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Is Fermentation the Future of Our Food?

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Fermentation Fermentation

What is driving the current interest in fermentation?

There is no doubt that there is a growing consumer fascination with, and positivity toward, fermentation due to awareness of the health benefits that fermented food offers. This is based on the understanding that eating fermented foods has a positive impact on our gut microbiome, the trillions of bacteria, fungi and other microbes that live in our gut. Consumers are increasingly aware of the importance of good gut health and its connection to many other aspects of our health including improved immune function and better mental health.

The word “fermentation” itself carries a health halo, and fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic, consumers are seeking out fermented food in droves. A Google Trends’ global search analysis confirms that queries for the term “fermentation” grew by almost 30 percent between 2017 and 2020, and food producers are responding by launching more products with a fermentation claim.1 The number of new global food and beverage products launched with a fermentation claim has been steadily increasing, with a 52 percent increase between 2017 and 2020 alone.2

Consumers are seeking out simple, natural and authentic food. As a result, food processes that are perceived as natural, such as fermentation, are experiencing a revival. Fermentation is a trusted processing method that has been used by mankind for centuries. It is the oldest form of food and beverage processing, and almost every civilization has included at least one fermented food in its culinary heritage. Fermentation produces, transforms, and preserves food by utilizing the growth and metabolic activity of micro-organisms, by acidifying food, and by making natural antimicrobial acids and molecules, and it can occur in both plant and animal-based products.

Fermentation also delivers distinct and nuanced taste profiles in food and beverage products. Taste is the number one driver of consumer preference. Consumers want authenticity and are accustomed to traditional fermented food tastes such as kimchi, soy, cheese, yogurt, etc. Expressing those fermented tastes in industrially manufactured food products can be challenging. Taste derived from fermentation, such as umami and kokumi, allow food manufacturers to deliver those authentic characteristics in a more controlled way.

While the original purpose of fermentation was to preserve food against spoilage, fermentation science and processing advances have made it possible for controlled fermentation to now produce almost any ingredient or food. For years, the food industry has produced many fermentation-derived ingredients including enzymes, which are further used for functional benefits in the production of food or to improve the properties of the food.

However, most recently, fermenting ingredients in bioreactors, instead of using animals and fields for food production, has given rise to the term “cellular agriculture,” which means the production of animal-based protein from cell cultures. With our global population expected to grow to almost 10 billion people by 2050—more than 2 bn more than we have today and with rising incomes—more people will look to consume more resource-intensive, animal-based foods. In parallel, we urgently need to cut greenhouse gas emissions from agricultural production. According to the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization, the total emissions from global livestock today represent 14.5 percent of all anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Fermentation offers us a sustainable alternative, as it enables us to produce many animal proteins that we typically obtain from a farming-based system such as eggs, dairy, and meat. Along with creating food in a more sustainable way, fermentation can also create food in a healthier way. In November 2020, the World Economic Forum cited fermentation as a key global innovation area, sharing that “Fermentation presents an opportunity to fundamentally change the way the world eats and improve global human and environmental health and the economy.” The food industry is responding with $587 million invested in alternative protein dedicated fermentation companies in 2020 alone—more than the half of the all-time investment.3

There has been an explosion of Food Tech startups specializing in fermentation to produce ingredients and food. More than 80 percent of the companies devoted to fermentation-enabled alternative proteins have formed in just the past five years.4 The pace of innovation is accelerating. We now have better tools to characterize and optimize strains and produce metabolites of interest in a more efficient, consistent and environmentally friendly manner and with this, more and more companies are seeing the potential of fermentation, and uncovering new ways to make ingredients and food.

What Are the Different Types of Fermentation?

There are many ways to categorize fermentation. This can be done based on the technical approach, including batch fermentation, fed batch fermentation and continuous fermentation or by purpose: traditional fermentation, biomass fermentation and precision fermentation.

Traditional fermentation is what most of us are familiar with. It involves cultivating microbial organisms to produce a final food or beverage, modifying its taste, texture and nutritional profile. This is how we make beer, cheese, kombucha and many other fermented foods.

Biomass fermentation refers to the cultivation of microbial organisms with the purpose of obtaining as much as possible of the microorganism mass to use as food, such as alternative protein. The most well-known example being the production of yeast, yeast extract or probiotic precision fermentation utilizes the metabolism of micro-organisms to program microbes to act as “cell factories” for specific compounds of interest. This technique enables us to produce metabolites typically produced by microbes or mammals or plants in a much more sustainable and economical way, such as cultured meat and alternative proteins. It includes any production of primary or secondary metabolites such as organic acids, vitamins, proteins, enzymes and others.

What Does the Future Hold for Fermentation?

We believe fermentation will have a significant influence on the future of our food as it can produce many food types that we typically obtain from a farming-based system, but in a much more sustainable way. Today, producing protein—whether from peas or cows—is resource intensive and time consuming requiring large amounts of land, energy and water. It takes years to grow animals and months to grow plants, but amazingly, microbes have the potential to double their biomass in only a few hours, making them an exciting and sustainable solution.

However, despite the many benefits, scaling up the production of alternative protein through fermentation faces challenges. These include regulatory approval, production costs and consumer acceptance. From a regulatory perspective, approvals on novel ingredients, their production processes and safety are required. Some countries are embracing this disruptive food technology quicker than others and this is being reflected in speed of approval. In many aspects, science is ahead of regulations and further confidence in science with amendments to regulations will accelerate this progress. The high cost to production is also another important challenge but as production is scaled up and the process is optimised, the price will come down. With regards to consumer research, recent consumer studies indicate that up to 40-60 percent of consumers are now willing to try cultured protein, with cited reasons including being perceived as kinder to animals, the environment as well as a healthier food choice.

With food production increasing worldwide, so is our global problem with food waste. Currently we waste 1.3 billion tonnes of food each year, and for this, we pay a high economic, ethical and environmental cost. From a final product perspective, fermentation of surplus food could help increase shelf-life of food that is currently wasted. Additionally, when we consider, agri-food processing and by-products waste, which is also included in this startling global food waste fact, much of it contains many valuable compounds including proteins, lipids and others. However, their recovery to date has been challenging. With advancements in fermentation science, fermentation is fast becoming a significant tool to valorize agri-food and by-products waste, unlock the recovery of essential nutrients and produce value-added products. The potential for the bioconversion of agri-waste and byproducts from waste to valuable products, and in many cases new revenue streams via fermentation is only beginning.

Fermentation is a powerful process and an efficient sustainable way to produce alternative protein. It can ensure sustained availability, consistent quality and can valorize valuable waste streams. Governments and regulatory authorities are increasingly focused on reducing meat consumption, lowering food waste and diversifying protein production as effective climate change mitigation and positive health strategies. When you couple this with increased consumer focus on enhanced health, environment, sustainability, and the significant innovation happening with fermentation science and processing, the signals are clear that fermentation has the potential to positively disrupt our food systems and in doing so, build a more efficient and sustainable system. The possibilities for fermentation are truly endless.


1 Google Trends Search October 2021

2 Innova New product launch data base October 2021

3 Good Food Institute: 2020 State of the Industry Report. Fermentation: Meats, Eggs, and Dairy

4 Good Food Institute: 2020 State of the Industry Report. Fermentation: Meats, Eggs, and Dairy

Jacques Georis, PhD, Global Fermentation Science & Functional Technologies R&D Director, Kerry. Georis oversees Fermentation Science and Functional Technologies R&D activities within, Kerry Applied Health & Nutrition. He has more than 25 years of experience in the field of the microbiology & biotechnologies, specializing in microbial engineering, upstream and downstream bioprocess development, industrialization and manufacturing scale up, applied enzymology and innovation portfolio management. Melissa Sheridan, MSc, Senior Marketing Director, Applied Health & Nutrition Kerry. Shridan is senior marketing director for Kerry’s Applied Health and Nutrition division, where she has responsibility for leading the global marketing strategy for a diverse portfolio of technologies, which create a healthier and more sustainable world.

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