What exactly constitutes a health claim on a food label? It’s a contentious topic that can be a source of problems and expenses for the unwitting producer. 

“We want to communicate accurately and effectively to consumers in a way that’s truthful and not misleading. There needs to be a body of evidence that supports health claims,” said Josephine Wee, PhD, an assistant professor of food science at Penn State (and member of TFA’s Science Advisors). “The bottom line: health claims are complicated.”

Wee unpacked what is and isn’t a health claim during the FERMENTATION 2021 conference. Similar topics into the regulation of fermented foods will be addressed at TFA’s August conference, FERMENTATION 2022.

Wee questioned: does the fermentation community require health claims on certain fermented foods? Today, terms like gut health, probiotics and improved immunity dominate the language of  fermented foods. But words and definitions matter, Wee stressed.

Defining Health Claims

When putting health claims on a food label, website or marketing material, information must be truthful and transparent. Remember:

 –         The FDA has approved only 12 health claims. In the U.S., food labels can legally only include  health claims that meet FDA requirements. There must be “significant scientific agreement among qualified experts that these claims are factual and truthful,” Wee said. FDA approval is based on the amount of publicly available, scientific evidence from reputable studies.

–         A health claim is not a nutrient claim. Food producers cannot link the effect of a nutrient or food to a disease or health condition (other than in the rare case that there is supporting scientific evidence). Nutrient claims are defined by the FDA to “describe the level of a nutrient in the product, using terms such as free, high, and low, or they compare the level of a nutrient in a food to that of another food, using terms such as more, reduced, and lite.”

–         A health benefit cannot be used interchangeably with a health claim. A health claim must pass a two-part test: first, contain the characterization of the type of food/food component and, second, state its relationship to a disease. For example: “A good source of calcium and vitamin D. Reduces risk of osteoporosis.”

“The reason for these standards is that it provides a high level of confidence to validate the substance and disease relationship,” Wee said.

What is Not a Health Claim?

Wee said producers must be careful not to mislead consumers with an inaccurate health claim. 

She shared the International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) consensus statement on fermented foods. In it, the authors write: “Although consumers have become increasingly interested in fermented foods, it is unfortunate that, in our opinion, much information available on fermented foods in popular press magazines, websites and social media is exaggerated or inaccurate.”

Here are four health-related claims that are not health claims. 

1.      Description of well-being from consumption of a food. These claims do not mention a disease or disease-related condition. For example, “Multivitamins contribute to general good health.”

2.      Structure-function claims. A structure-function claim describes the role of an ingredient in affecting or maintaining normal structure or function in humans. “There is this presence of this food and food ingredient, but it doesn’t really talk about disease,” Wee explained. For example, “Calcium builds strong bones.”

3.      Dietary guidance. A dietary label addresses the role of good health in general dietary patterns. For example, “Five servings of fruits and vegetables a day are recommended for good health.”

4.      Nutrient content claim. These characterize the level of nutrients in food. For example, “Good source of fiber.”

“These four health-related claims are sometimes mistaken for health claims,” Wee said, “but they’re actually not health claims by the definition of regulatory agencies such as the FDA.”

 Where Can Producers Get Into Trouble?

Securing FDA approval for a new health claim can be arduous. Under the Nutrition Labeling Education Act of 1990 (NLEA), a company can petition the FDA to consider a new health claim. But the process is typically lengthy (240-540 days) and costly.

Often, it is a competitor that challenges a producer’s health claim.In 2010, Dannon was ordered to pay $45 million in a class-action lawsuit brought against them by Activia yogurt. Dannon’s ads claimed their yogurt was clinically and scientifically proven to regulate digestion and boost immune systems, but were deemed to be false advertising. 

In the past few years, kombucha brands have been particularly vigilant in monitoring health claims in their industry. Tortilla Factory (parent of Kombucha Dog) sued Trader Joe’s, Better Booch, Makana Beverages and Rowdy Mermaid Kombucha for supposedly violating the law by exceeding the 0.5% abv threshold.

“I think as fermented foods become more mainstream…over time consumers will become more educated and understand what these labels mean,” Wee noted.

Sriracha Shortage

A failed spring chile harvest has left sriracha brands in the lurch. Sriracha – a fermented condiment made with peppers, vinegars, salt, sugar and garlic – can’t be made without the iconic red jalapeño chiles.

Huy Fong Foods, based in Irwindale, Calif., produces one of the most popular sriracha brands. They typically use 100 million pounds of chiles a year to make sriracha, chili garlic sauce and sambal oelek. But drought in Mexico has caused an “unprecedented shortage” and left store shelves consistently empty of the famous sriracha brand.

The chile shortage is hurting other companies, too. Though Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi uses the chiles in their products, they haven’t felt the crunch so far. “It hasn’t trickled down to a smaller supplier like me yet, but I think it just means that it’s coming,” said Lauryn Chun, founder.

Read more (The New York Times)

The headline says it all: “The Country’s First Native American Woman-Owned Brewery in the U.S. Doesn’t Want to Be Its Last.”

Co-founders Shyla Sheppard (who has heritage from the Three Affiliated Tribes – Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara – of North Dakota) and her business partner and wife, Dr. Missy Begay (Diné heritage) founded Bow & Arrow Brewing Co. in 2016. The brewery has become known for wild and sour beers made with cultivated yeast. They forage for neomexicanus hops, a species found in New Mexico. Local and indigenious ingredients – like blue corn, sumac, prickly pear and juniper – are used in a new line of hard seltzers.

Bow & Arrow began a unique initiative on October 11, 2021, Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The brewery launched Native Land. They provided an IPA recipe to breweries across the U.S. to create a beer for a common mission: “to acknowledge the contributions and history of Native American people in the United States.” Participating breweries were given a can design template, which included space to acknowledge the tribal land where the brewery is located.

The campaign was so popular – 53 breweries in 24 states and one Canadian province brewed Native Land beer – that they extended the deadline for the project to September 2022. The beers are “vehicles for activism,” with a portion of proceeds going to a Native American-operated nonprofit of the brewer’s choice. 

“We’re reclaiming our history and narrative. I think the contributions that Native people have had to agriculture have been erased or dismissed. It’s important to share that story to non-Native people, but also to other Native folks,” she says. “I think fostering that appreciation and connection to our history brings about healthier Native communities.”

Bow & Arrow is one of only a small number of Native-owned breweries in the U.S. – but Sheppard and Begay hope that will change and, one day, there will be more. Sheppard adds: “Having done what we’ve done — in what I hope is a respectful way of incorporating our culture and background — I think it’s inspiring other brewers.”

Read more (Eater)

“Fermentation is hope for trans folks. If people can conceptualize cucumbers becoming pickles, then they can grasp a trans person’s name change. If the possibility of Camembert, Parmesan, and ricotta exist within milk, then think of all the possible genders to choose from!” reads an article in Bon Appetit.

The magazine published an article by transgender cheesemaker-turned-journlaist H. Conley who, while immersed in the world of cheesemaking and the fermentation of milk into cheese, realized they were trans. The article’s accompanying illustration (pictured) by artist Jasjyot Singh Hans is called “Trans-Fermentation.”

Conley writes: “I didn’t see trans fermenters as a pattern until June Henry Hyde, a trans 18-year-old from Kansas, told me her plans to start a pickling business with her nonbinary partner. She showed me the self-administered tattoos on her forearm: a pickled pepper jar next to a star-topped wand.”

“I consider fermentation to be a form of magic,” she told me. For her, transition is magic as well. It takes magic to manifest desired realities. “But there’s this other layer of people who are really averse to fermented foods, like ‘It’s different, it’s undergone this transformation that’s made it less desirable,’” she added. The otherworldly SCOBY in kombucha, the stinging fragrance of kimchi, the very concept of eating mold makes some resistant to giving fermented foods a chance. “It’s seen as an acquired taste in some cases, which resonates with me a lot as a trans person.”

Read more (Bon Appetit)

The worldwide fresh produce market has long been plagued by mistrust. The industry lacks transparency, a major issue when dealing with perishable goods. The window for transactions is small. There’s no official network, so sellers  have a variety of customers, and buyers use many different  suppliers. 

Enter Tridge (stands for Transaction Bridge), a Korean startup working directly with farmers and grocery stores. Tridge tracks the  real-time  price, quality and volume of produce. Tridge aims to be a transparent middleman, quickly connecting  buyers and sellers when there’s a supply chain interruption.

Hoshik Shin, founder and chief executive of Tridge, says it is a one-stop shop. Farmers can use the data to see which products are more popular, and buyers can check  for prices and availability and suppliers can diversify their sales channels.

“Mr. Shin’s ambition is to aggregate that data into a massive, moving, real-time image of fresh produce on the planet,” the article reads. “Anyone can subscribe to Tridge’s intelligence platform and watch the world grow, harvest, pack and ship everything from Indonesian mangosteens to American lemons.”

Read more (The New York Times)

Just because you’ve pitched an exotic fermenting agent into your beer doesn’t mean the hard work is done. Mixed-culture fermentations are becoming increasingly popular choices for brewers looking to add complexity to their beers. But, as an article in Craft Beer & Brewing details, using a mixed array of yeasts and bacteria requires greater attention to the fermentation process.

“Just because it’s a wild beer doesn’t mean that you can be careless,” says Patrick Chavanelle, R&D brewer at Allagash in Portland, Maine. “Be as meticulous when crafting a mixed-fermentation beer as you would when brewing a beautifully crisp lager.”

Mixed fermentation uses multiple microorganisms as fermenting agents. The most common are yeasts Saccharomyces (known as brewer’s yeast) and Brettanomyces, and the bacteria Lactobacillus and Pediococcus

The article advises brewers to: embrace uncertainty, focus on pitch rate, pay attention to choice of fermentor, research the yeast or bacteria used and consider post-fermentation doctoring. 

Read more (Craft Beer & Brewing)

Three years ago, industry experts predicted a mass retail apocalypse. Consumers were expected to order everything online, abandoning physical stores for websites. The stress of Covid-19 accelerated the trend, shuttering many retailers for good. But one retail category unexpectedly thrived in the pandemic: grocery stores.

“In this environment that should have killed the grocery store in many cases, not only did it not kill it, it strengthened it,” says Ethan Chernofsky, vice president of marketing at Placer.ai, a tech company that tracks and analyzes foot traffic for retailers. “People love grocery shopping and they very often prefer the visit to the store.”

“There’s a love affair with grocery stores,” says Christine LaFave Grace, executive editor of Winsight Grocery Business, a trade publication for the grocery industry..

In the midst of another wave of Covid cases, the war in Ukraine and rising costs due to inflation, “there’s a really continued, sustainable opportunity for the grocery space,” Chernofsky says. Though consumers’ dollar spend at grocery stores has far exceeded industry estimates, the industry needs to adapt to a changing customer. 

Chernofsky and Grace shared their views on the marketplace in Winsight’s webinar “2022 Grocery Deep Dive: What’s Changed and Who’s Thriving.” 

Regional Shifts

During the pandemic, many consumers – especially young families – left city centers for the suburbs.The suburban grocery shopping experience is new and different for former city  dwellers – stores are bigger, selection is greater and the shopper’s pantry space  at home is typically much larger. 

“A lot of these changes really demand that grocers on a regional and a location-based level to say: ‘What’s changed in our specific area? Where does it provide us with opportunity? Where does it provide us with risks?’” he adds. These are not huge overhauls like moving stores, but minor adapting moves “to better align myself with where the opportunities are.”

For example, coffee shops are one of the strongest performing sectors within the food industry. Grocery stores with on-site coffee bars and an in-house bakery create a similar experience for their shoppers. Selecting merchandise tailored for a local audience also creates a differentiated shopping experience.

“Grocery stores are hitting a whole other level of potential that wasn’t possible a few years ago,” Chernofsky says. “It’s a fundamental shift in what we expect from these areas.”

Recession-Proof

Grocery stores have shown their staying power  during economic downturns, since they sell essential products. As America braces for another recession – 68% of CEOs in a recent survey feel one is imminent –  buying patterns in groceries are likely  to change but not decrease.

“Difficult economic environments [do] not mean everything comes to standstill,” Chernofsky says. People may not have as much money to spend at the grocery store, but they’re still spending.

For example, if restaurant spending drops  – as it typically does in a recession –  grocery stores can offer consumers the eating-out experience by selling DIY meal kits and grab-and-go meals.

“Everything we’re seeing to this point is showing us demand has been incredibly resilient,” Chernofsky  says. “The retailer has to continue to evolve and push to innovate.”

Brewing giants Molson Coors and Anheuser-Busch are introducing new brands into the growing alternative milk category.. The brewers’ non-alcoholic, plant-based barley milks are “pioneers of a nascent sub-category in the fast-growing alternative milk field, with each product utilizing byproducts of their main business,” according to Ad Age

Barley milk, notes the article, is a smart product that helps the brewers diversify their product portfolios. buoys declining beer sales, capitalizes on the growing wellness trend and upcycles a brewing byproduct.

Both brands (Molson Coors calls their barley milk Golden Wing; Anheuser-Busch,  Take Two) are in the trial stage and aiming to raise awareness. Golden Wing is currently sold only in Southern California, and Take Two is only in the Pacific Northwest.

Take Two is positioned as an eco-friendly beverage, and is working with advocacy groups like the Upcycled Food Association. Anheuser-Busch produces about 8 billion pounds of spent barley a year.

“All that’s been removed is the sugar and starch. All this wonderful protein and fiber is still there,” says Holly Feather, head of marketing for Anheuser-Busch. She notes much of that spent grain is sent to commercial farms. “Saving the planet doesn’t have to be so serious. You can have a good time and do something good in the mix.” 

Golden Milk, on the other hand, is aiming to be the “badass” alt milk alternative, and is marketing to health-conscious men.

“We want to invoke curiosity in consumers when they see our packaging and our bold voice, and ultimately get them to try our great-tasting products,” says Brian Schmidt, marketing manager for Molson Coors. “Longer-term, we want Golden Wing to unlock barley milk as the next big thing in the plant-based milk category, and we believe it can do just that.”

Read more (Ad Age)

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)

Will alternative proteins save the planet? A report by the International Panel of Experts on Sustainable Food Systems (IPES-Food) says alt proteins – or what they call “lab meat” – aren’t the answer. In a new report, these experts say major reforms need to be put in place to increase biodiversity of food, improve access to better nutrition and limit Big Food’s control over the food system. 

Companies, governments and investors are turning to alternative proteins as a way to feed a rapidly growing population but, the panel notes, they don’t address the world hunger crisis.

“In reality they lead us back to the same problems of our industrial food system: giant agribusiness firms, standardized diets and industrial supply chains that harm people and the planet,” announces a video created by IPES-Food.  “We need to change the system, not the product.”

Adds Phil Howard, lead author of the report: “It’s easy to see why people would be drawn to the marketing and hype, but meat techno-fixes will not save the planet. In many cases, they will make the problems with our industrial food system worse — fossil fuel dependence, industrial monocultures, pollution, poor work conditions, unhealthy diets, and control by massive corporations. Just as electric cars are not a silver bullet to fix climate change, these solutions are not going to fix our damaging industrial food system..”

The report suggests that, to feed a  growing population, the food industry should focus on sustainable food systems, not a transition to alternative proteins. A healthy food system should be regional, nutritious and focused on how real food is produced.

Read more (IPES-FOOD)