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Consumers’ growing interest in fermented foods is attributed to health and climate consciousness, according to industry experts at SupplySide West/Food ingredients North America (FiNA). The expanding landscape of fermentation beyond traditional items emphasizes its role in enhancing flavor, texture, shelf life and nutrition.
December 7, 2023
“Fermented” just might be the unofficial word of the year, according to professionals who attended the recent SupplySide/FiNA show in Las Vegas. The microbial process has been fundamental to human food and beverage production for more than 8,000 years, and this year, it was the focus of lectures, panel discussions and numerous exhibitor booths on the show floor.
Why now? According to the experts who spoke at the educational session, “Fermentation’s role in the future of food and beverage,” consumers are ready to hear it.
Will Cowling, a marketing manager at the consumer insights firm FMCG Gurus, presented research showing that one in four consumers worldwide already seek out fermented foods. Per a recent white paper from The Hartman Group cited in the discussion, a majority of American consumers are willing to embrace safe, good-tasting fermented foods immediately as part of a health- and climate-conscious approach to nutrition.
“Around $4.5 billion of investment has been put into the fermentation space in the past decade,” speaker Adam Leman, Ph.D., lead scientist of fermentation at The Good Food Institute (GFI), explained. “We’re only starting to see the fruits of that labor happening now.”
Here’s what’s growing right now in the field of fermentation.
Consumers might currently associate the F-word with either beer or active culture-containing foods like kimchi and kombucha. The contemporary landscape of fermentation, however, contains far more options than just a few years back.
“We’re using fermentation to enhance flavor, texture, shelf life and nutrition,” Leman said. “Maybe we’re adding live and active cultures, but we can really take foods, ferment them and you get a better tasting, more nutritious product out of it.”
One promising example he cited was a pea protein by one of the many exhibitors at Supply Side West. MycoTechnology uses shiitake mushroom mycelia to break down the peas to create a milder, creamier flavor than traditional pea protein, as well as an improved amino acid profile. Leman also pointed to the heme iron in Impossible Burgers; they are fermented from soy-derived leghemoglobin.
Food scientist Monica Bhatia, Ph.D., presented another fermentation-based innovation from the bakery side of the grocery store in EQUII, a bread enhanced with fermented wheat flour. While the bread itself does not contain active cultures, fermentation creates an end product with fewer carbohydrates and adequate amino acids to qualify as a complete protein, and 10 grams of overall protein per slice.
Bhatia, who boasts an extensive background in biofuels and sustainability, was quick to point out that fermented, protein-enriched foods shouldn’t end up as luxury items. They can be created using agricultural “side chains,” like leftover brewers’ grains and corn, she said, citing a belief that professionals “have a path to make it really, really competitive” with traditional protein sources like beef and poultry.
Plant-based, fermented ingredients, such as seitan and tempeh, have been a component of meat substitutes for many years, but they’ve never been able to stand up against animal-based proteins gram-for-gram. The burgeoning field of precision fermentation, however, is poised to change that.
Precision fermentation uses microorganisms as “hosts” to create specific functional ingredients. These can be proteins, fats, flavoring agents, enzymes, sweeteners—really, there’s no limitation. The end product is often what food scientists call “nature-identical,” meaning indistinguishable from its traditional derivation.
One example already on the shelves is ProFerm, a whey protein created using precision fermentation. Ty Wagoner, Ph.D., a senior scientist at Perfect Day, which produces ProFerm, said the product was the result of the company’s founders’ disappointment with existing plant-based cream cheese options. Today, ProFerm is featured in the popular animal-free cream cheese Nurishh as well as ice cream, chocolate bars and even whey protein.
“It’s the same structurally and functionally as what the cow made,” Wagoner said. “And the other thing that’s really nice is that it’s completely disconnected from the dairy supply chain.”
Doni Curkendall, VP of operations at The Better Meat Co., detailed how precision fermentation can transform staple proteins, known as mycoproteins. This mushroom-derived protein takes less than a day to produce using common agricultural commodities, such as wheat or corn. What results is a complete protein with more protein per gram than eggs, and more iron than beef, but also more fiber than oats.
Listening to experts explain the boundless possibilities contained within their 1,000-gallon steel fermenters, it becomes hard to categorize the foods created utilizing precision fermentation. Are they meat, plant based or something entirely new? MycoProtein CEO Alan Hahn leans toward the third option.
“We’re trying to get to the point where you as a consumer, all you have to do is eat the foods,” he said. “And it tastes great. It’s in the food form that you like, whether it’s a burger or chicken nugget—whatever it is you like. And it’s got the right protein, fiber, vitamins and fats in it. You don’t have to think about it.”
Nick Collias is a writer and editor with over a decade of experience working in the health and fitness industry. From 2016 to 2021, he was the host of the Bodybuilding.com Podcast, interviewing elite athletes and training thought-leaders on a wide range of exercise, nutrition and lifestyle topics. Additionally, he has worked for the last 20 years as a longform print and online journalist, as well as a book author, ghostwriter and editor.
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