Fermentation is an old concept but a rising star in wellness.
It’s hard to find a better embodiment of the maxim “What’s old is new again” than fermentation—a practice so prevalent across time and space that some identify our ability to harness it as part of what makes us human.
And while that’s a juicy question for the historians to contemplate, what’s more relevant to those in the health-and-wellness industry is the “moment” that fermentation is now enjoying both as an au courant culinary trend and as an engine of innovation whose fruits promise to improve not just food quality but human health and the health of the planet alike.
So is it fair to say that fermentation’s becoming the hottest technology in the wellness biz? Not exactly, says Paul Altaffer, chief innovation officer, RFI Ingredients (Orangeburg, NY). “We’d say it’s not becoming a hot technology, but that it’s been one all along,” he surmises. “It’s an ancient practice that’s being rediscovered.” And it’s about time.
Culture of Health
Fermentation’s time has come again in part because the past few years have been a propitious time for anything associated with health—and fermentation is definitely associated with health.
"Consumers have discovered the link between fermentation and better health,” says Stacey Smith, DC, marketing and communications manager, NORAM, Gnosis by Lesaffre (Lille, France), “and they can’t get enough.”
The relationship attracting the most attention may be that between fermentation and the gut microbiome, whose constituent organisms deploy fermentation to break down the foods we feed ourselves in order to feed themselves—yielding healthful fermentation byproducts in the process.
In addition, Altaffer notes, the combination of fermentation’s heat plus its ability to break down sugars modifies poorly metabolized foods and nutrients into more-digestible and bioavailable forms, “easing their passage through the gut and into our systems where they belong—in essence, one of fermentation’s great effects.”
And consumers have embraced gut-friendly “pre-fermented” foods—think kombucha, kimchee, kraut, and kefir—largely because of research showing the extent to which gut health, and the foods that nourish it, impact “just about every other measure of good health,” Altaffer says.
In the end, he concludes, “We’re not so sure that fermentation is creating new compounds as much as it’s modifying existing ones.” But either way, he predicts, “As we learn more about the gut and the microbiome’s importance to overall health, the opportunities around fermentation will increase dramatically.”
Of course, those opportunities have existed for as long as fermentation has, dating back millennia to the ancient Sumerians who first leveraged fermentation’s transformative powers to make bread and beer—two foods that, drawbacks notwithstanding, remain fundamentally nutritious sources of, among other things, B vitamins generated by the yeasts carrying out the fermentation.
And as Casey Lippmeier, PhD, senior vice president of innovation, Conagen (Bedford, MA), notes, “The pure forms of these vitamins are produced much the same way today,” the main difference being that we now know a lot more about how fermentation proceeds, and can apply what he calls “the tools of biotechnology” to “coax” the participating microbes into making “high titers of healthy nutritional products more sustainably and economically than was possible before.”
That coaxing generates everything from the aforementioned B and other vitamins to essential amino acids, omega-3s, and even more “cutting-edge” nutrients, including the amino acid ergothioneine and pyrroloquinoline quinone, an antioxidant and redox cofactor, Lippmeier notes.
And nutrients aren’t the only fermentation products that food and supplement makers consider useful, he adds. Case in point: It’s hard to find a formulation that doesn’t contain some sort of flavor, color, preservative, thickener, emulsifier, processing aid, or sweetener that fermentation helped build.
Study in Stevia
In fact, Lippmeier cites stevia’s (Stevia rebaudiana) path from obscure plant-based extract to sugar substitute as an object lesson in how fermentation simply makes things better.
As he explains, “Stevia-leaf extract wasn’t well-received when first introduced because of its odd, lingering, bitter aftertaste.” But using a “bioconversion” process based on precision fermentation, scientists transformed the leaf’s native rebaudiosides from configurations that inherently taste unappealing into ones that the palate perceives as much more like sugar.
“These fermented, or bioconverted, ‘rebs’ just taste better than the rebaudiosides found in stevia-plant extracts,” Lippmeier says. “And in the case of Reb M, in particular, they’re nearly 300 times sweeter than sugar.”
Even better, bioconversion amplifies stevia leaf’s typically trace levels of naturally occurring steviol glycosides into quantities that can support global commercial production—and that hints at another advantage fermentation has as an ingredient engine.
Namely, says Lippmeier, “Many natural compounds that had previously been too scarce or expensive when sourced from a plant or animal are now available as fermentation-derived products,” including rosmarinate from rosemary, coumarate from coumarin, and the hydroxytyrosol found in olives. “All can act as natural preservatives,” he adds, “and are capable of replacing artificial preservatives like BHA, BHT, sorbate, and benzoate in many applications.”
So with raw-material pipelines clogged and prices rising, precision fermentation’s independence of “exotic or hard-to-source inputs” is particularly strategic, Lippmeier points out. After all, water and sugar are the only raw materials needed, he says, and given that the latter’s one of earth’s most ubiquitous commoditized products, it’s available in quantities more than sufficient to keep the fermenters running.
Yet despite these benefits—and despite the public’s growing intoxication with the concept—fermentation, at least as a platform for “biotransformation,” is still foreign to some.
“We recognize that biotransformation may be an unfamiliar term,” Smith admits, “but it just refers to natural processing methods like fermentation that use a naturally occurring resource—living microorganisms—to transform compounds into nutritional actives that benefit human health and well-being.”
Among industrial process, it’s hard to get “cleaner” than that—which, Smith argues, is more important now than ever.
“Our industry needs to become more sustainable,” she insists. “Many of us know this, but we struggle with how to make it a reality.” Fermentation, with its ability to proceed absent solvents, high pressures, and excessive energy requirements, offers one strategy. Smith even considers it “arguably the most natural processing method out there, and one that mankind’s benefited from since the beginning of time.”
No process is perfect, Lippmeier concedes, and, indeed, fermentation, “like any manufacturing process, requires energy.” And because most energy grids still run on blends of renewable and nonrenewable sources, a fermentation plant’s fuel will include petrochemicals for the foreseeable future. But the progressive adoption of renewable-energy infrastructures, Lippmeier hopes, “will make fermentation-derived products even more sustainable than they already are.”
Which should be music to Smith’s ears. “We see biotransformation methods like fermentation as the most promising opportunities for industry to reduce raw-material consumption and waste when developing active ingredients,” she says. “And it couldn’t be better-poised to thrive as transparency becomes less of a ‘nice-to-have’ and more of a necessity.”
That bodes well for the planet and for consumers. When Lippmeier looks into his crystal ball, he sees “commodities differentiated by greater sustainability and quality” as fermentation technologies become more robust.
“Examples might include lactose-free milk or cheese made from fermented proteins and fats that taste better than conventional milk or cheese,” he posits. “More-nutritious infant formula is also coming, made with human forms of breastmilk proteins sourced in no other reasonable way than fermentation.”
And why stop with food and nutrition? Innovators are already using precision fermentation to make safer crop treatments, sustainable fertilizers, and even cosmetic and personal-care ingredients including surfactants, emollients, and moisturizers, he says.
“These technologies are making a tremendous impact now and will be felt even more as society shifts away from a petroleum-based economy to one based on sustainability.” And, perhaps, on the ancient art and advancing science of fermentation.