Fermented Foods; the Future Staple Steeped in History

Fermented foods are another piece of the natural products portfolio currently experiencing a surge in popularity. The rise of kombucha has been well documented, but it isn’t the only one out there. Tom Smart spoke to Adam Goldwater, Managing Director of Loving Foods, to find out more about the renaissance in traditional foodstuffs and the future of the market. 

Forget the fashionable foods and the in-vogue vegetables; fermentation has been dubbed a Western ‘mega trend’. One of our very first blogs profiled the rise of sour tea superstar kombucha, but it doesn’t stop there. Kimchi, sauerkraut, kefir, miso, tempeh and many other ancient ferments are becoming more and more popular, with all market projections expecting that to continue. The increased popularity and education around potential health benefits has resulted in consumers trying more and more different products; unearthing creations that had once been relegated to the confines of culinary history.

So why the boom? Well it’s all thanks to a perfect storm of heightened consumer awareness that has seen a substantial drive for products that fulfil two key purchasing requirements: that they are ‘natural’ and ‘functional’. 

Adam Goldwater, Managing Director of UK fermenters Loving Foods, offered his explanation. ‘There has been an explosion of chronic disease in the past two or three decades with very few answers from the field of medicine. People are naturally looking for their own solutions; they want answers. Eastern Europeans have been eating Sauerkraut for centuries. The Koreans have kimchi. It’s a similar story for Kefir, Miso and all the others. Fermenting pre-dates pickling and the taste is similar, you just get a lot of added health benefits with the real thing.’

 He certainly has a point on the numbers. As we highlighted in our recent low-FODMAP blog, up to 15% of the world’s population now suffer with some form of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or inflammatory bowel disease (IBD) such as Crohn’s or Ulcerative Colitis. In the west those percentages are far higher.  

 ‘Most of these diseases are dietary in my opinion’added an impassioned Adam, ‘we are simply beginning to resort back to ancient dietary ways and away from the processed. Who ever said you could eat too many fruits and vegetables?’. 

 What then of those much-touted benefits? As with kombucha, there are not many related to fermented foods that come with official scientific endorsement, making it near-impossible for producers to promote health aspects as part of their marketing plan. Instead they have to rely on word of mouth and the internet to fuel the fire, which seems to be working well enough. 

 ‘Information is beginning to go mainstream, and we see the effects of increased awareness regularly. People are more aware of the effect of the microbiome on their health. Every time a major article is published on the benefits of fermented food on gut health, we see a spike in sales the very next day’.

There are numerous reasons to be sanguine about the lack of research. For a start it appears to be just on the horizon. A widely cited 2017 paper on the health benefits of fermented foods, while lamenting the difficulty of studying the effects of such products, concluded:

“[T]he benefits of fermented foods are likely greater than the sum of their individual microbial, nutritive, or bioactive components.”(Source: Current Opinion in Biotechnology 2017, 44:94–102)

A further article on the matter from August 2018 stated:

“Consumption of fermented foods would not only provide important macronutrients, they could also deliver large numbers of potentially beneficial microorganisms to the gastrointestinal tract…several prominent groups have recommended that health care professionals should promote fermented foods containing live microbes as part of public health policy” (Source: Frontiers in Microbiology 2018; 9: 1785)

It would appear science is beginning to back up what promoters of fermented foods have waxed lyrical about for, in some cases, thousands of years. But a complete redesign of what policy makers consider a healthy diet is some way off as research progress is likely to be slower than hoped for. Not only are there difficulties in designing testable studies, there is also the issue of funding, with a considerable proportion of scientific research  now funded by commercial organisations, in particular, the pharmaceutical sector. As Adam stated, ‘It isn’t in the interest of drug companies to pay for research that proves considerable disease prevention could come from a better diet’.

But even if official policies did begin to recommend ferments as part of a balanced and healthy diet, don’t expect the kvass or the tempeh to be working their way into large multiples any time soon. The fermented foods industry faces challenges outside the scope of science. Adam recalls his most common feedback from first-timers. ‘You do sometimes get met with an ‘ick’ factor. The thought of live bacteria in food, even though it is friendly, can cause some hesitancy’.Further education is required, as is the need to overcome packaging challenges. The live nature of fermented foods and the production of carbon dioxide in situcurrently impacts on shelf life and storage requirements, meaning innovation is required to ensure these products can match their competitors in terms of convenience to the retailer as well as the consumer. 

Despite this, the future is increasingly bright for ferments and their producers. The seemingly-daily news articles on the importance of gut health are likely to explode in the wake of valid scientific research, and this will surely provide the mainstream education needed to move them back into every day consumption. 

 As for the packaging challenges, they will surely be overcome quickly as soon as demand is large enough. With the increasingly large-scale consumer move towards natural produce, populations around the world are beginning to reconnect with their food and understand the importance of provenance. The packaging industry is guaranteed to respond. 

Above all though, the potential of ferments to positively impact on overall health is a message that is beginning to resonate in all corners of the globe, driving sales and impacting on consumer behaviour. We now understand that our microbiomes talk, and it seems for the first time in decades, the public are beginning to listen.