There’s a huge amount scientists worldwide still need to learn about fermented foods. “We’re really at the tip of the iceberg, as far as I’m concerned,” says Paul Cotter, professor and head of Biosciences at Teagasc Ireland.
“If you think of the vast variety of fermented foods from all across the globe – from East Asia, from Africa, from South America – we really haven’t studied these in any great degree at all, maybe some very basic study, but no microbiome analysis,” Cotter continues. “So really not fully appreciating what’s in there or really harnessing those foods for broader society.”
Cotter, Bruno Pot (science director at Yakult Europe) and Maciej Krol (founder of mac.ferments) discussed fermented foods at a panel at this year’s Probiota conference in Copenhagen. In an interview with NutraIngredients – which wrote “fermented foods took center stage” at the conference – Cotter and Pot discussed the opportunities and challenges of fermented foods.
Expanding the Study of Fermented Foods
Modern technology continues to advance, allowing DNA sequencing and complex analysis of food. It’s of “critical importance” that we further study fermented foods, Cotter adds.
For example, there have been numerous randomized controlled trials with dairy kefir that confirm health benefits. But the results were shown to be dependent on the probiotic strains used – one could help reduce cholesterol, while another would address the gut-brain axis.
“If you don’t happen to have the right one in your kitchen, you’re not benefiting from it,” he says. “By carrying out in-depth investigations of the microbiomes and the metabolites that they produce, you can get a better sense as to what foods have the right microbes for you and to make almost a personalized type of fermented food for each person.”
Cotter stresses studying the foods individually rather than fermentation as a whole. There are specific foods, unique to a country or culture and produced on a small scale, “that we know very little about and might have fantastic health attributes.” He fears that, if these foods aren’t studied, the populations that traditionally make them will die off or move, and their approaches to making these foods will be lost.
Pot points to the fact that non-communicable – “New Age” – diseases emerged and began to increase as food production became more commercialized.
“We need to promote (the) intake of live microorganisms,” Pot says. The public needs to be told “how important it is to maintain healthy conditions in their gut.”
Pot is pushing for a microbes category to be included in dietary recommendations. A late 2020 study published in The Journal of Nutrition officially introduced the idea that a daily intake of microbes could improve health. He compares it to the definition of dietary, which helps educate the public about the kinds of fiber important in a healthy diet.
“The purpose of creating a category is really to allow easier communication with the consumer about the importance of live microorganisms in the diet,” Pot says. “The creation of this category will be a first step.”
Any recommendations, he adds, must be based in science. But it can be challenging to try to educate consumers about often complex scientific topics. It’s important for messaging to be simple, Cotter adds.
“Unless you have a means of explaining to the consumer what are these benefits, then you’re running into great difficulty,” he says.
Today, the public is more conscious today of immune health, and views fermented foods as natural and functional. Cotter believes, if it can be scientifically proven that dietary microbes should be consumed daily, legislators and regulators will add it to dietary guidelines.
Artisanal vs. Large Scale
Cotter sees the future of fermented foods tied to compromise between large- and small-scale producers. Industrialized ferments need to be tweaked to more closely resemble artisanal foods, while artisanal products need to become more readily available to the public at large.
“Fermented foods are quite often very healthy, but the health benefits aren’t fully appreciated because they haven’t been studied in great depth,” he says. “Typically, when those foods have been converted to make them on a large scale by an industry for production to try to make a product that’s available to as many people as possible, the microbiology of the food is very much simplified.”
On the other hand, it’s challenging to “harness the health benefits associated with artisanal foods” when a small brand scales up.
“I think there’s an opportunity for the two to meet in the middle,” Cotter says. “Retain artisanal qualities associated with food but make them available to as many people as possible for mass production.”