Technology has long played an important role in food and beverage formulation. In recent years, food technologists have turned to an old technology for inspiration – fermentation – to solve burgeoning new problems. Sometimes referred to as precision fermentation, this food technology is now seen by industry stakeholders as an important route for solving some of our food systems’ most significant challenges, including its environmental impact and supply availability.
Though fermentation technology in creating food ingredients has been in use for around 30 years, its application has skyrocketed recently, as food innovators explore new ways to create novel sweeteners, non-animal-based proteins, or develop plant-based ingredients that offer the same functionality as conventional ingredients. But it’s still a tricky proposition. As fermentation technology sees rising use, it is also under growing scrutiny, with more than a few detractors. Perhaps due to a fundamentally limited understanding of the process, some consumers are a bit uneasy with the technology.
That said, consumer attitudes are shifting, according to a recent Hartman Group study, noting that a cascade of challenges to the environment, ethical and social norms, and health have bolstered consumer awareness of our vulnerable food system.
By and large, these attitudes are being embraced by younger, technology-literate consumers who want to know where their foods and beverages come from and how they’re processed.
Nevertheless, lingering consumer perceptions may present a quandary for some brands, so it’s important to educate consumers on the technology. Traditional fermentation has a long history of making whole foods and beverages like cheese, beer, bread and yogurt. “Fermented foods have been around for thousands of years,” said Mark Fahlin, Business Development Manager for Cargill, a pioneering company in fermentation technology. “For many decades, we’ve used fermentation to make ingredients from soy sauce to citric acid – but it’s not widely known. However, I think that’s about to change, and consumers are going to start learning more about all that these ingredients can do.”
A lot of the recent buzz is around the ways in which fermentation is now being used. “What’s new today is that we’re using fermentation to produce nature-identical ingredients in a highly sustainable manner, enabling food and beverage manufacturers to better feed the world,” explained Dr. Erin Marasco, Ph.D., Global Biology Leader for Cargill. “Simply put, fermentation allows us to address agricultural system challenges and helps us feed the earth’s growing population in a way that greatly reduces the amount of land and water used.”
A safe, scalable solution
Using fermentation can help address a variety of manufacturing challenges, Marasco added, such as providing a reliable, consistent ingredient supply chain that is less affected by weather conditions, pests or environmental factors. There are also advantages regarding traceability because “with fermentation, the origin of production is clear,” she noted. In addition, fermentation can also improve scalability and sustainability.
“Cargill’s next-generation EverSweet® stevia sweetener is a great example of how fermentation solves several issues,” said Carla Saunders, Cargill’s Senior Marketing Manager for high-intensity sweeteners. EverSweet is “a higher-intensity sweetener that allows us to access the best-tasting components in the stevia leaf – Reb M and Reb D. They exist in the leaf at such low levels – less than 1% – that it’s simply not economically or commercially viable to produce a sweetener made from these sweet-tasting molecules using a traditional agronomic approach,” she explained.
Nature-identical ingredients derived from fermentation also provide a strong sustainability story. For example, EverSweet “offers significant environmental benefits, requiring less water and land, and resulting in a much lower carbon footprint than if we used plants – or even bioconversion – to produce our Reb M sweetener,” Saunders noted. “We conducted a third-party-validated life cycle analysis (LCA) to affirm those sustainability credentials.”
Fermentation can also be used to create ingredients with unique health benefits, such as Cargill’s EpiCor® postbiotic, which is clinically shown to support immune health. EpiCor postbiotic supports a healthy gut microbiome, which – as ongoing research suggests – helps to support a healthy immune system. EpiCor is rich with metabolites, and when taken daily, acts like a vitamin for your immune system.
A strategic approach is needed
Although the advantages of fermentation are many, not every ingredient should be made using this approach, Marasco said. There are some important things that formulators should consider, she added, such as the often-lengthy regulatory pathway for these ingredients.
“It’s also a very asset-heavy way to produce ingredients, requiring large-scale fermenters,” Marasco noted. “Equally important, you need highly skilled experts at every stage, from ideation through commercial production.”
Consumer perception also plays a role in acceptability, she added. “The good news is that younger consumers – millennials and Gen Z – are much more open to science-based products than older generations. They’re more concerned about issues like sustainability, and they’re more curious about new technologies.”
Marasco predicted that we are only at the beginning when it comes to use of fermentation in foods and beverages. “We've just begun to explore how to fully leverage fermentation technology to produce ingredients to help nourish the world in a safe, responsible, sustainable way. When ingredients are only available in limited quantities through traditional agronomic approaches, fermentation enables us to produce them more efficiently, more consistently, more affordably and more sustainably.”
Learn more about opportunities in fermentation innovation with Cargill.