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The futuristic comeback of fermentation

Fermented foods can offer answers to numerous customer needs around personal wellness and planetary health. Bolstered with the right technology,...

Fermentation is a process behind some of the world's most popular foods and beverages. Bread, cheese, beer, wine, coffee – all these daily staples are familiar and fermented.

Fermentation is nothing new; in fact, it’s an essential practice that has accompanied mankind from ancient times, when food was scarce and needed to be preserved long-term in the absence of pasteurization and refrigeration. Numerous fermentation traditions and cultural examples have survived to this day – beer and sauerkraut in Germany, miso in Japan, tempeh in Indonesia, skyr in Iceland, kvas in Eastern Europe, and of course, kimchi in Korea and many more.

Why then do we speak of fermentation as a “forgotten practice” and refer to “revival foods”? The answer is in consumer demand – during the 20th century economy was on the upswing, the financial welfare of an average consumer increased, fridges became a commodity, and the food production became industrialized. So, with access to convenient and inexpensive industrial meals, building a career and earning money became the more economically attractive option than making and preserving own food. Consequently, the fermentation practice that was once ubiquitous moved into an artisanal niche. The fermented foods never completely disappeared from our lives. In fact, the consumption of beers, wines, cheese, and coffee has been steady if not growing, but here too consumers switched to industrial options and gradually disconnected from the practical knowledge of making their own fermented foods. As of today, most consumers eat fermented foods without knowing it.

So why is the relevance of fermented foods increasing today? The reasons are again macroeconomic and societal, but also technological and environmental.

Macroeconomic push. As a society, we are becoming concerned with the side-effects of the economic upswing of the 20th century, such as the ecological crisis. In recent years, sustainable practices have become table-stakes for doing business, and the food industry is no exception. As consumers become more concerned with sustainability and animal suffering, numerous meat-alternative businesses emerge, whose production heavily relies on the fermentation process. Apart from meat alternatives, food industry is challenged to produce more sustainably, without additives, and preserving the natural benefits of the ingredients. As the world population grows, a further challenge is to feed the consumers more cheaply and sustainably than with meat, and also more healthily than with grain. Fermented foods offer a convenient and inexpensive way to combine all of these desired properties.

Societal push. Next to the concern for sustainability and planetary health, there is also increased awareness of personal health, strongly driven by younger generations. The Millennials and Gen Zs take care of their health differently than any generation before them: they are more willing to spend money on fitness, healthy eating and self-care. With regards to food, these consumers are increasingly looking for novel and unusual flavors, colors, and textures in food products, while also demanding sustainable and ethical practices. Next to such global improvements, these generations are also accustomed to individualized features, like personalization and self-monitoring, and expect that food can behave like their Fitbit and Apple Watch. Being a live product, unpasteurized fermented foods address some of the taste- and health-related customer demands but need to get more available and smarter as a product. The aesthetic appeal of the fermented foods must also catch up, for example in form of innovative and creative packaging formats that preserve the integrity of the living probiotic culture without sacrificing convenience.

Technological push

While it was generally known that fermented foods are rich in fiber and vitamins, it is through modern technologies like microbiome analytics that we can appreciate the full range of benefits behind foods. Especially today, in the light of the modern-age pandemics like diabetes, heart conditions and autoimmune diseases that fermented foods emerge as a superfood. For example:

  • fermented foods contain beneficial probiotics and prebiotics, which are particularly missing from the Western gut, which has been depleted by the heavily processed and over-sugared industrial meals;
  • fermented foods may support heart health by lowering blood pressure and improving cholesterol levels;
  • they help fight mood swings and stress. For example, strains of bacteria like Lactobacillus helveticus and Bifidobacteria longum have been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression. Lactobacillus casei Shirota, may also affect the production of cortisol and reduce physical symptoms of stress.

The list of benefits goes on. It's only thanks to the recent technological breakthroughs that we begin to truly understand all the benefits that this ancient practice holds for us. And we need these benefits more than ever. To increase the consumer-friendliness, we need user-facing solutions that can take a personalized approach, while cutting through the microbiological and analytical complexity. These solutions should help consumers become familiar with their own microbiome, monitor the effect of food on their health, and manage their diet holistically. Fermented foods are a great use case to build and test such a solution.

To sum up, it is clear that fermented foods can offer answers to the numerous customer needs around personal wellness and planetary health. Bolstered with the right technology, fermentation is a trend worth betting on. Hence, in the next years we will see these foods become more available, diverse and smarter.  



  1. https://www.harvardpilgrim.org/hapiguide/millennials-health-benefits/
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