Does chocolate have a place in a healthy diet or is it a guilty pleasure? A new study found chocolate is good for the heart in moderate amounts. The study, printed in the European Journal of Preventative Cardiology, found eating chocolate more than once a week is associated with an 8% decrease in risk of coronary artery disease compared to those who eat chocolate less. Researchers note there are limitations — like the study didn’t account for type of chocolate or portion size. High-quality, low-sugar, dark chocolate, which is made with fermented cacao beans, has shown health benefits in other research.

Many major chocolate companies are trying to tout chocolate as a health food. Last year, chocolate producer Barry Callebaut petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to qualify the health claim that chocolate has heart benefits. The regulatory agency is still reviewing the request. This is the second time the Swiss company has petitioned the FDS to consider chocolate as a health food, but they were denied their first request in 2013.

Read more (Food Dive)

Former Noma chef David Zilber is partnering with Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of bioscience ingredients. Denmark-based Chr. Hansen has 40,000 microbial strains used as natural ingredient solutions for food, nutrition, pharmaceutical and agricultural products. Zilber said: “Fermentation is undergoing a democratization, and that’s something we both want to help accelerate.”

Zilber adds: “At Noma, I felt like I had accomplished everything I had set out to and more. Also, the pandemic really made me think about the shape of the world from a new perspective. I wanted to take the values and tenets that I believe in to the next level and scale them up to affect real change in the food system. And Chr. Hansen is already such a powerhouse within that world. A powerhouse in the realm of good microbes, a realm where I can put my skills to use, helping to create delicious and healthy solutions. I want to apply some of the ideas I have in mind to problems on a massive scale and try to do as much good as possible in the process. There’s a common mission we’re both striving to accomplish. And because of that, this really feels like a perfect match.”

Adds Laurent Hubert, vice president in FC&E, Head of Food & Beverages at Chr. Hansen: “David is someone who can address a wide and diverse audience in a very thoughtful way, sharing his innovative insights on fermentation. Teaming that kind of personality up with a company who has been in the fermentation business for almost 150 years hopefully delivers a fruitful mix of drive, scientific knowledge and purpose. It is a partnership born out of passion for fermentation. Coming from arguably one of the world’s best restaurants to join one of the world’s most sustainable companies, David can contribute together with us to a resilient and tasteful food system. This will be a major asset to develop our two lighthouses: This will be a major asset to develop our two lighthouses: Bioprotection (food cultures against food waste) and Fermented Plant Bases, which has just been introduced as a lighthouse. We are looking forward to a constructive collaboration.”

Read more (Chr. Hansen)

Australian wine scientists have published results of their research into the traditional practices Australian Aboriginal people used to make fermented beverages. Published in Scientific Reports, scientists from the University of Adelaide and the Australian Wine Research Institute (AWRI) “have discovered the complex microbial communities associated with the natural fermentation of sap from the iconic Tasmanian cider gum, Eucalyptus gunni.” The sweet sap from the trees produce a mildly alcoholic beverage when given time to spontaneously ferment.

Research leader Professor Vladimir Jiranek, Professor of Oenology with the University’s School of Agriculture, Food and Wine, says: “The wider community is not typically aware of these historic traditions. This work shines a light on these practices and the cultural significance of these unique fermentations. It also allows us to identify new strains, or species, of yeast and bacteria from the fermentations that are unique to Australia. Further work will characterize single microorganisms that have been isolated and grown from the cider gum. We are particularly interested in their fermentative abilities, their potential flavor impacts, how they’ve adapted to the cider gum environment and the possible symbiotic relationship they have with the trees. We look forward to continuing our work with relevant Aboriginal communities in order to understand these and other processes, and help revive lost practices or perhaps develop new ones from these.” (Phys.org) https://bit.ly/35eDgnr 

Microbial fermentation is emerging as the “third pillar in the alternative protein industry,” alongside cell-culture and plant-based, according to the Good Food Institute. In 2020, protein alternatives made using microbial fermentation have attracted $435 million in investment capital. The institute released a 72-page report on fermentation in the alt protein industry and noted that its “potential is still largely untapped.” Nature Fynd CEO Thomas Jonas points out it takes years to grow animals, and months or years to grow plants, but microbes can double their biomass in a few hours. Are these novel fermentation techniques to produce animal-free meat and dairy improving our food system or too big of a departure from traditional fermentation?

Read more (Food Navigator)

Over several decades, the genus Lactobacillus became unmanageable, encompassing 262 species. Rudimentary research tools lumped any newly-discovered bacteria  into the genus, making the taxonomy “very screwed up.” 

“The lactobacillus taxonomy became a stack of dirty dishes — everyone knew somebody should do it, anyone could have done it, but nobody did it,” says Michael Gänzle, PhD, professor and Canada Research Chair in Food Microbiology and Probiotics at the University of Alberta. He spoke at a TFA webinar The New Taxonomy of Lactobacillus. “It has become very obvious that the genus is too diverse to group all or the organisms into a single genus. …We need taxonomy to actually describe which group of organisms they mean because if you say lactobacillus in the old sense, we mean a group of organisms that is so diverse that using the same genus name doesn’t make too much sense.”

The lactobacillus genus is large, regulated in many countries and economically important. Gänzle is one of 15 scientists involved  in a year-long project using sophisticated DNA tools to analyze the new taxonomy. Findings’ published in the April issue of the Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, spread the species over 26 genera, including 23 new (novel) ones. 

“The new taxonomy of lactobacilli means taxonomists have to navigate 23 new names, but maybe I can convince you that renaming the taxonomy is also the best thing since the invention of sliced bread because it does facilitate the communication on all things which relate to lactobacilli,” Gänzle says. He referred to the completed taxonomy as the “lactobacillus monster” because it covers 77 pages. 

Despite its heft, he’s proud of the completed project, which  reclassifies the genus into relevant groups. “It makes it easier to identify cultures of food applications,” Gänzle says. The group of authors also developed an online tool that makes it easy to look up old names and new names, and provides reference to (genome) sequence data at lactobacillus.ualberta.ca or lactobacillus.uantwerpen.be

Ben Wolfe, PhD, Associate Professor at Tufts University, moderated the webinar. Wolfe studies the ecology and evolution of microbiomes in his lab (and is a TFA Advisory Board member).“It’s really great to see this community coming around this very important problem,” Wolfe says. “This really helps clarify a lot of things for us. 

For the average artisanal fermented food producer, not much will change with the new taxonomy. Producers of traditionally fermented foods don’t put the organisms in their food or drink on their labels — it’s the companies selling starter cultures. 

“For someone who doesn’t buy and sell cultures, this doesn’t change,” Gänzle adds. “There will be a transition period until everyone is familiar with the names and putting them on the label. Most, if not all, can still be abbreviated with L.”

Introduction to HACCP

Creating a HACCP plan — a management system to control food preparation risk — can overwhelm food producers. But Charlie Kalish, food safety consultant and trainer, emphasizes HACCP (Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points) is  vital  to food safety.

“This is just as important as trying to understand, when I ferment things, why do I ferment? What are the things that get you excited about why you get the flavors that you get or the textures that you get (when you ferment)? The food safety thing, it’s really going to help you in the long run if you approach it with the same excitement because, if you don’t, it’s going to be a lot of work and it will drag you down,” Kalish says during the recent TFA webinar Introduction to HACCP. “I see a lot of people get bitter about (HACCP). ‘It’s such a drain on my resources and what I do!’ But it can help your product get better, it can help you get into new markets. And it is a different language, a different world. Even if you’re not going to get a PhD to understand the basic science underlying the mechanisms, having a strong control of HACCP, food safety, what the expectations are, it’s really going to help you.”

HACCP was originally created for the space program in the ‘60s. NASA needed a high level of assurance that food was going to be safe during missions in space, but traditional food models did not have enough preventive food safety controls. That plan was later adopted by the USDA and FDA to regulate food products. 

“HACCP shifted the focus away from recalling food and trying to do damage control with outbreaks to preventing those things from happening in the first place,” Kalish says. “HACCP, in summary, is a systematic approach where we consider all of our ingredients, we consider every process step from when we receive our raw materials or ingredients all the way to the shipping out of our final product, it considers all reasonable and foreseeable hazards.”

Kalish points out HACCP controls for things with a high probability of occuring, like an E. Coli outbreak in lightly fermented food. And a good  HACCP plan begins with a solid foundation, basic practices like regular hand washing, sanitizing surfaces and maintaining a comprehensive food safety employee training program.

“Common sense is an excellent guide to get you started for food safety, but I would further suggest to learn as much as you can: the science of the system you’re working with, the microbiology, pH, what it is, how you measure it,” says Fred Breidt, PhD, a microbiologist with the Agriculture Research Division of the USDA. Breidt joined Kalish during the webinar along with moderator Dave Ehreth, president of Sonoma Brinery; both are TFA advisory board members.

Luckily for fermenters, fermentation is a critical control point. In one study on kimchi by Breidt and his USDA colleagues, they found pH level is critical for food safety, a factor controlled by fermentation.

Though the internet can be a wonderful resource to find information on food safety, “you have to be judicious about your sources,” Breidt says. Kalish says to look for guidance from government  sources, scientific literature, process authorities, university extension specialists, industry groups and publications or consultants.

Food producers need to budget for HACCP in their financial plan, Kalish advises. Ehreth agrees, and encourages producers still unsure of the process to pay a professional for help “to understand what potential biological hazards could be in that jar of food.”

“The modern food manufacturer is not only a food manufacturer, he is a protector and is entering into a bond of trust with his customers. And that bond of trust says ‘If you buy what I make, you’re not going to die as a result,” Ehreth adds. Though he notes it sounds like extreme advice, it’s a necessity for food producers to keep that creed at the forefront of their production.

Coffee Conquers Colon Cancer?

A new study links drinking coffee to higher survival rates from colon cancer. Researchers found that in 1,171 patients treated for metastatic colorectal cancer, patients who drank two to three cups of coffee per day were likely to live longer. They also had a longer time before their disease worsened. Patients who drank four or more cups of coffee a day had an even greater benefit.

“It’s known that several compounds in coffee have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other properties that may be active against cancer,” says Chen Yuan, study co-author and research fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

The study results, published in the peer-review journal JAMA Oncology, said coffee benefits were both for caffeinated and decaffeinated varieties. “Study authors emphasize the report was only able to find an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship. Experts say the study doesn’t provide sufficient evidence to recommend drinking coffee on a daily basis for people who have cancer.”

Read more (USA Today)

There’s a void in scientific knowledge of fermented and pickled vegetables, and scientists are just starting to scratch the surface.

“We have a wealth of chemical compositions that we still don’t fully understand,” says Dr. Ilenyz Pérez-Díaz, PhD, a microbiologist with the USDA-ARS. Perez-Diaz presented on “Development of Pickling Technologies & Products” during a webinar hosted by TFA. “I honestly think there is still a lot to do in regards to the richness of the biological functions that are present in these systems. Every vegetable is different. … It will be fantastic to be able to comprehensively understand what’s really there and how we can use it for the benefit of not only processing but also for the benefit of human health.” 

The purpose of the USDA-ARS is to find solutions for agricultural challenges, domestically and globally. In 2019, the 8,000 employees of the USDA-ARS researched 660 agricultural projects, filed 85 new patents, issued 65 new patents, received 51 new licenses and wrote 3,816 peer-reviewed journal articles. 

Pérez-Díaz is assigned to the food science and market quality and handling research unit. There the team develops state-of-the-art, science-backed methods that improve the post-harvest processes, food preservation, food quality and safety and, ultimately, introducing nutritious products into the food system. 

“What I love about the research that she’s doing is that pickling and fermentation are these ancient, traditional technologies that people have been using for hundreds and hundreds of years, and she’s really thinking about ways that we can advance those technologies using all the amazing sequencing and all the microbiology we have today,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD,  associate professor of biology at Tufts University, and the TFA Advisory Board member who moderated the webinar. 

Pérez-Díaz shared the USDA’s latest technologies to reduce food waste, lessen environmental impacts, improve water/energy demand and add more health value to preserved vegetables. Here are highlights from the research presented, focused on addressing two key problems:

Eliminate Salt in Cucumber Fermentation

PROBLEM: Sodium chloride is essential to fermentation, but the salt-rich (and sometimes preservative-filled) brine shipped from overseas producers can get into local freshwater supplies. There are no growers of small cucumbers (gherkins) in the U.S., so food projects that require small cucumbers must use overseas produce. But, in order for the cucumbers to be transported, they must be fermented or pickled. High amounts of salt, acid and sometimes preservatives are added, and these potentially can damage the water supply.

SOLUTION: USDA-ARS tested fermenting pickles using three popular spices: dill, cinnamon and mustard seed. But, though salt was reduced or eliminated, “the indigenious microbiota is always there,” Pérez-Díaz explains. “The salt is modulating the activity within this population. It tends to favor the lactic acid bacteria. But what I’ve learned is it is not the main factor modulating that microbiota. The ph and the production of that lactic acid and or acetic acid is really the factor in excluding the non desirable microorganisms and favoring the fermentative microbiota.” 

Reduce Food Waste by Creating Foods

PROBLEM: In the U.S., between 30-70% of fresh vegetable produce is wasted. “Those are alarming numbers,” says Pérez-Díaz. “Even though they are estimates, it is necessary to look at ways to resolve the impact of such waste.”

SOLUTION: The USDA developed small-scale fermentation systems for use in restaurants, farmer’s markets and grocery stores. These vessels make fermenting excess food more manageable by allowing easy fermentation of smaller batches. 

“We can  convert what was waste or surplus or defective vegetables into a value-added product,”  Pérez-Díaz says. “It will be a probiotic product, it will be fermented vegetables auxiliaries that can be used as sources of flavor, colors, ingredients in a number of recipes or even dehydrated for different applications.”  [This project was near completion before the pandemic and is expected to pick-up soon.]

Fermentation, she emphasized, is needed to sustain a modern food system.

“These fermentations, if applied properly, they are very powerful eliminating the organisms that are not desirable or the organisms that are not of health significance,” Pérez-Díaz says. “I think fermentation will truly be an important component as we move forward to that new era.” 

Just because vegetables were fermented does not make them immune to harmful bacteria like E. coli. Though fermentation improves food safety, the quality of the raw vegetable before it’s fermented is extremely important. 

“The issue of fermentation safety is one that comes up a lot. People are getting excited about the fermentation world these days, fermentation is increasing in popularity…(but) the wheels can fall off if you’re not careful,” says Fred Breidt, PhD, a USDA microbiologist. Breidt spoke during a recent webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association, “The Science Behind the Safety of Fermented Vegetables.” “The moral of the story: if the vegetables were safe to eat before you ferment them, they’re going to be safe to eat after you ferment them. If they’re not, you’ve got to ferment them for a long time to make sure they’re safe.”

An outbreak of dangerous bacteria in fermented vegetables, “it’s going to be pretty rare that that happens,” Breidt stresses. But, without proper sanitation protocol and vegetable quality control, pathogenic “bad guys” can flourish, like E. coli, salmonella and listeria. E. coli is more common in vegetables because it’s extremely acid resistant, and can survive for long periods of time at low pH levels and cold temperatures. 

“Just washing the surface (of the vegetable) isn’t always going to do the trick,” Breidt says. “You don’t have to eat very much to get sick.”

An E. coli outbreak in kimchi made 230 Korean school children sick in 2013. The children, from seven different schools, all ate fermented kimchi made by the same manufacturer.

“If the folks had eaten the cabbage that this kimchi was made out of, they would have gotten sick as well,” Breidt says. “Was the cabbage improved in the sense of maybe it had fewer E. coli on it because of fermentation? Yes. But there was still enough when this was eaten to make a lot of people sick.”

“You can’t rely on salt for safety is the point,” he adds. “It does encourage the lactic acid bacteria and it helps them grow and it will increase overall the safety of your fermentation.”

David Ehreth, president and founder of Alexander Valley Gourmet, parent company of Sonoma Brinery, moderated the webinar. Ehreth first met Breidt when Sonoma Brinery made a few tons of sauerkraut that became infected with yeast. Ehreth says “I called Ghostbusters, and that’s Fred Breidt.” Though yeast is different from a pathogen like E. coli, Ehreth said Sonoma Brinery has managed to control yeast over the years by careful management of production techniques and improved sanitation methods.

Healthy Cheese?

“Cheese is finding new ground as a ‘health’ food,” writes John Lucey, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the director of the Center for Dairy Research. Cheese has received a bad stereotype as a dairy food high in saturated fat and carbs, but Lucey notes cheese is high in vitamin C, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and folate. Studies show fermented cheeses reduce cancer rates, and fermented cheese contains bioactive peptides that reduce blood pressure, enhance the immune system and improve cardiovascular health.

Read more (Dairy Foods)