Fermented food has long been a part of the human diet, dating as far back as 5,000 BCE when the Egyptians and Sumerians used fermentation to produce bread, wine and beer. Initially these techniques were used to preserve food, improving their flavour while eliminating toxins. But fermented foods have come a long way, and today people are looking for healthy options that don’t compromise on flavour, aroma or texture.

Fermented foods are as “old as humanity”, explains Sebastien Rusu, head of brand activation at Yeo Valley, and if you look at different cultures around the world each one has its own fermentation journey. From sauerkraut, kimchi and miso, to yoghurt and kombucha, each one has its own story.

“Believe it or not,” says Troy Douglas, co-founder of Nexba, which produces a naturally sugar-free kombucha drink, “kombucha has actually been around for thousands of years. Legend has it that kombucha originated in China in 200 BCE during the Qin Dynasty.”

The same can be said for kimchi, a fermented food synonymous with Korean culture. “Fermented foods are not only essential in Korean cuisine, but [they] also have deep cultural and historical significance,” says Michelle Lim, kimchi business executive at CJ CheilJedang, the parent company of the brand Bibigo, one of the leaders in the globalisation of Korean food. “Fermentation is a crucial process in traditional Korean food culture. Kimchi and other fermented foods were developed as a way to preserve vegetables during cold winters.”

“Kimchi is known as a functional food that exhibits various health benefits through its main ingredients of vegetables, various seasonings and the fermented by-products generated during the fermentation process, [such as] lactic acid bacteria.”
Michelle Lim

Through an anaerobic process – where microorganisms such as yeast and bacteria break down food components, for example, sugar, into other products like alcohol, acid or gas – fermentation creates a unique taste that is becoming increasingly popular with consumers across the world.

There are countless different types of fermented foods, including yoghurt, kefir, wine, beer, miso, kimchi, sauerkraut and kombucha, to name just a few. While many of these raw foods are nutritious in their own right, by undergoing the fermentation process they have the potential to carry addition benefits, such as reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity and inflammation. With consumers looking for healthy food that packs a punch, fermented food appears to have a lot to offer.

Percentage increase in online searches for fermented foods in the first two weeks of 2023.

Preservation with a punch

Fermented foods have developed significantly over the years, particularly as preservation is no longer the main concern for the average fridge-owning consumer. Traditionally, fermented foods were made in natural environments and there wasn’t really an exact science to it – at least, not until the mid-1800s when the French chemist Louis Pasteur connected yeast to the process, and even then, it wasn’t considered beneficial to health until the early 1900s. With the onset of technology, these foods became less popular, until now.

“The older fermented foods fell behind with industrialisation and modern times, as it [became] easier to preserve with fridges or pump them full of chemicals” explains Rusu. “If you look at some of the products that you can find in the supermarkets, they can stay surprisingly unchanged for months, which is very unnatural.”

Kefir, Rusu goes on to say, is one such product that has its roots in traditional fermentation. Milk was originally kept in goatskin bags hanging in doorways, where people passing by would nudge it to encourage the milk and kefir grains to mix well and preserve it.

With the development of the fermentation industry, however, it has “progressed through scientific analysis and data from various research institutions and private research institutes, both domestically and internationally,” Lim points out. “Fermentation microbial preservation businesses are being conducted by analysing the characteristics of microorganisms used in fermentation, and technologies are being developed to control the environment that may occur during the fermentation process so that global consumers can enjoy the same taste at any time.”

This evolution of fermentation is made clear from Rusu’s description of Yeo Valley’s yoghurt manufacturing – which has come a long way from yoghurts and kefir being jostled in goatskin bags. “Different bacteria would [produce] different tasting yoghurts within our range, so we’re using different strains of bacteria for different products.” The controlled fermentation process can create and recreate different tastes and texture on demand, meaning the organic family farm can produce creamy Greek-style yoghurt, all the way to its natural whole milk yoghurt.

Furthermore, the Korean brand Bibigo has minimised the variation in its taste and quality through using a patented lactic acid bacteria starter and is continuously conducting research development on various fermentation control technology. “Through this technology, [Bibigo] has been able to achieve a well-ripened taste for refrigerated kimchi, and extend the shelf life of a shelf-stable kimchi by up to 12 months,” adds Lim.

Something’s a bit funky

While the industry as a whole has come a long way, Nexba’s fermented drink is still essentially the same drink that was made in the Qin Dynasty, claims Douglas. “It’s a fermented drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. The bacteria consume the sugar, creating all kinds of positive, good-for-you molecules and a distinctive kombucha taste.”

For Douglas and his co-founder Drew Bilbe, the inspiration for Nexba struck when they were laying on Nexpa beach in Mexico in 2010, dreaming of a sugar-free alternative to homemade iced tea without losing its amazing taste. Fast forward to today, and the drink is Australia’s favourite naturally sugar-free brand and is making waves in the UK, Europe and Korea.

“So far, Nexba has removed over six billion grams of sugar from global diets,” adds Douglas. Made from oolong tea leaves and living SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), Nexba brews it’s Kombucha the “old-school” way to ensure the best flavour. “Specially built to survive the journey from mouth to gut, you can trust that our crafted kombucha will fiercely champion your gut health,” he adds. With plenty of antioxidants and B vitamins, the fermented drink also supports the body’s liver to eliminate toxins and boost energy.

Kombucha is not the only fermented option with added health benefits, as Lim and Rusu are both quick to add. “Yoghurt has a very good protein content,” says Rusu. Naturally lower in sugar and full of bacteria, it works both as a probiotic and a source of calcium. Additionally, according to Lim, “kimchi is known as a functional food that exhibits various health benefits through its main ingredients of vegetables, various seasonings and the fermented by-products generated during the fermentation process, [such as] lactic acid bacteria.”

As she goes on to explain, kimchi was named as one of the top five health foods by Health, a US-based magazine. “Kimchi was selected because it is rich in minerals such as vitamin B1, vitamin B2, calcium and potassium, as well as fibre and lactic acid bacteria.” Health benefits are not the only attraction of fermented foods of course, rather it’s their unique and often sour flavour. Lim sums it up best with her description of kimchi: “Crunch texture, complex taste, tangy flavour.” Its distinct flavour is due to the pickling and fermenting process, and kimchi provides a crunchy and complex taste that is often missing in other pickled foods, continues Lim. It is also an extremely versatile fermented product, as kimchi can be eaten on its own, as a side dish or used as an ingredient to create Korean dishes such as kimchi fried rice, kimchi stew or kimchi pancake. More recently, adds Lim, it has started to be incorporated in Western food and fusion menu items; for example, kimchi toasties, kimchi chili fries and kimchi burgers.

The tangy flavour that is so intrinsic to fermentation, as Rusu points out, is thanks to the bacteria doing their job, feeding on sugar and creating a lot of acidity that leads to that tangy taste. “By combining the right types of bacteria, you can vary the taste a lot,” he says. “We did a lot of work in trying to optimise the taste and the texture of our yoghurts and I think one of our best products is the natural whole milk yoghurt. It’s so versatile and has a little bit tangy, but still a very mild malt flavour to it.” Yeo Valley has a range of flavours in its products, including a kefir that, Rusu says, maintains a lot of the benefits found in traditionally made kefir, but is much less fizzy and sour to suit the modern consumers palate.

Flavour that fizzes

As the least sour option so far mentioned, kombucha has a lot to offer flavour-wise too. Dubbed as “seriously delicious” by Douglas, he explains why so many people love the drink with flavour varieties from mango, elderflower and lemon, to apple, pear and ginger. “It tastes great, it’s got the fizziness you love, but is also chock-full of nutrients, antioxidants and probiotics.”

With fermented foods and drinks on the rise across the global market, this demand will only continue to grow; meaning retailers and food manufacturers alike will have to step up. For Western staples like yoghurt, this interest will only secure the food’s place in a balanced diet. For products like kimchi and kombucha, the rising awareness and interest will hopefully result in greater distribution across the US and European markets.

Top 5
Kimchi was identified as one of the world’s healthiest foods.
Health Magazine

Lim agrees, adding that, while kimchi is a staple in Korea, Bibigo has its sights set on cementing this tasty food dish in “everyday meals for European consumers”, who are increasingly seeking out complex flavours and textures. “Kombucha, kefir, fermented foods, nootropics and natural energy drinks are all part of the growing wave of products driving growth and providing solutions,” concludes Douglas. The future of food looks to be fermented.