For the third year in a row, fermented foods tops Today’s Dietitian list of the year’s No. 1 superfood. The annual “What’s Trending in Nutrition” survey reveals the hottest food and nutrition trends to look for in 2020.
“The 2020 survey results send a clear and consistent message. Consumers want to live healthier lives,” says Louise Pollock, president of Pollock Communications. “They have access to an incredible amount of health information, and they view food as a way to meet their health and wellness goals. Consumers are taking control of their health in ways they never did before, forcing the food industry to evolve and food companies to innovate in response to consumer demand.”
Consumers are using fermented products as “powerhouse foods,” foods that boost gut health and reduce inflammation. Some nutrition experts recommend fermented foods should be included in national dietary recommendations.
In April, Today’s Dietitian published an article “The Facts About Fermented Foods.” In it, Dr. Robert Hutkins, a researcher and professor of food science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, shared his expert opinion on fermentation. Hutkins wrote what many in the field consider the most exhaustive textbook on fermentation, “Microbiology and Technology of Fermented Foods.” He explained how fermented foods have a long history in the human diet.
“Indeed, during much of human civilization, a major part of the human diet probably consisted of bread, yogurt, olives, sausages, wine, and other fermentation-derived foods,” Hutkins told Today’s Dietitian. “They can be considered perhaps as our first ‘processed foods.’”
Hutkins, who studies the bacteria in fermented foods, said researchers like himself “are a bit surprised fermented foods suddenly have become trendy.”
“Consumers are now more interested than ever in fermented foods, from ale to yogurt, and all the kimchi and miso in between,” he says. “This interest is presumably driven by all the small/local/craft/artisan manufacturing of fermented foods and beverages, but the health properties these foods are thought to deliver are also a major driving force.”Fermented foods first appeared in the survey of registered dietitian nutritionists (RDNs) in 2017, where it was the 4th most popular superfood.
The full superfoods list includes:
- Fermented foods, like yogurt and kefir
- Exotic fruit, like acai, golden berries
- Ancient grains
- Non-dairy milk
- Green tea
By: The American Society for Microbiology
The flavors of fermented foods are heavily shaped by the fungi that grow on them, but the evolutionary origins of those fungi aren’t well understood. Experimental findings published this week in mBio offer microbiologists a new view on how those molds evolve from wild strains into the domesticated ones used in food production.
In the paper, microbiologists report that wild-type Penicillium molds can evolve quickly so that after a matter of weeks these strains closely resembled their domesticated cousin, Penicillium camemberti, the mold that gives camembert cheese its distinctive flavor. The study shows how a fungus can remodel its metabolism over a short amount of time; it also demonstrates a strategy for probing the evolution of other cultures used in food, said study leader and microbiologist Dr. Benjamin Wolfe, Ph.D., a member of the The Fermentation Association advisory board.
“In fermented foods, there’s a lot of potential for microbes to evolve and change over time,” said Wolfe.
Wolfe’s lab at Tufts University in Medford, Mass., focuses on microbial diversity in fermented foods, but he says the new experiments began with an accidental discovery. His lab had been growing and studying Penicillium commune, a bluish, wild-type fungus well-known for spoiling cheese and other foods. Wolfe likens its smell to a damp basement.
But over time, researchers noticed changes in some of the lab dishes containing the stinky mold. “Over a very short time, that funky, blue, musty-smelling fungus stopped making toxins,” Wolfe said. The cultures lost their bluish hue and turned white; they smelled like fresh grass and began to look more P. camemberti. “That suggested it could really change quickly in some environments,” he said.
To study that evolution in real-time, Wolfe and his collaborators collected fungal samples from a cheese cave in Vermont that had been colonized by wild strains of Penicillium molds. The researchers grew the molds in lab dishes containing cheese curds. In some dishes, the wild mold was grown alone; in others, it was grown alongside microbes that are known competitors in the fierce world of cheese colonization.
After one week, Wolfe said, the molds appeared blue-green and fuzzy—virtually unchanged—in all the experimental tests. But over time, in the dishes where the mold grew alone, its appearance changed. Within three or four weeks of serial passage, during which mold populations were transferred to new dishes containing cheese curds, 30-40 percent of the mold samples began to look more like P. camemberti. In some dishes, it grew whiter and smoother; in others, less fuzzy. (In the competitive test cases, the wild mold did not evolve as quickly or noticeably.)
In follow-up analyses, Wolfe and his team tried to identify genomic mutations that might explain the quick evolution but didn’t find any obvious culprits. “It’s not necessarily just genetic,” Wolfe said. “There’s something about growing in this cheese environment that likely flips an epigenetic switch. We don’t know what triggers it, and we don’t know how stable it is.”
Researchers suspect that the microbes used in most fermented foods—including cheese, but also beer, wine, sake, and others—were unintentionally domesticated, and that they evolved different flavors and textures in reaction to growing in a food environment. Wolfe says his lab’s study suggests that wild strains could be domesticated intentionally to produce new kinds of artisanal foods.
Starting with cheese, of course. “The fungi that are used to make American camembert are French,” said Wolfe, “but maybe we can go out and find wild strains, bring them into the lab, and domesticate them. We could have a diverse new approach to making cheese in the United States.”
The American Society for Microbiology is the largest single life science society, composed of more than 30,000 scientists and health professionals. ASM’s mission is to promote and advance the microbial sciences.
ASM advances the microbial sciences through conferences, publications, certifications and educational opportunities. It enhances laboratory capacity around the globe through training and resources. It provides a network for scientists in academia, industry and clinical settings. Additionally, ASM promotes a deeper understanding of the microbial sciences to diverse audiences.
Fermentation opens a culinary Pandora’s Box says David Zilber, head of fermentation at Noma restaurant in Denmark. Instead of just pureeing or heating a berry, the berry can be juiced for alcohol, transformed into vinegar, preserved for a fish sauce, pickled or dehydrated.
“Fermentation was a discovery of possibility,” said Zilber. “You see the recommitorial power that comes from fermentation. It’s not just a subset of cuisine in gastronomy, it’s honest to goodness as large or it not larger than the world of gastronomy itself.”
Experimenting with ingredients that lead to tasteful outcomes is why “fermentation is so thrilling to explore” Zilber told Harvard students at Harvard University’s Science and Cooking Lecture Series. Zilber lectured with former Noma colleague Jason White, head of research and development at the Kudzu Complex in Tennessee.
Experimenting in the Noma Kitchen
Their topic: “Exploring Flavor Space: Innovation through Tradition in Noma’s Fermentation Lab.” The two shared fascinating insight into Noma, the two-Michelin-star restaurant regarded as one of the best in the world. But how do cooks toy with fermentation when the Michelin guide historically values consistency? Thousands of experiments and variations. Only 5% of what the chefs in Noma’s fermentation lab creates make it onto a plate.
“If you’re not trying to keep things traditional, you’re free to do whatever you want. And that’s the beauty of fermentation for us,” Zilber said. “When Noma employs fermentation, we do it knowing that we can change things. That we can seek out flavors by looking to old techniques, by turning to tradition, breaking down processes via reduction, pulling them apart, saying what enzymes are at play? What molecules are in the mix? What byproducts can be produced?”
Zilber showed the huge shared file between Noma employees of recipe trials. Things like moose snout, moldy vegetables, roasted pinecone, egg picked in elderberry juice and pig meat fermenting in its own pancreas enzyme. One of Noma’s early successes was adding a few drops of a fish sauce to a dish. A few drops of a potent fish sauce iteration goes a long way when flavoring a meal. The cooks began creating fish sauce equivalents, like a fish sauce from squirrel, sea cucumber, beaver, sea star, reindeer, wild boar, razor clam, bear (“That was the worst thing we’ve ever tasted,” Zilber said, “that did not go right.”).
“These were huge discoveries for us at Noma because, all of sudden, you could have a primarily vegetarian cuisine that had all the flavor and impact of like a full plate of food with meat and starch and vegetables just by using seasonings,” Zilber said. “And kind of flipping the role of meat and vegetables on its head. Suddenly vegetables didn’t have to be the accoutrement that just served to kind of temper what you were chewing in your mouth and act as the texture. They were actually the starring role, but you were as satisfied as eating a full plate of sliced sirloin because you could have this taste of meat permeating through your samphire mixed with watercress emulsion.”
Fermentation is the most useful tool for the restaurant, Zilber said. Noma has what he calls a “DIY or die” attitude.
When Noma chef and co-owner Rene Redzepi opened the restaurant in 2003, he wanted to create a fine-dining experience concentrating on the food of the Nordic region. Fine dining in Denmark, Sweden and Norway was primarily French food because the cold, coastal Scandinavian countries have such a short growing season. Redzepi and the cooks dove into cultural recipes. They contacted local foragers, then experimenting preserving the ingredients they’d find. They started a Noma Food Lab to catalog the different ingredients.
“When you taste all the products of fermentation, you understand it is delicious because it is that heightened level of food. All life is transformation – creation and destruction are just two sides of the same coin. Building things up in a certain way is just half of the picture if you understand you have to break them down first. And when your body understands that something has been broken down for it in a friendly manner by something that isn’t harmful in any way, alarm bells go off and you understand these things to be delicious.”
“That search for that flavor…is how Rene and the team back in the test kitchen in those early days learned to use the very paltry pantry that sat at Noma’s disposal with all these Scandinavian ingredients and multiple them many times over w the dimensionality of flavor that fermentation could provide. If at first, they only had in a season 250 ingredients to work with, they could turn to fermentation and all the different processes at their disposal to turn those 250 into 1,000.”
During the Harvard lecture, White made a koji and miso for the students to sample. He detailed creating miso from unconventional protein-rich foods, like seeds, roots, parsnip, corn, fava beans, byproducts from oil extracted from nuts.
Transformation through Fermentation
“A field is a field and a plant is a plant. It’s only a weed if you choose to pull it out. But it’s a crop if you put it there and want to harvest it at the end. That’s exactly how you have to think about fermentation,” said Zilber.
Zilber said the technical, chemical definition for fermentation is the anaerobic, enzymatic pathway that yeast uses to metabolize glucose and transform that into alcohol in the absence of oxygen. Simply put, it is the transformation of one food into another by a microbe. But those definitions don’t go far enough to describe fermentation’s complexity.
“If you want to get really into it, you do have to talk about human intent,” he says. “And humans have a big part to play in fermentation because, without the human willing the fermentation into existence, you just have a free-for-all.”
Zilber uses the analogy that a fermenter is like a bouncer at a night club. The fermenter has to decide between the troublemakers and the enjoyable customers. Who is going to come in and start a bar fight and who is going to come in and order drinks and mingle with other customers?
“The club is all the food you’re looking to ferment, the ingredients you’re looking to transform, and which microbes to keep out,” he said. “The key to cooking with microbes is cooking with life. You need to keep these creatures alive so they do the cooking for you.”
Control points are key to a fermentation. Lactic acid – the metabolic process that converts sugar and glucose into energy – has five basic needs. Access to oxygen, salt concentration, pH levels, nutrient sources and temperature. Every control point and process will lead to a different fermentation outcome.
“You’re trying to build an environment for that microbe to survive,” Zilber added.
Harmful pathogens won’t grow in a controlled fermentation environment. Mold can’t live without oxygen. And botulism has a higher water activity level than lactobacillus, and water activity level drops once salt is added in fermentation.
“You’re cutting off at the pass any malevolent microbes that you think might grow,” he said.
Humans, he said, have domesticated the lactobacillus bacteria.
Use Tradition to Apply Fermentation Processes
Zilber knows fermentation is a trendy topic today, but he notes it’s been around since the dawn of man.
“The first real food technology we had for safe food preservation before the USDA was a thing was fermentation,” he said. “And it makes sense that we do it until this day and we have all these traditional recipes on our counter tops because these are things that have kept civilization alive for a very, very long time. And we have grown up to actually love the taste of them and understand them as part of our cultural history.”
Before recipes were shared through the internet, cultures passed recipes through families. Fermentation was mastered because because a grandparent taught it to a grandchild. This is why towns in Italy have a sausage (Genoa, Calabrese) and towns in Japan have a Miso variety (Hatcho, Saikyo).
Cooking your own fermented product “is about crafting those environments that your microbes need to thrive.” Making a koji is recreating the ancestral field in humid China.
Noma is revolutionizing fermentation by using using traditional processes, then creating their own techniques. Noma uses biological and mechanical technology in their food to push the boundaries of cuisine.
“Noma applies the basic concepts of fermentation, of preservation, of making something last in a season where it normally wouldn’t be available, but taking it to the nth degree,” Zilber said. “No, it’s not always about combining flavors and seeing which is the best. Sometimes it’s combining technologies and seeing what produces the best flavor. We try all different sorts of extraction, sonication, vacuum filtration, the (supercritical fluid extraction systems) unit.”
Partnering with local Denmark bio-tech firms, Noma uses scientific technology to explore different fermentation projects.
As more people battle digestive problems, they’re turning to brands offering gut health solutions. Digestive health is the third most sought after health benefit in the latest International Food Information Council Food & Health Survey, behind weight loss and energy.
Though it’s a hot topic, it’s a space challenged with unsupported health claims and confusing ingredient additives. During a panel hosted by Food Navigator, four industry leaders shared insight into the growing gut health category.
“What we’ve learned is that many of our consumers come into our brand typically with serious, long term digestive health challenges. Bloating, regularity challenges, IBS,” said Mitchell Kruesi, senior brand manager for Goodbelly, which creates probiotic drinks and snacks. “They’ve tried supplements in the past, but weren’t super enthusiastic about them because often times taking a supplement felt medicinal to them. After that, they continue to seek out other probiotic options that are both effective, but also food-based so that it’s easy to fit in their routine.”
Plagued with health issues and fed-up with pills, consumers are desiring food brands that aid digestive health. Flavor, though, is key.
“That delicious taste…it sets up an everyday usage routine, which is critical with probiotics,” Kruesi said.
Probiotics is a confusing territory for consumers. Should probiotics be consumed in pills or as a strain added to food? How much should be taken?
Elaine Watson, Food Navigator editor, quoted GT Dave, founder of GT Kombucha: “In my mind, anything raw and fermented deserves to use the term ‘probiotic.” Watson asked the panelists if there’s a perception that all fermented foods contain probiotics because they contain live, active cultures – and should food advertising probiotics be verified by clinically proven studies?
“I think consumers are quite confused still around the whole topic, in all honestly. Live, active cultures are used to make fermented food beverages – but unlink probiotics, they’re typically not studied and shown to provide a health benefit,” said Angela Grist, Activia US marketing director. Really in order to be considered a probiotic, they would need to meet the criteria of survival and research-validated health benefits and also this point around strain specificity.”
Grist said probiotics need to survive the passage through the digestive track to the colon. Activia has five survival studies showing the benefits of probiotics.
Ben Goodwin, co-founder of Olipop, added he’s conducted genetic assays around the underlying culture banks of fermented food and beverages and “there have definitely been organisms in the culture banks which are deleterious for human health. So not everything that’s fermented is automatically good for human health, there’s all sorts of different biological modes that organisms can interact with each other and some become parasitic or become determinantal to your probiotic when consumed, so something to keep in mind.”
Note that the panel did not feature a raw, fermented food brand; the companies included on the panel all add probiotic strains to their food and drink product.
In a separate interview with The Fermentation Association, Maria Marco, professor in the Department of Food Science and Technology at the University of California, Davis, said there is a lot of confusion around probiotics, even among industry representatives. Marco, though, agrees with Grist and Goodwin. She says clinical studies on fermented foods are necessary.
“Although it might be possible to separate out the individual components of foods for known health benefits (e.g. vitamin C), the benefits of many foods are likely the result of multiple components that are not easily separated,” Marco said. “Yogurt consumption is a great example of a fermented food that, through longitudinal studies, was shown to be inversely associated with CVD risk.”
In one of Marco’s studies at UC Davis titled “Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond,” Marco and her research associates concluded that fermented foods: are “phylogenetically related to probiotic strains,” “an important dietary source of live microorganisms,” and the microbes in fermented foods “may contribute to human health in a manner similar to probiotics.” The study adds: “Although only a limited number of clinical studies on fermented foods have been performed, there is evidence that these foods provide health benefits well-beyond the starting food materials.”
The panel said that the food industry is responsible for displaying integrity in their marketing on probiotic benefits.
“We believe it’s critical for leading brands in the space…to really educate consumers on, first, what probiotics are,” said Kruesi with Goodbelly. Consumers are seeking out probiotics for a specific health benefit, but most don’t know what strain they need to address their issue, he noted.
Probiotics are live microorganisms that aid the digestive system by balancing gut bacteria.
Currently, the demographic of consumers buying products geared toward gut health are millennial females in coastal cities. Both Activia and Olipop sell to more women than men (Activia customers are 60 percent female and 40 percent male; Olipop customers are 55 percent female and 45 percent male).
Goodwin said Olipop is hoping to tap into the rapidly declining soda market. Soda is a $65 billion industry, with 90 percent household penetration. But more consumers are turning to healthier options than unnatural, sugar-filled soda.
“We’ve tried to take on the extra responsibility as a brand of formulating something that’s spun forward, delicious and really approachable so that we can meet a real health need in a way that’s actually supported by research,” Goodwin said. “(Olipop) is not only low sugar, low calorie, it also has this digestive health function but obviously doesn’t taste like vinegar because it’s not a kombucha.”
Solving Digestive Stress
Products by Activia, Goodbelly, Olipop and Uplift Food (the fourth panel member) are “meant to be a mass solution for the lack of fiber prebiotics and nutritional diversity in the modern diet,” Goodwin said. Fiber contains prebiotics, which aid probiotics.
The USDA’s dietary guidelines recommend adult men require 34 grams of fiber, while adult women require 28 grams of fiber (depending on age). The reality, though, is that most Americans get about half the recommended fiber a day, only 15 grams. According to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, 60-70 million Americans are affected by digestive diseases.
Compare that to the diet of hunter-gatherers, who eat about 100-150 grams of fiber each day and maintain incredibly healthy guts or microbiome. The microbiome is the community of commensal microorganisms in our intestines, fed by fiber, probiotics and prebiotics.
“As it stands now, basically we’re putting in a starvation system for a lot of the microorganisms currently in your gut,” Goodwin said. “The average industrialized consumer has about 50 percent less diversity and abundance of beneficial microorganisms than the hunger-gatherers alive on the planet tonight.”
Future of Gut Health Products
Grist with Activia said probiotics need to be consumed in adequate, regular amounts to provide health benefits, or else probiotics will not consume the digestive track.
Kara Landau, dietitian and founder for Uplift Foods which makes prebiotic foods, added that each individual has a unique bacterial make-up, and providing diverse food to support the microbiome is critical.
Landau said the future of gut health probiotics will be selling a specific probiotic strain, one that a consumer can target for their desired health benefit. Prebiotics – “the fuel for the probiotics” – are also key, and a new part of the digestive health puzzle that brands need to communicate and simplify for consumers.
“Prebiotics are still very much in their infancy when it comes to consumer understanding,” Landau said. “Seeing them alongside probiotics enhances the clarity of their benefits.”
Our gut microbial communities are being killed off by antibiotics, to the extent that “the most affluent children in the world have a variety of autoimmune diseases,” says Bruce German, a professor of food science and technology at the University of California Davis. In today’s advanced age of science, medicine and technology, rates of allergies, asthma and eczema are all increasing.
“By every criteria, humans should be enjoying the best health in human history,” says German, who has spent decades studying the infant gut microbiome. But instead, “most of us are suffering from a variety of chronic and degenerative conditions that are the result of inappropriate diets.”
German – also the director for the Foods for Health Institute and the co-founder of Evolve Biosystems – shared insights on the future of personalized diets at Natural Products Expo West. He said we shouldn’t be asking should diets be personalized, but why hasn’t it been done yet?
Antiobiotics & Unintended Consequences
He points to the unintended use of antibiotics. Though antibiotics have been hugely successful in eradicating nutrient-deficient diseases – like scurvy and goiters – we’ve now become too relent on vitamins.
“From a public health perspective, the strategy that made sure everyone got enough of essential nutrients just overdosed the population. Everyone gets more than they need. It’s been our public health strategy – and it’s worked,” German says. “But the consequences of that decision is that nutrients are more important than foods.”
Though infectious diseases no longer plague the human population, antibiotics have had unintended consequences.
“Antibiotics kill pathogens, but they also kill commensal organisms,” German says. “And our entire microbial community in and outside of us are now seeing the consequences that huge success of antibiotics.”
Adding to that disruption of the human microbial community: food product branding. German says that, by the end of the 19th Century, the No. 1 cause of infectious disease was contaminated food. Food had no value as an enterprise. Branded food products became important, “then we start to get the impression that foods are either food or bad. And, of course, that’s not true. It’s your diet that’s good or bad. An individual packaged food product has very little opportunity to make a significant dent in that. But the consequences of this wonderful economic brand model is we tend to overestimate the power of individual foods.”
Science today must address the consequences of the spectacular success of antibiotics, German says.
Health Answers in Human Milk
To improve human health, the faculty at UC Davis is taking an integrative approach to agriculture. They’re trying to answer the question “What should we eat in the 21st Century?” by bringing together various tool sets across campus, like biology, physics, business, chemistry and law.
“The problem is, for the past 70 years, we have not been investing in health,” German says.
Human milk, German believes, could provide answers to restoring damaged microbiomes. German has spent the past two decades studying lactation and its role in evolution. With the help of Carlito Lebrilla, chemistry professor at UC Davis, scientists found human milk contains a large proportion of oligosaccharides. Babies, though, are unable to digest oligosaccharides. These oligosaccharides, findings showes, exist to nourish bacteria.
That bifoda bacteria fuels the baby, protects the baby from pathogens, educates the immune system and provides nutritional components.
“Mothers are literally recruiting another lifeform to babysit their baby,” German said. “It’s as important to feed the bacteria in the baby as the baby. …
“The future is going to therefore be in microorganisms, using food as a delivery system. So it’s both bacteria for health and bacteria for delight,” German said.
Some of the great food success stories are a “combination of commodities plus organisms” German says, like chocolate, coffee, bread, beer and cheese. All are fermented foods.
Personalized Diets Core of Future Health Industry
A knowledge-based health industry is what personalized diets will look like, German said. He compared it to Google Maps, the massive, public, cloud-based database accessible by databases. Personalized diets could one day look the same, providing information on current health status, comparing it to an end goal and detailing foods that help achieve the end goal. The individual algorithms will highlight preference, highlighting needed nutrients based on an individual’s favorite food.
“In essence, we don’t think you have to personalize food. You have to personalize the diet,” German says.
Probiotics “Not Particularly Effective”
Could probiotics restore human’s microbiomes? German said studies find, though probiotics are safe, they’re not effective. Probiotics don’t colonize the intestines.
“You probably ingest more bacteria from oral cavity from saliva everyday than probiotics,” German says.
This morning, you probably had a cup of one of the most popular fermented beverages: coffee. The Growler magazine article “Science of Coffee: the changing chemistry of coffee beans from farm to cup” details how coffee makers have embraced fermentation in recent years “to take maximum advantage of beans’ unique potentials. … The fickle nature of fermentation’s microfauna plays a bigger role in coffee than even many coffee industry people understand.” One coffee company founder shared the story of buying a unique variety of Colombian coffee with incredible flavor. When he bought the brand a year later, the flavor wasn’t as good. The reason — the bean grower started making good money off the coffee, and upgraded the wood fermentation tank to a stainless steel tank. “That totally changed the coffee.”
Read more (The Growler)
Restrictive diets aren’t the secret to staying slim. The key is diversity says Tim Spector, professor and author of the book “The Diet Myth.” Eating foods high in fiber, fermented products and food loaded with micronutrient polyphenols are scientifically proven to improve weight and help the complex microbiome flourish.
“This is where we’ve lost track, we’ve tried to simplify it and we’ve tried to say that calories in equals calories out and that one-size-fits-all and that if everyone has these 2,000 calories a day, they’ll be perfect. And of course, that advice has led to the whole world getting fatter,” Spector says in an interview on webisode Health Hackers. “[People have been taught] erroneous advice that fat is bad for you therefore avoid all things with fat, even healthy things.”
The Health Hackers episode is titled “Why your diet may never work until you get to know your microbiome.” Journalist Gemma Evans interviews Spector in his London research lab. Spector is a professor of genetics at King’s College in London. He has published over 800 research articles, and Reuters ranked him as the top 1% of the worlds must published scientists.
Spector began researching the microbiome seven years ago, when he became sick and wanted to know which diet would help him heal. His early delve into the microbiome fascinated him.
“We hadn’t understood the gut microbiome, which is this whole new organ in our bodies that was previously ignored,” Spector says. “I really got into this whole field and diverted my group’s research interest into discovering more about that microbiome that we all have. We’re all so different in our microbes, and this difference is how we all respond differently to foods and it explains a lot of mysteries.”
Microbiome is a Living Community
Spector describes the microbiome as a living community of trillions of microbes that produce chemicals, vitamins and hormones. Ninety-nine percent of microbes are in the gut, most in the lower gut or colon. Human cells only make up 43% of the human body — the rest are microbe cells.
Healthy microbiomes are full of diverse species. They help avoid overeating or under eating because a healthy microbiome self regulates.
“The healthier your microbiome, the healthier your body is in general because it means that your immune system is being well balanced and not overresponding,” he says. “It’s giving you resistance against its infections; it’s not overreacting to give you allergies.”
Researchers like Spector study the microbes with fecal samples. He says you can tell more about a person and what they’re eating through their fecal matter. Many commercial companies today advertise accurate health measurements by measuring genes through DNA samples.
“As a geneticist, that’s rubbish,” Spector says. “Statistically, it might be true, but actually at a personally level, it’s virtually no use. Our microbes are so much different than our DNA makeup. We share any, for example, 20 to 30 percent of our microbes [between] any two people. And so, understand how that community is and what’s different should mean that I can tell whether someone is healthy or whether they’re more likely to get fat or diabetes, [by] looking at the general diversity [of their microbes]. And I can also try and now use this information when you’ve got thousands of people to predict what the best foods are for people.”
Healthy Eating Myth Busting
It’s fascinating insight into the future of predictive health. Spector’s book, “The Diet Myth,” detailed how the health industry has failed the general public for roughly the past 30 years. People were told to eat low-fat foods, count their calories and get lots of exercise. Spector calls that advice “very old-fashioned, very 20th Century.”
“We only really understood food around those primitive concepts in these very broad categories of fats and sugars and proteins and we’ve ignored one of the big ones, which is fiber,” Spector says.
Diets cannot revolve around the three blocks of fats, sugar and protein. What matters, Spector says, is the total amount of chemicals consumed and the effects on the body. Take, for example, a banana. A banana can’t be defined in one of the three categories because it’s made up of 600 chemicals. Once a banana is ingested and combines with gut microbes it converts to 6,000 chemicals.
Making the microbiome more complex: everyone will react differently to that same banana. The effects of the chemicals produced will present differently in each individual.
Diversifying Diets — and Microbes
“Virtually all diets, people end up restricting what they eat which actually has a long-term effect of reducing your microbes and therefore they’re less able to cope with modern living,” he adds.
Spector said you cannot generalize healthy eating guidelines with broad generalizations when it comes to the microbiome because everyone will react differently. Human genetics shape the gut microbiome.
“But if you had to have one rule, people on very restrictive diets don’t do well and people who have the more diverse diets…are healthier,” he says. This is because a diverse diet is full of different nutrients and, in turn, build a diverse group of microbes. Spector compares the microbiome to a garden – the nutrients consumed are like the fertilizer helping the plants or microbes grow.
As the head of the Department of Twin Research & Genetic Epidemiology at King’s College, Spector has studied the effect of microbes in twins. In one study, two mice with different weights were analyzed. The overweight mouse with less diverse microbes was given a fecal transplant from his twin, the skinnier mouse with a healthier microbiome. Once that healthier mouse was given the fecal transplant, the overweight mouse continued to lose weight, even when overfed.
“So those microbes are doing a really good job working overtime to convert metabolically to keep that stuff away from going into fat. They’re burning it up in ways we don’t really understand,” Spector says. “Your chances of having good microbes will increase the more you’ve got of them. So the people who have very limited number of microbes, who have very limited diets where they’re just on processed foods, have an increasingly smaller amount of nutrients in there and only a few microbe species like that restrictive species and they elbow the others out and then they can’t react in healthy ways:
Society has to stop demonizing junk food, Spector says, “we have to get away from the idea that these things are so deadly.” Eating a fast-food burger once a year could actually be good for the microbiome, Spector argues, because it will “wake up your system.”
Another study on mice found that mice who consumed lots of fiber (chickpeas, lentils), then were given a high-fat meal didn’t put on weight. Spector said it’s because they had a solid base, and then were given a high-fat meal once in moderation.
Spector is against the concept of clean eating (“There’s no such thing.”) and even processed food (“What’s processed food? It’s cheese. It’s milk. It depends where you draw the line.”). But he says ultra-processed food with harsh chemicals should be kept to an absolute minimum. Ultimately, no one should take a black and white view on food and limit what they eat.
What Should We Eat?
So what should we eat? Spector highlighted four food and drinks that help gut health: foods high in fiber, complex plants, fermented foods and polyphenols.
Fiber is important because it’s what microbes live off. Fiber is hard to digest early in the digestive track, so the nutrients reach the colon before being absorbed. Most ultra-processed foods are so full of sugar that they are absorbed extremely early in the digestive process. Microbes are destroyed by starving them of fiber — microbes can be wiped out if not fed fiber for long periods of time.
Complex plants, Spector advises, prioritizing vegetables first and fruit second. Fermented foods are full of the live bacteria critical for gut health. Spector suggests fermented foods like kefir, yogurt, kimchi, sauerkraut, kombucha, Japanese fermented soy and even quality fermented chocolate. Polyphenols are an energy source for microbes, and can be found in any food like blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, olive oil, dark chocolate, seeds, coffee and green tea.
As far as pill supplements, Spector points out that there’s no scientific evidence yet that probiotic supplements benefit healthy people.
“I’m generally in favor of using food – yogurt, kefir, cheese — rather than expensive supplements,” he says.
Who is enjoying some sauerkraut at their July 4th BBQs? Pacific Sun magazine featured three Northern California sauerkraut makers — Sonoma Brinery, Wildbrine and Wild West Ferments. The article highlights the different fermenting techniques of the three brands and features this fascinating insight from David Ehreth, president and managing partner at Sonoma Brinery:
“If I can go nerd on you for a moment,” Ehreth warns, before diving into a synopsis about the lactobacillus bacteria that exist on the surface of all fresh vegetables. “You can’t remove them by washing.” What’s more, they immediately begin to feed and reproduce — but not in a bad way, unless they’re a bad actor, he insists.
“Those bacteria will really stake out their turf,” says Ehreth. “They’re very territorial. They go to war with each other.” The incredible part of it is that the four horsemen of the food industry — listeria, E. Coli, botulinum, and salmonella—are on lactobacilli’s hit list. None survive. Five bacteria enter — one bacterium leaves.
Quoting the Food and Drug Administration, Ehreth states, “There has been no documented transmission of pathogens by fermented vegetables.”
Read more (Pacific Sun)
Should a fermented food process need a patent? PepsiCo has filed a patent to ferment oat flour and dairy milk together. PepsiCo-owned Quaker Oats is creating a “spoonable or drinkable” clean-label product comparable to yogurt. The process involves co-fermenting a grain, dairy and a set of metabolites. This patent is unique because, while there are existing food products that combine unfermented and fermented dairy and grains, none co-ferment grain and dairy at the same time. In their application, PepsiCo notes that consumers are increasingly consuming fermented food products for health benefits.
Read more (World Intellectual Property Organization)
As Consumer Distrust in Probiotic Pills Grows, Fermentation Brands Need to Educate on Benefits of Live Bacteria
Probiotic supplements have been the hype of the health industry for the past few years, but the rage is dissipating. Consumers are starting to distrust probiotic pills, realizing a pill alone doesn’t deliver on promised health benefits.
“The thing is, you can’t just pop in a probiotic and get better health,” said Ashley Koff, a registered dietician and CEO of the Better Nutrition Program. “Consumers are waking up to the fact that our digestive health is more complicated than this. We need to start looking beyond probiotics.”
Good gut health requires more than just a single daily probiotic pill. Fermentation brands need to consider all the nutrients needed for a healthy gut as products are evaluated, marketed and advertised.
“You’re actually not what you eat. You are what you digest and absorb…The demands of our digestive health go so far beyond the probiotics,” said Koff, who spoke at Expo West on “Gut Health Revolution: A Radical New Approach Beyond Probiotics.” “When we walk about gut health, we often think about our stomach or our colon. But what were really talking about here are a bunch of different organs. We have to nourish multiple organs with complementary nutrient demands.”
The digestive system is the core to the entire body system. Koff said: “We cannot get and stay healthy without better digestion.” Most digestive health products isolate nutrients specific to one organ, she added. So while a probiotic may help the small intestine, for example, what feeds the probiotic? What makes the probiotic thrive?
Koff said most probiotic supplements and probiotic-infused products ignore other nutrients. What about magnesium, that helps relax the digestive tract? Probiotic supplements have been marketed as a one-time solution when other critical minerals, antioxidants, amino acids, fatty acids and alkaline are just as critical for gut health.
“We want to make sure we’re getting those nutrients that nourish the microbiome,” Koff said. Live, active bacteria will nourish the good bacteria in the gut, building the immune system. “If we’re getting probiotics, we need to get in prebiotics as well.”
Probiotics made $2 billion in sales in 2018, but their sales are slowing. Prebiotics, however, are doubling sales growth.
Simply put, prebiotics are the foods microbes in the gut like to eat. Mayco Clinic describes prebiotics as “specialized plant fibers (that) act like fertilizers that stimulate the growth of healthy bacteria in the gut.” Probiotics, on the other hand, are living organisms in specific straings of bacteria. Fermented foods are full of live, active cultures, like yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi and kombucha.
Koff said people shouldn’t be getting all their prebiotics from a supplement. Most prebiotics should come from food.
“It should be deliciously easy for us to get the nutrients that help our gut,” Koff said. “No supplement in the world can override a poor-quality diet. …That’s why it’s so important when you look at a prebiotic that you’re looking at something that’s a whole food, (especially) if a whole food gets fermented.”
Relying on food for all nutrients, though, is hard for the majority of people, Koff revealed. If your probiotic choice is granola, for example, are you going to continue eating that same granola and that same service every day to consistently meet your probiotic needs? And a very small number of people actually eat gut-boosting foods daily. “I find that’s a limiting factor,” Koff said.
Koff specifically touted Country Life’s new line of digestive aids, called Gut Connection. The prebiotics contain EpiCor, a whole food prebiotic. The Gut Connection line contains eight products consumers can take for their needs, like balancing digestive, mood, sleep, stress or weight. Country Life sponsored Koff’s education session.