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)

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

Scientists in Italy have discovered lactic acid bacteria in fermented food transfers to the gut microbiome. Though this is a widely accepted health benefit of fermented foods, there is little scientific research linking fermented food and the microbiome. The study looked at distribution of lactic acid bacteria (LAB) in humans based on location, age and lifestyle.

LAB genomes were reconstructed from about 300 foods and nearly 10,000 human fecal samples from humans from different continents. 
The most frequent LAB food in the human feces: streptococcus thermophilus and lactococcus lactis, commonly found in yogurt and cheese. 

“Our large-scale genome-wide analysis demonstrates that closely related LAB strains occur in both food and gut environments and provides unprecedented evidence that fermented foods can be indeed regarded as a possible source of LAB for the gut microbiome.”

Read more (Nature Communications)

Microbiologists in Sweden discovered a major breakthrough in antibiotics. Their research found an antibacterial peptide, plantarcin, can be combined with antibiotics to kill the staphylococcus bacteria (MRSA). Staph is a major problem in healthcare, which causes difficult wound infections and, in severe cases, sepsis. This plantarcin peptide comes from good bacteria — it’s found on fermented vegetables, which serve as a natural preservative for the food. The results of the study were published in the journal Scientific Reports. “Administering lower doses of antibiotics when treating infections in turn reduces the risk of further development of antibiotic resistance, which today is a major global threat to public health,” says Torbjörn Bengtsson, professor in medical cell biology at Örebro University.  

Read more (Phys.org

Though the March Natural Products Expo West conference and trade show were cancelled this year because of the coronavirus pandemic, New Hope Network (producers of the event) hosted a virtual webinar this month to share their annual report on industry trends. Leaders from New Hope Network, SPINS and Whipstitch Capital shared insights on natural product sales trends. 

“We definitely believe that this unfortunate health crisis is going to bring the bright spot of making health and wellness more mainstream,” says Kathryn Peters, executive vice president of business development at SPINS (who also are scheduled to present at TFA’s FERMENTATION 2021 conference next May). 

The report typically encompasses sales numbers for the previous year, but SPINS included insights from short- and mid-term consumer behaviors during the COVID-19 crisis.

Read on for five takeaways for the fermentation industry from the data.

1. Thanks to Mass Market Saturation, Natural Sales Slow in 2019

Sales of the natural and organic industry in the United States slowed in 2019, growing 5.3% to $230.7 billion in sales.

The slowing growth signals an optimistic takeaway: mass market saturation. There are more natural products on retailer’s shelves than ever before.

“Despite the slower growth, the mass market channel – which includes big box retailers, large grocers like Walmart – that channel added 6.5 billion in new sales last year, which is very significant,” says Carlotta Mast, senior vice president for New Hope Network.

Sales data over the last decade shows the natural industry has grown from being a small player in the consumer products industry with only 11% of sales to a larger player with 20% of sales.

“We’re not a little kid anymore – we’ve kind of grown up,” says Nick McCoy, the managing director and co-founder of Whipstitch Capital.

Natural brands are getting larger, McCoy notes, experiencing an average of 10% growth two years after their start date. Growth of smaller brands is outpacing growth of larger brands. Brands in the 1,000-2,000 sales spots grew at a rate of 6.1% in 2019, while the top 1,000 selling brands grew at a rate of 5.2% in 2019.

2. Americans Want Functional, Science-Backed Products

Despite slower industry growth, the natural, functional food and beverage industry grew two times faster than conventional food and beverages in 2019. Functional products improve overall health by providing additional nutrients. Fermented food and drink fall into the functional category. 

Functional food and beverage sales grew 5.3% in 2019, hitting $71.4 billion in sales.

Consumers are purchasing products with ancient wisdom, a trend defining the nutrient-dense, time-honored food that is made of simple, clean ingredients.

“This has been an underlying driver of the industry for many years,” Mast says. Consumers are “seeking science-backed health and wellness offerings positioned to address modern conditions.”

Consumers want optimized products that address eye health, stress support and, especially in today’s health climate, immunity.

The natural industry experts expect functional foods to continue to grow, fueled this year by the COVID-19 pandemic.

3. Coronavirus Outbreak Causing Big Boost in Sales

During the week America went into quarantine during the coronavirus outbreak, 15 million additional buyers bought natural products.

“At the end of the day, virtually everything sold,” Peters says. A key trend: “Natural products were still in demand; they did outsell all products.”

Peters notes some of the natural products may have sold because they were the last available product on the shelf. Time is the best indicator if these shoppers will convert to regulars. But those products are now on consumer’s shelves – and a lot product trial is happening across the country, trial that is an expensive element of product development. “It’s a huge opportunity for this industry,” Peters says.

“What we’re finding as a real highlight for the industry is the consumer values that built and grew the natural and organic industry for years and years are holding strong in the face of COVID-19,” Mast says. “One hypothesis of what the world may look like in a post-COVID era is that consumers will increasingly prioritize health and wellness…A number of long term macro forces and trends that have driven growth of the natural and organic products industry up until now position us well for a world in which consumers increasingly prioritize health and wellness.”

As unemployment soars and consumers cut back on expenses, Peters does not expect economic pressures will slow down natural product sales.

“Our bodies are our best line of defense, and consumers are realizing this,” she adds. “While comfort food is important in this phase, we are still seeing a strong influence of health and nutrient-dense food.”

A survey of consumers during the week of April 13, 2020 found that 77% say personal health is most important to them today than it was in 2019. In addition, 43% say eating healthy food is more important today than it was in 2019.

Sales of kombucha, for example, plateaued in 2019, after years of positive growth. But during the peak coronavirus grocery stock up period, refrigerated kombucha sales were up 28%, refrigerated pickle and marinated vegetables were up 58% and refrigerated yogurt sales were up 39%.  

The coronavirus is increasing challenges for the industry, too. Supply chains are disrupted, there is a lack of new product development and a dearth of investment capital.

“That is slowing the flow of innovation, which we can expect to affect the flow of offerings to the market later this year and into 2021,” Mast says.

4. E-Commerce Sales Growing Fast, Driven by Natural Shoppers

In 2019, e-commerce sales accounted for only 4% of total natural product sales. In 2020 so far, e-commerce has generated almost $10 billion in sales. Estimates put total e-commerce sales at 17% in 2020.

“E-commerce is the big story for 2020 with COVID-19 and the rapid increase of consumers buying online,” Mast says.

Interestingly, natural shoppers were using e-commerce channels at a higher rate than regular shoppers.

5. Sustainability is of Greater Importance

Early consumer research indicates an aspirational trend: COVID-19 may change consumer’s viewpoints to become more sustainability focused.

During the week of April 13, 2020, a survey of consumers found that 67% said environmental health is more important to them today than it was in 2019. Purchasing behaviors that support environmental causes are also on the rise. Of more importance to consumers in 2020 verses 2019: food waste (36%), buying plant-based foods (29%), buying responsibly sourced meat, seafood and dairy (26%), buying organic (22%), and buying products with environmentally-based packaging (18%).

Sustainable packaging “which is really the Achilles heel to the natural and CPG industry,” Mast says, is becoming of greater important to consumers as single-use packaging is demonized. Brands are also looking for ways to keep their waste out of landfills, upcycle ingredients and putting byproducts back into circulation.

A fascinating study by the World Institute of Kimchi (WiKim) found that the cabbage in kimchi is a key source of lactobacilli in the fermented product. Garlic also contributes to the lactobacilli, while ginger and red pepper did not contribute. Of note, neither cabbage or garlic alone could replicate the final community of fermented kimchi. All vegetables were needed to bring the full bacterial community. The findings were published in the journal Food Chemistry. Researchers say it’s a building block to further understand food.

Peter Belenky, a professor of molecular microbiology and immunology who analyzed the study, said: “I think really what it tells us is that, yes, some ingredients bring specific bacteria, but you really need everybody working together in order to bring the full community.”

Read more (Popular Science)