By August, any manufacturer labeling their fermented or hydrolyzed foods or ingredients “gluten-free” must prove that they contain no gluten, have never been through a process to remove gluten, all gluten cross-contact has been eliminated and there are measures in place to prevent gluten contamination in production.

The FDA list includes these foods: cheese, yogurt, vinegar, sauerkraut, pickles, green olives, beers, wine and hydrolyzed plant proteins. This category would also include food derived from fermented or hydrolyzed ingredients, such as chocolate made from fermented cocoa beans or a snack using olives.

Read more (JD Supra Legal News

The World of Fermented Foods

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)

Britt’s Fermented Foods is one of the only pickle companies in America still using oak barrel fermentation — how pickles were first fermented in ancient Egypt. But this method is often  difficult and time-consuming, and many producers abandoned it in the 1970s when food regulation laws changed.

“The oak barrel has that ability to act as an agent in the fermentation,” says owner Britt Eustis. He explained to The Seattle Times that “the tannins in the oak barrels suppress the enzyme that naturally occurs and makes pickles turn soft,” keeping Britt’s pickles crisp. 

Britt’s, with a warehouse on Whidbey Island in Washington, nearly shut down in 2019 due to mounting debt and production challenges. But a blueberry farm on the island offered to partner with the company, offering financial backing and helping to diversify income streams. Britt’s  now sells kimchi and sauerkraut, also fermented in oak.

Read more (Seattle Times)

The health attributes and unique flavors of fermented food and drink are becoming increasingly  more important to consumers. But, for fermentation brands to succeed in the food industry, they must prioritize their labeling and marketing, and focus on their environmental impact, says international food industry expert Lisa Moeller. 

“Hopefully, it will be as advantageous to attach ‘Fermented’ as it is ‘Fresh Pack’ to shelf stable pickle products at some point in time,” says Moeller, speaking at a recent TFA webinar: Global Fermentation: Today & Tomorrow. “Never in our history has the power of positive change been more possible and necessary. I think there is an inherent history with fermented vegetables and a trajectory that can only take them higher going forward.”

After receiving  her master’s degree in food science, Moeller spent 25 years working with Mount Olive Pickle Company in North Carolina.  She later started her own company, Fashionably Pickled, where she consults to food brands on methods – such as assisting with traditional fermentation technology –  for crafting better products.

Fred Breidt, microbiologist with USDA-ARS and a TFA advisory board member, called Moeller “one of the premiere pickle people in the United States,” and praised her for working around the world on a variety of fermentations.

Moeller shared three forecasts for fermented foods.

  1. Health Concerns Become More Important

Consumers are more concerned about their health during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Folks are looking to boost immunity, reduce their weight and they’re looking for nutritious options,” Moeller says. 

People are also cooking more at home during the pandemic. Restaurant dining had continually increased over the previous two decades and, in recent years, only half the food eaten in the U.S. was purchased from a grocery store. But when COVID-19 hit, “this 23 year trend was blown out of the water,” says Moeller. By April 2020, 65% of the food consumed came from a grocery store, with less than 35% from restaurants. 

“I think this trend gives the fermented vegetable arena great potential,” Moeller says. “Fermented vegetables can increase the shelf life of produce, they’re nutritious, and they can be turned into a wide variety of flavors. And I think for a time, people are going to be more interested in having a supply of things in their pantry when they don’t feel comfortable going to a grocery store.”

Increased research will help promote fermentation as a viable health food. There are still consumers who are off-put by fermentation, leaving room for brands to educate.

“Though a large part of the pickle industry is still involved with fermented cucumbers, it is not the leader in the retail category at this time,” Moeller says. “We don’t label ‘fermented’ in America. Lots of times with the cucumber industry, the fermented kind of becomes the offshoot. It’s kind of the have-to-do so you can produce all the fresh pack that you want and still have a home for others.”  

  1. Labelling and Marketing Are Crucial 

Food product labels and marketing must adapt to their local markets. Brands must create different labelling, packaging and marketing plans, depending on the country.

“There truly is no such thing as global tastebuds. But there are successful product adaptations,” Moeller says.

Consider Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) as an example. There are over 23,000 KFC locations in 140 countries, and the restaurants adapt to regional flavor preferences, selling different styles of food depending on the location. Coca-Cola is another example. With 500 brands in 200 countries, a can of Coke will taste different depending on the country  where it was sold.

“Labelling is even more important when selling your brand. Know what is important to the folks that are going to make the decision to add you products to their store shelves. Whole Foods is different than Walmart,” Moeller adds.

She advises to never make a label too complicated. Yogurt sales are projected to drop by 10% by 2024 “and this is partially because there are too many choices and the category has gotten too complicated.”

  1. Environmental Concerns Lead to Upcycllng

The environment is a big topic of concern worldwide, Moeller says.The global food system accounts for 26% of greenhouse gas emissions, 40% of the food produced is never consumed and 78% of global consumers are concerned about the environment. 

Upcycling will be the new food trend. Brands like Toast Ale (beer made from old bread) and RISE + WIN Brewing Co. (who recycle  grain scraps to make granola and sweets) are already making waves in the industry. During the pandemic, chefs reported using fermentation more than ever before to make use of uneaten produce.

“There’s not a vegetable out there that could be turned into something else,” Moeller says. “Turning food waste into alternative products…I think it’s one of the most wonderful ideas, (brands) need to partner with the folks that they want to get these byproducts from.”

Kimchi, fermented sauces and tempeh are driving growth in the fermented food and beverage category, a $9.2 billion industry that’s grown 4% in the last year.

“We’re excited about the growth potential for fermented food. While fermented food represents about 1.4% of the market today, there are segments that are tracking well above the growth of food and beverage [overall] that are poised for disruption in the future,” says Perteet Spencer, vice president of strategic solutions at SPINS. Spencer shared this information in a recent webinar hosted by The Fermentation Association. “There’s a ton of opportunity to scale and increase the footprint of these products.”

SPINS spent weeks working with TFA to define the fermentation industry’s sales, drilling into  10 fermented product categories and 57 product types. Wine, beer and cheese sales were  excluded from the data — those categories are  very large, and would obscure  trends in smaller  categories. (All three are also  well-represented by other organizations.)

Pickles and fermented vegetables “is a space that’s seen [a] pretty explosive uptick in growth over the past year,” Spencer says. Every segment is growing — kimchi, sauerkraut, beets, carrots,  green beans, sliced and speared pickles and all other  vegetables — with  pickles the largest, nearly 60% of the category.

The biggest growth, though, is coming from products other than pickled cucumbers. Kimchi is at the center of numerous consumer retail trends. Consumers are purchasing healthier food made with fewer ingredients, and they want food with international flavors. Kimchi  makes up only 7% of the  category, but sales are increasing at an explosive 90% growth rate. 

More people are experimenting with fermenting while they’re at home during the coronavirus pandemic, but these kitchen DIYers do not appear to be detracting from sales.

“The more people make fermented foods, they appreciate what’s available in the store that maybe didn’t exist five or 10 years ago,” notes Alex Lewin, author and TFA advisory board member who moderated the webinar. “Anyone who has made kimchi knows it takes a lot, it makes a big mess, you get red pepper powder stuck under your fingernails and onion in your eyes. I can make kimchi (at home), and then once I’ve made kimchi, I’m like ‘Ok, maybe next time I’ll buy it.’”

Fermented sauces are also growing, up 24% in 2020. The largest segment in sauces is, of course, soy sauce, almost 85% of the category. But gochujang, less than 2% of the category, is increasing at over a 56% growth rate.

Versatility is helping sauces, pickles and fermented vegetables, Spencer says. Any food product with multiple uses is selling well. The condiments and sauces can be used as a topping on eggs, hamburgers or pizza, or mixed-in a salad, rice dish or soup.

Sake, plant-based meat alternatives and miso had combined annual growth of $75 million in 2020. Sake grew 16%, and both plant-based meat alternatives and miso each grew 26%.

Yogurt and kombucha still dominate the fermented food and beverage market. Yogurt is 81% of the market; if yogurt is removed, kombucha is 51% of the remainder.. Both have experienced slowdowns in sales from their peaks. Kombucha sales have slowed recently, as grab-n-go opportunities have shrunk during the pandemic. 

Yogurt giant brands Chobani, Yoplait and Dannon still dominate the category, as do GT Kombucha, Health-Ade and Kevita reign for kombucha. 

Spencer notes the 4% growth rate of fermented products overall would be higher without yogurt. It’s a large category that — despite an uptick in 2020 during the pandemic – has been fairly flat in recent years. Core (traditional) yogurt has been growing at a 1.6% rate;  Greek yogurt, at about twice that pace. Those two segments account for roughly 80% of the category. 

“This is an opportunity for disruption for emerging brands,” Spencer says. “We’re already seeing some of the legacy segments start to get disrupted by new innovation, so I’m excited to see the evolution of that innovation and where that goes and kind of what opportunities peek out of that.”

“Overall, we’re seeing historically small segments gaining traction in the marketplace,” Spencer adds. “The pandemic has brought a renewed consumer focus on the fermented space.” 

Though fermented products have an added healthy benefit, customers are looking for delicious flavor first.

“In these fermented categories we covered today, taste first is always really important. I think people are going to these categories for different taste experiences,” Spencer says. “If you can level up with a functional benefit, that’s fantastic, but we have to balance the taste first. If it’s highly functional but doesn’t taste good, it just doesn’t have the same success.”

There are thousands of molecules in the food we eat, but most have yet to be identified. This is especially true in the world of fermentation. 

“Lactic acid is not the only byproduct of lactic acid fermentation,” says Suzanne Johanningsmeier, a research food technologist with USDA-ARS. During a TFA webinar, Johanningsmeier presented  her research into health-promoting pickled vegetables. “There could be hundreds or thousands of byproducts of this lactic fermentation. As an analytical chemist and someone who is very interested in the composition of foods, I find that fascinating and exciting and a world to explore.”

Johanningsmeier, a leading expert on the chemical and sensory properties of fermented food and veggies, notes that fermentation is a trending food technique. Consumers today want food that is plant-based, enhances gut health, introduces new flavors, made with simple labels and returns to tradition. 

“All these things have aligned and intersected for a fermented foods megatrend. It’s exciting to see so much momentum in the Americas rolling for fermented foods,” she says. “All of these trends are based on the belief that these are health promoting foods for consumption.”

The USDA-ARS office in North Carolina State University is staffed by five research scientists, and there are an additional 2,000 more affiliated scientists across the country. Their mission is to deliver scientific solutions to national and global agricultural challenges. 

“My long-term goal is to develop science-based technologies that enable the sustainable preservation of fruits and vegetables for production of high-quality, health-promoting consumer products,” Johanningsmeier says.

The most recent USDA-ARS study explored the potential health benefits of fermented cucumbers. Cucumbers are one of the top five vegetables preserved in the U.S. but the only one that’s not canned or frozen. The USDA-ARS found that fermented and pickled cucumbers include many beneficial by-products, including proline, bioactive peptides and GABA (Gamma-Aminobutyric acid, which works as a neurotransmitter in the brain). 

“Food processing has a negative connotation. But, actually, fermentation is processing and, as you can see, processing can be good. Processing can add things and certainly make food available to people year round,” Johanningsmeier says. “I think the idea here is how do we preserve [food] so we retain or enhance those inherent, health-promoting properties? The abilities we have now to more comprehensively look at composition are going to help us understand that in the future.”

Maria Marco, professor of food science and technology at University of California, Davis (and TFA Advisory Board member), moderated the discussion. Marco praised Johanningsmeier’s use of analytical techniques to implement fermentation technologies.

“These are exciting compounds, and we know that they have neuroreactive properties or antihypertensive properties,” Marco says. 

How should an artisanal, fermented food or drink brand spend their time and energy: making the product or selling it?

Both, say John Gray, owner of Bubbies pickles and TFA Advisory Board member, and Steve Rustad, his marketing partner. The two spoke at a TFA webinar “The Bubbies Pickles Story: Food Marketing Fundamentals.”

“You have two jobs if you’re a small businessman. One is making it, the other is selling it,” says Rustad, owner of Rustad Marketing. “If you’re prioritizing making it and putting selling in the back seat, you are not looking at one of the most important parts of your business.”

Marketing should never be considered a distraction — promoting the product needs to be as fundamental to a business plan as making it.

“I’ve seen very few people who can do marketing and making successfully. It is a different world. It takes two people,” Rustad adds.

Sharing Your Brand’s Story

How did Bubbies grow from a small, struggling brand to a financially successful category leader? Good marketing.

Gray, who has a background in finance, decided to purchase the Bubbies brand with his wife, Kathy, in the late 80s. A lawyer friend had recently taken the brand through bankruptcy, and John said he knew that helping the brand survive would “take every last dime we’ve got. And it did.”

The original Bubbies label.

His first step was partnering with Rustad and recreating the label. The original one featured Bubbies written in a bubble font script. It was difficult to read, and people confused “Bubbies” with “Bubbles.” And the image on the label of vegetables wasn’t particularly noteworthy. Gray and Rustad wanted to maintain the old-fashioned look, but in a way that would resonate with customers. 

A picture of Kathy’s Jewish grandma Bubbe (Bubbe is the Yiddish word for grandmother) became the inspiration for the label image. She became the mascot, a Bubbe that stands for valuable cooking principles —  keeping the kitchen  the center of  the home,  the worth of a home cooked meal and, most important, creating great flavor.

Once the new label was introduced,, sales grew  40% the first three months.

“That’s the power (of a good label),” Gray says. “Your label is your face to the world. And you need to spend the right kind of money until it hurts to get it right because it’s probably the most important money you’ll ever spend.”

To market a product, you need to have a story, Rustad adds. The dream to always ferment vegetables is not a story. “What makes your product unique?”

Bubbies used their quirkiness as a selling point, a strategy Rustad recommends for new, artisanal brands. Don’t look to major consumer packaged good brands for guidance on how to market a maker business. “Your quirkiness is your advantage when you’re a maker,” he says.

Marketing Fermented Products

But how do you market a fermented food or drink, with its own unique qualities?

First, Gray advises, do not become an authority on health food.

“We don’t talk about probiotics at all,” he says. “We make no health claims, we’re very careful about it. One of the reasons I got involved with and wanted to get The Fermentation Association started is because the FDA refuses to deal with what natural is and what it means.”

“If you’re going to talk about your probiotics, you better be legally sure that what the consumer is getting when they crack open the jar is what you are promising them, not just what you made originally,” Gray adds. “As a result, we completely stay away from any claims about health, probiotics or anything else because you can’t prove it.”

Though Bubbies includes all-natural ingredients (cucumber, artesian well water and spices) without sugar or preservatives, Bubbies doesn’t put “natural” on the label, either. Rustad notes, when you try to put “natural” on a product label, it becomes contentious, turning your product into “a magnet for people to sue you.”

The health food is a regulated industry. “As soon as you make any health claims, you’re in bed with the Food and Drug Administration. You really don’t want to do that. So when you talk about your food attributes, you need to be careful that you’re not talking about medicine. Your customers may say your food cures cancer, but you can’t say that.” 

Some uninformed customers still consider fermented goods dangerous. Don’t waste time marketing to the uninformed.“It’s very expensive when you have to educate,” Gray advises. 

Bubbies in the early years ran into a  related problem. Because their pickles and sauerkraut are naturally fermented, the brine is cloudy – a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. Bubbies was unsure how to educate those that thought this cloudiness was a problem. So they made it an attribute of the product, a positive, and,   printed “Shake Until Cloudy” on all jars.

Focus on the taste. “If something tastes good, people will put up with a lot of appearance issues,” Rustad says. And taste better than the competition. Bubbies pickles re-launched at a time when big food brands were switching from naturally fermented pickles to processed, shelf-stable varieties.

“By having a naturally fermented pickle, we had a product that was very basic, had no additives other than the spices and was perceived as healthful,” says Rustad . “And tasted delicious.”

Fermented food and drink are difficult to scale, labor intensive and have  unique production processes with different liabilities. But people are willing to  pay a higher price for an artisanal, fermented product. 

“Your market for this product is conditioned to pay a premium for what they perceive to be a superior product. People expect to pay more, ” Rustad says, comparing it to the organic food industry.

Focus on Customers

“Part of that premium should be used for marketing,” he continues. “You need to invest in marketing. And marketing is an investment because you’re buying awareness, you’re buying the tool to establish relevance and hopefully your marketing is provoking trial, action, relationship, social media engagement.”

Bubbies — a certified kosher product — advertised their product in the Jewish press in Los Angeles County in the early days. They knew it was their target audience, and they couldn’t afford advertising in a mass market publication. 

Customer rapport has been vital to Bubbies success. Over the years, retailers have replaced Bubbies with different private labels —  twice at Safeway  and, more recently, at Sprouts. Customers are the first to call and complain to the store’s buyers.

“That happens because of the relationship you have with your customer. Outreach is key. We respond to every single outreach from any customer, whether it’s Instagram, Facebook, email,” Gray says. “How do you relate? People want real stuff. They want real, authentic food, ingredients they can pronounce, that they know what they are.”

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.

Researchers in China found probiotics from lactobacilli bacteria in traditional Chinese pickles prevent dental cavities. The study, published in the journal “Frontiers in Microbiology,” evaluated 14 different types of Sichuan pickles from southwest China. Of the 14 pickles, 54 Lactobacilli strains were detected. But only one  (plantarum K41) was found to significantly reduce “the incidence and severity of cavities.” The strain reduced the cavity-causing Streptococcus mutans bacteria by 98.4%. The S. mutans bacteria is found in plaque on human teeth.

According to the study: “Pickles are an integral part of the diet in the southwest of China. When fruits and vegetables are fermented, healthy bacteria break down the natural sugars. These bacteria, also known as probiotics, not only preserve foods but offer numerous benefits, including immune system regulation, stabilization of the intestinal microbiota, reducing cholesterol levels, and now inhibiting tooth decay.”

Read more (Science Daily

An organic farmer and nutrition activist is teaching schools and daycare centers in Japan to grow their own vegetable garden using fermented compost from recycled food waste, then incorporate into school lunches those fresh vegetables with traditional Japanese fermented foods (like miso and pickles). Two years after the program’s launch, absences due to illness have dropped from an average of 5.4 days to 0.6 days per year.

Farmer Yoshida Toshimichi “is a devout believer in the power of microbes.” Using centuries of Japanese folks wisdom that is supported by modern science, Toshimichi explains that fermentation bacteria in the compost yields hardy, insect-resistance vegetables. He says the key to a healthy immune system is maintaining a diverse and balanced gut microbiota. “Lactobacilli and other friendly microbes found in naturally fermented foods can help maintain a healthy environment in the gut, just as they do in the soil,” continues the article. Microorganisms in fermented foods like miso and soy sauce will help balance gut flora. “Organic vegetables, meanwhile, provide the micronutrients and fiber on which those friendly bacteria thrive. In addition, phytochemicals found in vegetables—especially, fresh organic vegetables in season—are thought to guard against inflammation, which is associated with cancer and various chronic diseases,” the article reads.

Toshimichi has authored books on his farming and nutrition practices and is featured in the two-part documentary film “Itadakimasu,” which translates to “nourishment for the Japanese soul.”

Read more (Nippon)