The Covid-19 lockdown spurred aspiring home chefs around the world to try fermenting for the first time. DIY classes moved virtual and countertops filled with bubbling crocks of kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha and sourdough. Fermentation was one of the top pandemic hobbies.
For professional fermentation educators, this trend brought new, eager faces to classes. But now, as lockdown restrictions have eased, are people still wanting to experiment making their own microbe-rich food?
We asked three experts to share their thoughts on the current state of fermentation education — author and educator Kirsten Shockey (of The Fermentation School and Ferment Works), writer and educator Soirée-Leone (who can be found via her website) and chef, food scientist and fermentation educator Jori Jayne Emde (of Lady Jayne’s Alchemy and The Fermentation School). [Shockey and Soirée-Leone are both members of TFA’s Advisory Board.]
The question: What is the current state of fermentation education?
Kirsten Shockey, author and educator
Fermentation education is exploding. The time has never been better. The interest in fermentation — both as a topic and in hands-on engagement — keeps gaining momentum. People are both more curious and more confused than I have seen in the past. I think part of that is because with the boom of interest a lot of people are coming forward as experts sharing content without the prerequisites to inform accurately. For example, we see misinformation about the subtle differences in fermentation vs. culturing vs. pickling that end up leaving people who are just dipping their toes in the process a little less unsure. When these folx do engage with true experts they are enthusiastic students who enjoy soaking up all that they can and we see their anxieties dissipate. I speak from the experience of working with solid experts and their students through The Fermentation School. It has been beyond gratifying to work with an amazing group of really talented fermentation educators to grow quality online education and a dedicated “help” community through The Fermentation School. In my other educator hat, as an author, it is less clear to me how that media is working for education, but that is a bigger issue in that the publishing world itself is in a lot of flux.
Soirée-Leone, writer and educator
Folks are connecting with familial, cultural, and traditional roots through fermentation. They are building online communities to share knowledge, taking workshops, participating in residencies, checking books out from libraries, and attending fermentation festivals that are popping up all over the world.
While there is an abundance of information available through books and websites, some folks seek to connect in person through workshops. I find that it’s especially dynamic to teach and learn in collaborative environments to share skills and experiences. There are so many traditions, techniques, and riffs. It is exciting to learn about folks’ travels, study, and experiments — we each have a different fermentation journey and something to teach and learn.
Today is a far cry from when I first started cheesemaking in 1991 with one slim book that sang the praises of junket rennet. Now there are books sharing natural cheesemaking techniques, bloggers happy to answer questions, travelers bringing information home and sharing online, and workshops to attend.
Fermentation is accessible with rudimentary kitchen equipment and improvised incubators and cheese caves. Fermentation is empowering and engaging of all our senses—and learning new things about fermentation is a never-ending journey.
My perspective on this is it’s booming! There was a huge burst of interest for online learning during the pandemic, and I have not seen that slow down much. Fermentation is a trendy topic and word with, unfortunately, a tremendous amount of misinformation floating around out there. It’s an important time as an educator to really remain engaged with students, as well as capturing fermentation aspirants, guiding them towards proper and well informed education taught by experts in the field of fermentation and health.
A win for kombucha brewers — after a confusing month for those trying to sell their products in South Carolina, they can now sell kombucha as a non-alcoholic beverage in the state.
South Carolina’s Department of Revenue (DOR) had categorized all kombuchas as alcoholic beverages. The state.’s regulations set a maximum alcohol content for beverages but no minimum, so any fermented beverage with any alcohol content would be considered alcoholic. Since kombucha fermentation produces a trace amount of alcohol, a brewer
would need to apply for a state alcohol license, and kombucha could not be sold to anyone under the age of 21.
S.C.’s law contradicts the U.S. legal definition of an alcoholic beverage, which is any product with 0.5% or more alcohol by volume (ABV).
After kombucha industry leaders contacted the state’s DOR and the South Carolina Retail Association (SCRA) to share advice and resources, the regulation was amended to exempt kombucha. Kombucha Brewers International’s leadership and legal counsel, along with producers Buchi Kombucha, GT’s Synergy Kombucha, Health Ade, Humm and Brew Dr., were involved.
“Every time we are called to support commercial producers to advocate on their behalf with government agencies, we validate the category,” said Zane Adams, chair of KBI’s board and co-CEO of Buchi Kombucha and FedUp Foods. “Our very existence means that kombucha is not a fad rather it is a necessary beverage segment that will only continue to grow. We appreciate every opportunity to interface with regulators to help them better understand our product and processes.”
“Crisis creates community,” adds Hannah Crum, KBI president. “Our mission is to advocate and protect kombucha and that’s exactly what we were able to do here thanks to the cooperation of several KBI member and non-member brands. We also appreciate that we were able to create new relationships with the SCRA and the S.C. DOR as we worked together to create a harmonious resolution.”
Most retail stores sell kombucha in the refrigerated juice section. In a press release, KBI shared three points for food regulators who may be unsure in what beverage category kombucha fits:
- Kombucha is not beer. Tax codes that lump kombucha with malt beverages are incorrect.
- Kombucha is an acetic acid ferment. Its fermentation process is similar to that for vinegar. Trace amounts of ethanol will be left in the final ferment, and they act as a natural preservative.
- Hard kombucha is an exception to non-alcoholic kombucha. Hard kombucha is intentionally made with a higher alcohol content, with the purpose to be sold and consumed as an alcoholic beverage.
KBI is currently lobbying for legislation that would exempt kombucha from excise taxes intended for alcoholic beverages. The KOMBUCHA Act, currently in Congress, proposes to raise the ABV threshold for kombucha taxation from its current level of 0.5% to 1.25%. KBI is encouraging the public to sign a petition in support of the act.
While KBI notes it would be ideal to create a new beverage category, “the process is long and arduous and requires a lot of financing for education and lobbying.”
David Zilber says the potential for fermented food is endless. “There isn’t any sort of food that doesn’t benefit from some aspect of fermentation,” he said. “There’s really no limitation to its application.”
Zilber, the former head of the Noma fermentation lab, co-authored “The Noma Guide to Fermentation” with Noma founder Rene Redzepi. In the fall of 2020, Zilber surprised the food world when he left his job at Noma to join Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of bioscience ingredients.
He shared his insight on fermentation on The Food Institute Podcast. An Oxford study found over 30% of the world’s food has been touched by microbes. Zilber, a microbe champion, says one of the best parts of fermenting with plant-based ingredients is the microbes don’t need to change.
“We do need to find ways to adapt them to new sources, but there will always be a place within the pie chart of what humans are eating on earth for fermentation,” he says.
Part of Zilber’s work at Chr. Hansen is in the plant-based protein alternative segment, fermenting plant ingredients to “bring this other set of characteristics” to a new food item. He advises fermenters using plant-based ingredients to make their ingredient list concise and pronounceable to consumers.
“I am a huge proponent for formulating recipes from whole ingredients,” Zilber says. “Keeping the ingredient list short and concise and using natural processes to achieve flavor or textual properties … because it is the healthiest way to eat.”
Across the spectrum of fermentation, he feels fermented beverages is the category where he sees the greatest opportunity.
Read more (The Food Institute)
Nutrition professionals need to share the details when recommending fermented products to clients. What are the health benefits of the specific food or beverage ? Does the product contain probiotics? Live microbes?
“There are a vast array of fermented foods. This is important because it means there can be tasty, culturally appropriate options for everyone,” says Hannah Holscher, PhD and registered dietitian (RD). But, she adds, remember that these are complex products.
Holscher spoke at a webinar produced by the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) and Today’s Dietitian. Joined by Jennifer Burton, RD and licensed dietitian/nutritionist (LDN), the two addressed the topic Fermented Foods and Health — Does Today’s Science Support Yesterday’s Tradition? Hosted by Mary Ellen Sanders, executive director of ISAPP, the presentation touched on the foundational elements of fermented foods, their differences from probiotics, the role of microbes in fermentation, current scientific evidence supporting health claims and how to help clients incorporate fermented foods in their diets.
Sanders called fermented foods “one of today’s hottest food categories.” Today’s Dietitian surveys show they are a top interest to dietitians, as the general public often turns to them with questions about fermented foods and digestive health.
Here are three factors highlighted in the webinar that dietitians should consider before recommending fermented foods and beverages.
Does It Contain Live Microbes?
Fermentation is a metabolic process – microorganisms convert food components into other substances.
In the past decade, scientists have applied genomic sequencing to the microbial communities in fermented foods. They’ve found there’s not just one microbe involved in fermentation, Holscher explained, there may be many. The most common microbes in fermented foods are streptococcus, lactobacillaceae, lactococcus and saccharomyces.
But deciphering which fermented food or beverages contains live microbes can be difficult.
Live microorganisms are present in foods like yogurt, miso, fermented vegetables and many kombuchas. But they are absent in foods that were fermented then heat-treated through baking and pasteurization (like bread, soy sauce, most vinegars and some kombucha). They’re also absent in fermented products that are filtered (most wine and beers) or roasted (coffee and cacao). And there are foods that are mistakenly considered fermented but are not, like chemically-leavened bread, vegetables pickled in vinegar and non-fermented cured meats and fish.
“The main take-home message is that it’s not always easy to tell if a food is a fermented food or not. So you may need to do more digging, either by reading the label more carefully or potentially contacting the food manufacturer,” Holscher said. “When we just think of if live microbes are present or not, a good rule of thumb is if that food is on the shelf at your grocery store, it’s very likely that it does not contain live microbes.”
Does It Contain Probiotics?
The dietitians stressed: probiotics are not the same as fermented foods.
“Probiotics are researched as to the strains and the dosages to be able to connect consumption of a probiotic to a health outcome,” Holscher said. “These strains are taxonomically defined, they’ve been sequenced, we know what these microorganisms can do. They also have to be provided in doses of adequate amounts of the live microbes so foods and supplements are sources of probiotics.”
Though fermented foods can be a source of probiotics, Holscher notes: “In most fermented foods, we don’t know the strain level designation.”
“For most of the microbes in fermented foods, we’ve just really been doing the genomic sequencing of those over the last 10 years and so we may only know them to the genus level right,” she said. For example, we know lactic acid bacteria are present in kimchi and sauerkraut.
Holscher suggests, if a client has a specific health need, a probiotic strain should be recommended based on its evidence-based benefits. For example, the probiotic strain saccharomyces boulardii is known to help prevent travel-related diarrhea, and so would be good for a patient to take before a trip.
“If you’re looking to support health and just in general, fermented foods are a great way to go,” Holscher says.
The speakers recommended looking for probiotic foods in the Functional Food Section of the U.S. Probiotic Guide.
Does Research Support Health Claims?
Fermentation contributes to the functional and nutritional characteristics of foods and beverages. Fermented foods can: inhibit pathogens and food spoilage microbes, improve digestibility, increase vitamins and bioactives in food, remove or reduce toxic substances or anti-nutrients in food and have health benefits.
But research into fermented foods has been minimal, mostly limited to fermented dairy. Dietitians should be careful making strong recommendations based on health claims unless those claims are supported by research. And food labels should always be scrutinized.
“There’s a lot of voices out there that are trying to answer this question [Are fermented foods good for us?],” says Burton. “Many food manufacturers have published health claims on their labels talking about these benefits and, while those claims are regulated, they’re not always enforced. Just because it has a food health claim on it, that claim may not be evidence-based. There’s a lot of anecdotal accounts of benefits coming from eating fermented foods and the research is suggesting some exciting potential mechanisms. But overall we know as dietitians we have an ethical responsibility to practice on the basis of sound evidence and to not make strong recommendations if those are not yet supported by research.”
Reputable health claims are documented in randomized control trials. But only “possible benefits” can be linked to nonrandomized controlled trials. And non-controlled trials are the least conclusive studies of all.
For example, Burton puts miso in the “possible benefits” category because, with its high sodium content, there’s not enough research indicating it’s safe for patients with heart disease. Similarly, she does not recommend kombucha because of its extremely limited clinical research and evidence.
“We have to use caution in making these recommendations,” Burton says.
This is why Burton advises dietitians to be as specific as possible. Don’t just tell patients “eat fermented foods” — list the type of fermented food and its brand name. She also says to give patients the “why” — what is the benefit of this fermented food? Does it increase fiber or boost bioavailability of nutrients?
“Are fermented foods good for us? It’s safe to say yes,” Burton says. “There’s a lot that we don’t know, but the body of evidence suggests that fermentation can improve the beneficial properties of a food.”
Hard kombucha is one of the fastest growing alcohol categories. Could it become the next cider, craft beer or even hard seltzer?
“That’s the big question, isn’t it. It’s up to us to do it,” says Joshua Rood, CEO and managing director of Dr Hops hard kombucha. “If we could make it so good that beer people get excited about it and wine people get excited about it, well now there’s potential for something really, really big. That’s how craft beer did it — they focused so much on quality that they just blew regular beer out of the water on quality and everyone went for it because it was just so much better. We’re committed to what’s possible.”
Declared the “drink of summer” in both 2020 and 2021, hard kombucha continues to grow this year. While still only a small segment (~$58 million) of the overall alcoholic beverage market, hard kombucha’s dollar sales growth is big at 60%. And this performance is at a time when sales are declining for both cider and hard seltzer.
“Seltzer is really homogenous, there’s no differentiation for the most part, whereas kombucha, every brand is very different,” says Joe Carmichael, co-founder of Local Roots Kombucha. “A lot more than craft beer, there’s a lot you can do with it.”
The two spoke on a hard kombucha panel at KombuchaKon, joined byJames Conery, manager of innovation at Sierra Nevada Brewing Co., and Steve Dickman, owner and brewmaster of Rocky Mountain Cultures and High Country Kombucha. The brewers agreed: hard kombucha can become as great as the craft beer category.
“For us, fermentation is part of the process,” Rood says.”There are live lactobacillus cultures still alive up to 11% ABV [Dr Hops ABV]. We chose that [alcohol level] because, for us, it was an expression of craft. It was a great style.”
The acidity of kombucha masks the taste of alcohol, making hard kombucha a smoother, tangier drink. While beer is made from grain, hard kombucha is made from tea leaves. This gives it its “better-for-you” profile, drawing on the antioxidants, vitamins and minerals in tea.
Kombucha brewers hoping to add a hard kombucha line need to realize that it is a “totally different business than non-alcoholic,” Rood says. The regulations are strict.
“If you’ve never done an alcohol booch and you’re going to get into it, some of the things we’re going to touch on, like probiotics or health claims, the TTB (Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau) has very big issues with health claims,” says Steve. “You cannot make health claims with alcohol. …There are a lot of regulations that come with it, a lot of ingredients you can’t use.”
Adds Conery, who runs the Strainge Beast brand for Sierra Nevada: “If you’re thinking about doing hard kombucha, you really need to research all the regulations before you start to do anything, before you even make it, so you know what you need to do.”
Even brewing hard kombucha is not without its challenges, too. Similar to beer, it requires the monitoring of key parameters — acidity, temperature, yeast strain, nutrients, time. But yeast is a delicate organism that can be difficult to manage, but which can alter the flavors of a brew.
Creating their first non-beer line came with growing pains for Sierra Nevada, one of the largest brewers in the U.S. Strainge Beast’s launch in 2020 required the company to make a substantial investment in its Chico, Calif., brewery, to seal off and isolate its beer operations from the hard kombucha line.
“As a brewer, I’ve spent my entire life making sure what kombucha is does not get into my brewery, because everything in kombucha is what you’d consider a beer spoilage organism,” Conery said. “We have to be very good about keeping what we’re doing with our kombucha segregated. As you scale up — especially with alcohol — there are a lot of things that can go wrong.”
Working with yeast is always a growing experience, “I’m still in the trial and error process,” Conery said. It took Sierra Nevada “quite a long time to find the correct yeast strain when we were fermenting to make our alcohol.” Yeast can create unique flavors — or funky, bad-tasting brews. A brewery will spend months exploring what yeast they want to use.
“It is the most interesting and horrible part of the production side, which is how to get the flavors you want, effectively,” Rood said. “When you’re dealing with a very acidic environment, that’s one of the biggest challenges and you want that acidity, which is part of the challenge. But you want your yeast to do a good, clean, healthy job of fermenting the alcohol.”
While both Sierra Nevada and Dr Hops approached hard kombucha with backgrounds in craft beer, Dickman at High Country Kombucha came from the kombucha world.When making hard kombucha, he brews the kombucha flavor he wants, then creates a neutral seltzer-like base. He blends the two together for the ABV value he desires, and says he likes this method as a way to experiment with acidity profiles.
“Kombucha was always a cool beverage, but now it’s bringing the party,” Dickman said.
Doctors and microbiologists warn: despite what the latest social media trends proclaim, there’s no quick fix for better gut health. More influencers are promoting their “cures” — from drinking aloe vera juice to boiling apples — on TikTok. Their videos are getting millions of views — and are raising concerns from medical and scientific authorities.
“If somebody is claiming to have something that will immediately turn gut health around, you should be skeptical of that,” says Justin Sonnenburg, a professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford. The article in The New York Times notes Sonnenburg advocates for “long-term lifestyle habits that can benefit the gut — ones that rarely go viral or make their way to social media acclaim.”
Sonnenburg’s groundbreaking study last August showed fermented foods — like yogurt, kimchi, kefir, sauerkraut and kombucha — can increase the diversity of gut bacteria. “His research found that people who ate six servings of fermented foods each day saw these benefits — the equivalent of consuming one cup of yogurt, one 16-ounce bottle of kombucha and one cup of kimchi in a day,” the article continues.
The Times interviewed a panel of experts that included a dietitian, sociologist, gastroenterologist and Sonnenburg. They say, to improve your gut, change your lifestyle. They encourage eating more fiber, eating fermented foods, limiting processed foods and lowering stress levels.
Read more (The New York Times)
Kombucha can no longer be legally sold as non-alcoholic in the state of South Carolina. A new rule change in state code set a maximum alcohol content for beers and other fermented beverages, but did not set a minimum alcohol level. Any fermented beverage with an alcohol content above 0.0% — any trace of alcohol — is now considered alcoholic by default.
Last month, TFA wrote about a decades-old South Carolina law that threatened kombucha and non-alcoholic beverage producers selling their fermented drinks in the state. Kombucha, which typically contains less than 0.5% alcohol [the legal definition of an alcoholic beverage in the U.S.], has always been deemed non-alcoholic, sold on grocery store shelves next to refrigerated juices.
Now, any brand selling a fermented beverage in the state must apply for an alcohol license, and their drink cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 21.
“Effective immediately, all of these producers and retailers will have to cease business until they receive the proper licensing, which will take several months to get if they’re located in South Carolina and the money to get their facilities up to code,” said Brook Bristow, an attorney specializing in beverage law, in a statement about the rule change. “So, until then, no sales, i.e., no money.”
Adds Gabriel Coggins, owner of the S.C.-based Kava Konnection:“Of all the things lawmakers could focus on to restrict and take away from the public, kombucha was the last thing I expected. It’s a healthy product, and the only logical reason I can see beyond some strange maliciousness toward it is that they just didn’t understand what they were doing.”
Read more (Greenville Journal)
More and more food and beverages are labeling their product with -biotics – probiotics, prebiotics and postbiotics — confusing consumers as to what a -biotic is and its potential health benefit.
There’s an “overuse of the term probiotic as referring to any live microbe,” says Bob Hutkins, professor of food microbiology and the University of Nebraska (and a Science Advisor on TFA’s Advisory Board). Probiotics, according to the International Scientific Association of Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP), require documentation of both a health benefit and the strain.
“It’s a high bar to call something a probiotic,” he continues. “I read labels that say ‘contains probiotics’ and I’d say, the vast majority of the time, they’re incorrectly named if they’re named at all.”
Hutkins was part of a panel hosted by Food Navigator on “Feeding the Gut Microbiome: From Pre-, Pro-, and Postbiotics.” Speakers included leaders of food brands and -biotic supplement brands.
Is a Fermented Food Probiotic?
The issues surrounding probiotics and fermented foods have long been debated. TFA hosted a webinar on the topic in 2021, and it was the focus of a keynote session at TFA’s FERMENTATION 2021 conference.
Using the example of kimchi, Hutkins explains the fermented cabbage may contain live microbes that closely resemble a probiotic strain. But, according to scientific-backed definitions by ISAPP and the World Health Organization (WHO), “you can’t call that kimchi probiotic unless you isolated the strain, characterized the strain, done a clinical study and then that kimchi is going to be different from the kimchi you’ll make tomorrow. So it’s a challenge for companies that are producing fermented foods that probably have live microbes that can provide some benefits, but you can’t call them probiotics.”
Hutkins encourages fermentation producers to use the term “rich in live microbes” on their label instead. If the product does include clinically tested probiotics (like in yogurt), “I really applaud the company that puts the genus and species on their package.”
Miguel Freitas, PhD, vice president of health scientific affairs at Danone North America, says the conversation in the industry needs to change from just probiotics to strain specificity.
“There are many consumers that are just seeking the word probiotic on the packaging. And they believe that probiotics will [help] everything from immune health to gut health,” Freitas says. “This is where I believe it can start to get tricky because there are so many products out there.”
Though the science around -biotics has evolved tremendously in the past two decades, consumers are overwhelmed and confused by all the choices.For example, he points to a new clothing brand that alleges the probiotics in their clothes are activated by heat.
This is why the food and beverage industry needs to play an active role in consumer education, says Todd Beckman, president of Verb Biotics.
“They have a platform to talk about health, these specific ingredients and health benefits,” he says. “They have the megaphone to talk to consumers in a true and authentic way.”
But Beckman warns: “the brands that don’t really know what they’re doing or don’t stand for anything or don’t stand for science, they’re not going to be there tomorrow.” Consumers will abandon brands with unsubstantiated health claims.
“If all of a sudden consumers aren’t believing in probiotics or what they can do, then it’s quite damaging,” he says.
Tom First, founder and CEO of Culture Pop probiotic soda, says that, though their brand has the clinical benefits of a verified and shelf-stable probiotic strain, they don’t lead with this complicated information in their marketing. Instead, they focus on flavor and it “being a fun drink,” figuring consumers can look to the Culture Pop website if they want to dive deeper.
Adding to consumer confusion: products on grocery shelves may now contain one of three -biotics – probiotics, prebiotics or postbiotics. Justin Green, PhD, director of scientific affairs at Cargill Health Technologies, says many think of -biotics as a daily supplement with a simple health benefit, like vitamin C.
“We really have to drive home there’s going to be different [-biotics] from different organisms, different fermentation techniques and most importantly different health benefits,” he says.
Probiotics are live bacteria; prebiotics are food for the bacteria; and postbiotics are metabolites produced by the probiotics.
“Aaliyah Nitoto, winemaker at Free Range Flower Winery, is tired of hearing that the category of wine is exclusive to grapes. For centuries, wine has been made from many kinds of plant products, she says, like grapes, apples, pears, rice and flowers,” reads an article in Wine Enthusiast.
The magazine highlights the history of flower wine, which has variations in the Middle East, Asia, Europe and even the U.S. The process to make the wine is different from a traditional grape wine. Fresh or dried flowers are boiled and crushed, then yeast and a sugar source are added to start the fermentation process.
Flower winemakers lament that their product is not respected in the wine industry. Flower wine has been made primarily by middle- to lower-income women.
“That can tell you right there why they were relegated to obscurity. The people who owned tracts of lands that had money and influence and got to name things like ‘noble grapes,’ they got to say what was wine and what wasn’t,” Nitoto (pictured) adds. “The opinion of people in this country over the last 100-odd years to try to get rid of this category doesn’t stand up to the history of winemaking, which is thousands of years old, which does call this wine.”
Read more (Wine Enthusiast)
Berryland, an award-winning Ukranian cider and mead producer, was destroyed by a bomb in a Russian air raid. The employees escaped and were uninjured.
Owner and oenologist Vitalli Karvyha built his facility six years ago in the Makariv District of Kyiv. Karvyha makes his ciders and meads from local fruits and berries, and raised bees on site for the honey for his mead. His fermented beverages have earned him awards at Vintage Cider World in Germany and the Mazer Cup in Colorado.
Karvyha says he plans to rebuild, updating his status through Berryland Cidery’s Facebook page.
Read more (Broken Palate)