Fungi fermenter Shared Cultures was the featured cover story in a recent Food & Wine section of the San Francisco Chronicle. Company co-owners Elena Hsu and Kevin Gondo make small-batch fermented soy sauce, miso, and sauces and marinades using koji and wild, foraged mushrooms. 

The article calls Shared Cultures “the darling of the Bay Area food scene.” It details how they use traditional techniques with unexpected ingredients, like a shoyu with quinoa and lentils, a miso with cacao nib and a koji salt with leek flowers.

Hsu and Gondo also open up about the challenges of scaling  artisanal fermentation. They are the only employees at the companys and can’t keep up with the demand. Their ferments require a lot of time, some fermenting for eight months in a closet-size room in their rented commercial kitchen. They note that it is too expensive to rent or purchase their own warehouse in the Bay Area. 

Multiple California chefs use Shared Cultures products for an added umami punch. Hsu encourages home cooks to experiment with their products, too, “You don’t have to have a $300 tasting menu to try these flavors,” she says. “You can be the chef.”

Read more (San Francisco Chronicle)

Does allowing alternative protein or bio-tech brands into Natural Products Expo West distort the natural foods industry? An article in Forbes argues that the show producers’ decision to allow lab-created, animal-free products into this year’s event is “troubling,” “confusing” and “harmful.”

Expo West has long been the “it” show for established and startup companies in the natural and organic products industry. Forbes says allowing an alternative dairy brand to exhibit next to a legitimate plant-based product that uses organic ingredients is hurting higher-quality brands, “especially when biotech brands are claiming to be superior to plant-based, even as they attempt to co-opt plant-based messaging, as some do.”

Read more (Forbes)

Microbial Farmers

An article in Modern Farmer highlights “the new generation of microbial farmers,” scientists using microbes to replace chemical additives in food.

 At Kingdom Supercultures, co-founders Ravi Sheth (pictured) and Kendall Dabaghi have developed natural microbial strains that mimic additives “instead of having a library of artificial chemicals.” Scientists at the company use machine learning to explore millions of “uncharacterized microbes that live inside fermented food. They extract microbial strains, merge them with other isolates and design what they call ‘supercultures.’”

The end results are healthier compounds with flavors, textures and functional properties similar to their artificial – and less healthy – counterparts. Since the company launched in 2020, they’ve made additives for plant-based cheese and yogurt, vegan personal care products and a vegan butter exclusive to Eleven Madison Park restaurant in New York.

Read more (Modern Farmer)

New research has explored how lactic acid bacteria (LAB) in sauerkraut and tibicos survive digestion and change gut microbiota composition. 

This work, published in Frontiers in Microbiology, investigated how a fermentation production process affects LAB and yeast microbial viability and probiotic potential. Though there are studies that demonstrate health benefits of fermented foods, few “explore how being part of a whole fermented food matrix affects microbial viability during fermentation, storage and gastrointestinal (GI) transit.”

The study focused on non-dairy, botanical fermented foods, defined as “microbially transformed plant products rich in health-promoting components.” Tibicos and sauerkraut were chosen because recent research had found the microbial diversity of the two ferments “far exceeded that of dairy-based ferments, as well as containing the largest numbers of potential health-promoting gene clusters.” The tibicos studied was sugar-based while the sauerkraut was brine-based, and both contained various strains of LAB and bioactive components.

Ginger, cayenne pepper and turmeric added to tibicos were all found to have different survival rates in the digestion tract. These functional spices are often added to fermented products for their anti-inflammatory and sensory properties, but their microbial proliferation had never been adequately explored. Cayenne was the clear winner, as adding it to tibicos “significantly improved the survival rate of LAB during simulated gastric and small intestinal digestion compared to ginger and turmeric.” Ginger in tibicos had a higher rate of LAB survival than turmeric, though neither had a significantly higher LAB survival rate than plain tibicos. But adding ginger significantly increased and sustained microbial viability of LAB. 

The research team — from University of Melbourne — did not perform the study on human subjects, but simulated upper gastrointestinal digestion and colonic fermentation tests using pig feces.

Some other significant findings:

  • For an optimal microbial survival rate of 70-80%, tibicos should be consumed within 28 days, and sauerkraut within 7 weeks.
  • Sauerkraut made with different salt concentrations did not show any significant variation in LAB counts. 
  • Inoculating sauerkraut with a starter culture increased LAB counts during fermentation and storage. But, by the end of storage, the LAB counts in the inoculated sauerkraut “dropped to undetectable levels.” 
  • Spontaneously-fermented sauerkraut LAB counts remained stable through the storage period.

“Botanical fermented foods are cheap, easily made, and consumed globally,” the study concluded. “This makes them excellent candidates for the dietary management of pro-inflammatory noncommunicable diseases, such as type 2 diabetes and metabolic syndrome.

Jewish Delis GoVegan 

Jewish delis are evolving for modern consumers, offering plant-based alternatives to lox and pastrami. 

“We’re literally saving the Jewish deli. We’re giving it the modern twist that’s desperately needed to stay delicious and relevant to a growing segment of the population,” said Jenny Goldfarb, the founder and CEO of Unreal Deli. Goldfarb’s plant-based corned-beef-pastrami hybrid attracted an investment deal on SharkTank, and today it’s available in 2,200 grocery stores.

Though Jewish cuisine is known for being heavy on meat, vegetarian food has a part in Ashkenazi culture, notes Jeremy Umansky, chef at Larder Deli in Cleveland. He points out that kashruth (kosher dietary laws) and periods of poverty meant Jewish cuisine always included vegetarian recipes. 

The food at Larder — which includes vegan and vegetarian dishes — is put through the same process as animal-based items. Umansky cures mushrooms with salt and koji for a smoky, savory flavor and meat-like texture. 

“It’s all about the method and technique behind the production of those foods,” Umansky said. “You know, going back and looking at things and seeing that there is historical precedent for this.” Pictured, a selection of vegan Jewish deli fare at Ben & Esther’s in Portland, Oregon.

Read more (Insider)

Expo West Returns

In March 2020, Natural Products Expo West became one of the first casualties in the U.S. events world, shut down by the outbreak of Covid-19 even as booths were being set up in Anaheim. Now, two years later, Expo West   returns to Orange County  with natural food exhibitors from around the world. TFA staff and advisory board members will also be in attendance.

In 2019, the enormous spring trade show attracted around 88,000 registrations; this year, that number is estimated at 55,000-60,000. Show producer New Hope Network (part of London-based Informa PLC) is also including  a virtual option for attendees still unable or unwilling to travel.

The trends at this year’s event are being driven by Millennial and Gen Z consumers. New Hope  put a spotlight on six top themes in a recent webinar:

No. 1: Functional Ingredients. “Health and wellness products make up a quarter of the volume of the industry but represent two-thirds of all growth,” said SPINS Data Analyst Scott Dicker. “We’re seeing consumers pushing for individual pursuit of wellness across channels.”

No. 2: Organic & Regenerative. Food that focuses on performance nutrition, food made with ashwagandha or food with paleo ingredients are driving growth for organic and regenerative products. Sodas and carbonated beverages are also helping organic products grow, “one of the last ‘junk food’ categories penetrated by natural and organic,” Dicker said. Gut health sodas, especially.

No. 3: Climate and Sustainability. Media headlines are declaring carbon as the new calorie. Consumer surveys speak to that — 70% will pay more for “premium, sustainable, climate-friendly products” and 80% want brands to educate them on their roles in climate issues. Companies are changing ingredient sources and product packaging to be more environmentally-friendly.

No. 4: Diversity. “Over the past couple years, we’ve seen tremendous growth in women, minority, NGLCC (National LGBT Chamber of Commerce) certified and veteran-owned businesses and you’re going to see it all over the show floor,” Dicker said.

No. 5: Plant-Based Innovation. Plant-based eating has skyrocketed over the last five years. “But plant-based alone isn’t enough anymore. What are plant-based brands doing to keep up with innovation?” Dicker said.

No. 6: Sustainable Meat & Dairy. Though the sustainable meat and dairy category is down 2.1%, pockets of it are growing, specifically grass-fed, fair trade and animal welfare and sustainability claims. Innovations are coming from small and local farms.

Read more (New Hope Network)

Canada’s Culinary Trailblazer

Briana Kim is making a name for herself in the Canadian food scene, “putting Ottawa on the map with a focus on fermentation,” writes the Ottawa Citizen. Kim, a self-taught, award-winning chef, runs Alice, a vegan restaurant in Ottawa’s Little Italy neighborhood. Her specialty is fermentation-applied, plant-based cooking. Last fall, she was invited to Eleven Madison Park in New York to share her insight with the chefs as they transitioned to a vegetarian-oriented restaurant. 

Continues the article: “It’s definitely a rarefied subject. But in the world’s top-tier kitchens, fermenting food is a red-hot trend, with plant-based cooking not far behind. At Alice, Kim’s imaginative creations such as charcoal-grilled dried maitake mushrooms and sunchokes served with a salsa of tomato and fermented green strawberries, and a sweet pea miso dipping sauce make clear that Alice’s name’s alludes to a surprising culinary wonderland.”

Alice, which opened in 2019, operates with a culinary and scientific focus.

“The innovation and the R&D have to be the No. 1 focus for us,” Kim says. “Fermentation allows us to discover how different food molecules break down and change in texture and flavors, and we are always searching for flavors we haven’t tasted before.”

The waiting room at Alice is filled with jars of Kim’s different ferments, many of which she sells under her Mad Ferments label. She utilizes locally-grown ingredients, planning the menu at Alice months in advance.. For example, she serves cauliflower, spring greens and melons in the middle of winter by fermenting them in the summer.

“Fermentation has existed for such a long time, but I think we are putting our twist on it,” Kim says.

Read more (Ottawa Citizen)

Preserving Japan’s Miso Culture

A Japanese public-relations-exec-turned-chef has developed a unique product — Miso Drops, individually-sized servings of stock. She felt it was difficult for an individual customer to use miso from traditional breweries because they only ship products weighing at least 500 grams. Her drops weigh around 26 grams.

Entrepreneur Motomi Takahashi, “alarmed by the gradual disappearance of small-scale miso breweries that have been a key part of Japan’s tradition of fermented foods,” created the soybean paste balls using traditional methods. And, different from the large factories that mass-produce miso products, Takahashi’s miso drops are handmade.

Important to Takahashi is preserving Japan’s rich miso culture. Small-scale miso brewing in the country is “in danger of extinction,” notes an article in Kyodo News. In Japan’s Nagano Prefecture, where most of the miso in the country is made, the number of miso breweries declined 42% from 1963-2010. 

Takahashi is developing a product line called misodrop47, which will feature miso drops made in each of Japan’s 47 prefectures. Currently, hermiso drops come from eight.” I wanted to develop products for the misodrop47 project to allow customers to casually sample miso from all over Japan,” she says.

Read more (Kyodo News)

Are Alt Meat Sales Slowing?

Despite many indications of skyrocketing growth in the plant-based-meat industry, concerns are increasing at the larger, publicly-traded companies. Beyond Meat’s stock price dropped 50% in the last six months. Kellogg’s MorningStar Farms brand and Canadian meat giant Maple Leaf Foods both reported low last-quarter sales for their plant-based divisions.

Analysts in a Food Dive article disagree as to what’s happening. Some point to the fact that the category has shown consistent growth, with the majority of alternative meat products sold by smaller, private companies that do not share sales figures. No one has a clear view of how smaller, startup brands — who pioneered the industry — are doing. 

Others, though, say the market is too crowded. Dozens of plant-based products launched this year, and stores only have so much space for these new alternatives. Naysayers suggest that the novelty has worn off – consumers were curious early on, but now aren’t coming back to buy plant-based meat. Alt meat prices are still high and their flavors and textures aren’t as satisfying as with traditional meat.

Read more (Food Dive)

Alternative protein companies need to stop advertising their brand as the most ethical choice and instead appeal to consumer’s taste buds. 

“Sometimes plant-based food companies don’t really market themselves as food,” says Thomas Rossmeissl, head of global marketing for Eat Just, Inc., which develops plant-based “eggs” and cell-cultivated meat. “There’s this inclination to talk about mission. We say ‘We’re good for the planet,’ ‘It’s good for you,’ ‘It’s good for animals’ and obviously that’s all true and it’s admirable and it’s what drives me in our company. But it can come off like we’re sort of apologizing, that we’re negotiating with consumers, that a consumer is sacrificing something delicious to get something ethical or healthy.”

“People not buying (traditional)meat and cheese because an animal was killed or tortured. They buy because it tastes great.”

Irina Gerry concurs. Gerry is the chief marketing officer for Change Foods, an animal-free dairy brand that will launch their product in 2023. Alternative protein brands need to “flip the script from plant-based, rationalizing the food choices.” Brands need to help consumers feel that purchasing an alternative protein is a “natural choice rather than a sacrifice.”

The two spoke on a panel Insights on Consumer Perceptions of Alternative Proteins at the virtual Good Food Conference. The conference is put on by the Good Food Institute, an international nonprofit that promotes plant- and cell-based meat.

Wide Consumer Base Wanting Animal-Free

Animal-free is the main driver for customers to buy alternative products. The alternative protein industry is not just marketing to vegans, they’re also selling to flexitarians and omnivores concerned about welfare. Ninety-four percent of Eat Just consumers consume some type of animal protein. 

“Sustainability is skyrocketing and potentially could cross over health as the main motivator, especially in the younger population,” Gerry says.

The modern American household family fridge is divided. There may be three types of eggs in there — conventional, cage-free and plant-based — and three types of milk — dairy milk, almond and oat. Consumers as young as 12 are the ones educating themselves on alternative proteins.

“We’re going to see this younger generation drive families to plant-based solutions,” Rossmeissl says.

Staying Honest, Maintaining Trust

Transparency will be central to public adoption. Laura Reiley, a reporter for The Washington Post who moderated the panel, noted “there hasn’t been tremendous transparency” with the alt protein market. She’s written about the market since its beginning and notes, because there’s intellectual property and so much research and development dollars, most companies have kept their food shrouded in mystery.

“We don’t want to sort of follow the example of the conventional industry. We can do better than that,”  Rossmeissl says. “On the cultivated side, we have a huge responsibility to get this right. Not just as a company but as an industry, we can’t screw this up.”

Perceived unnaturalness by consumers of alt protein is a challenge. Using the term lab-grown “is disparaging to us as an industry” he continues, “but I think the best way we can address that is by being really honest and what’s in it and how it’s made.”

Gerry notes 90% of dairy cheese sold globally is made with non-animal remnants through precision fermentation — and that’s been the predominant way traditional cheese is made for over 20 years. It’s the same technology Change Food’s animal-free cheese uses. 

“(These traditional cheeses) made through precision fermentation, they’re labeled under natural and oftentimes organic cheese products and nobody’s grown a third leg and nobody’s freaked out, right?” Gerry continues. “But now we’ve added one more element of that cheese — removing the cow from the cheese — and everybody seems to be greatly concerned.”