigations of the microbiomes and the metabolites that they produce, you can get a better sense as to what foods have the right microbes for you  and to make almost a personalized type of fermented food for each person.”

Cotter stresses studying the foods individually rather than fermentation as a whole. There are specific foods, unique to a country or culture and produced on a small scale, “that we know very little about and might have fantastic health attributes.” He fears that, if these foods aren’t studied, the populations that traditionally make them will die off or move, and their approaches to making these foods will be lost.

Dietary Microbes

Pot points to the fact that non-communicable – “New Age” – diseases emerged and began to increase as  food production became more commercialized. 

“We need to promote (the) intake of live microorganisms,” Pot says. The public needs to be told “how important it is to maintain healthy conditions in their gut.”

Pot is pushing for a microbes category to be included in dietary recommendations. A late 2020 study published in The Journal of Nutrition officially introduced the idea that a daily intake of microbes could improve health. He compares it to the definition of  dietary, which helps educate the public about the kinds of fiber important in a healthy diet. 

“The purpose of creating a category is really to allow easier communication with the consumer about the importance of live microorganisms in the diet,” Pot says. “The creation of this category will be a first step.”

Any recommendations, he adds, must be based in science. But it can be challenging to try to educate consumers about often complex scientific topics. It’s important for messaging to be simple, Cotter adds.

“Unless you have a means of explaining to the consumer what are these benefits, then you’re running into great difficulty,” he says.

Today, the public is more conscious today of immune health, and views fermented foods as natural and functional. Cotter believes, if it can be scientifically proven that dietary microbes should be consumed daily, legislators and regulators will add it to dietary guidelines.

Artisanal vs. Large Scale

Cotter sees the future of fermented foods tied to compromise between large- and small-scale producers. Industrialized ferments need to be tweaked to more closely resemble artisanal foods, while artisanal products need to become more readily available to the public at large.

“Fermented foods are quite often very healthy, but the health benefits aren’t fully appreciated because they haven’t been studied in great depth,” he says. “Typically, when those foods have been converted to make them on a large scale by an industry for production to try to make a product that’s available to as many people as possible, the microbiology of the food is very much simplified.”

On the other hand, it’s challenging to “harness the health benefits associated with artisanal foods” when a small brand scales up. 

“I think there’s an opportunity for the two to meet in the middle,” Cotter says. “Retain artisanal qualities associated with food but make them available to as many people as possible for mass production.”

Should there be global standards for fermented foods? A new study argues “to preserve consumer confidence in fermented foods,” uniform regulations are needed.

Current guidelines “are not mature enough to adequately regulate the significant diversity of fermented foods that are increasingly available in the market,” reads the study, published in the peer-reviewed journal Frontiers in Nutrition. While fermented foods are experiencing a major resurgence in popularity, standards and regulations differ by country and – in some instances – region and state. Fermentation regulations are few and, in the case of some foods, nonexistent. 

Scientists at Teagasc, Ireland (the agriculture and food authority in Ireland) studied regulations in North America, South America, Asia, Africa, Europe and Australia/New Zealand. Their research – supported by the Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences (IAFNS) – is thorough. They found legislative efforts to regulate or standardize fermented foods “have been largely reactive, rather than being proactive, in nature.”

A harmonized blueprint, the study continues, would include specifics for each fermented food, not just the category. Uniform standards would include:

  • Microbial and chemical composition 
  • Safety protocols
  • Standards on storage, transportation and distribution
  • Communication guidelines
  • Regulatory clarity
  • Government expert committee oversight

“Ultimately, addressing the challenges outlined here, would contribute to the ease of doing business, encourage consumer and investor confidence, leading to growth and innovation in this category, which in turn will catalyse overall economic progress,” the study reads.

There is also a need for a uniform regulatory framework because there is “…a visible  lack of consideration of insights gained from the large corpus of microbiome studies on FFs and their microbial composition in corresponding global Food Standards or Codes.”

There is currently a Codex Alimentarius or “Food Code” by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, part of the Food Standards Programme for the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Health Organization (WHO). But fermented foods are not extensively represented. Regional standards have also been established by FAO and WHO, but these are generally for traditional fermented foods and beverages consumed only in certain regions, not widely used elsewhere.

The study points to South Korea and India as examples. Both countries have consolidated standards and specifications on fermented foods into legislation.

For decades, microbiologists and dietitians have advocated including fermented foods in a nutritious diet. Now, new research is helping scientists understand  how much fermented food should be consumed daily. This study is the first large-scale estimate of live microorganisms in the average U.S. diet.

“Ultimately, we want to understand if there should be a recommended daily intake of these microbes to keep us healthy, either through the foods or from probiotic supplements,” said Maria Marco, a professor in the food science and technology department at UC Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board member). “In order to do that, we need to first quantify the number of live microorganisms we consume today in our diets.”

The study, published in the Journal of Nutrition, was co-authored by ten scientists regarded as experts in the field of fermented foods and probiotics. They examined the number of live microbes in more than 9,000 foods eaten by 75,000 adults and children. 

From a UC Davis press release on the study: Around 20% of children and 26% of adults consumed foods with high levels of live microorganisms in their diet. Both children and adults increased their consumption of these foods over the 18-year study period.

“This trend is going in the right direction. Exposure to friendly microorganisms in our foods can be good for promoting a healthy immune system.” said Marco.

Foods for gut health

Study authors examined the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to create their estimate. This resource contains extensive information on the foods consumed daily by Americans. Food science and fermentation experts assigned each food an estimated range – high, medium, or low – of live microbes per gram.. Foods in the high category included yogurt, fermented pickles and kimchi. Fresh, uncooked fruits and vegetables were represented in the medium category.

The analysis was funded by a grant from the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP.) ISAAP notes that the microorganisms quantified in this study are not necessarily probiotics.

“By definition, a probiotic must be well-defined and have a demonstrated health benefit at a quantified dose. Live microbes associated with food as a category, however, do not generally meet the criteria of a probiotic,” said corresponding author Mary Ellen Sanders, executive science officer for the ISAPP.

The publication is part of a larger global effort to determine how live dietary microbes might contribute to health.

“There is no doubt that the microbes we eat affect our health. When we think of microbes in our food, we often think of either foodborne pathogens that cause disease or probiotics that provide a documented health benefit,” said co-author Colin Hill, a professor of microbial food safety with University College Cork, Ireland. “But it’s important to also explore dietary microbes that we consume in fermented and uncooked foods. It is very timely to estimate the daily intake of microbes by individuals in modern society as a first step towards a scientific evaluation of the importance of dietary microbes in human health and well-being.”

Other scientists co-authoring the paper were ISAPP board members Robert Hutkins (TFA Advisory Board Member), Dan Merenstein, Daniel J. Tancredi, Christopher J. Cifelli, Jaime Gahche, Joanne L. Slavin and Victor L. Fulgoni III.

Consumers want foods that aid gut health, but brands face a major challenge. How can they educate buyers about microbiome health benefits without getting into trouble with regulators?

“It’s no longer enough to just say ‘healthy,’” says Alon Chen, CEO and co-founder of Tastewise, an “AI platform for food brands.” “We are absolutely more critical of health claims in general. We want to know how, we want to know why and we want it backed by science.”

The term “healthy” is no longer resonating with consumers. Over 30% are looking for products with multifunctional benefits, according to research by Tastewise. They want more detail, on topics such as gut health, sleep improvement, brain function, anti-bloating and energy. 

“Food is no longer just about nutrition, nor is it about general health,” says Flora Southey, editor at Food Navigator. “Consumers want more from the food they consume – and they want to be specific about it.”

What are the challenges and opportunities for brands trying to deliver gut health? A panel of food and nutrition experts tackled the issue during a Food Navigator webinar: “From Fermentation to Fortification: How is Industry Supporting Gut Health and Immunity?” Here are highlights.

Regulation Woes

There are trillions of microbes in our gut, but science has only scratched the surface of their power. Gut health is an ambiguous – and often confusing – subject for consumers. 

Regulations on gut health claims are evolving. A year ago, the European Food Standard Authority asked food producers to help evaluate microbiome-based product claims.

“In order for us to assert ourselves in the industry, we have to be able to defend and support these claims,” says Anthony Finbow, CEO of Eagle Genomics, a software company incorporating microbiome research into their data analysis.

It’s “the dawn of a new age,” according to Finbow. Major food companies are now valued for delivering nutrition in addition to caloric content. “There is greater consumer understanding that food is a mechanism for better health.”

Southey feels brands need to do more for consumer education “I’m not convinced [the message is] getting to the consumer as well as it should be.”

Nutrition drink brand MOJU is attempting to tackle the regulatory stumbling block of health benefits on a label. Strict rules requiring detailed substantiation have resulted in few gut health claims“We’ve got a long way to go from an education point of view,” says Ross Austen, research and nutrition lead at MOJU. 

MOJU can’t use the term “gut health,” but they can say a drink contains vitamin C or D, which have been proven to boost the immune system. They can’t say their drink is anti-inflammatory, but they can say it contains turmeric, known for its anti-inflammatory properties.

Marketing -Biotics

More consumers want the presumed gut health benefits of probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics to power their microbiome. Probiotics “have largely stolen the headlines over the past few years,” Austen says, but prebiotics are appearing in more and more products. MOJU puts prebiotic fiber in their drinks because probiotics are a challenge for packaged food products. Because probiotics contain live and active cultures, they must be refrigerated and their efficacy tested.

Ashok Dubey, Phd, senior scientist and lead for nutrition sciences at TATA Chemicals (a supplier of chemical ingredients to food and drink producers), agrees. Dubey feels that the benefits of probiotics have been diminished in the minds of consumers. He notes that when probiotics first began appearing in foods 20 years ago, they were claimed to be able to solve any and all health ailments. 

“There’s a greater understanding that our gut microbiota is so complex, if the food we eat is so complex, then the solution we should provide should be a combination of all of this,” he says. Dubey is seeing more patents combining probiotics and prebiotics, a complex solution that he says looks at whole health.

But, he notes, any claim with -biotics must be validated by scientific research.

Traditional Foods vs. Clinical Trials

Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), takes issue with the need to validate every health claim with scientific research. “We shouldn’t displace a huge body of traditional knowledge in favor of pharmaceuticals,” she says.

Making health claims around -biotics has been challenging for the kombucha industry. “It doesn’t honor what food does for us nutritionally,” she adds. Today’s food industry is so heavily regulated that foods traditionally consumed by humans for centuries – like kombucha – can’t put a health claim on a label without proving benefits in a human clincal trial.

“It’s frustrating,” Crum says. ““In fact, because there is no definition of the word probiotic from a legal perspective, it leaves our brands vulnerable to be attacked by parasitic lawyers who just want to extract value from large corporations because they can.”

“In my opinion, we need to honor the fact that all traditionally fermented foods are probiotic by nature instead of saying ‘Well you need the research to prove it,’” she says.

A new study found ingesting fermented blackberries wards off wrinkles, increasing collagen and skin thickness.

Researchers tested the effects on Korean adults – between the ages of 35 and 60 – over a period of 12 weeks  . The blackberries – fermented with lactic acid bacteria – were found to significantly decrease wrinkles around the eyes. 

The results, published in the journal Cosmetics, are a follow-up to a clinical trial on the formula (known as BB-1000) in mice. 

“The significance of this study is that the anti-wrinkle efficacy of a fermented blackberry product was confirmed not only in previous animal experiments but also in this clinical trial.” As a result of clinical trials on skin wrinkle improvement and safety, BB-1000 is expected to be used with confidence as a healthy functional food that can improve skin wrinkles.”

Read more (Molecules)

A pioneering “periodic table” of fermented foods was released this month, the first attempt to represent the breadth and range of fermented foods and beverages in graphic form.

This creation is the brainchild of Michael Gänzle, PhD, professor and Canada Research Chair in Food Microbiology and Probiotics at the University of Alberta. Gänzle is regarded as an expert in fermented foods and lactic acid bacteria. His recent research includes identifying a new taxonomy for the lactobacillus genus, a topic Gänzle spoke about in a TFA webinar

“Non-traditional fermented foods are a big trend both in industrial food production and in culinary arts,” Gänzle said in an interview with TFA. “The periodic table may be the most concise overview on what is possible if all of the diversity of our benign and beneficial microbial helpers is recruited.”

The impetus for the table dates to 2014, when Gänzle and a colleague used a periodic table of beer styles in their food fermentation class. They wondered if it would be feasible to create a similar version for fermented foods. 

Gänzle’s final version, along with his well-documented analysis of the table, was published in the journal Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology. The table includes 118 entries of fermented foods, each coded for product category, country of origin, fermentation organism (like LAB, acetic acid bacteria or yeasts), fermentation substrate, metabolites and fermentation time.

Gänzle suggests the table is “quite useful for a number of things that may impact the development of fermented foods.” He says fermentation has “reemerged as a method to provide high-quality food.” A chef or producer can use the table to compare “differences and similarities in the assembly of microbial communities in different fermentations, differences in the global preferences for food fermentation, the link between microbial diversity, fermentation time and product properties, and opportunities of using traditional food fermentations as templates for development of new products.”

Because of its straightforward graphical layout, the table can quickly answer questions. A scan of it shows “which foods contain live fermentation microbes, which regions of the world have which preferences for substrates and fermented foods, which fermented foods are back-slopped and are fermented with host-adapted fermentation organisms.” 

He stresses, though, that the table has its limitations, as it doesn’t cover every fermented food.

“The more I read the more likely I am to quote Plato’s rendition of Socrates’ statement that ‘I neither know nor think I know,’” Gänzle says. “Fermented foods are about as diverse as humankind.”

Gänzle plans to continue to revise the table on his personal website. Currently, he and two doctoral students are researching fermented soy and legumes, so look for the next updates to be in those categories.