The past, present, and future of fermented foods


Fermented foods

From the spicy kick of kimchi, the sour tang of creamy milk kefir, to the satisfying crust of sourdough bread, these culinary treats are as diverse as they are delicious. Countless fermented products like these have been a part of human culture for centuries and are a testament to the ancient art of fermentation. Today, their role in our diets and cultures has evolved and diversified, and fermented foods are becoming increasingly recognised for their roles in contributing to human health and more sustainable food systems.

Once upon a time

The practice of food fermentation has been used to preserve raw materials since the Neolithic period, making fermentation one of the oldest methods of food preservation. Fermented foods have been important to many cultures for millennia, popularised not only to aid the preservation of raw materials, but to also enhance their flavours, textures and nutritional properties. In earlier periods, knowledge of food fermentation techniques was primarily shared verbally through generations, and the foods and drinks that were produced were limited by locality, including availability of raw materials, environmental conditions and taste preferences. Nowadays, these local preferences have surpassed their geographical boundaries, so that today’s consumers can enjoy ancient-originated fermented foods and share their cuisine cultures across continents.

From tradition to trend

Today, fermented foods and beverages are ever-present in many of our eating habits – representing from 5 to 40% of the human diet, depending on individual dietary choices and lifestyle factors. However, this current prevalence pales in comparison to more ancient periods, where more than 70% of the average diet was believed to be composed of fermented foods. Despite this decline in consumption, many ancient fermentation-derived products have sustained their popularity throughout time. Simultaneously, new products are being developed to meet the evolving needs, preferences and curiosities of the modern consumer.

In particular, European consumers are expressing a growing desire for fermented foods, with a notable peak in interest observed in fermented fruits and vegetables. While both animal-based and plant-based fermented foods contribute to enhanced health benefits, plant based fermented foods offer further potentials for sustainable food production. Additionally, many plant-based fermented foods are acknowledged as great sources of alternative proteins – playing an especially important role for those following vegan diets.

This historical practice of food processing is evolving thanks to recent technologies that make the benefits of consuming and producing fermented foods even more accessible. Technological advancements are facilitating improvements in fermentation approaches to enhance their quality and safety, however more work must be done to fully understand the food safety factors that will allow for fermented foods to unleash their positive impacts on the food industry.

Altogether, it is evident that the future of fermented foods is bright, and delicious. From cutting-edge technologies that focus on the sustainability aspect of production, to the enhancement of protein contents in plant-based foods, the ancient practice of fermentation has leapt into a pandora box of possibilities. We are witnessing creative approaches to fermentation that break boundaries by expanding the technique to products such as seaweed and flavour improvements to well-known fermented foods, such as fermented soybean products.

What’s next in research?

Food scientists, artisan food producers and other food enthusiasts are surprising the market with up-and-coming healthy products, and seeing that fermented foods are becoming trendier, it is clear consumers are responding positively. Importantly, fermented foods are becoming more relevant for their role in a sustainable, local and artisanal agricultural economy – another central appeal for modern consumers.

While in more ancient times, fermentation was mainly employed for its preservation powers, today the interest is more associated with their impacts on human health. Nonetheless, the impact of fermented foods consumption on the gut microbiome and human health must be made clear, to open the possibility of harnessing the full potential of these nutritious products. As part of this effort, the EU-funded DOMINO project is excited to be playing a role by paving the way for more clear scientific evidence on the health impacts of fermented foods, as well as their consumer acceptance.

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