Processing ‘the natural way’ re-emerges as top food trend

April 24, 2017

Ask Ryan M. Downs if sauerkraut is cool these days, and he’s quick to respond.

“Those aren’t a couple of things you expected in the same sentence — cool and sauerkraut,” said Downs, who’s in the sauerkraut business.

However, a study by the Innova Market Insights research firm identified “processing the natural way — established food processing practices that have been around for centuries,” as a Top Ten Trend for 2016.

“The health benefits of fermented foods are seeing increasing awareness among Western consumers,” the firm reported.

Fermentation is a natural processing method that involves exposing food to bacteria and yeast to preserve it for a longer period of time. Health experts — and processors — are talking up its health benefits. It’s full of probiotics, or “good” bacteria that assist with nutrient absorption and strengthen the immune system.

“In the West, after nearly a century of ‘sanitizing’ our foods out of real concern for foodborne pathogens, science is now proving that the fermentation, if done correctly, is a very effective and safe method of preserving foods,” said Kathryn Lukas, founder of Watsonville, California-based Farmhouse Culture, which produces active cultured foods and beverages. “And of course, fermentation creates microbes that make our food delicious and healthy.”

Sales are robust and companies are expanding fermented product offerings.

‘A kraut renaissance’

President and owner of GLK Foods in Appleton, Wisconsin, Downs is at the helm of a company established by his great-grandfather in 1900. While it started out as a cabbage and pickle business, it evolved into sauerkraut during years when there was a glut of cabbage.

Improved stomach health is the goal of five different Gut Shots products. Photo: Farmhouse Culture

Now with 250 employees and plants in both Bear Creek, Wisconsin, and Shortsville, New York, the company bills itself as the world’s largest producer of sauerkraut. Business has historically been steady, Downs said, but there’s a new excitement about it now.

“People are just getting back to basics with their food,” Downs said. “They want to be able to pronounce everything on their ingredient list and what they put in their bodies.

“There’s also so much research and news about probiotics, and that’s been a big draw for us as well. It’s like a little kraut renaissance.”

In addition to its popular single- serve refrigerated Oh Snap! pickles, the company offers a variety of canned, jarred and bagged krauts, including a refrigerated Saverne line that it introduced about three years ago. Unpasteurized and with no added preservatives, Saverne kraut continues to ferment after processing. A valve manufactured by Wipf AG in Switzerland made it possible for GLK to produce it in pouches.

“As the product continues to ferment in the bag because it has not been pasteurized and no preservatives were added, we have to release pressure so the pressure doesn’t blow up the bag,” Downs said. “The key component is the valve itself.”

A fundamental shift

Farmhouse Culture doesn’t go back more than 100 years like GLK, but Lukas was also ahead of the curve when she founded the company in 2008. A food alchemist and classically trained chef, she said her goal starting out was to create tasty organic krauts and kimchis — fermented Korean vegetables, typically including cabbage — that were accessible to a broad spectrum of palates and pocketbooks.

While she was aware at the time that fermented produce was healthy, she didn’t know yet about a National Institutes of Health initiative studying microbes in the human digestive system.

“This research would lead to a paradigm shift in our understanding of the gut and how it affects human health,” she said.

Getting started was a learning process.

“Setting the stage for successful, consistent ferments on a commercial scale is challenging,” she said. “There were very few large-scale vegetable fermenters in this country when I started, and the ones that did exist were pasteurizing and adding nitrates post-fermentation — not options for our products.

“So I looked to Korea and to Germany for knowledge — and along the way threw a lot of kraut away. Now with the right inputs, temperature, time, environment and pH, we are able to create consistently delicious and probiotic-rich foods and beverages.”

Farmhouse Culture also utilizes a venting pouch for its refrigerated kraut, and in fact was the first in the United States to pack krauts and kimchis in this type of packaging, she said. Its trademarked Ferment-O-Vent releases buildup inside the package without letting in air or harmful bacteria.

“The pouch contains no BPAs, is recyclable in most states — and get this: (it) has cut our carbon footprint by nearly two-thirds,” she said.

Lukas has seen her brand take off. Since starting out processing in a small basement kitchen and selling to a few farmers’ markets, the company has outgrown two production locations and now has more than 50 employees. Its krauts, kimchi and gut shots — savory drinks made from kraut juice — are now sold in 2,200 retail locations including natural food stores across North America, some conventional retailers and some San Francisco Bay-area Costcos.

Frieda’s is a long-time player in the fermentation market, and now features these three flavors of jarred kimchi.

Trending means sales

In Orange County, California, Frieda’s Specialty Produce first rolled out its refrigerated kimchi in the 1970s.

“We pioneered the idea of selling complementary items in the produce department such as tofu, and eggroll and wonton wrappers, and also encouraged our retail clients to group all the Asian vegetables together on display,” said President and CEO Karen Caplan. “We also introduced Kim Chee — that was how we spelled it back then — which was a novel concept back then.”

Frieda’s continues to sell kimchi to complement its many Asian vegetables and related items. Kaplan expects its popularity to endure. She cites a recent Nielsen study that reports digestive health is a focus for consumers, with 19.2 percent of all households saying that probiotics are important to them.

“The more research being done, the more people are going to look for fermented foods to help better their digestive health, which is important to overall wellness,” she said, adding, “because it’s trending, our retail clients see the value of stocking (it).”

Here to stay

Andy Reed remembers how his grandfather used to come to his family’s Ohio farm at the end of the growing season and cut everything that was left and process it for fermentation. As an adult, Reed got into acupuncture and nutritional therapy — and never forgot about his grandfather’s fermentation tradition.

“I started realizing that a lot of these powerfully healing foods are live culture-fermented foods … that are also historically famous for helping the body to heal,” he said.

The crew at Krazy Kraut prepares a line of what it calls “live probiotic food.” Photo: Krazy Kraut

Around 2012, he saw fermentation getting attention for its health benefits. Meanwhile, author Sandor Katz was writing books on fermentation that had gotten a lot of attention, too.

Reed began making his own recipe, Krazy Kraut, and selling it at farm markets. Today, it’s a part-time business. He and about eight helpers make it in a commercial kitchen in a farmers’ co-op in Columbus, and as of early February it was in more than 160 stores.

His base recipe includes cabbage, turnip, daikon radish, carrots and apples. To that he adds herbs and spices to create four products with different flavor profiles; a fifth is made from red cabbage.

Reed’s goal is to promote organic agriculture and farmers in Ohio – and to educate consumers about healthy food, fermented being key in his view.

“Western medicine is now calling the microbe population in our gut up to 80 percent of our immune system,” Reed said. “I think it (the fermentation wave) is here to stay.”

That means processors will be rolling out more fermented offerings even as newer entrepreneurs like Reed get into the game.

GLK’s Downs said his company is looking at other vegetables to pickle on their existing pickle line.

“As far as fermentation is concerned, we have a pretty robust new product development process,” he said. “There’s definitely potential to ferment other products, whether in our own brand or other foodservice products. Our infrastructure is pretty much set up on the fermentation side to handle shredded cabbage, but there are modifications we could be making in order to handle other fermented vegetables in bulk, and that’s what we’re looking at right now.”

Lukas predicts fermented foods will become a standard part of American diets.

“When I started out, there were fringe groups of fermented food enthusiasts and a handful of small kraut companies,” she said. “Now there are fermented food companies in nearly every community, and consumers have discovered that probiotic- rich foods not only taste great but they also create vibrant health.

“I think we’re moving rapidly to a point where consumers will want something fermented and probiotic at every meal and throughout the day.”

— Kathy Gibbons, contributing writer