When Katherine Harmon Courage began investigating the microbiome 10 years ago as a writer for Scientific American, gut health was barely a blip on the public’s radar. It’s hard to believe today. You can’t walk by a grocery store shelf without reading dozens of labels advertising probiotic health benefits.
Today, gut health is at the forefront of the food industry. The probiotics supplement market is estimated to grow at a CAGR of 9.7 percent in the next seven years. And the market for probiotic-rich fermented foods is expected to grow at a CAGR of 4.98 percent in the next five years.
Gut health research from scientists and dieticians surged in the past decade. Courage was fascinated. “Looking at the food around the world and the connection between our ancient diet and microbes, that is really, really exciting,” she says. Courage spent a year travelling the world, exploring the traditional, gut-friendly cuisine of different cultures. She paired her culinary investigation with modern science into an engaging book: “Cultured: How Ancient Foods Can Feed Our Microbiome.”
Below, highlights from a Q&A with Courage on her new book, and her findings on the fermentation industry’s role in American’s evolving diets.
Q: You have been covering the microbiome since 2009. How has the scientific research progressed?
When I started covering it, there were small studies here and there, a lot from the Human Microbiome Project. Researchers were taking a census at the time, that we share our body with trillions of organisms. It was this niche area that I found super fascinating, but no one was talking about it much.
In the past decade, so much has changed. Science has evolved so much to learn about the connection between our health and our microbiome. We were raised to think germs are bad, bugs are bad, but we live with these commensal organisms.
Q: The food industry is taking notice of this research. What do you think of so many food products marketed with a gut health focus?
Talking to researchers, it’s interesting to see their perspective as scientists. They see the extreme of people thinking probiotics and microbes that are a marketing ploy to other people thinking probiotics and microbes will cure every health issue under the sun.
Microbiologists look at this critically. We’ve seen positive impacts on our health from it, but it won’t solve everything. We’re just at the beginning of understanding this relationship between these amazing and delicious fermented foods and our health.
Q: What’s the biggest misconception about microbes and our microbiome?
One of the misconceptions — and the one I had when I was thinking about this book — was the notion that if we eat something labeled probiotic, like a cup of yogurt, that we’re reinoculating our gut and restoring our gut health. Like if we eat a cup of yogurt, we’re good to go.
These microbes that we eat don’t stick around permanently. They’re just along for the ride. Weeks after we consume these, they’re not there anymore. When I learned this, I thought “There goes my research.” But when I looked into it more, in traditional culture and cuisines, people are eating fermented foods all the time, every day. It’s not about that one special food you eat or that one magic pill. It’s having those foods part of your daily cuisine and part of your life.
It’s great for fermentation producers. You don’t eat one jar of kimchi and call it good — you need to keep integrating it into your diet.
Q: Can a pill really fix our gut health?
Not being a scientist, I can’t say if it will or won’t fix our gut health. But talking to microbiologists who study this, it really is about exposing our bodies to these bacteria. We live our lives in such clean and pasteurized lives that we don’t get that microbial exposure. Their perspective is eating as many bugs, exposing ourselves to as many bugs, it will have a positive impact on our immune system as long as we’re healthy. A lot of the probiotic pills have been studied and they have positive health correlations, but we’re still learning so much about it.
Eating fermented foods, especially wild fermented foods, can be even more beneficial. Microbiologists and researchers in this field are really just starting to see what microbes are beneficial to our health. We can expose our bodies to more microbes through wild fermented foods because they’re so much more complex and have so many more microbes, rather than a yogurt with just three different microbes in it. We’re getting so much exposure through wild fermented foods.
Q: Why is it bad if we don’t properly feed our microbiome?
There’s the old friends hypothesis which is similar to the hygiene hypothesis. Our bodies have evolved to expect microbial exposure. But now our immune systems have gotten on this overactive trajectory, attacking these things they don’t need to.
We need to remember our native gut microbes, to feed them the nutrients they need to thrive. When we don’t feed our native microbes the fiber they need to thrive, they’ll eat the mucus lining in our gut, leading to more inflammation and asthma. We need to eat more microbes and feed the native microbes we do have.
Q: Can our native microbes change if we don’t feed them?
There’s been some interesting research out of Stanford’s Sonnenburg Lab. Mice fed on a diet with less fiber tend to have decreased microbiomes. Over generations, as the mice have pups, they pass that microbiome on to their pups. Generations later, these pups have super impoverished microbiomes. And they can’t come back and have a healthy microbiome by feeding them more fiber.
Q: Fermented foods are making waves in the food industry as the next big superfood. Tell me about fermented food in the book?
For the book, I got tor travel all over and explore these different cultures that have different fermented food traditions. I picked four main food places with quintessential fermented food — Greece to research yogurt, Korea to research kimchi, Japan to research miso and Switzerland to research cheese.
One of the cool discoveries I made travelling to these places was I discovered other aspects of the local diet that nourish the microbiome, other fermented foods and whole foods. These countries have different ways of thinking about eating than we do in America.
Q: What was the most eye-opening aspect of exploring other culture’s cuisine?
There were a couple. One, touring one of the big food markets in Seoul, Korea. Kimchi is their national food, but I was shown all these different fermented foods, different sauces, fermented soybean paste similar to miso, fermented veggies. It permeates their culture. Looking from far away in American grocery stores and farmers markets, you wouldn’t see it.
Second, in Japan, speaking with another author, we were talking about nato. Some people find nato challenging because it’s made with basic fermentation rather than acidic fermentation. The Japanese approach to fermented food, they teach at a very young age that “This is a wonderful, healthy food.” In America, we teach food as “Try this because it’s gratifying and yummy.” There’s this dichotomy of healthy foods versus gratifying goods. In Japan, there’s more of an understanding that there’s a wide variety of foods and you’re expected to eat all of them because that’s how you have a healthy life.
Q: Do you think this surge of fermented foods is a trend will disappear or a new food movement here to stay?
It’s here to stay. I expect to see it expanding and incorporating into more people’s lives. There is really compelling research with the health benefits, but there’s also these amazing flavors for those of us who weren’t raised with it. Like kimchi. Once you eat kimchi, food seems bland and lacking without it. Koreans describe it as “You need kimchi with every meal.” They can’t imagine eating it without. The flavor and texture experience is a big part of eating. We shouldn’t be forcing it down for our health, but truly enjoying it.
Q: Ancient foods are making an appearance in our diet again. Tell me what you found most fascinating in your research for this book on ancient foods.
One of the interesting things was how they are being incorporated into contemporary culture and cuisine. I went to a fermentation based restaurant in Tokyo, and I talked to the chef about how he’s integrating more traditional practices into contemporary cuisine and making very elegant meals out of them.
Q: Tell me more about your travels to Greece to learn about traditional yogurt. Modern yogurt is often criticized for the scientifically added probiotics. What did you find about traditional yogurt?
My image of yogurt was this fermented product with a few strains. But I wondered, with fermented yogurt products, are they just dumping strains in after they produced it?
Touring a family-owned, small-scale yogurt making facility in Greece, it was interesting seeing their process. They use backslopping, which is using part of the previous batch to inoculate the next batch. Traditionally, that was the way all of these products were made. It makes a richer microbial environment. We don’t know what strains are in it unless it’s sent off to a lab. Their strains come from the batch before and the batch before. Their yogurt would have strains unique to that product since they’ve made it for decades in that same place.
Q: Can better gut health help Americans notoriously destructive eating habits?
I think one of the keys is getting more fiber, especially prebiotic fiber from whole foods, not just a supplement, to really nourish a diverse gut microbiome. And, of course, eating more fermented foods.
Sustainability isn’t just a buzzword, it’s a movement. Consumers care about the environment, and they want the brands they buy to care, too.
A recent Nielsen ratings report found that 81 percent of people around the world feel strongly that companies should help improve the environment. For proof consumers are pledging their support for companies that are Mother Nature’s advocates, look at their wallets. Nielson ratings found product sales grew twice as fast for companies with specific environmental impact claims.
“No matter what, sustainability is no longer a niche play: your bottom-line and brand growth depend on it,” the report reads.
Nielson looked at three products sustainability efforts, two which are fermented: chocolate, coffee and bath products. Chocolate was the main focus of the report.
Cocoa is grown in difficult circumstances. Of the world’s cocoa supply, 90 percent of it is grown on small family farms by about 6 million farmers. Cocoa farmers work in rough circumstances. Cocoa is a fragile crop that grows in hot, rainy, tropical environments and the trees don’t yield cocoa pods until its fifth year. Farmers work hard and profit is low.
Research drilled down to specific consumer sentiments about chocolate, from environmental claims (like ethically sourced, made with renewable energy or carbon neutral), to the absence of artificial ingredients and fair trade.
Chocolate with environmental claims account for an extremely small percent of the chocolate category, only 0.2 percent. But it grew four times the rate of sales, from 22 percent from March 2017 to March 2018. Unit growth is also huge. Chocolate with environmental claims is “flying off the shelves at a rate five times faster than the overall market.” Environmental chocolate had a 15 percent unit sales growth compared to the competition with just 3 percent sales growth.
Fair trade chocolate is performing well, too. Fair trade chocolate only makes up 0.1 percent of the total chocolate market, but dollar sales growth for fair trade chocolate doubles the rest of the category (10 percent versus 5 percent). Unit sales are five times higher for fair trade chocolate (15 percent versus 3 percent).
No artificial ingredients
Unit sales of chocolate made without artificial ingredients are growing at the same 3 percent rate as the rest of the chocolate category. But dollar sales of clean chocolate are triple the market (16 percent versus 5 percent). The report infers that, because clean chocolate is priced higher than chocolate made with artificial ingredients, consumers will pay more for a sustainable choice.
The report reads: “In many ways this space is evolving; however, what we do know is that sustainability presents an opportunity to be creative about innovative growth. Embedding consumer demand for sustainability into your company strategy and product pipeline requires data specific to your brand footprint and consumer profile.
Sustainability: “Life and Death Matter”
Consumers are empowered by evidence that “sustainability has become a life and death matter.” The World Health Organization estimates 12.6 million people die every year from environmental health risks. Air pollution and water quality are listed as top concerns for people around the world, the survey found. Increasing cases of asthma and typhoid are linked to deteriorating air and water quality.
“In light of these concerns, consumers around the world are making adjustments in their shopping habits,” the report reads. “While still juggling convenience, price and awareness along with their need to better the world, they’re looking for companies to step up as partners in their quest to do good.”
Another finding of note: though protecting Mother Earth is an important issue for survey respondents globally, consumers in developing countries are more concerned. The percentage of European and North American respondents who said they were “extremely” or “very concerned” about environmental issues was lower than respondents in third-world countries, like Latin America, Asia-Pacitic and Africa/Middle East.
Other interesting finds: environmentally advocacy is typically attributed to Millennials. Millennials are the generation most vocal advocating for corporate social responsibility. But the ratings found every generation and every gender cares deeply about the health of the planet. While 85 percent of Millenials (age 21-34) ranked a company’s environmental responsibility as “extremely” or “very” important, other generations weren’t far behind. Generation Z (15-20) was at 80 percent, Generation X (age 35-49) was at 79 percent, Baby Boomers (age 50-64) were at 72 percent and the Silent Generation (age 65+) was at 65 percent.
Forbes shares a detailed list of how companies can “champion” climate change. Their tips relevant to food producers include:
- Measure your carbon footprint annually through a third party audit.
- Develop an action plan, from reducing supply chain emissions to improving energy efficiency to cutting unnecessary transportation environmental hazards, like shipping by sea freight instead of air or using regional warehouses.
- Set emission reduction goals, then monitor your progress.
- Support environmental change politics by using lobbying influence for policymakers who are working to improve the health of the planet.
“The right kind of diet may give the brain more of what it needs to avoid depression, or even to treat it once it’s begun,” writes the Wall Street Journal. Research from Australia’s Deakin University found, for people battling depression, an improved diet resulted in”significantly happier moods than those who received social support.” A bad diet affects our microbiome (“the trillions of micro-organisms that live in our gut”) altering the production of serotonin (a neurotransmitter). Research says a balanced Mediterranean-style diet provides the nutrition our brain needs. Research lists probiotic-rich food with live bacteria and yeasts (yogurt, sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, fermented veggies) to replenish the good bacteria in our microbiome.
Read more (Wall Street Journal)
Today’s food is packaged in so much plastic that humans now regularly consume plastic molecules in their food. A Polish design student created Scoby packaging, an edible and recyclable packaging that farmers can grow to wrap products. The zero waste biological tissue is a similar texture to animal tissue used to encapsulate sausage or salami, but Scoby is vegetarian and can be grown with a simple chemical process student Roza Janusz of the School of Form in Poznan, Poland invented. The process is similar to making kombucha, and the fermentation growth time per sheet is two weeks.
Read more (Fast Company)
Fermented food and drink bar GYST is expanding locations, workshops — and research. The Minneapolis-based company is teaming up with University of Minnesota Food Science and Nutrition Department to study the health benefits of a consistent diet of lacto-fermented foods. GYST will study topics like: will the health of soil produce better fermented foods, does organic produce create better fermentation and do different vegetables produce different bacteria.
Read more (City Pages)
Ever thrown out a jar of kimchi because of those pesky white mold bubbles? Fear not – it’s not mold, it’s yeast! Researchers say just skim it off, rinse the veggie, heat it and it’s totally safe to eat. The World Institute of Kimchi (WiKim) released a study on the hygienic safety of the yeast strains that form on kimchi, a report which was published in the Journal of Microbiology. WiKim General Director Dr. Jaeho Ha said the study is significant because “it is a step forward toward the alleviation of the anxiety for hygienic safety of kimchi.”
Read more (Phys.org)
America could be facing a pickle shortage. Since the mid-2000s, a mildew has been destroying cucumber crops. Fewer farmers are growing cucumbers now because of the high amount of failed harvests. USDA records show pickling cucumber acreage has declined 25 percent between 2004 and 2015. Lina Quesada-Ocampo, vegetable pathologist at North Carolina State University told NPR: “This is the number one threat to the pickle industry.” Thankfully, vegetable breeder Michael Mazourek, a professor at Cornell University, is developing a cucumber variety resistant to mildew.
Read more (NPR)
Two scientists have a patent pending on a brewery invention that detects the wild yeast contaminant Saccharomyces cerevisiae var. diastaticus. The wild yeast causes secondary fermentation in beer production, fermenting unfermentable sugars and overcarbonating brews. A contamination costs brewers millions in recalled product, lost sales and decreased market share. The patent is by a University of Sciences director and his 20-year-old undergrad researcher. The microbiological medium would be marketed for professional and home brewers.
Read more (Philadelphia Business Journal)
It’s National Pickle Day — Forbes explains why pickles are not a fading trend, but a growing food culture with staying power. The pickle market is growing, reaching a value of $12.74 billion by 2020 (half of that – $6.70 billion – is just in the U.S.). Pickles curb dehydration, are packed with antioxidants like vitamin C and E and the fermented vinegar in the juice is good for your gut. Today, pickle concoctions can be found on most aisles of a grocery store, from sports drinks to popcorn to popsicles.
Read more (Forbes)
Research is critical to the future of cacao crops, which are challenged by climate change and disease. Fruity cocoa flavors are related to how the beans are fermented, while floral cocoa flavors are related to the genetics of the crop. Researchers at the Cocoa Research Centre are currently developing cacao varieties that are resistant to drought and particular pests.
Read more (Smithsonian)