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)

By: Dr. Miin Chan, BMedSci, MBBS (University of Melbourne)

Good gut health fixes everything! Fermented foods are good for your gut! Fermented foods are a panacea for all that ails you! 

As two behemoth trends in science and food – the gut microbiome and fermented foods – collide, messages such as these inundate the public narrative. But do they serve to educate, or confuse?

Everyone has their pet peeve. Mine is the violation of science to sell products and agendas. Intentional or otherwise, poor science communication distorts food literacy. Nutritional research is vulnerable to extreme manipulation, plagued by methodology issues, historical reputation damage and abuse by powerful commercial interests. In this era of rapid dissemination of alternative facts, it is essential to interpret and communicate research in a clear, accurate manner. These narratives guide our community’s daily food choices and thus, impact personal and public health outcomes.

Nuance and doubt are the key drivers of scientific practice; clickbait headlines and definitive language are the bread and butter of modern journalism and advertising. Private enterprise is the worst offender, exaggerating the health benefits of food products with purposeful vagaries and definitive language. Correlation and association in trials become causation. Studies in rodents equate to human health outcomes. The word “may” makes it acceptable to overstate findings or attribute them to unrelated food products. Labels and catchphrases are used loosely; think “probiotics”, “prebiotics” and the very grey “good for your gut health”. As a marketing strategy, many businesses now employ teams of “experts” to validate their claims’ scientific rigour, obscuring the inherent conflict of interest. These tactics serve to plump bottom lines, dodge government regulations that serve public interest, and ultimately, confuse vulnerable consumers.

Just as concerning are journalists, researchers and scientific publications that, in an effort to stay relevant, adopt the same techniques as their commercial counterparts to garner attention. Usually, this entails overblown health benefits. But sometimes it goes the other way.

Let’s look at a recent article published by The Conversation titled: “Kombucha, kimchi and yogurt: how fermented foods could be harmful to your health” (1). By the time it had been republished in The Independent, as well as several other international news outlets, it had morphed into: “Why fermented foods could cause serious harm to your health”. Such headlines instill fear in readers. Headlines are important: research has shown that 59% of links shared on social networks are not clicked on (2); this means that the majority of people share articles without reading past the headlines. These insidious messages bleed into the collective consciousness and impact our attitudes towards food.

Overall, this is a well-written article, providing mostly appropriate references, but the author is an infectious disease expert, not a food scientist or nutrition researcher. To the average lay reader, her non-related credentials give the article clout and credibility. Lurking within the article are problematic false equivalences, misrepresentations and extrapolations used to bulk out the piece. 

Bloating is an issue for some consumers but is certainly not “harmful” nor “serious”. Reactions to biogenic amines, including histamine, are highlighted. But the article fails to mention that only 1% of the population (3) have histamine intolerance and even fewer have severe reactions. Why include food borne illness? This is a food safety issue and is not more likely to occur in fermented foods. The author even talks about how probiotics in milk products increase their safety, but then states that “probiotics can fail” leading to “hazardous” outcomes due to bacterial toxins, with no evidence to support this.

Lab-produced probiotic strains are not necessarily the same as those found in fermented foods (4). So it is misleading, in this context, to reference limited case reports of probiotic capsules causing infections in immunocompromised patients. There are no recorded infections due to the ingestion of fermented products, and the majority of people are not immunocompromised. 

Last but not least, the author cites antibiotic resistance due to gene transfer from microbes found in fermented foods. The research used to support this looks at particular strains extracted from fermented foods in non-human trials. No evidence is currently available to suggest that such gene transfer occurs when humans ingest fermented food, or that this would promote antibiotic resistance in a clinically significant way. It is irresponsible to include this as a reason why fermented foods may cause harm to human health.

Humans have consumed fermented foods for many human generations. This in itself suggests the safety of fermented foods for the majority of people, and the human clinical trials that have been conducted indicate few side effects, let alone serious ones. 

Fear-mongering headlines and articles exploit poor science literacy in the general population. One has to ask, what is the purpose of such articles? Is it simply a matter of publish or perish, a hankering for a sparkly headline that draws attention?

Food is central to every human’s daily life, with long-term effects on their health and wellbeing. Businesses, journalists, government bodies and most of all, scientists, need to recognise their responsibility to create clear nutritional science narratives. Science and food literacy need to be priorities in our education sector. Government bodies, informed by up-to-date research, must better regulate food-related health claims to protect public interest. We must avoid exaggeration of both benefits and harms and introduce nuance into our science communication. Our health depends on it!

Dr. Miin Chan, BMedSci, MBBS (University of Melbourne) As a medical doctor & researcher obsessed with taste, food culture, ferments and nutrition, Miin founded Australia’s first tibicos business, Dr. Chan’s. She helped to create the local wild fermentation industry through products, education, science communication and consultation. Working with farmers’ markets, Slow Food Melbourne and urban agriculture charity Sustain, she has a deep love for all things food, from soil to gut. Engaged in a love affair with microbes, Miin is undertaking a PhD at the University of Melbourne researching the effects of fermented foods on chronic disease via gut microbiota. @dr.chans @slowferment @gastronomymagic 

(1) Mohammed, M. Kombucha, kimchi and yogurt: how fermented foods could be harmful to your health. The Conversation 2019. https://theconversation.com/kombucha-kimchi-and-yogurt-how-fermented-foods-could-be-harmful-to-your-health-126131

(2) Gabielkov M, Ramachandran A, Chaintreau A, et al. Social clicks: what and who gets read on Twitter? ACM SIGMETRICS/ IFIP Performance 2016. Antibes Juan-les-Pins, France (Conference Paper) https://hal.inria.fr/hal-01281190

(3) Maintz L, Novak N. Histamine and histamine intolerance. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 2007; 85(5):1185-1196 https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/85.5.1185

(4) Marco ML, Heeney D, Binda S, et al. Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond. Current Opinion in Biotechnology 2017;44:94-102 https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27998788

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)

A new grant by the California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA) to the University of California at Davis will fund training and education for consumers around one of the most confusing grocery offerings — fermented fruits and vegetables.

“There’s a general need to educate the consumer on what fermented foods are — and they currently don’t have that education,” says Maria Marco, professor in Food Science and Technology at UC Davis (and a TFA Advisory Board member). “A definition and resources will help them be more empowered consumers and be more aware of what they’re eating. There’s a need — from kids to physicians. People need to know what these foods are.”

The grant will also fund research on the fundamental properties of fermented fruits and vegetables. Food scientists at UC Davis will study the microbial contents, characterizing the fermented foods. 

The 2019 Specialty Crop Block Grant Program (SCBGP) funds 69 projects focusing on specialty crops grown in California. Grant recipients range from organizations, government entities and colleges and universities. The projects must specifically focus on increasing the sales of specialty crops through the “California Grown” identity. UC Davis received $213,051 for the grant titled: “Expanding Education and Knowledge of Fermented Fruits and Vegetables.” 

“California has an important role in the U.S. because such a large number of the United States’ crops are grown here,” Marco said. “We’re the fruit bowl, the salad bowl here in the U.S.”

Of the $72.4 million awarded nationwide, California led the nation in funding with $22.9 million. The California Department of Agriculture will oversee the projects.

Fermentation Education

Core to the grant is fermentation education. UC Davis will work with Master Food Preservers across the state, training them in fermentation. The Master Food Preserver is a community volunteer program available to any individual interested in food preservation. They take a series of extensive, in-depth courses. After earning certification, they can teach the public about food preservation.

“These Master Food Preservers are getting a lot of questions lately about making fermented foods at home,” adds Marco. By providing fermentation classes to the Master Food Preservers, “we’re extending knowledge and providing information on the science of fermented foods.”

“When people start to understand the science behind the food, what the microbes are doing, that engages the public in a way based on science rather than on feeling. That will help the food producers in the end. A more informed public helps elevate their product. It shows their product is different from something just pickled with acid.

Citizen Science

Education and training will be supported by up-to-date research. This research, performed in UC Davis’ Marco lab in the Food Science & Technology department, will also be funded by SCBGP money.

“We’ll be looking at microbial contents of crops and the metabolites that they make,” Marco added. “Characterizing those foods to provide more knowledge on what’s there, it’s a move forward to determining how fermented foods can be healthy for us.”

Few studies are available that examine how fermented foods benefit or alter human health. Though fermented food research in the Marco Lab won’t involve humans, it will provide a scientific base that could evolve into a human study. 

“This is important because there’s a lot of interest in this type of food and beverage. You see a lot more of these products available on the supermarket shelves. There is also an interest to be making more food at home. And there’s generally an idea that these foods are first of all tasty, but they could help our health in many, many ways. There is that belief. And there’s a risk — if these things are not made properly or if there’s some conditions where people should limit their fermented food intake. So there’s good, but if these things are not made properly there can be food safety risks.”

Food Processors

Grant research will benefit commercial processors, too. UC Davis will provide “new or improved methods for fermented food processors.” 

Consistency and scale are a challenge for fermented food producers because of the live bacteria. 

“Microbes have a mind of their own,” Marco said. “A lot of these foods are not originated with mass production in mind. They are usually made in small quantities. So when you scale up, it becomes an issue of quality and consistency. How do you make something that’s usually done in small quantities and sell across the country in large quantities?”

By: American Olive Oil Producers Association

The American Olive Oil Producers Association and Deoleo, the world’s largest producer of olive oil, submitted a citizen petition to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to adopt science-based, enforceable standards for olive oil.

“Buying quality extra virgin olive oil is hard, but not because there aren’t quality products on supermarket shelves. It’s because there are just no rules to stop bad actors from misrepresenting what they’re selling,” said Adam Englehardt, Chairman of the American Olive Oil Producers Association.

“It was in this vacuum that California adopted a state-based grading and labeling standard in 2014. Family farms like mine supported those regulations because it allowed growers and producers a real opportunity to compete. A half-decade later our state is known around the world for its commitment to quality,” said Englehardt.

The new standards for olive oil, which FDA would be empowered to promulgate after a final rule pending a public comment period, would mark the first time the federal government has regulated the category. Citizen petitions for Standards Of Identity have resulted previously in the adoption of regulations for a variety of other food products.

Stakeholders involved are confident that the petition demonstrates the need to adopt the proposed science-based olive oil standards to provide honest and fair dealings in the interest of consumers while promoting a vibrant and competitive industry.

“We believe consumers have the right to know what they’re buying, but the absence of an enforceable regulatory environment makes this difficult,” said Ignacio Silva, President and CEO of Deoleo. “The petition provides an incredible opportunity to improve quality across the category and most importantly, it will restore consumer trust in olive oil. We support science-based grading standards because we’re committed to quality. It’s just that simple.”

A 2015 investigation by the National Consumers League into olive oil mislabeling found six of eleven national brands had misrepresented quality grades to consumers. A separate, four-year audit of the category between 2015 and 2019 found half of all products available to consumers today failed to meet international quality standards.

Consumers deserve to know what they are buying and should be confident that they are receiving the value and health benefits that correspond with the quality grade of olive oil they desire. The clear definition of grades set forth in the petition for extra virgin, virgin and olive oil do this and allow US consumers to choose a suitable price point to meet their preferences.

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.” 
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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