Exploring Culinary Bubbles

Serious Eats features a series of articles on fermented drinks in their latest digital issue, “Bubbles.” Bubbles are the “negative space” in food which contribute to food flavor and fermentation. The long-form articles dive into kombucha, tepache, coffee and explore how the beer industry is adapting with a CO2 shortage. 

“It’s easy to look past the pockets of air that occupy so much of what we eat, but food as we know it wouldn’t be recognizable without them,” reads the editor letter describing the new article series. “Bubbles inflate breads, lighten cakes and batters, aerate creams and mousses, and add fizz to so many drinks. They’re a byproduct of fermentation, a critical determinant of texture, the thing that makes your eyes water as you let out an Aaahhhhhhhhhh after that first spicy sip of cold soda or beer. So much of what defines our food is all the stuff that’s not there.”

Read more (Serious Eats)


How important are microbes in the human diet? And does it matter which ones we eat?

“Maybe we’re not too far from proving the following; the dietary guidelines, the My Plate guidelines, should include fermented foods, including those that contain live microorganisms, as part of a healthy diet,” says Bob Hutkins, PhD, a professor at the University of Nebraska (and TFA Advisory Board member). Hutkins explored this hypothesis during his standing-room only presentation at FERMENTATION 2022 titled The Microbes We Should (or Shouldn’t) Be Eating

He estimates, just like the daily fiber recommendations were granted based primarily on epidemiological studies, fermented foods are going through the same process. And one day there may be a daily fermented food recommendation. 

Why Should We Be Eating Live Microbes?

Highly processed foods, prolific use of antibiotics, and overly hygienic environments have resulted in significantly less exposure to microbes. This includes those microbes that help to maintain a healthy gut microbiome and that keep our immune system functioning properly. Indeed, according to the so-called Old Friend’s Hypothesis, exposure to microbes is necessary for proper development of the immune system. This is especially true for Western countries. One highly-cited study published in Lancet found Inflammatory Bowel Diseases (IBDs) like Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis — “are predominantly associated with Western populations. You rarely see these diseases in other parts of the world,” Hutkins says.

“In the Covid era, we have certainly learned that preventing infectious diseases remains a major challenge, and being a bit germophobic is understandable. Certainly, modern food technology that includes pasteurization has significantly reduced pathogen risk, improved food safety, enhanced shelf life, and reduced food waste. Nonetheless, our environment has often become too clean, too hygienic and we are no longer exposed to microbes,” he adds.

Another study based on research in Finland found the Old Friend’s Hypothesis holds true for  development of allergies, asthma, and eczema. As the authors noted “changes in environment and lifestyle, affecting microbial exposure and immune regulation, seem to play a major role in the so-called post-war allergy epidemic”.  Indeed, in a 2002 editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine, three “old-school” lifestyle approaches were mentioned for protecting against the development of allergies: supplementing with lactobacillus (the bacteria found in fermented foods), owning a dog in your home and attending daycare. 

Consuming Live Microbes Benefits Human Health

To address this situation, Hutkins and other food scientists are proposing adding fermented foods to the Recommended Dietary Guidelines, along with the daily dose of nutrients and vitamins.

“One of the main challenges however, will be to distinguish between nutrients and microbes,” Hutkins says. 

The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) has explored this further. A panel of ISAPP microbiologists, nutritionists, doctors and statisticians (including Hutkins) used the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) to deep dive into the American diet. The NHANES database catalogs what adults and children are eating, then collects health indicators for associated diseases. 

ISAPP researched the estimated live microbes in foods to find sufficient evidence that a live dietary microbe intake should be a part of a dietary recommendation. It was a big undertaking, since there are 9,388 foods inNHANES. ISAPP ranked each food’s microbial count. They found microbial count was low for processed, heat-processed foods, medium level for fresh fruit and vegetables and high for fermented foods, like fermented dairy (yogurt, fresh cheese) and fermented vegetables.

“Ninety-six percent of the foods we eat are in the low” count for microbes, he said. “Hardly any were in the fermented category, around one percent.”

Still, not all live microbes are the same. The microbes considered healthy – lactic acid bacteria and bifidobacteria – are only dominant in fermented foods. Most of the live microbes consumed in the average diet are proteobacteria from fresh fruits and vegetables. 

The Institute for the Advancement of Food and Nutrition Sciences, which catalogs nutrition labels for all USDA food data, now has a space for a brand to enter the amount of live microbes in their product. There’s a dropdown menu to add genus and species of a probiotic strain, too.

“This new effort is a way to introduce the live microbes in the database,” Hutkins says, noting a company would have to enter it voluntarily. “They’re offering a noncompetitive, objective, transparent mechanism for stakeholders to understand live microbe intake and eventually link intake to health outcomes.”

As a fermenter with a doctorate in library and information studies, Julia Skinner finds the intersection between fermented foods and history fascinating. That crossroads is where humans evolved with food preservation techniques and created community around fermentation’s flavor.

“I realized there was so much overlap with the ways other cultures were using fermented foods,” Skinner says. “Every culture in the world ferments, so it’s not surprising that we all have come to the same ways to utilize them in our diets over the years. In my research with food history, food is a tool for humans to connect.”

But, in the growing amount of available literature on fermentation, Skinner noticed a hole. Missing was a comprehensive historical overview of fermentation around the globe. She spent years researching and writing on the subject for her new book “Our Fermented Lives.” The 384-page book provides a holistic overview on fermented foods in international cultures. 

Skinner’s journey into fermentation began over two decades ago. With an overabundance of produce from her home garden, she turned to fermentation to use her extra fresh vegetables. After leaving a job as a rare book curator in 2018, Skinner “dreamed of working with food” rather than just keeping it a home hobby. It was a roller coaster period of life for Skinner. Within a few months into her job hunt, her mother and grandmother passed away. Unsure of the best career path, her mother’s last words to Skinner encouraged her passion: “Tell people about the food.” Skinner’s business was born, Root Kitchens “a fermentation and food history company that bridges the gap between modern people and historic food.”

Skinner is now a food history consultant and offers fermentation courses and fermentation planners (that she illustrates). A graduate of a fermentation residency program at Sandor Katz’ Tennessee home, Katz encouraged Skinner to add fermentation classes to the Root Kitchens repertoire. Katz wrote the foreword to Skinner’s book. 

“I love doing fermentation and incorporating it into my larger food history work,” Skinner says. “The fermentation classes I teach end up being my most popular ones, people are so interested in fermentation.”

Below is a Q&A with Skinner, who spoke with The Fermentation Association about her new book.

The Fermentation Association: In your research for the book, was there any overlap between how different countries ferment that surprised you? 

Julia Skinner: One thing I found really interesting, in the chapter on health, I looked into how traditional medical systems use ferments. Each one kind of had different ways that they accounted for fermented foods in our diets because, in a lot of traditional medical systems of course, food is the basis of a lot of treatments and health recommendations, and so a lot of them recommended sourness and the flavor of sourness as a balance for other flavors. When you think about, for example, traditional food pairings like lemon and fish or mustard and pork, those are actually based in humoral theory because the sourness and the heat of the mustard and the lemon balance what was considered the cold, phlegmy properties of the pork and the fish. So you would have a dish that was balanced and wouldn’t go too far one way or the other. You see that with vinegar in dishes too, it’s used in the same way. 

In traditional Chinese medicine, there’s also a use of sour foods in the spring as a way to balance your bodies after a winter of richer foods. That surprised me.

TFA: What ferments do you think had the greatest impact on civilization?

JS: I think the best way to think about it is not so much a specific ferment but instead to think about the processes. Alcohol production was a big one, one of the big reasons being that it helped us with water safety. But also in alcohol production, people would take their stale bread and could brew it into something. People could also take their grapes or peaches that were about to go bad and brew them. It helped with food waste, it provided them nutrients and vitamins. 

But also bread baking. Both bread and alcohol, when we think about the history of fermentation, are very tied with agriculture. When we have a steady supply of grains – and when we are in one place so we can make things because we’re not moving around all the time – we are able to ferment more food. 

And then of course lacto-fermentation, too. It’s how people preserved their vegetables for the winter. 

Thinking about all these different ways that we have preserved food and promoted our health and cut down on food waste, fermentation is a good place to think about the specific impacts it had on civilization. 

TFA: Humans have been fermenting for centuries. Do you think society has lost some recipes?

JS: Absolutely. The last chapter of the book is called “The Future” because I want us to recognize ourselves as part of a living tradition. I talk about our work in fermentation as being a bridge between these traditions our ancestors had and this knowledge they had, and we now can carry that on to the future and we can add to it. We can be a part of this very living thing which I think is especially appropriate with fermentation since we’re working with living organisms. 

One of the things I talk a lot about in that chapter is how documentation of fermentation, fermented foods, has not always been common. It’s just not been widely documented. One of the reasons for that is that these foods were at one point in time very, very common. Fermented food is still very common, all of us eat ferments all the time. But I think home fermentation practices used to be much more common, and so people didn’t think to write down the way their mom versus their grandma versus their aunt made this food because everybody was making it, it was so ubiquitous. Well you jump forward a few generations and then nobody’s making it and now we don’t know how people are making it. 

And then there’s the other issue of the fact that the people who were preparing and sharing the knowledge of these traditional foods were often people whose knowledge wasn’t considered worth preserving by the people who had literacy. So women, people who were enslaved, people who were colonized and did not have access to writing and the transmission of knowledge. If your country has been colonized and you don’t speak English or you don’t have access to a printing press, how can you widely communicate in the ways that are accepted by the larger world? That speaks to the importance of doing research and talking to people who are actually in the community rather than just relying on English language resources. 

But it also is a reminder that we have a responsibility to document stuff today, please write this stuff down, please share and record what you know and make sure you’re talking with your community members, especially the ones who are unlikely to write these things down so that we actually have a record for the future.

TFA: Any surprising ferment you had not heard of before?

JS: Gundruk, it’s a fermented mustard greens and similar sorts of thick Brassica greens that are salt packed and fermented. It’s a Nepalese ferment.

TFA: You mentioned your fermentation classes at Root Kitchens are your most popular. Why do you find people want to take fermentation classes?

JS: A couple of reasons. One, I think we just see a lot more people that are interested in reconnecting with these traditional methods. People often feel like they’re reliant on store-bought foods and don’t know how to do traditional preparation methods or feel like they’re inaccessible. One of the big tenets behind when I teach something is I try to teach it as low-tech and accessible as possible. Instead of me being like “Go buy all these airlocks,” I teach “Here’s a jar, here’s some vegetables, here’s some salt, we’ll just use that and if you want to use other equipment later, you can.” 

I think another part of the reason people like the classes is because they realize how simple and accessible it is. I focus a lot on those traditional methods and that accessibility, but then I also focus on food waste reduction and thinking of how we’re using our scraps. For example, when I make fire cider or any other infused vinegar, I strain out the vinegar when it’s ready and then I save all those scraps and I dehydrate them and I make them into seasoning blends so that I’m not just throwing them in the compost. 

TFA: What do you find to be the greatest challenges and opportunities in fermentation education?

JS: Frankly one of the challenges is figuring out how to balance your desire to share knowledge with people with your desire to pay your bills. I think all of us know we love this community, we love sharing, but figuring out how to balance that sharing with the fact that I am working and I need to be paid for that work. One of the ways I’ve done that is I offer scholarships to my classes so that I’m able to bring that knowledge to people who maybe won’t have an opportunity to get it otherwise. 

I find it very fun and I find, if somebody’s signing up for a fermentation class, they’re already interested, you don’t really have to get buy-in from people. Even if I’m just talking with people and they learn I’m a fermentation educator, they get really excited about it. It’s clearly something that captures a lot of people’s imaginations. 

TFA: You’ve been fermenting for 20 years. Have you seen more interest in fermentation from the general public?

JS: Yes. I remember when I started fermenting food, people knew what fermented foods were. At the time I lived in Iowa and there was a lot of sauerkraut because there is a large German population there. But a lot of people were no longer making it at home or maybe their grandparents did and they were just like “Oh yeah, grandma makes sauerkraut but then like the whole kitchen smells bad for a month.” It’s more popular because of the proliferation of educational opportunities, because of where we’re at culturally and then the proliferation of products, the fermentation product market is just burgeoning, you guys (TFA) points out the data all the time. It’s great because I think it means that fermentation has become a lot less scary to people than it was, which I love to see.

TFA: What do you see as the future of fermentation?

JS: I think we’re in a really interesting period right now because we are at the confluence of this interest in these very traditional methods, like the kind of stuff I teach, and then also at a point where we have more ways in which to do very scientific and precise fermentation and to document and record and share the knowledge we have. We’re at this place where we have these traditional ferments on one hand and then we have folks who are in a lab growing specialty yeast on the other hand. We’ve never been in a historical moment where we’ve had those both happening to this degree. In both cases, now we have network technologies, all of these different ways to record and share what we know. I think the future of fermentation, it’s going to continue to become popular, more popular than it is right now, people are very interested in it.

I think what we’re seeing is that there’s a space in the fermentation world for everybody to fit in. That’s going to be a lot clearer. If you want to just do a home practice like what I do, there’s space for that. If you want to kind of go more into the biotech side, there’s space for that. Or if you want to do something in a restaurant, there’s space for that. There’s a lot of room for people to really find where their niche is within the fermentation community. 

Edmundo Farrera describes the taste of mezcal as a complex experience: “First you taste the valley where the agave plant was grown, next the earth it came from, and then on to taste the cosmos and time.” 

The Veracruz, Mexico native who opened New Zealand’s first mezcal bar says each sip of a great mezcal is “so beautiful and powerful, like pyrotechnics exploding on my palate.”

An ancient drink that dates back to the Aztecs, they agave was eaten and used in ceremonies. Mezcal came about after the colonization in Mexico by Spainards. They brought Filipino slaves with them, who shared distillation techniques with the Aztecas. 

Farrera says mezcal has long been popular in America but only recently it’s becoming more popular globally. American foods and sommeliers, he notes “are fascinated, even more than us, with these agave spirits. They get into it, they study it, a good percentage of American sommeliers, like with wine, can recognise different species of agave in a blind tasting of mezcal.”

He advises “a real mezcal drinker will never touch a cocktail.” Mezcal should be enjoyed sip-by-sip, he says, with the first sip awakening the palate and the second sip experiencing the multi-dimensional taste.

Read more (Stuff)

Fermented Foods Reduce Stress

Researchers have made a breakthrough discovery in stress management: fermented food can change one’s mood. 

Scientists from the University College Cork (UCC) APC Microbiome research center found consuming 2-3 servings of fermented foods a day – like sauerkraut, kefir, kimchi, kombucha, yogurt, etc. – improves mental health. Stress and depressive symptoms are reduced when regularly consuming fermented foods. 

Their month-long study analyzed the effects of a psychobiotic diet on adults, while the control group was given general nutrition advice in line with the food pyramid. The psychobiotic diet is designed to target the gut microbiome. It includes fermented foods, fruit and vegetables high in prebiotic fibers, grains and legumes.

“Although the microbiome has been linked to stress and behavior previously, it was unclear if by feeding these microbes demonstrable effects could be seen,” said Professor John Cryan, one of the study’s lead authors, vice president for research and innovation at UCC, and a principal investigator at APC Microbiome. “Our study provides one of the first data in the interaction between diet, microbiota and feelings of stress and mood. Using microbiota targeted diets to positively modulate gut-brain communication holds possibilities for the reduction of stress and stress-associated disorders, but additional research is warranted to investigate underlying mechanisms.”

Researchers studied participants with relatively low fiber diets, measuring their perceived levels of stress before and after beginning the psychobiotic diet. Four weeks in, participants reported a strong decrease in perceived stress. Their sleep improved, too. Forty chemicals were affected by the change, 

“These results highlight that dietary approaches can be used to reduce perceived stress in a human cohort. Using microbiota-targeted diets to positively modulate gut-brain communication holds possibilities for the reduction of stress and stress-associated disorders,” the study reads.

Cryan, in an article for The Telegraph, said:  “The mechanisms underpinning the effect of diet on mental health are still not fully understood. But one explanation for this link could be via the relationship between our brain and our microbiome (the trillions of bacteria that live in our gut). Known as the gut-brain axis, this allows the brain and gut to be in constant communication with each other, allowing essential body functions such as digestion and appetite to happen.

“It also means that the emotional and cognitive centres in our brain are closely connected to our gut.”

He added: “The next time you’re feeling particularly stressed, perhaps you’ll want to think more carefully about what you plan on eating for lunch or dinner. Including more fibre and fermented foods for a few weeks may just help you feel a little less stressed out.”

The study was published in Molecular Psychiatrry.

Fermentation continues to top food trend lists, health movements and restaurant menus, influencing more curious consumers to buy fermented foods. But the average consumer remains fermentation clueless. 

“Fermentation is a really complicated subject and we’re just reaching the tip of the iceberg at this point when it comes to the research,” says Jenna Mills, account manager at Eat Well Global, a food and nutrition consulting agency. “A complicated subject like this is loaded and I feel that individuals and consumer know just enough to be confused.”

Five food professionals shared their thoughts on how to educate consumers about fermentation during a panel at FERMENTATION 2022. Panelists included: Mills, Shannon Coleman (associate professor and state extension specialist at Iowa State University), Matt Lancor (CEO and founder of Kombuchade), and Kirsten Shockey (author, educator and co-founder of The Fermentation School and TFA Advisory Board member). Amelia Nielson-Stowell, editor at The Fermentation Association, moderated.

Simple Messaging

The panelists agreed fermentation brands need to stop overcomplicating fermentation to the consumer, focusing on simple communication strategies. 

“I compare it to a small child asking where babies come from – a simple answer is enough,” says Shockey. “With fermentation, often, we’re ready to say that lactic acid bacteria come in and they’re eating carbohydrates and there are these metabolites and flavors involved. We’re ready to share all the details – and we’re met with a blank stare. People just often want to know what’s the difference between a pickle and a ferment.”

Shockey, who teaches at the women-run Fermentation School, says she’s felt pressure over the years to innovate her classes and teach new subjects. But, especially since the Covid-19 pandemic when more consumers focused on health and turned to fermentation, her most popular classes are still the basic fermentation 101. 

In a TFA survey last year, 70% of fermentation producers said a greater understanding of fermentation and familiarity with the flavors associated with fermentation would foster increased consumption of fermented foods.

Kombuchade is taking a unique approach to that education component, focusing on kombucha as a recovery drink. 

“I’m looking to make probiotics cool for athletes, much like Gatorade made electrolytes cool for athletes,” Lancor says. The science of food is typically a mechanical process: eat fats, carbohydrates and proteins for optimal energy and performance. “There’s actually a microbial fermentation process that’s helping to rebuild your muscles.”

Kombucha marketing is geared toward a yoga, enlightenment crowd, Lancor adds, only reaching a certain number of consumers. It doesn’t resonate with all consumers.

“The south side of Chicago guys that play on my rugby team, they were never going to grab that kombucha bottle off the shelf with that kind of messaging,” he says. “There wasn’t this message of probiotics can be used for performance or recovery or even understanding kombucha’s place within an athlete’s regimen.”

Communicating Science & Tradition

Fermented food brands are tasked with bridging the gap between science and consumer.

Consumers keep informed about food and nutrition trends through professional associations (69%), academic (67%) and dietitians and nutritionists (62%), according to a consumer insights survey by Eat Well Global

For 77% of consumers, the advice of dietitians and nutritionists impacts which foods they buy. Mills says healthcare professionals offer that counseling on how to incorporate fermented foods into the diet.

Don’t forget the ancestral wisdom, Shockey points out.  

“My one liner is we’ve evolved with these foods and you are here because your ancestors successfully fermented,” she says. Rather than educating that people should eat a tablespoon of sauerkraut a day to meet nutrition needs, “try to bring it into your world naturally.” Eat a mixture of ferments, with yogurt at breakfast or hot sauce at lunch and kimchi at dinner.

“We cannot put ferments into this box that must be eaten raw. That to me is a barrier. You should eat this in any way that feels right to you,” she says, adding ferments were traditionally eaten cooked in soups and stews. “But in our minds right now is the idea that we have to eat our probiotics raw. These foods have so many metabolites that are being created in production and they follow through in the cooking process.”

Challenges to Starting a Brand

Starting a fermentation brand can be an overwhelming task. Sandor Katz, fermentation author and educator, said in his keynote address at the FERMENTATION 2022 conference that education is a huge challenge for people launching new fermented products. 

“They often end up putting a lot of their energy into educating consumers,” he says. 

Coleman says state extension offices are an underutilized resource for new producers. Her office got into food preservation after noticing many Pinterest recipes that gave poor advice on food safety.

“Just about every extension program has some form of food preservation type of program that they are delivering to consumers and they want to help,” Coleman adds.

There are no universal standards for labeling, an obstacle for new producers.

“Labeling is such a sensitive issue because you can get into big trouble with the FDA,” Nielson-Stowell says, pointing out the U.S. Food & Drug Administration only has 12 approved health claims a brand can put on a label. “It also gets tricky putting ‘probiotic,’ ‘prebiotic’ or ‘postbiotic’ on a label. It’s not regulated and confusing to consumers.”

The International Scientific Association of Probiotics & Prebiotics (ISAPP) is pushing for -biotics to be a more protected term. According to ISAPP, only fermented food brands with a scientifically measured -biotic should but it in a label. Their health benefits must be documented. For example, yogurts often have defined probiotic strains on their labels.

Nielsen-Stowell recommends using “live cultures,” “live microbes” or “naturally fermented” instead. And make sure retailers know what that means.

“If you’re getting your set in store with a retailer, the retailer will be your biggest advocate. The retailer is going to be the one talking to the customers more than you. Educate them. Do they know why your product is better than your competitor’s product?” she adds.

PBS Features HEX Ferments

Baltimore-based HEX Ferments was the star of the PBS show START UP. The series highlights small American business owners, chronicling what it takes to start a successful business.

During the episode, HEX Ferments co-founder Maegan Carpenter schooled START UP host Gary Bredow on ferments and gut health. She explained how the modern gut microbiome has been eroded by antibiotics, but fermented foods help to populate and repopulate the digestive system with good bacteria. 

“What you’re getting essentially is a vegetable that’s been fermented in a blanket of bacteria that’s indigenious to our bodies: lactobacillus,” Carpenter explained, while Bredow sampled HEX’s seasonal Spirit Berry kombucha and Pizza Kraut sauerkraut.

A former art professor, Carpenter and her co-founder husband Shane, a former wedding photographer, never planned to start a fermentation business. Carpenter began teaching people how to use produce from their local community garden, offering tastings of the vegetables she fermented. Orders for her ferments started showing up in her mailbox. Carpenter said she thinks the demand came from “being open with people and showing people something that has been taken out of our culture for so long.”

Bredow added about modern food convenience: “It’s scary to think about if that convenience goes away, are we going to have a society of people incapable of watching food rot right in front of them.” Carpenter responded: “I think we already do.”

HEX Ferments will be expanding into a new, larger retail space later this year, HEX Superette. The space includes a kombucha taproom, small restaurant area to serve small plates, space to teach education classes and a local food marketplace. HEX Superette, Carpenter said, will “answer the question, ‘How do I eat this?’ because after 10 years of making fermented foods, we often get that question.”

Bredow concluding the episode noting that fermentation was born out of food scarcity, something today’s generation did not understand until the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Our ancestors planned for the future knowing that self sufficiency can mean the difference between life and death. Maybe it’s time to revisit the skills that allowed past generations to live with less fear and reliance on a system that always seems to be on the brink of collapse,” Bredow said. “I love what Meghan and Shane are doing. They’re not only offering up tasty and healthy foods, they’re reminding us how important it is to learn this lost craft before it’s too late…they’re offering fermentation classes. To me, this really is purpose. A focus on doing well and doing good for the world around them.”

Fermented foods can aid in muscle growth.

“A growing body of research suggests gut-friendly foods enhance muscle growth and could even take a bite out of age-related decline,” reads an article in Men’s Health.

As we age, the body slows down, reflexes decrease and muscle mass decline — especially difficult changes for professional athletes. The average person loses 5% of muscle mass per decade after reaching 30, leading to diminished mobility and heightened risk of falls. Exercising consistently is key to keep muscles strong. But equally important, research shows, is maintaining a healthy gut microbiome. New research – published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolic Insights – found mice with an artificially depleted microbiome from antibiotics had significantly slower muscle growth than the control group.

“In short, muscles really are built in the kitchen – at least, to a greater degree than you might have suspected,” the article continues.

The article points to the ground-breaking Stanford study that found a diet high in fermented foods boost microbiome diversity. The article concluded with four fermented food swaps “to make your gains last.” These include: swapping yogurt for kefir, swapping green beans for natto, swapping pickles for kimchi and swapping ketchup for miso.

Read more (Men’s Health)

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.

Using Genomics to Improve Beer

A group of Belgian scientists have not only identified the gene responsible for much of the flavor of beer and other alcoholic beverages, they’ve also engineered it for brewers.

By screening large numbers of yeast strains, researchers were able to identify the genes responsible for beer’s flavor.

“To our surprise, we identified a single mutation in the MDS3 gene, which codes for a regulator apparently involved in production of isoamyl acetate, the source of the banana-like flavor that was responsible for most of the pressure tolerance in this specific yeast strain,” said Johan Thevelein, Ph.D., an emeritus professor of Molecular Cell Biology at Katholieke Universiteit, and one of the researchers. His team pioneered the technology that identifies the genes responsible for commercially important traits in yeast.

Important to the study was finding the gene successful at creating flavor on a commercial scale. Modern, large-scale beer brewers use tall, cylindrical fermentation tanks compared to the traditional shorter vats. While the taller tanks are easier for brewing, it negatively impacts the beer’s taste. That’s because, when beer ferments, the yeast coverts 50% of the sugar in the mash to ethanol and the other 50% to carbon dioxide. But carbon dioxide pressurizes in the modern closed vessels, dampening flavor. 

Using the gene editing technology CRISPR/Cas9, Thevelein and his team were able to engineer the MDS3 gene for other brewing strains, improving their tolerance of carbon dioxide pressure and improving the flavor. 

“That demonstrated the scientific relevance of our findings, and their commercial potential,” Thevelein added in a statement.

“The mutation is the first insight into understanding the mechanism by which high carbon dioxide pressure may compromise beer flavor production,” said Thevelein, who noted that the MDS3 protein is likely a component of an important regulatory pathway that may play a role in carbon dioxide inhibition of banana flavor production, adding, “how it does that is not clear.”

The technology has also been successful in identifying genetic elements important for rose flavor production by yeast in alcoholic drinks, as well as other commercially important traits, such as glycerol production and thermotolerance.

The results of their study were published in Applied and Environmental Biology, the journal for the American Society for Microbiology.