A sustainable food industry will be built by flavor, says David Zilber, noted chef and food scientist.
Zilber made major headlines and surprised many in October when he left his job as head of the fermentation lab at Noma for a food scientist position at Chr. Hansen, a global supplier of bioscience ingredients. Noma, a two-Michelin star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark, has been regularly ranked one of the best restaurants in the world. In 2018, Zilber co-authored a bestselling book on fermentation with Noma co-owner Rene Redzepi.
In an Instagram live interview last week with Al Jeezera’s Femi Oke, Zilber elaborated on why he traded an apron for a lab coat. The global food system, Zilber says, is unsustainable. Waste is prevalent, food is created with long footprints, agricultural production is shrinking, meat is heavily consumed and large corporations control the industry.
“What I’m trying to do in my work is to make vegetables as God damn tasty as they can possibly be by using microbes, using things that are already at our disposal, and convincing people that this might have to have a little bit of a longer inventory life while you let it ferment, while you build a stockpile, but this is the result, this is why you’ll be able to convince people why eating this way is healthy for them and the planet,” he says. “Flavor is king.”
Ingredients created by Denmark-based Chr. Hansen (the company has 40,000 microbial strains used as natural ingredients) feed 1-1.5 billion people a day. These include microbes in yogurt and yeast in beer.
“I work with them to try and make the food system more sustainable, to get more people eating vegetables,” Zilber says, adding that 30% of every calorie consumed by humans is fermented by bacteria, microbes or fungus. “No matter what we eat in the future, that’s still going to be the case. That slot of the human diet still needs some form of microbial transformation, whether it’s meat or dairy or oat milk or peas. I work to figure that out.”
It’s a different philosophy compared to the food technology many new companies are utilizing to create alternative proteins like Beyond Burger. He complimented the company for their high standards, but he says a Beyond Burger patty is not a replacement for a juicy, beef burger. People pay more for an inferior eating experience.
“At the end of that day, that will not cut it,” Zilber says. “Why does food have to be that processed to be purportedly that delicious? With some skilled tricks in the kitchen, with some ninja jiu jitsu behind the stove, you can make vegetables really, really delicious.”
Sustainable Food Systems
A sustainable food system will look much like one from 300 years ago, Zilber hypothesizes. It will be localized, where people purchase food produced close by. Modern practices of shipping ingredients and processed food around the globe are harmful to the environment.
“A truly sustainable food system looks far more decentralized than [the current one] does right now. There are [only a] very few stakeholders that are responsible for really a lot of calories,” he continues.
Oke questioned how Zilber could change a broken food system controlled by large companies when he now works at one of the major companies.
“If you want to be an idealist, that’s great, you might end up being a martyr,” Zilber says. “Sometimes you have to work within those contradictory institutions to try to do as much good as possible.”
Restaurant Industry’s Responsibility
The restaurant industry plays a part in it too, Zilber says. Workers are stretched thin, overworked, underpaid “and then extremely vulnerable in a time of crisis.” The pandemic has exposed and highlighted these problematic parts of the restaurant business.
Zilber says there are still too many restaurants. It’s hard to find good cooks, and staff is often undertrained.
“I took a step into food production myself. Maybe more of these cooks, more of these people who are passionate about food, need to consider options beyond just the restaurant setting and see value in becoming a farmer, becoming a distributor, becoming someone who decides how those calories are made because restaurants aren’t the full picture of the food system,” he continues. “There are a lot of talented people within it who know food, who understand it, who understand the human experience of what it means to make good tasting food and satisfying food. There’s other places for them to work as well.”
In the latest issue of Popular Science, a creative infographic illustrates “the wonderful world of fermented foods on one delicious chart.” It represents “a sampling of the treats our species brines, brews, cures, and cultures around the world,” and is particularly interesting as it shows mainstream media catching on to fermentation’s renaissance. Fermentation fit with the issue’s theme of transformation in the wake of the pandemic.
Read more (Popular Science)
Air Protein, a Bay-area startup, is using NASA-inspired fermentation technology to create an edible protein. The company, which recently received $32 million in funding, is the first to make “air-based” protein, farming carbon from the air with microbes.
The vertical fermentation tanks used by Air Protein combine carbon dioxide, oxygen and nitrogen with water and minerals. “The final products is a protein-rich flour that can be used just like soy or pea flour,” writes the Mercury News. “This protein flour can then be made into a plethora of delicious and nutritious meatless meat products.”
Founder and CEO Lisa Dyson discovered the NASA research while searching for new ways to recycle carbon and address the global climate crisis. She says Air Protein’s technology will “create the most sustainable meat available and significantly reduce the burden on our planet’s resources that is being cased by our current meat production processes.”
Read more (Mercury News)
Modern society needs fermentation now more than ever, as the food system becomes industrialized and unsustainable, says Meredith Leigh, farmer, activist and author. Consumers are far removed from farmers and the land, and food produced in factories hurts the environment.
“People are eating more fermented foods. The experience of food is not a quantity thing anymore, it’s more of a quality/complexity thing.” Leigh shared her insights into meat fermentation and creating a food system connected to the land and animals during a TFA webinar, From Soil to Salami: Fermentation, Life and Health.
“The punch and umami and funk is really becoming more understandable to people. That’s really promising, specifically when it comes to protein. Smaller portions, more complex flavor over big chunks of flesh that are ultimately not in service of thrift or sustainability,” Leigh continues. “My hope is that the funkier the better because we really need people to be able to stretch their palate understanding in order to get specifically meat products in a better, more sustainable, ethical situation within the food system.”
Leigh started in the food industry as a farmer, raising vegetables and animals. Concerned with how much money she was losing to the meat processing sector, she streamlined her business by opening a whole-animal butcher shop and restaurant. Leigh served only regional meats and meat products to a local audience, but found the farm-to-table business model too complicated for the general public — folks were not ready to walk into a butcher shop and buy a whole animal.
So Leigh pivoted to educating, consulting with farmers, restaurant chefs and home cooks. She also authored two books, “The Ethical Meat Handbook” and “Pure Charcuterie.” [ADD LINK?]
Charcuterie often gets overlooked in fermentation conversations because meat preservation is a “vast umbrella” of fermented and cooked meat.
“Uncooked, salt preserved meat items are very much a beautiful culmination of a lot of different culinary fermentative processes that humans harness. It very much belongs on the docket of fermented superfoods,” Leigh says.
The fermentation of meat, though, can be shocking to chefs accustomed to cooking in relatively sterile environments. When making a salami, for example, the meat becomes swollen, smelly and drippy, fermenting in a humid room.
“It’s not exactly a beautiful process. If you zip down to the microscopic level, there’s a lot of death happening, there’s a lot of engorging. It’s a sugar battle,” Leigh says. “It’s a sugar feeding frenzy and some of them are actually eating so many sugars that they’re exploding and the enzymatic soup of these explosions is part and parcel of the flavor we associate with fermented foods.”
“I tell people, ‘Close the door, it’s none of your business because you’re fermenting.’ That advice is disarming because it’s amusing. But also it’s really true. You’re in there tinkering and you sort of have control over this process, but you sort of don’t. And that’s a good thing that you’re not totally in control. You’re surrendering to nature.”
Adds Kirsten Shockey, author and educator (and TFA advisory board member who moderated the webinar): “You’re much more of a microbe shepherd. You’re trying to herd everybody, but you have no control. Each of those microbes [is] out for themselves.”
Modern consumers and even commercial fermented food producers are often far removed from farming. Leigh says that, to reclaim our food systems, we need to look at the indigenous practices that founded the sustainable agriculture movement. Commercialized food erases the land ethic and the traditional farming and fermentative processes of indigenous people, especially indigenous women.
“If we as producers, curators and knowledge bearers of fermentation, if we’re not telling that part of the story to the people really into fermented foods, we’re not doing anybody any favors. We’re just making money and putting good food out there. Really connecting people back through fermented foods is one of the more hopeful ways we have of telling that story to people who will never touch soil or slaughter a pig or any of those things,” Leigh says, adding that the best place to start sharing that story is through social media. “The popular media conversation about fermentation is not doing that. Our production of these foods or curation of these foods is not only a way to elevate health, human health or flavor, but it’s also a way of commenting on and changing culture.”
Microbes in “starter cultures” impart a distinctive tang and longer shelf life to food like sourdough bread, yogurt and kimchi through the process of fermentation. To get a better grasp of how microbes do this in fermented sausages, such as chorizo and pepperoni, researchers reporting in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry carefully show that these tiny organisms change the composition of fatty acids in these meats, contributing to many desirable traits.
Fatty acids and related compounds can influence the quality of fermented foods. For example, one species of bacteria in sourdough cultures produces a type of fatty acid that increases bread’s resistance to mold. Scientists, however, haven’t had a good handle on how specific cultures drive the formation of these and other similar compounds in meat, partially because some of the previous studies on meats have not included a bacteria-free control. To better understand the link between microbes and molecules, Nuanyi Liang and colleagues wanted to see how the production of fatty acids within sausages varied depending on the microbial culture used to ferment it.
To do so, they prepared the meat three ways. In one method, they included only the bacterium Latilactobacillus sakei; in another preparation, they used both L. sakei and Staphylococcus carnosus. Both of these samples were made in such a way as to prevent contamination from bacteria in the environment. They treated the third sample — the control — with an antibiotic solution to eliminate the microbes naturally living within the sausage. Over the course of 20 days, they checked the sausages and found a markedly different profile for microbe-free sausage compared to the sausage containing either of the two microbial cultures. For example, the researchers observed that linolenic acid, an unsaturated fatty acid, was accumulating in the microbe-free sausage but not in the cultured sausage. Differences emerged between the two sets of microbes as well, with the sausage containing the L. sakei culture alone, for example, producing higher levels of coriolic acid, which has antifungal activity and, at higher concentrations, also imparts bitter taste. A better understanding of the biochemistry by which microbes influence the quality of sausage and other fermented foods will aid the production of consistent, long-lasting and good-tasting products, the researchers say.
The authors acknowledge funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada Discovery and CREATE programs, the University of Alberta’s Meat Education and Training Network, the Canada Research Chairs program and Mitacs.
Is plant-based meat the next major trend for fermentation? Specialists at the Institute of Food Technologists’ (IFT) July virtual event said more product formulators are using fermentation to optimize food flavor and preservation. They predict using fermentation to create plant-based meat will be the next big trend. Culinary experts like Noma in Denmark are already discovering “uncoupling traditional culture-substrate combinations is a viable way of discovery in fermentation,” says Jerome Diaz, a doctor at Wageningen University and Research. He said: “Traditionally, fermentation as a means of improving food quality has been the basis for many of the foods we enjoy today. Examples of such food products include beer, wine, cheese, sausages, sauerkraut, among many others. Over the years, increased understanding of microorganisms and the unique functionalities they bring to food allowed the use of fermentation for the production of specialty ingredients.”
Read more (Food Ingredients First)
Boston wine guru Lauren Friel says, to fix the local restaurant industry, health codes need to be revised. Friel says food regulations restrict chefs from using ferments and cured meats, making it especially difficult to serve authentic Chinese or European food.