There’s a void in scientific knowledge of fermented and pickled vegetables, and scientists are just starting to scratch the surface.

“We have a wealth of chemical compositions that we still don’t fully understand,” says Dr. Ilenyz Pérez-Díaz, PhD, a microbiologist with the USDA-ARS. Perez-Diaz presented on “Development of Pickling Technologies & Products” during a webinar hosted by TFA. “I honestly think there is still a lot to do in regards to the richness of the biological functions that are present in these systems. Every vegetable is different. … It will be fantastic to be able to comprehensively understand what’s really there and how we can use it for the benefit of not only processing but also for the benefit of human health.” 

The purpose of the USDA-ARS is to find solutions for agricultural challenges, domestically and globally. In 2019, the 8,000 employees of the USDA-ARS researched 660 agricultural projects, filed 85 new patents, issued 65 new patents, received 51 new licenses and wrote 3,816 peer-reviewed journal articles. 

Pérez-Díaz is assigned to the food science and market quality and handling research unit. There the team develops state-of-the-art, science-backed methods that improve the post-harvest processes, food preservation, food quality and safety and, ultimately, introducing nutritious products into the food system. 

“What I love about the research that she’s doing is that pickling and fermentation are these ancient, traditional technologies that people have been using for hundreds and hundreds of years, and she’s really thinking about ways that we can advance those technologies using all the amazing sequencing and all the microbiology we have today,” says Ben Wolfe, PhD,  associate professor of biology at Tufts University, and the TFA Advisory Board member who moderated the webinar. 

Pérez-Díaz shared the USDA’s latest technologies to reduce food waste, lessen environmental impacts, improve water/energy demand and add more health value to preserved vegetables. Here are highlights from the research presented, focused on addressing two key problems:

Eliminate Salt in Cucumber Fermentation

PROBLEM: Sodium chloride is essential to fermentation, but the salt-rich (and sometimes preservative-filled) brine shipped from overseas producers can get into local freshwater supplies. There are no growers of small cucumbers (gherkins) in the U.S., so food projects that require small cucumbers must use overseas produce. But, in order for the cucumbers to be transported, they must be fermented or pickled. High amounts of salt, acid and sometimes preservatives are added, and these potentially can damage the water supply.

SOLUTION: USDA-ARS tested fermenting pickles using three popular spices: dill, cinnamon and mustard seed. But, though salt was reduced or eliminated, “the indigenious microbiota is always there,” Pérez-Díaz explains. “The salt is modulating the activity within this population. It tends to favor the lactic acid bacteria. But what I’ve learned is it is not the main factor modulating that microbiota. The ph and the production of that lactic acid and or acetic acid is really the factor in excluding the non desirable microorganisms and favoring the fermentative microbiota.” 

Reduce Food Waste by Creating Foods

PROBLEM: In the U.S., between 30-70% of fresh vegetable produce is wasted. “Those are alarming numbers,” says Pérez-Díaz. “Even though they are estimates, it is necessary to look at ways to resolve the impact of such waste.”

SOLUTION: The USDA developed small-scale fermentation systems for use in restaurants, farmer’s markets and grocery stores. These vessels make fermenting excess food more manageable by allowing easy fermentation of smaller batches. 

“We can  convert what was waste or surplus or defective vegetables into a value-added product,”  Pérez-Díaz says. “It will be a probiotic product, it will be fermented vegetables auxiliaries that can be used as sources of flavor, colors, ingredients in a number of recipes or even dehydrated for different applications.”  [This project was near completion before the pandemic and is expected to pick-up soon.]

Fermentation, she emphasized, is needed to sustain a modern food system.

“These fermentations, if applied properly, they are very powerful eliminating the organisms that are not desirable or the organisms that are not of health significance,” Pérez-Díaz says. “I think fermentation will truly be an important component as we move forward to that new era.” 

Just because vegetables were fermented does not make them immune to harmful bacteria like E. coli. Though fermentation improves food safety, the quality of the raw vegetable before it’s fermented is extremely important. 

“The issue of fermentation safety is one that comes up a lot. People are getting excited about the fermentation world these days, fermentation is increasing in popularity…(but) the wheels can fall off if you’re not careful,” says Fred Breidt, PhD, a USDA microbiologist. Breidt spoke during a recent webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association, “The Science Behind the Safety of Fermented Vegetables.” “The moral of the story: if the vegetables were safe to eat before you ferment them, they’re going to be safe to eat after you ferment them. If they’re not, you’ve got to ferment them for a long time to make sure they’re safe.”

An outbreak of dangerous bacteria in fermented vegetables, “it’s going to be pretty rare that that happens,” Breidt stresses. But, without proper sanitation protocol and vegetable quality control, pathogenic “bad guys” can flourish, like E. coli, salmonella and listeria. E. coli is more common in vegetables because it’s extremely acid resistant, and can survive for long periods of time at low pH levels and cold temperatures. 

“Just washing the surface (of the vegetable) isn’t always going to do the trick,” Breidt says. “You don’t have to eat very much to get sick.”

An E. coli outbreak in kimchi made 230 Korean school children sick in 2013. The children, from seven different schools, all ate fermented kimchi made by the same manufacturer.

“If the folks had eaten the cabbage that this kimchi was made out of, they would have gotten sick as well,” Breidt says. “Was the cabbage improved in the sense of maybe it had fewer E. coli on it because of fermentation? Yes. But there was still enough when this was eaten to make a lot of people sick.”

“You can’t rely on salt for safety is the point,” he adds. “It does encourage the lactic acid bacteria and it helps them grow and it will increase overall the safety of your fermentation.”

David Ehreth, president and founder of Alexander Valley Gourmet, parent company of Sonoma Brinery, moderated the webinar. Ehreth first met Breidt when Sonoma Brinery made a few tons of sauerkraut that became infected with yeast. Ehreth says “I called Ghostbusters, and that’s Fred Breidt.” Though yeast is different from a pathogen like E. coli, Ehreth said Sonoma Brinery has managed to control yeast over the years by careful management of production techniques and improved sanitation methods.

To the food and drink industry, regulators can sometimes feel like “the bad guys.” But to scale a fermentation brand, sell artisanal products at a farmers market, or serve dishes with fermented ingredients in a restaurant, producers need regulators to be friends or colleagues, says Jeremy Umansky, owner of Larder Deli and author of “Koji Alchemy.”  

“As a fermented food producer, it’s a frustrating and almost difficult, like an intimidatingly difficult place to be in. Because there’s really no great resources of where to start, how to get going, how to do what you’re going to do in the safest manner possible while also maintaining a specific quality standard which is so important for us,” says Umansky. “We need to have open, honest conversation (with regulators). If your local regulators aren’t willing to work with you or just want to shut it down because they don’t understand, go up to the next level. Go up to the county, to your state or even reach out to federal. Because people are producing these foods all over the country, so there is regulation for them.”

Umansky spoke with Drew Anderson, CEO of Cleveland Kitchen, during a Fermentation Association webinar titled “Coping with Regulations (and Regulators).”

When Anderson started Cleveland Kitchen with his brother and brother-in-law, “the regulators didn’t really know how to handle fermented food.” They decided to become close with their representative from the Ohio Department of Agriculture and call her first when they moved to bigger facilities or added onto the facility. “She is fantastic. You involve the regulators into your process.”

“You’ve got to understand, when (regulators) go out, they know people don’t like them, they know they’re the enemy when they walk in that kitchen,” Anderson adds. “So if it’s a pleasure to work with you and they can see that they’re actually helping someone, that always helps. Food is still a people business. I think it’s important to be close.”

“It’s funny because the human race has been doing this for thousands of years and we never worried about it before. But now, in this modern age, everything has to be pasteurized.”

Fermenting was common in America before the 1920s, when electricity and refrigeration became a standard in homes. Today, with current food safety laws, “our regulation is more or less a mess,” Umansky notes.

“Anywhere you go in the world, for the most part, fermented foods are the crux at the root of any cuisine,” Umanksy says. “People have relied on these foods and the methods of making them for so, so long. And it’s interesting now that we have so much fear and intimidation and kind of unknowing about (fermented food) production and how they’re made and if they’re safe or not when we’ve kind of proven that society would not  exist as it does if it weren’t for these foods prior to refrigeration.”

Both Cleveland Kitchen and Umansky’s Larder Deli are based in Cleveland. However, because Larder and Cleveland Kitchen produce and sell fermented foods differently, they are regulated by different associations. Larder is overseen by the city health department, and Cleveland Kitchen is overseen by the state health department.

“From locale to locale and oversight body to oversight body, things are different,” he says. “We’re both producing fermented foods, but because of how we’re producing them, where we’re producing them, and where we’re selling them, we have different sets of regulations. Same foods, different sets of regulations. And when you talk to different people, you get different answers.”

“Where is the regulation? It’s a mess. It’s almost impossible to keep up on it,” Umansky says.

There is not a standardized food code in all 50 U.S. states. Rules for retail food production varies from cities, counties and states. At the extreme opposite is Japan, where open-air food markets sell fermented foods with little government oversight over food producers.

“We have to be able to address this issue of there not being cohesion and they’re not being easily accessible information for those of us producing these types of food,” Umansky says. “It begs the question – why haven’t we taken a model from the Japanese or the Chinese? Or Scandinavian cuisine is very, very fermentation forward, Eastern European cuisine. Why haven’t we looked at their regulations?”

HACCP is another regulation setback for fermented food and drink producers. Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) are required plans that monitor food safety. But HACCP requires producers to make one thing the same way all the time. There is no room for variances in ingredients. It works for big, commercial producers.

“For smaller restaurants and craft producers, it’s essentially improbable,” Umansky says.

If there’s a menu change at a restaurant or a new ingredient source for a craft producer, technically a new HACCP plan is required.

Umansky recommends, when filing a HACCP, producers should pick one thing on the menu that will never change or that is always in stock. At Larder, it’s the pastrami sandwich with sauerkraut. Then, when it’s time to meet with a regulator, request someone familiar with craft food and come prepared with a HACCP covering the unchanged menu dish or stocked item.

“Your regulators will be so socked that you’ve already taken that step and they haven’t had to have this conversation with you,” he said. “The great thing is, in non-pasteurized fermented foods, I don’t even think there’s any reported cases of botulism associated with fermented foods. It can’t survive. There’s salt and acid.”

Check out the full video link here.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A salmonella, E. coli or botulism outbreak can destroy a food brand. Entrepreneurs must be vigilante about food safety, understanding their suppliers, copackers and labels.

Linda Harris, the department chair for the Food Science & Technology Department at the University of California, Davis, shared advice for new food producers to safely launch a business. Harris spoke with her UC Davis colleagues during an education session at Natural Products Expo West. Fermented products, which undergo unconventional processing, are not exempt from food safety measures. Harris emphasized putting “raw” on a label doesn’t protect a brand from food regulations.

“What I would caution someone who would be putting raw on their label is, first of all, understand what you mean by the word raw,” Harris said. “Having raw on your label doesn’t eliminate your responsibility to do the hazard analysis for your product. If a pathogen is a significant hazard, you still have to control for it. … It doesn’t get you off the hook by putting ‘raw’ on the label.”

Recalls as Cautionary Examples

Harris jokes she specializes in being a downer. As a food microbiologist, she shares cautionary examples of brands responsible for food poisoning. Food companies ask Harris for advice on how to maneuver food safety regulations, and Harris admits she still has to look up regulations because they are so complicated.

“You must understand how to control your hazards,” Harris said. “For some entrepreneurs, some smaller processors, that’s been a bit of a challenge to do because.”

She shared the example of the mystery green powder. Many food producers use green powders to make their product – but Harris says brands need to understand the ins and outs of their ingredients. Testing alone will not deal with vulnerabilities. Companies need to ask questions, like: Does the supplier label exactly what’s in the ingredient? If it’s labeled, is it accurate? What processes are used to make the ingredients? Does the process enhance safety? What contaminants are in the ingredients? What kind of controls are in place?

The 2016 Garden of Life RAW Meal Organic Shake & Meal outbreak was one such example. Salmonella in the powder infected 33 people in 23 states. The Salmonella was traced back to a supplier’s ingredient. Can food processors trust each one of their ingredient suppliers, Harris questioned?

“A very challenging thing to do by any strength of the imagination,” she said, especially for a small processor. “How do you know when you’re buying your powders that there aren’t things beyond the Salmonella or the bacteria that I’m concerned about or pesticides or other chemicals or heavy metals that might be present?”

As more natural food brands enter the market, processors are sourcing unique ingredients, many from international suppliers.

“(When) youre not able to see that process or interact with that process, I think that’s a real concern,” Harris adds. “That’s where I see small entrepreneurs being especially vulnerable because they don’t have the power to say ‘I am going to buy 50 pounds of your powder, so I’d like to have a full tour of your facility.’ You lose some of that power compared to being a large manufacturer where millions of dollars are at stake.”

Question Every Step

Harris shared tips for avoiding food safety disasters.

  1. Check with regulators early and often. From USDA and FDA inspectors to state government agencies, Harris said she’s found government regulators are very willing to share feedback on food safety.
  2. Tour supplier and processor facilities. The SoyNut Butter E. coli outbreak of 2017 was another supplier mistake. After 32 people became infected from SoyNut Butter, the brand recalled the product. During their investigation, they found their contract manufacturer was operating in unsanitary conditions. The facility was dusty, equipment hadn’t been cleaned for 15 months and there was no hot water or soap. Harris noted, if the food company simply walked through the facility, they would have quickly seen issues.
  3. Use a copacker. Copackers are food safety experts, and a great option for small companies to avoid safety hazards. Copackers will take a recipe, make the food product and package it. They are the food safety experts, so a new food company doesn’t have to master food safety. Still, Harris warned, tour the copacker facility. “If you think just a small processor is vulnerable to issues with copackers… even major companies can I think get into a lull of not making those checks and not following up to make things are going well,” she said.
  4. Ask lots of questions. Harris advises, if a food brand is putting ingredient or processing trust in another company, be prepared to double check their facilities and healthy claims.

Harris recently had to practice what she preaches. As the department chair, she had to axe the students plan to make vegan ice cream for the university’s Picnic Day. The powder the students found was sourced from a Midwest company who wouldn’t share details on how they eliminate pathogens. So Harris did not give students permission to buy the powder for vegan ice cream.

“If you’re in this area, I think you do need to be able to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it,” she said. “When you go to your supplier to ask them how are you controlling for these things in the ingredient you’re giving me, that you expect transparency.”

Fermented Products Not Exempt

Fermentation often creates a false air of safety, Harris said. Just because fermentation has a global tradition doesn’t mean fermented foods are all created under safe conditions.

In 2013, The Cultured Kitchen had to recall their cashew cheese after 17 people became infected with Salmonella. Testing found the fermented cashews were the source of the outbreak. The copacker had multiple critical equipment malfunctions, like an uncalibrated thermometer and no kill step.

Fermented food, Harris stresses, are extremely safe. Fermented foods have a long history of safety. But new products and ingredients that are fermented which have historically never been fermented before, makes food safety murky.

For more information on food safety, check out the UC Davis Food Safety website.