Several obstacles prevent the innovation of fermented foods, from the lack of scientific research to a chasm between science and industry to improving the sustainability of traditional ferments.
A third of foods consumed worldwide are fermented, totalling 3,500 products. A group of European scientists is studying how those fermented foods can drive innovation in food systems.
“There’s not a clear way to improve the unique properties of traditional fermented foods using microbial organisms,” says Vittorio Capozzi, PhD, a researcher with the Institute of Sciences and Food Production (ISPA) in Italy. “We still need innovation in traditional fermented foods.”
Capozzi was one of the presenters at a side event during the October Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations Science and Innovation forum. PIMENTO hosted the session. PIMENTO (which stands for “Promoting Innovation of ferMENted fOods”) launched last year in Europe, a project of the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST). PIMENTO aims “to place Europe at the spearhead of innovation on microbial foods” by promoting fermentation’s health, diversity and production. To achieve this goal, five working groups are structured around different fermentation topics. The groups are made up of both scientist and non-scientist fermentation experts studying and eventually implementing their findings.
Traditional ferments have “an important part of biodiversity that we cannot neglect,” Capozzi says. Fermentation provides new microbial-based solutions for a variety of foods, from plant-based ferments to alternative proteins. Innovations can improve nutrition and sensory qualities.
“In this way we are preserving biodiversity that has huge potential in biotechnology, science and innovation,” he says.
Ferments, he notes, can be protected. For example, a ferment produced in a specific geographical region (tequila in Mexico), a protected diversity, vegetable type, animal product or the human behavior used in production (Salers cheese in France).
“Fermented foods have been shaped through the centuries,” says Effie Tsakalidou, professor at the Agricultural University of Athens in Greece. “We have a lot of diversity.”
One of PIMENTO’s tasks is to create a database on European fermented foods. This list would include food types, production, consumption volume, technological parameters and legal status (like certifications).
Speaking on the health benefits and risks of fermented foods, Smilja Todorović, PhD, a professor at the Institute for Biological Research in Serbia, notes there’s a dearth of reputable, peer-reviewed studies on fermented foods.
“One of the very important things is to identify gaps in scientific evidence regarding benefits and risks,” she says.
The current studies on fermented foods are few and limited. Research does prove consuming fermented foods is correlated with overall mortality, decreased risk of diabetes, certain cancer types, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases. Todorović says that’s not enough.
“Unfortunately, when we look at scientific evidence to claim health properties, we can see that there are insufficient evidence. So all we have is a growing scientific interest in fermented foods and their impact on human health. However, we need to move from promising results to scientific evidence,” he says.
PIMENTO’s working groups are cataloging fermented foods’ impact on the gastrointestinal symptom, allergies, immunity, bone health and neurological projects. They also plan for projects studying fermented foods bioactive compounds, vitamin production and functionality; and fermented foods use in personalized diets.
The lack of studies prevents innovations in the field. Antonio del Casale, co-founder and CEO of Microbion, an agro-industrial microbiology company, says there is a disconnect between the scientists studying fermented foods and fermented food producers. He calls it “a valley of death.” The research on fermented foods is low, but the development of commercial resources are increasing.
“The problem is how to avoid the limitations of developing the food in this sector,” he says.