Melinda Williamson has always been fascinated by plants — she grew up watching her mother make baby food with produce from the garden, later studied medicinal plants in college and dedicated her career as an ecologist to researching microbial communities in soil.

So, when Williamson became extremely sick with an autoimmune disease eleven years ago, it was not surprising that she turned to plants. She began making green smoothies daily and, after a student shared a bottle of it with her, drinking kombucha.

“I became really conscious about what I was putting in my body, really focusing on where my food was coming from,” says Williamson, founder of Morning Light Kombucha in Hoyt, Kansas. “I started researching my illness, and found that a lot of stuff stems from the gut. It brought me into this world of ferments.”

The health-scare-turned-health-revival changed the course of her life. Mother of a then-young child, Williamson moved back to Kansas to raise her daughter closer to family. She took a language program job  on the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation reservation in her hometown, then spent her hours off work fulfilling a  dream of running her own business. She perfected a home-brewed kombucha  and began selling it at local farmers markets, gas stations and yoga studios.

The pandemic easily could have shuttered a small brewery like Morning Light which, prior to 2020, Williamson ran on her own. But she designed a website, opened an online store, started curbside delivery and launched a canned line — and sales grew by 25%. By the end of 2021, Morning Light Kombucha will start shipping nationally and, by the end of next year,  they plan to break ground on a 4,000-square-foot facility on the reservation.

“What I really want to do is get my product into more native communities, so they can find healing just like I found healing,” says Williamson, head of the only Native American kombucha brand. “That’s more important to me than seeing my product on the shelf of Wal-Mart or Target. I’m not in it to be rich. I still plan on living in my little house here on the reservation close to my family. I just want to do something that has meaning and an impact.”

Below is an edited Q&A between Williamson and The Fermentation Association.

TFA: Where do you get your ingredients? You forage some of the ingredients yourself on the reservation.
MW: We go out and harvest wild blackberries, wild raspberries, chokecherries and pawpaws mostly on the reservation. There’s edible plants everywhere, it’s surprising the places you can find them. We just went to Overland Park, which is the city near us, to forage for pawpaws. 

Some of the ingredients like gooseberries, those we find in small quantities. If we go out and we only get four cups of berries, we may not make any kombucha with it. But sometimes I’ll make a little five gallon batch.

Most of our ingredients, we partner with local farms in Northeast Kansas. It comes down to the importance of knowing where our food comes from. My goal was to always work with local farmers and source ingredients locally, I knew I wanted that as part of my business foundational value. 

As much as possible, we keep sustainability at the forefront of everything that we do, being really conscious about our footprint. It’s really nice because, being in Northeast Kansas, people aren’t thinking about stuff like that. They’re more and more thinking about where their food comes from, but it’s been really nice to have those conversations with the community and get people really thinking about supporting the local farming economy, supporting local business.

A big part of it really comes down to what we’re showing our kids. Before my daughter was born, I had her when I was 23, I was eating a lot of fast food. I was like “I’m free! I’ve got a job! I can buy and eat whatever I want!” I was eating so much junk food. And then I got pregnant and wanted to feed her properly. I grew my own garden and started making my own baby food, just like my mom modeled for me. Food is so important, it’s a constant conversation in my life and in my business.

TFA: Do you make seasonal flavors then?

MW: We launched our canned kombucha line in February. Prior to that, we were doing about 100 flavors a year, so now that we’ve launched our canned kombucha line, we’ve had to whittle that down because we have to have four flavors constantly. Our rotations have diminished a little, but we’re still putting out about 60 flavors a year.

Our berry flavors are our most popular — blackberry lemongrass and strawberry. Seasonally, our smaller batches that people love are mulberry, that is a top seller. People also love the ginger and chokecherry flavors.

TFA: How do you sell your small batches? Are you selling them retail or filling kegs on site?

MW: We sell direct-to-consumer, like at the farmers markets and events. We don’t have a brewery that’s open to the public. We do curbside pickup, that was something that was developed in response to the pandemic. We could no longer sell directly to the consumer, so we just started doing doorstep delivery, then the curbside pickup. Basically, people just have their empty bottles in their trunk and call us and we come out and grab their bottles, and swap them for new, filled bottles. It’s contactless, but we still got to see our customer and wave. We’ll probably continue to do that, we’re still in this pandemic, and the most important thing is to keep our community safe and our elders up here safe. We will continue taking all precautions to protect people around us until we hit a safe spot. 

TFA: A portion of your sales goes back to the native communities. Tell me about that.

MW: We donate where we feel like the money would be used best, things that we’re passionate about and things where we see we can make a difference. For example, we just recently donated to one of the residential school survivor nonprofits. We’ve taken clothes to Standing Rock Sioux Tribe where they were protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline, we’ve donated to our Boys and Girls Club here on the reservation, we’ve donated to our youth soccer teams, we’ve donated to First Nations programs in Canada.

TFA: Morning Light Kombucha is a trademark American Indian Food product. What does that mean?

MW: So that trademark American Indian Food falls under the Inter-Tribal Agricultural Council, which is a subset under the USDA. The program really highlights American Indian food producers. You apply and then the program supports you in different ways. We’re able to network with other American Indian food producers, brainstorm together and talk about what we’re experiencing and try to make movements when it comes to distribution. The program is really big with international exporting, so all the American Indian food producers have the opportunity to attend large trade shows internationally, they’ll fly us there, ship our products and give us the opportunity to have a booth and get our product in front of people who are interested in American Indian food products. I’m not ready for something that big, I am so small, but I’ve gone to a domestic show through the program. I went to a food show in Chicago and got in front of a lot of people who are interested in my kombucha. We have really big plans in 2022 to expand our facilities, and hopefully expand domestically.

TFA: What are Morning Light Kombucha’s plans for 2022?

MW: I just bought 10 acres here on our reservation. My plan is to break ground and build a production facility. It will be three times the size of what we’re in now, which will be really, really nice. There’s a pond on the side, we’ve got a creek, timber, a lot of foraging areas. The plan is to build an off-the-grid brewery, too, so it will help us provide more jobs in our community and it will allow us to do some of the things that we haven’t been able to do.

I mentioned sustainability is a big part of what we do. We compost 100% of our brewery waste, but I have to truck it to my house to my compost pile because, where we’re at now, we just can’t compost large quantities at our site. The waste water from our water filtration system, it’s totally usable water, but we don’t have any place to store it currently. Our waste water is not like gray water,  it’s clean water that’s just wasted during the filtration process, it’s usable. For every one gallon that’s filtered, there’s three gallons that’s wasted. It’s so insane, it killed me when I found that out. Once we are in our new facility we can begin to recycle it on property. We have this dry pond. Our plan is to see if we can get it lined, divert the waste water in there and start filling the pond. 

TFA: Scaling will be big for you in 2022.

MW: I know, I just hired three employees recently because it’s just been me for the past few years. I work part-time for our language department, and my kombucha business has been my side hustle. In the past year, I’ve realized the potential. People really like my brand and they’re noticing it and requesting it. So I thought “Maybe I could grow this brand into something bigger.” 

TFA: I am beyond impressed — you have been building a kombucha brand by yourself?!

MW: Family is always there for me. My boyfriend is at the market, my nephews help with anything I need, it’s a family affair even though I never really had anybody on my payroll until recently. Now I’m getting to a point where I need help all the time. I hired my sister as my brewery manager, she keeps a tight ship. It’s allowed for me to really work on expansion while she’s running operations at the brewery. 

TFA: Yours is still the only Native American-owned kombucha brand. 

MW: With my business, I like to think that I’m also giving a voice to native issues. I would never want to be an authority on native issues, but there’s a lot of things going on in Indian country that people don’t see in the mainstream media and mainstream social media. If I can build a brand that can also bring awareness to these things, that’s really important to me.

TFA: You have a background in academia. What got you interested in ecology before switching to kombucha?

MW: I’ve always loved science, I’ve always loved the outdoors, I’ve always been super eco-friendly, I’ve always been conscious about our impact on the earth. I love animals, I love nature. I was taking some of my general ed classes at Haskell (Indian Nations University) and took an ethnobiology class. I just fell in love. I ended up transferring to Kansas State and got my degree in environmental biology (then a masters degree in rangeland ecology and management from Oklahoma State University.) I went with my boss from K State to Oklahoma State and ran the grassland ecology lab for years.

TFA: Where do you see the future of fermentation?

MW: There’s an explosion. I see it continuing to grow and expand and people are coming out with really innovative ways to bring fermentation to the table. Like Wild Alive Ferments out of Lawrence, Kansas. We’re a part of a local CSA with them. The owners just came out with an apple kraut flavor, an autumn harvest with spices that is so amazing. 

In the U.S. especially, we have a lot of people who are sick with illnesses or cancers and autoimmune issues and I think we’re starting to see more people look at what they’re putting in their bodies. They’re realizing the importance of gut health, the importance of ferments, and that it affects so much more than just your gut. It’s a movement — and I’m really excited about it.

After a study found 91% of plant-based, fermented drinks in Ireland make unauthorized health claims, the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI) has published a guide on how to produce such beverages safely and label them accurately.

The FSAI examined 32 unpasteurized drinks currently sold on the Irish market – including kombucha, kefir and ginger soda – and found that most did not comply with EU and Irish food labelling and health regulations. The study found 13% had alcohol levels above labelling thresholds, and 75% lacked  required label information, like the address of the producer and “best-before” date. 

“The methods used in producing unpasteurized fermented plant-based products can be difficult to manage,” notes Dr. Pamela Byrne, FSAI chief executive. “The guidance will help producers to achieve consistent production methods, safe storage, safe handling and safe transportation of fermented beverages.”

Read more (Agriland)

Singapore’s so-called “Prince of Fermentation” wants his country to develop “its own brand of fermentation culture.” Tan Ding Jie says Singapore’s traditional ferments are often left out of “the gospel of fermentation.”

“Cinchalok, fish sauce, fermented bean curd, fermented bamboo shoots – these are all very interesting ideas. People who are more mature have been quite ready to adapt koji from Japan and red yeast rice from Asia in their Western restaurants – so I think we should also be able to adapt or loan some of their ideas and use them in our cuisine.”

Tan Ding Jie, a researcher for Singapore’s Agency for Science, Technology and Research, is currently pursuing a master’s degree in food science. Jie consults for different Singapore restaurants and bars on how to use ferments in their menus. He created a fish sauce and nata de coco at the Michelin-starred Labyrinth restaurant, and created kombucha-infused cocktails for Gibson, one of Asia’s top bars. He started his own brand, Starter Culture, and teaches fermentation workshops and sells his own kombucha.

In an interview with Channel News Asia, Jie said he thinks there’s “much to be discovered from looking into our Southeast Asian culinary heritage. … I think Singapore is unique because we haven’t been afraid to say, ‘Let’s learn what are the best practices in the world today, and then apply it to our local context.’ If you look at Southeast Asian ferments, it’s also very simple – we took what immigrants brought over and said, ‘All right, that’s the history, let’s make it local.’”

Read more (Channel News Asia)

A new wood alternative made from a byproduct of kombucha brewing waste  won this year’s James Dyson Award, which celebrates problem-solving design. The material, called Pyrus,  was invented by sustainable-design student Gabe Tavas. Tavas’ company, Symmetry,  makes small items from Pyrus that replicate exotic woods like mahogany or purpleheart (two wood types found in the rainforest and endangered by aggressive deforestation).

Tavas was inspired to create Pyrus after seeing  designers use kombucha bacterial cellulose (the  film that grows on top of the beverage during brewing) in various projects. Tavas was struck by the fact that trees are  made from cellulose, and he began experimenting in his dorm room with the waste from his own kombucha brewing. He eventually partnered with local Chicago producer, KombuchAde, which supplies Tavas with 250 pounds of cellulose a day.

Pyrus is made by pouring cellulose into a mold, adding agar (an algae-based binding gel), and then dehydrating and compressing  it. The synthetic wood can be sanded and cut, but will decompose in contact with water.

Read more (Fast Company)

Tea connoisseurs have long believed that black tea’s flavor comes from the chemicals created during oxidation, but a new study reveals microbes at play. Black’s tea’s rich flavor is partly due to fermentation, the same microbial process used to create fermented teas like kombucha, jun and pu’erh.

What does this mean for tea producers? By adjusting the microbes on the tea leaves, fermentation could amplify the flavor in the final brewed cup of tea.

“The finding that bacterial and fungal communities also drive tea processing suggests the microbiome of the leaves can be manipulated to create greater quantities of tasty compounds due to fermentation,” says Dan Bolton, founder, editor and publisher of Tea Journey.

In research published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, a team of scientists from Anhui Agricultural University in China studied how sterilization of tea leaves affected tea flavor. They began by sampling the microbes on leaves from the Dongzhi tea plantation in Anhui province. Half the leaves were sterilized in mild bleach for five minutes — the other half were left untouched. All the leaves were then processed traditionally: withered, rolled, oxidized in the sun and dried.  

Their conclusions found black tea produced through microbial fermentation from the unsterilized sample was full of catechins and L-theanine. Catechins are flavonoids and a naturally-occurring antioxidant; L-theanine is an amino acid (also found in  mushrooms) known to ease stress and insomnia. Both compounds  help make tea flavorful. The sterilized leaves produced tea that didn’t have the same amount of compounds, and so wasn’t as flavorful.

“The sterilization process dramatically decreased the content of total catechins and theanine in black tea, indicating that microbes on the surface of tea leaf may be involved in maintaining the formation of these important metabolites during black tea processing,” says Ali Inayat Mallano, PhD, professor at the university.

Interestingly, sterilization had no effect on green tea. Both samples of green tea, sterilized and unsterilized, had the same levels of caffeine and theanine.

[To explore premium dark teas, TFA recently organized a webinar Beyond Kombucha: Pu’erh, Jun and Dark Tea with Bolton and tea experts Jeff Fuchs (author, Himalayan explorer and co-founder of Jalam Teas) and Brendan McGill (chef and James Beard nominee who owns Hitchcock Restaurant Group in Seattle and Junbug Kombucha).

This is the first in a series of articles that TFA will be releasing over the next few months, analyzing trends from our Member Survey

Though fermentation brands overwhelmingly reported substantial sales gains during the Covid-19 pandemic, they’re not breaking out the champagne. Now, nearing fall 2021, many are starting to see sales flatten. This trend is consistent with sales for the food industry at large, which started to plateau in March 2021.

Most fermenters reported struggles meeting demand — packaging shortages (38%), costly and time-consuming Covid-19 sanitation protocols (30%), distribution delays (29%) and ingredient and labor shortages (both 28%). Then there’s the challenge of keeping a fermented product in stock with constantly changing sales demands.

Jared Schwartz, a TFA Advisory Board member, is founder of fermented sauce producer Poor Devil Pepper Co. and director of operations and quality for Farm Ferments (a facility in Hudson, N.Y., that is home to Hawthorne Valley Farm). He says forecasting has been especially difficult for a refrigerated fermented food with a processing cycle more delicate than that of its shelf-stable counterpart. 

“While these spikes in sales are incredible, they also depleted our on-hand WIP [Work-In-Progress],” Schwartz says. He would project barrels of fermenting vegetables to provide adequate inventory for a certain length of time, but peak pandemic demand depleted stock. Finding new ingredients is difficult because everything is sourced locally. “With fermentation, there is of course a much longer lead time on a finished product as the process can’t be rushed. So these challenges left us extending our production season and looking to source from the spot market, which is generally out of our norm. We generally source 95% of our ingredients from New York State and base our projections around the trajectory aforementioned.”

Sales Flatten After Record Year 

While predicting sales has been difficult — especially as many states are again increasing Covid-19 restrictions because of the Delta variant — some brand leaders were prepared for a decrease in sales in 2021. 

Kheedim Oh, founder of Mama O’s Kimchi (and also on TFA’s Advisory Board), said sales doubled in 2020. But, this summer, they fell dramatically from that peak. “July was terrible,” Oh says, but they “anticipate a boost in the fall since summer months are typically slower.” 

Revenue almost tripled in 2020 for hard kombucha brand Dr. Hops, but sales have since started to flatten. The company had secured new distribution before the pandemic, then redesigned their product line this year. “We would have likely done much more… if we had been able to do all the field sales and marketing we had planned,” says Joshua Rood, co-founder and CEO of Dr. Hops Real Hard Kombucha, 

Hawthorne Valley is seeing a similar downturn. Sales from March to April spiked about 50%, with overall year-over-year growth at 46%. But “things have definitely plateaued for now,” Schwartz says.

Supply Chain Nightmares 

Small packaging supplies — like the tiny plastic caps for glass kombucha bottles — caused huge production issues. Hannah Crum, president of Kombucha Brewers International, says this was the biggest challenge for brewers. “It’s had a massive impact,” she says. 

Twenty-four percent of survey respondents said they anticipate production constraints will continue to be a challenge throughout 2021.

And though sales remain strong for Bubbies pickles according to John Gray, owner of Bubbies (and TFA Advisory Board member), “glass shortages have affected the entire industry. Sales are strong, but shortages persist,” as he describes the pandemic’s double-edged sword facing many fermented brands.

Production and distribution issues hit frozen pizza brand Alex’s Awesome Sourdough, too — packaging costs went up 10%, and freight expense nearly doubled. But these didn’t slow the company’s growth. They expanded massively in 2020, from 100 to 1,500 stores. An overall uptick in frozen food sales helped them as well, especially as competing pizza brands went out of stock.

“Sales are strong as pizza is a seasonal category and the end of summer and early fall are the beginning of peak season,” says Alex Corsini, founder of Alex’s Awesome Sourdough (and another TFA Advisory Board member). “We anticipate sales being even stronger if Covid protocols remain strict and restaurants continue operating at a limited capacity. Restaurants definitely take a piece of our pie (pun intended).”

Kombucha producers across the U.S. have organized an awareness campaign for the KOMBUCHA Act. The legislation — which was reintroduced into Congress this year for the 5th year in a row — would exempt kombucha  from excise taxes intended for alcoholic beverages.

The KOMBUCHA ACT Days of Action, organized by the trade organization Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), is from September 14 to 18. The act would raise the alcohol by volume (ABV) threshold for kombucha from its current level of 0.5% to 1.25%. Producers plan to lobby, emailing representatives, posting on social media and encouraging the public to sign a petition in support of the bipartisan bill. 

In a statement from KBI President Hannah Crum, she points out that kombucha is not an alcoholic beverage. The fermented tea rarely exceeds 0.5% ABV, while light lager beers contain about 3.2% ABV and most craft beers are 5% or higher. (Note: hard kombucha, an increasingly popular drink option, is specifically brewed to have higher alcoholic content and is labeled accordingly.). Here are some of the key paragraphs from her statement:

“Today, most kombucha sold in the United States contains trace amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation that occurs during production. The alcohol, a natural preservative, acts to protect kombucha’s live cultures, as well as the safety of consumers, from unwanted pathogens,” Crum says. “Traditionally made kombucha seldom tests above 1 percent ABV, as kombucha cultures are not suited to high levels of alcohol, so this level allows kombucha brewers to feel confident distributing their products by providing ample buffer room to shield them from the threat of this tax.”

“Nevertheless, for the purpose of assessing federal excise taxes on beer for its alcohol content, the Internal Revenue Code defines the term ‘beer’ in a way that encompasses kombucha, if the kombucha contains 0.5 percent or more of ABV.”

“For kombucha brewers, this federal law presents a real dilemma. While their kombucha may be leaving the facility below the 0.5 percent ABV threshold, trace alcohol can increase slightly – in some cases above 0.5 percent ABV – if the product is exposed to temperature fluctuations on distribution trucks or grocery store shelves after it has left the kombucha brewery.”

“Under the current law as written, kombucha brewers have a Damocles sword hanging over their heads. That is, their kombucha can leave the brewery untaxed, only for its ABV level to rise slightly above 0.5 percent once out of their control, thus becoming subject to the federal excise taxes.”

Hard cider makers waged a similar battle in 2015. Federal law had limited hard cider to under 7% ABV, but cider makers (particularly smaller producers) found it difficult to control alcohol levels because of  apple varieties and cultures. Congress passed a bill increasing the allowable alcohol content in hard cider to 8.5%.

Crum continues: “While hard cider is an alcoholic beverage and kombucha is not, the two products nonetheless share a similar issue: the alcohol level in each can vary naturally due to fermentation.”

“As with cider makers in 2015, this dilemma and the anxiety it causes kombucha brewers would be easily remedied through the enactment of a similar common-sense update: the bipartisan KOMBUCHA Act (H.R. 2124/S. 892) now being considered in Congress. The bill – sponsored by House Representative Earl Blumenauer (D-Oregon) and Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) – creates an exemption in the tax code for kombucha, so long as the ABV level of the product is 1.25 percent ABV or lower.”

Crum says many kombucha producers limit growing their business “in order to protect themselves from this risk, as well as facing burdensome costs of testing to comply with the arbitrarily restrictive limit.” There are over 600 kombucha producers in the U.S. Kombucha has “garnered a cult following in the last 20 years for its unique taste and probiotic benefits,” she says, adding:

“We are hopeful that Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) and their colleagues on both sides of the aisle (multiple Republicans in various states have co-sponsored the bill) can succeed in getting this legislation enacted into law this year. If they do succeed, they’ll pave the so-far rocky path for a new and rapidly growing industry that promises to add thousands of jobs with benefits to the economy at a time when they are desperately needed.”

Tea consumption globally is increasing. But consumers don’t want a cheap, poor quality tea bag. They’re buying premium teas — and increasingly, dark, fermented teas. 

“What’s trending right now seems to be authentic tea, tea that has great flavor, more closely married to the terroir. People are beginning to understand that it’s just fine to have tea. You don’t have to have coloring in it, you don’t have to have a lot of bits and pieces of fruit and flowers, there’s a genuine benefit to just understanding the terroir and keeping it simple,” says Dan Bolton, the founder, editor and publisher of Tea Journey. Bolton and two tea experts discussed two lesser-known fermented tea varieties in the TFA webinar Beyond Kombucha: Pu’erh, Jun and Dark Tea. “Tea just isn’t as good as it could be, without fermentation.”

A new study on tea demonstrates how important fermentation is to tea quality, Bolton says. Researchers from the Anhui Agricultural University in China recently studied the effect of surface microbiomes on the quality of black tea. The results found microbial fermentation in non-sterilized control tea samples produced complex compounds and more flavorful teas than with sterilized tea leaves. The results  were published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry

“It’s a remarkable finding because, certainly for the last century or so, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether fermentation plays a role in the production and processing of tea,” Bolton says. The study proves “black tea is actually a result of both fermentation and oxidation.”

Pu’erh Tea

Jeff Fuchs — author, Himalayan explorer and co-founder of Jalam Teas — shared details of pu’erh tea. Pu’erh is a tea style from a strain of camellia leaf cultivated and produced in the Yunnan province. Fuchs spent over a decade living in there and is the only Westerner to have traveled the Tea Horse Road through Sichuan, Yunnan and Tibet.

“Pu’erh is a tea that certainly I think it’s been deliberately mystified to some degree,” Fuchs says. “It’s interesting that you have this very simple, raw material green tea that is now arguably one of the great  boutique commodities.”

Fuchs stresses consumers need to research tea sourcing. Where is the tea coming from? How was it stored? Who stored it? Older tea cakes are being sold for large amounts of money, but can have questionable provenance.

“Young teas I think are making a big assertion in the tea world right now because they represent a closer line to the terroir, a closer line to the origin point,” he says, adding dark teas are becoming more popular in North America. He sees more bartenders experimenting with dark teas, playing with flavor compounds. “I think dark teas will come into the sway more and they’ll remain.”

Jun Tea

Jun is another tea style making waves in the fermented beverage market. It is a type of kombucha, but the base is green tea and honey instead of black tea and sugar. Brendan McGill shared his experience making jun — he is a chef and James Beard nominee; he owns the Hitchcock Restaurant Group in Seattle and  the newly-launched Junbug Kombucha.

“Jun is a very special style of kombucha,” McGill says. “It’s shrouded in mystery, where these cultures originated. What we do know is how they’ve been developed and manipulated in fairly recent history. One of the joys I’ve had with this is just being extremely creative because i found that while the fermentation isn’t necessarily a delicate process, it has allowed us to modify and use a lot of different inputs that it’s actually a pretty robust fermentation process.”

McGill began making kombucha over a decade ago, as a replacement for beer and wine. He liked jun for its similar flavor to alcohol, the additional bioactive compounds that create a more nutritious drink and it’s made with honey instead of added sugar. 

Junbug Kombucha uses filtered water, organic green tea, wild honey and, of course, a SCOBY. In the secondary fermentation, fresh herbs, berries and even mushrooms are added. Junbug flavors include Chaga Root Beer, Chili Raspberry and Maui Mana. 

A diet high in fermented foods increases microbiome diversity, lowers inflammation, and improves immune response, according to researchers at Stanford University’s School of Medicine.The groundbreaking results were published in the journal Cell.

In the clinical trial, healthy individuals were fed for 10 weeks, a diet either high in fermented foods and beverages or high in fiber. The fermented diet — which included yogurt, kefir, cottage cheese, kimchi, kombucha, fermented veggies and fermented veggie broth — led to an increase in overall microbial diversity, with stronger effects from larger servings.

“This is a stunning finding,” says Justin Sonnenburg, PhD, an associate professor of microbiology and immunology at Stanford. “It provides one of the first examples of how a simple change in diet can reproducibly remodel the microbiota across a cohort of healthy adults.”

Researchers were particularly pleased to see participants in the fermented foods diet showed less activation in four types of immune cells. There was a decrease in the levels of 19 inflammatory proteins, including interleukin 6, which is linked to rheumatoid arthritis, Type 2 diabetes and chronic stress. 

“Microbiota-targeted diets can change immune status, providing a promising avenue for decreasing inflammation in healthy adults,” says Christopher Gardner, PhD, the Rehnborg Farquhar Professor and director of nutrition studies at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. “This finding was consistent across all participants in the study who were assigned to the higher fermented food group.”

Microbiota Stability vs. Diversity

Continues a press release from Stanford Medicine News Center: By contrast, none of the 19 inflammatory proteins decreased in participants assigned to a high-fiber diet rich in legumes, seeds, whole grains, nuts, vegetables and fruits. On average, the diversity of their gut microbes also remained stable. 

“We expected high fiber to have a more universally beneficial effect and increase microbiota diversity,” said Erica Sonnenburg, PhD, a senior research scientist at Stanford in basic life sciences, microbiology and immunology. “The data suggest that increased fiber intake alone over a short time period is insufficient to increase microbiota diversity.”

Justin and Erica Sonnenburg and Christopher Gardner are co-authors of the study. The lead authors are Hannah Wastyk, a PhD student in bioengineering, and former postdoctoral scholar Gabriela Fragiadakis, PhD, now an assistant professor of medicine at UC-San Francisco.

A wide body of evidence has demonstrated that diet shapes the gut microbiome which, in turn, can affect the immune system and overall health. According to Gardner, low microbiome diversity has been linked to obesity and diabetes.

“We wanted to conduct a proof-of-concept study that could test whether microbiota-targeted food could be an avenue for combatting the overwhelming rise in chronic inflammatory diseases,” Gardner said.

The researchers focused on fiber and fermented foods due to previous reports of their potential health benefits. High-fiber diets have been associated with lower rates of mortality. Fermented foods are thought to help with weight maintenance and may decrease the risk of diabetes, cancer and cardiovascular disease.

The researchers analyzed blood and stool samples collected during a three-week pre-trial period, the 10 weeks of the diet, and a four-week period after the diet when the participants ate as they chose.

The findings paint a nuanced picture of the influence of diet on gut microbes and immune status. Those who increased their consumption of fermented foods showed effects consistent with prior research showing that short-term changes in diet can rapidly alter the gut microbiome. The limited changes in the microbiome for the high-fiber group dovetailed with previous reports of the resilience of the human microbiome over short time periods.

Designing a suite of dietary and microbial strategies

The results also showed that greater fiber intake led to more carbohydrates in stool samples, pointing to incomplete fiber degradation by gut microbes. These findings are consistent with research suggesting that the microbiome of a person living in the industrialized world is depleted of fiber-degrading microbes.

“It is possible that a longer intervention would have allowed for the microbiota to adequately adapt to the increase in fiber consumption,” Erica Sonnenburg said. “Alternatively, the deliberate introduction of fiber-consuming microbes may be required to increase the microbiota’s capacity to break down the carbohydrates.”

In addition to exploring these possibilities, the researchers plan to conduct studies in mice to investigate the molecular mechanisms by which diets alter the microbiome and reduce inflammatory proteins. They also aim to test whether high-fiber and fermented foods synergize to influence the microbiome and immune system of humans. Another goal is to examine whether the consumption of fermented foods decreases inflammation or improves other health markers in patients with immunological and metabolic diseases, in pregnant women, or in older individuals.

“There are many more ways to target the microbiome with food and supplements, and we hope to continue to investigate how different diets, probiotics and prebiotics impact the microbiome and health in different groups,” Justin Sonnenburg said.

Other Stanford co-authors are Dalia Perelman, health educator; former graduate students Dylan Dahan, PhD, and Carlos Gonzalez, PhD; graduate student Bryan Merrill; former research assistant Madeline Topf; postdoctoral scholars William Van Treuren, PhD, and Shuo Han, PhD; Jennifer Robinson, PhD, administrative director of the Community Health and Prevention Research Master’s Program and program manager of the Nutrition Studies Group; and Joshua Elias, PhD.

Researchers from the nonprofit research center Chan-Zuckerberg Biohub also contributed to the study. Here’s the complete press release from Stanford Medicine News Center.

More Than One SCOBY?

A SCOBY is the gelatinous bacteria colony central to making kombucha. But did you know there are four different types of SCOBY? Scientists at Oregon State University spent the past four years researching the microorganisms that contribute to the tea fermentation that produces kombucha. The results of their work were published in the journal Microorganisms.

SCOBY is a challenging mystery to many kombucha brewers. Little is known about how SCOBY impacts flavor. The OSU scientists aim to help kombucha brewers make a more consistent product. 

“Without having a baseline of which organisms are commonly most important, there are too many variables to try and think about when producing kombucha,” says Chris Curtin, an assistant professor of fermentation microbiology at OSU. “Now with this research we can say there are four main types of SCOBY. If we want to understand what contributes to differences in kombucha flavors we can narrow that variable to four types as opposed to, say, hundreds of types.”

Curtin and doctoral student Keisha Harrison used DNA sequencing to evaluate the microorganisms in 103 SCOBYs used by kombucha brewers (primarily ones in North America). The four SCOBY types each use different combinations of yeast and bacteria.

Read more (Oregon State University)