If you’re ever in doubt about our culture’s comfort with technology, consider that even a small child can access more processing power from the palm of her hand than our ancestors could fathom over their entire lifetimes.
Yet when it comes to food and drink, an increasing number of us would rather technology get nowhere near what goes down the proverbial hatch. Far better to choose products with ingredients plucked from a field, nurtured on a free range, or gently squeezed from their “natural” source.
That’s the most environmentally sustainable way to source, right?
Not necessarily. Sometimes harvesting ingredients from nature exacts a larger toll—in energy, water, land, or carbon emissions—than does generating them in a lab. And yet one technology currently generating ingredients in labs is as “natural” as metabolism itself.
It’s fermentation. And it may be the ingredient engine of the future.
“Historically,” says Noah Michaels, team leader, culinary, Symrise (Teterboro, NJ), “fermentation has been used to produce and preserve foods. But as we see increasing fear of technologically processed ingredients, manufacturers are looking toward these ancient processing methods to find new ways to make ingredients.”
You can’t blame them. Fermentation enjoys a stellar reputation among wellness-minded consumers. Notes Chris Speed, senior vice president, global sales and marketing, NattoPharma (Oslo, Norway), “Fermented foods can be healthy, as they add beneficial bacteria to the gut microbiota, increasing digestive and immune system health.”
Fermented foods and beverages even constitute a bona-fide trend, one that Christopher Naese, vice president, business development, Florida Food Products (Eustis, FL), says, “follows a greater consumer movement toward healthier, better-for-you products that are recognizable on ingredient legends.”
But while consumers largely “get” fermentation’s role in producing items like wine, beer, cheese, tempeh, and kombucha, fewer understand that it can create ingredients. Indeed, many in the food and nutrition industries might not fully appreciate fermentation’s ingredient-generating power.
The process diverges from traditional fermentation in that rather than inoculating a starting material with fermentative organisms that transform that material into something quite different, producers insert a targeted gene into a host organism—usually a yeast—that then ferments a nutrient medium, producing the targeted ingredient as a byproduct. Producers then harvest the ingredient from the fermentate and purify it for use.
“Fermentation’s been used in food and beverage preparation for thousands of years,” notes Andy Ohmes, global director, high-intensity sweeteners, Cargill (Minneapolis). “But on the ingredient side, it’s a relatively new approach to production.”
The number of fermentation-generated ingredients now available remains somewhat small, but as suppliers master the technique, the ranks are growing beyond existing options like citric acid and other acidulants, and the sugar alcohol erythritol.
“Surprisingly, a large portion of table sugar is made from fermented beets and not from sugarcane,” notes Dillon Friday, PhD, category director for the North American culinary flavor division at Symrise. “Another common ingredient made from fermentation is MSG. And we often see that sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, which aren’t label-friendly, are being replaced by ‘cultured dextrose,’ which is a naturally fermented preservative.”
“The fermentation process doesn’t just produce one or two molecules with bioactivity,” Friday continues, “but perhaps hundreds. We’re finding that fermentation of natural ingredients like rice or other proteins naturally creates bitter maskers, taste enhancers, cooling agents, sweetness enhancers, and more.”
And the process pays dividends beyond the ingredients themselves. Elzaphan Hotam, vice president of global marketing and CEO, NextFerm Technologies USA Inc. (Berkeley Heights, NJ), calls fermentation “the ultimate sustainable solution,” given its minimal land, water, and energy requirements compared to traditional sourcing, and its use of waste sugars as the fermentation medium.
Erythritol is exhibit A. “While some fruits and mushrooms produce small quantities of erythritol, it’s economically prohibitive to extract the same sweetener from these sources,” Ohmes explains. His company’s workaround: fermentation. “This process isn’t just more affordable,” he claims. “It also delivers a consistent, high-quality product and ensures supply-chain reliability. Ingredients produced through fermentation aren’t subject to the fluctuations in quality and supply we sometimes see with plant-sourced ingredients.”
Further, in an environment that prizes transparency, fermentation presents a refreshingly open book. As Elyse Lovett, senior marketing manager of nutrition, pharmaceutical, and CCM, Kyowa Hakko USA (New York City), notes, “Not only do consumers want to know an ingredient’s specific benefits to their supplement regimens; they’re looking deeper and asking questions like, ‘How is this ingredient made, and where is it from?’” Fermentation may not strike the romantic chord of tugging an ingredient from the soil, but it’s unambiguously traceable, quantifiable, and safe.
Ingredients in Action
So where do we see fermentation in action?
At Impossible Foods, to cite one high-profile example. The company is leveraging fermentation to produce a vegetarian version of heme, the protein that makes red meat red and gives Impossible Foods’ plant-based meats their convincingly meaty quality.
Nitrogen-fixing plants—think soybeans and legumes—naturally generate heme and store it in their roots. And while Impossible Foods could extract that heme from such plants, the economic and environmental costs of doing so motivated them to transplant heme-producing genes from soybeans into yeast cells, which then produce heme via fermentation.
A similarly sustainable impetus compelled Cargill to tap fermentation for the production of its EverSweet stevia sweetener. “The biggest problem with accessing the best-tasting parts of the stevia plant, Reb M and Reb D, is doing so in a commercially and environmentally viable way,” Ohmes explains. The compounds appear in the plant’s leaf in such small quantities that extracting them via a “traditional approach” is too costly and inefficient.
So Cargill employs a “specially crafted yeast” to produce the same rebaudioside M and rebaudioside D molecules as found in the stevia leaf, but at scale. “Using fermentation,” Ohmes says, “we can provide our customers with a great-tasting product in quantities and at a price that make widespread commercial use possible, but produced with the environment in mind.”