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.
A new study links drinking coffee to higher survival rates from colon cancer. Researchers found that in 1,171 patients treated for metastatic colorectal cancer, patients who drank two to three cups of coffee per day were likely to live longer. They also had a longer time before their disease worsened. Patients who drank four or more cups of coffee a day had an even greater benefit.
“It’s known that several compounds in coffee have antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, and other properties that may be active against cancer,” says Chen Yuan, study co-author and research fellow at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.
The study results, published in the peer-review journal JAMA Oncology, said coffee benefits were both for caffeinated and decaffeinated varieties. “Study authors emphasize the report was only able to find an association, not a cause-and-effect relationship. Experts say the study doesn’t provide sufficient evidence to recommend drinking coffee on a daily basis for people who have cancer.”
Read more (USA Today)
Johnny Drain is the guru for helping chefs around the world innovate flavorful dishes. A chemist with a PhD from Oxford and a passion for cooking, Drain found fermentation was the optimal intersection of food and science.
“Fermentation was this focus of this venn diagram that incorporated food with some necessity to understand biology but also chemistry,” Drain says. “Fermentation was this sweet spot where I could apply my background in science with this passion and knowledge and aptitude for cooking, flavor and taste. I realized if I wanted to apply this rich educational history that I was fortunate to have access to, fermentation was this ideal sphere where I could do that.”
This cross-section is where Drain finds his diverse career — as an in-demand food research and development consultant. He’s currently advising chefs in renowned restaurants all over the globe and serving as co-editor of MOLD magazine.
The Fermentation Association spoke with Drain, who is based in London. Below is the first of our two-part Q&A with Drain. Part 1 focuses on his interest in fermentation, and how he sees fermentation transforming the culinary world. Part 2 features some of Drain’s recent fermentation consulting projects and his drive to use fermentation to create a sustainable global food system.
The Fermentation Association (TFA): What got you first interested in fermentation.
Johnny Drain (JD): I am a scientist by background. I did chemistry as an undergraduate, then I worked for a company in finance, which I don’t really talk about. It was on the cusp of the financial crash, 2006-2008, so it was quite an interesting time to be working in that sector. During my lunch breaks, I was reading recipe books and reading restaurant reviews and looking at the world of science. I was thinking about doing a PhD, and I ended up quitting finance because I realized this was not how I wanted to spend my life, for 12 hours every day. I went back and did a PhD in something called material science, which is a cross between chemistry and physics. Still nothing actually to do with food, I was looking at how atoms interact in types of steel, and building computer models of how to understand that and how to apply that to making car chassis. So still, it was very far away from the world of making food, but always I had this dream of becoming a chef or maybe having a restaurant at one point in my life.
At the end of my PhD, I was fortunate to study in Oxford in this very beautiful place in the heart of England in this very rich academic history surrounded by all these very clever people and beautiful buildings. I realized, instead of becoming an Oxford don with maybe a tweed suit and patches on my elbows, I would sack that all in, having climbed up a few rungs of that ladder, and basically start staging (unpaid restaurant internship) and working in kitchens for free. I even worked as a pot washer in one kitchen in London. I really jumped back in at the deep end and pursued this dream of becoming a cook or a chef.
I did that for a little while and realized first, becoming a chef is a young person’s game. And second, I’m 6’2’’ and have a bad back and, as a chef, you’re standing on your feet all day and that was not going to be a physically viable way for me to make a living. I had to combine my scientific nouse (intellect) with my passion for food.
For me, the interesting thing is I never see these things as mutual exclusive, they’re all related and interconnected. I ended up doing what I do now, which is helping restaurants and bars and food brands, consulting and teaching restaurants and chefs how to understand these things. As I see it, I’m unlocking their artistry and storytelling ability through this understanding of science. All of these things are interconnected. And fermentation is this particularly excellent example. It has to do with flavor and food, but it also has to do with people and tradition and culture, it has to do with artistry and storytelling, you can’t really do one without the other. Science, that biology and chemistry, is really integral to unlocking the creative, artsy-fartsy elements to these types of food.
TFA: When you partner with these different chefs and kitchens, what expertise are they looking for from you?
JD: Especially these days, it’s different from five years ago when I first started doing this type of work. Five years ago when you’d go into a kitchen, people really wouldn’t know what fermentation was. And often they wouldn’t be interested in it, or they wouldn’t understand why might a scientist be able to help me make better, tastier food or drink. But now, most people I work with, they know that and they’ve already dibbled and dabbled a little bit with some of these ferments. Let’s say they’ve made some kimchi or sauerkraut or some kombucha. Really what they want now, especially the high end places, they’ve dibbled and dabbled and they want to make sure that, A, what they’re doing is safe and isn’t going to kill anyone, which is very sensible. But secondly, they want that kind of X factor, they want the ability to unlock that real deep magic. That’s when I go in.
I was just in Lithuania last week working with this really great restaurant called 1918. Michelin doesn’t cover Lithuania, give it two years I expect, and they’ll get at least 1 star, possibly 2. It’s really high end, great quality food. And they’re trying to play around with egg yolks and koji, which is basically this aspergillus, this war horse of Japanese food culture that’s also present in Chinese and Korean cultures as well. They want to be able to have that scientific rigor and have someone to come in “Pick that lock,” as I describe it, and be able to unleash their creativity so they can put this into action in their dishes. They’re wanting to tell these stories about Lithatian food culture and use this food they’re growing on this farm about 50 minutes outside the capital.
TFA: That sounds very rewarding, to help different restaurants create new dishes.
JD: It is. My role is this enabler, picking that lock, unleashing people’s creativity and helping these chefs. Really, fermentation is just a tool. In many ways, the way we see knife or a chopping board, it’s a tool. If you try and cook without those tools, you’re doing yourself a great disservice. You’re limiting what you can do, you’re limiting your creativity. Fermentation really is just another example of a type of tool. In five or 20 years, people will just see some of these fermentation techniques just as the way they see a knife. It’s just this tool. And by empowering these chefs with these tools, I’m helping to unleash that creativity. When you unleash people’s creativity they get very excited and very passionate.
TFA: Why do you think fermentation has become such a bigger interest among chefs?
JD: The funny thing about fermentation is we all eat fermented products, but we don’t realize it. You could read off a list that lasts five minutes. Bread, all booze, chocolate, coffee, vinegar, etc. It’s just that most of those products, we’ve become so used to them because there are these staples of everyday life that we don’t realize they’re fermented. Also partially because the way the food systems now work, that work of creating our own bread or beer or cider, it’s now been outsourced for most people in much of the world to some other party. So we’re not making these products at home where our grandmothers, our grandfathers, would have been. My grandmother would have understood that bread, wine, cider was a fermented product because she was making those or her grandmother was making those. Whereas I grew up in a household where we bought all of those things and somebody else made it. All those steps had already been performed.
First, there’s this awakening of realizing much of the food we know and love is fermented. And second, from a chef, foodie world, there’s been a renaissance in fermented food because they offer this exciting flavor profile that chefs always want. Chefs are looking for the new. Especially in the last 20 years, with that modernist cuisine movement, people reached science to kind of process foods. That’s where the novelness came. In the sort of last 10-15 years, we saw this move towards what new ingredients do we have on our doorsteps, foraging, this local-vore movement of people rediscovering what incredible food products are on their doorstep. Now people are asking “Where can we discover new flavors that are on our doorstep that are new, now that everyone has foraged everything. Where is the newness? Where can I reach out to access this incredible, novel flavor profile?” Fermentation is this toolkit that gives you access to these incredible new flavors. It’s the other frontier.
When you talk about what’s on our doorstep, we get into this idea of microbial territory.
What microbes are unique to Britain or unique to France or unique to Argentina? Actually, the microbes are as unique and defining of place and of the food culture in a place as the grapes that grow or the cheeses that we make or the strains of wheat varietals that might grow in a place. Microbes are sort of this hidden category of food that have shaped the food that we eat in the place that human beings live as much as any other kind of meat or dairy or fruit or vegetable.
TFA: What do you think is the future of fermentation in the culinary world?
JD: So the focus now is very much on people within the food industry looking for what produce they have in their backyard or in their country or their culture and how do they ferment those? I think, currently, the sort of toolkit of fermentation is dominated by a couple of prevailing techniques or cultures, microbiological cultures.
I think there is so much to learn from slightly undiscovered fermentation food cultures in the world. Ones that really haven’t had a bright light shone on them — like the Japanese, fermentation has had quite a bright light shone on them. And that’s amazing because Japanese fermentation culture is amazing and incredibly rich, so lots of people around the world have learned a lot from it. I think the next frontier for me is going to be people looking at fermentation in Sub-Saharan Africa, fermentation in the Indian sub continents. And those fermentation cultures are currently not that well understood, certainly by people outside those cultures, and they’re not documented in clear and concise ways in much of the way now that that Japanese food culture and Western European fermentation food culture has been documented. I think people are realizing there’s all these incredible, beautiful, rich ferments that we just don’t know about and don’t understand in Sub-Saharan african and the Indian subcontinents. I’m currently working on projects with people who are from those countries and cooking the food of those cultures. There’s just so much for us to learn. People like Sandor Katz, he grew up somewhere in Africa, he obviously documents some of those techniques and ferments, but there’s so much for all of us to learn from people cooking the food from those cultures and the people living in those places.
TFA: What’s been the wackiest or funkiest food thing you’ve ever fermented?
JD: On the menu at one point at Cub (restaurant in London where Drain worked in research and development), we had a pest season where the head chef was trying to base the menu around things that are perceived as pests or invasive species.
In the UK we have this animal called the Reeves’s muntjac. It came originally from India. This guy called Reeves visited India as this colonizing force and came back and had, as a rich guy, a bunch of these species of flora and fauna as pets and novelties, one of which was this Reeves’s muntjac. It’s a very small, muscular deer. It’s bigger than a bulldog, but as muscular, then with a head of a deer and these horns. You see them driving along British country lanes at night and they look very scary, they basically look like devil dogs. They look like the harbingers of the apocalypse, sort of like something very bad is going to happen as you’re driving down the fog down this dark, British country lane. They’re very weird, scary and other worldly. They’re a pest and they outcompete the native species. So they are hunted to control their numbers.
So we made a muntjac garum. Using this technique of garum, which is a Roman word for fish sauce, we created this umami-rich, meaty garum. And that got used to dress these various, wonderful, meaty dishes. We did deer faggots. A faggot in the culinary sense of a word is the the offal of meat wrapped in the coals, part of the intestines, and basically pan fried. It’s a very traditional British dish. We made these deer faggots and dressed it in this muntjac garum.
That was quite a weird but delicious example of that whole 360 idea of sustainability in not just the techniques that we use but the produce we’re using. How do we use invasive species?
“Cheese is finding new ground as a ‘health’ food,” writes John Lucey, professor of food science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison and the director of the Center for Dairy Research. Cheese has received a bad stereotype as a dairy food high in saturated fat and carbs, but Lucey notes cheese is high in vitamin C, riboflavin, vitamin B12 and folate. Studies show fermented cheeses reduce cancer rates, and fermented cheese contains bioactive peptides that reduce blood pressure, enhance the immune system and improve cardiovascular health.
Read more (Dairy Foods)
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.
By Neal Vitale
Universities across the globe are struggling not only with how to educate incoming and returning students but with safe reopening of their research labs. Much of their focus is on the same approaches broadly recommended by health officials – social distancing, mandatory face masks, daily health screening and contact tracing.
“It’s been a ton of work for everyone – intellectually to develop new policies, physically to rearrange and manage buildings and administratively to manage work calendars and class schedules across a large campus,” says Abigail Snyder, assistant professor of microbial food safety at Cornell University. “Besides the resources involved in getting these plans off the ground, these policies necessarily mean that we’re operating at reduced in-person capacity and that there are budgetary shortfalls.”
Professor of Food Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Bob Hutkins reports similar disruption.
“Just like everywhere, my lab shut down in late March. Only a few critical functions were maintained, but lab research was effectively halted,” Hutkins says. “Some of my graduate students, however, also perform computational research analyzing microbiome data, so those projects were less affected. Still, the two projects that were most lab-oriented happened to be focused on fermented foods. Our lab did reopen in late June, so we are now (after a 3-month delay) almost back to where we were pre-COVID.”
Maria Marco, professor in food science and technology at the University of California, Davis, (and member of the TFA Advisory Board) adds: “As the pandemic continues there is an increasing financial and emotional toll on graduate students and postdocs whose research is now significantly delayed. This toll also applies to new students. I have a new international graduate student who is supposed to start work on a food fermentation project this fall but may not receive a visa to come to the US. Although she can contribute remotely, this barrier would cause significant hardship and prolong the time needed to complete the degree.”
The situation obviously remains fluid, as noted by Barbara Ingham, professor of food science, University of Wisconsin-Madison.
“Things are changing pretty much on a weekly basis here,” Ingham says. “We were to move to Phase 2 in July; that is on indefinite hold. Our campus teaching schedule changes on a weekly (and sometimes daily) basis, etc. It’s hard to be up-to-date at this time.”
Professor of Foods and Nutrition and Extension Food Safety Specialist Elizabeth Andress at the University of Georgia echoes these themes.
“[The work] I was doing on coming up with home-based or small entrepreneur kimchi and sauerkraut variations that I was willing to put the UGA Extension name on to publicly release was ground to a halt this past winter/spring,” Andress says. “And I haven’t been back on campus since mid-February because of a fall injury followed by the pandemic restrictions, let alone reduced budgets are now not going to allow employment of help or any significant research that was self-funded pre-COVID. …policies for finding ways to do non-essential research and have multiple people in a lab are still undergoing constant new messaging and planning at UGA.”
A somewhat more positive picture emerges from Canada. Michael Ganzle is professor and Canada research chair in microbiology and probiotics at the University of Alberta.
“Fermented food products including (sourdough) bread are not on the list of products with reduced demand during the COVID-crisis. To the opposite, many started making sourdough bread during the lockdown in Alberta, and I have been contacted by many (including TV and radio stations) on how to manage with sourdough,” Ganzle adds. “Research at UAlberta was temporarily reduced due to lockdowns of some services on campus, and reduced capacity/increased safety rules, but [research] never really stopped. With one exception, extramurally funded projects or graduate thesis projects were somewhat delayed but timelines were not substantially disrupted. The picture is different for anyone using animals or humans in their research projects, or those doing field research – these ramp up only now after a three month interruption.”
He attributes the relatively modest impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on research activities to appropriate leadership at the department/university/provincial (state) level that appeared to strike an appropriate balance of safety measures to “flatten the curve” with ongoing research/economic activity.
Snyder at Cornell also underscores the efforts being aimed at facilitating both the advancement of teaching and research missions as well as supporting robust protection of public health. “In truth, I wish we had policies like these generalized more broadly across the US.”
Adds Hutkins at University of Nebraska,”As inconvenient as the shutdown has been, the main issues for my colleagues and me have been to ensure that the lab remains a safe environment, that we practice social distancing and that students and staff stay physically and emotionally healthy.”
A new study links lower COVID-19 deaths to countries where the diet is rich in fermented vegetables. Researchers in Europe found in countries where the national consumption of fermented vegetables is high, the mortality risk for COVID-19 decreased by 35.4%. Results are currently preliminary and undergoing peer review. But, if the hypothesis is confirmed, “COVID-19 will be the first infectious disease epidemic to involve biological mechanisms that are associated with a loss of ‘nature,'” reads an article in News Medical. “Significant changes in the microbiome caused by modern life and less fermented food consumption may have increased the spread or severity of the disease, (researchers) say.”
The study was led by Dr. Jean Bousquet, a professor of pulmonary medicine at Montpellier University in France. After researching that diet may play a big role in determining how well people can fight the coronavirus, Bousquet says he now eats fermented foods multiple times a week.
Read more (News Medical Life Sciences)
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)
The fermentation science programs at three Tennessee colleges — Middle Tennessee State University, Columbia State Community College and Motlow State Community College — secured a major grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The schools aim to use that $300,000 grant to increase enrollment in fermentation science degrees. The three-year grant will also be used to introduce fermentation concepts into organic chemistry, microbiology and mathematics courses, aiming to drive fermentation science as a career option.
“Students in general aren’t aware of what fermentation science is, much less that it’s actually agricultural,” said Troy Johnston, professor and director of the MTSU Fermentation Science program. “The grant seeks to get more students interested in agriculture as a career.”
He adds: “Agriculture is an applied STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) field, but it is not traditionally viewed this way. The grant provides an opportunity to connect the dots between STEM courses and agriculture and raise awareness of and increase the potential for a student to become interested in the applied STEM career that is fermentation science.”
Read more (Murfreesboro Voice)
A new study shows kefir affects the microbiota-gut-brain axis. Researchers at APC Microbiome Ireland SFI Research Centre at University College Cork and Teagasc published their results in the journal Microbiome. They found that feeding mice kefir reduced stress-induced hormone signaling, reward-seeking and repetitive behavior. Interestingly, different types of kefir affected mice behavior and changed the abundance of gut bacteria. The researchers concluded that kefir should be studied as a dairy intervention to improve the mood and behavior in humans.
Read more (APC)