The 411 on Fermented Foods

The popularity of fermented foods continues, as its health benefits and flavors drive the category

What’s all the fuss about fermentation? First, it helps to be aware of what this process entails.

Fermentation is the process of converting carbohydrates to alcohol or organic acids by using yeasts or bacteria under anaerobic conditions.

The Fermentation Association addresses fermentation as the main focus of food preservation, giving the category a voice and support.

According to Neal Vitale, executive director of the association, the core of fermentation is centered around refrigerated products sold with live cultures, such as pickles, yogurt-based products, kombucha, kimchi and sauerkraut.

“The next wave is shelf stable products,” he says. “This includes pickles and other food that doesn’t have live cultures but use fermentation for preservation.”

Fermentation also is a process used to produce sourdough bread, beer and wine as well as salami and other meats.

“Fermented food and beverages are a $689 billion industry and will total $888 billion by 2023,” says Amelia Nielson-Stowell, editor at The Fermentation Association. “It’s the next superfood and a top menu trend that’s growing rapidly, as more people are rediscovering the benefits of fermented foods.”

 Fermented deli foods also are riding this wave of popularity.

“We’ve seen 13 years of straight sales growth [in our product],” says Eric Girard, vice president of sales and marketing at Van Holten’s, headquartered in Waterloo, WI. “The past two years have seen some of our strongest growth.”

The Benefits

Dieticians and doctors tout fermented foods’ benefit to gut health and say it’s due to healthy bacteria and microbes. 

But many are not aware of fermentation’s history.

“Fermentation has been around for centuries and is, in fact, one of the oldest means for creating and preserving food,” says Vitale. “It’s a worldwide phenomenon and activity.”

Many countries have a higher use of fermentation with items like soy-based products in Asia.

This diverse category can be broken down into different kinds of fermentation—bacteria based, yeast based, lactic acid and mold-based fermentation are just a few examples.

There is definitely room for growth, as there is an education gap,” says Nielson-Stowell. “People want fermented foods but don’t understand what they are.”

Healthy eating is a major driver of fermented foods’ popularity. Deli and grocery sales are consumer driven, and consumers are favoring brands that are healthy, craft and artisanal, all core values of fermentation brands.

“Fermentation is about creating flavor when you focus on the process,” says Vitale. “The process creates a deep, rich and exciting flavor profile, and this, with a combination of delicious food that helps gut health, is enticing for consumers.”

There are surprisingly many deli foods that fall into the fermented category.

“Ten years ago, those foods weren’t displayed or were a very small subset hidden within the canned goods space,” says Nielson-Stowell. “Now, there are exciting and flavorful brands in the deli department.”

Fermented foods are certainly in the midst of a heavy adoption period in grocery. 

“From the olive bar to the dairy case to the beverage display, we see this trend as a continuing evolution of food crafted for fun and function–ingredients that not only taste great but also offer health benefits,” says Brandon Gross, vice president of marketing, FOODMatch, in New York City.

Gut health and inflammation are at the forefront of consumer consciousness, yet fermented foods also add flavor to traditional dishes. 

“Fermented foods are a delicious way to add big flavor to staple dishes,” says Gross. “They can act as a superfood super-ingredient.”

An example is FOODMatch’s updated classic Italian Giardiniera, which is chopped and fermented to add crunch, brightness and fresh-from-the-garden flavor to salads, sandwiches, soups, stews, chili, nachos, tacos and more.

In terms of meat, Romans invented fermentation of Italian salami before the advent of refrigeration to preserve meat. This food was the primary energy source for Roman soldiers marching across Europe.

“They realized that by smoking salami prior to drying it, the process would preserve it in a way that did now allow bacteria to thrive,” says Dave Brando, director, international sales, Piller’s Fine Foods, Ontario, Canada. “Central Europeans prefer the smoked flavor profile because it is inherent in their history, and they grew up with it.”

Piller’s salami is cold smoked a minimum of six days, then dry aged for at least 28 days after that.

“The meat ferments during the aging process similar to fine cheese and wine,” says Brando. “During this process, it obtains a mature and unique flavor profile, with certain notes up front and others evolving during the process.”

The fermented food trend makes sense, as Millennials are looking for foods that do more than fill them up, but offer health benefits, too.

“Fermented foods and drinks are perfect, because they don’t taste healthy, but are flavorful without all the over-processing,” says Giuliana Pozzuto, director of marketing, DeLallo Foods, Mt. Pleasant, PA. “They are certainly more natural, and this makes them all the more appealing.”

Some forget that olives are a fermented food—maybe because they’ve been around long before the trend.

 Pickles are the more obvious item that fits the category.

“Pickles are fat free, sugar free and gluten free as well as a bit part of the Keto diet,” says Girard.

Fermented in Deli

There are a number of new developments in fermented deli foods.

Piller’s recently introduced salami whips, changing the format of its meat into a thin, long meat snack with a tender bite.

“We’re preslicing salami into packages, and have launched a trio with our three most popular salami flavors,” says Brando. “These are in unique shapes, with Old Forest in a flower format, mustard seed in a square diamond shape and reduced sodium in a heart design.”

It’s important to note that, when it comes to olives, some of the most common varieties are processed rather than fermented. This includes black ripe canned olives and Castelvetrano olives, which are treated with chemicals for a quicker cure.

“Lacto-fermented olives can take months to cure fully, but it’s a natural process,” explains DeLallo’s Pozzuto.

DeLallo’s newest items include antipasto salads featuring its California Sevillano Olive, sweet Italian Roasted Tomatoes, Provolone cheese, and pesto marinade for well-rounded antipasto that brighten up many dishes as well as charcuterie trays and cheese boards.

“We have seen a lot of evolution in single-serve pickles,” says Girard at Van Holten’s. “We don’t have jars for the center store, as we are mainly for for grab and go snack occasions.”

The company, which has been in business since 1989, offers a standard whole cucumber pickle in single-serve packaging brine that keeps it shelf stable with no refrigeration needed.

In November 2018, Van Holten’s rolled out Pickle Cutz, which are fermented through refrigeration rather than brine.

Many also are attributing the popularity of fermented foods to the spike in gourmet entertaining (i.e. cheese boards, charcuterie trays, antipasto spreads, etc.). Whether they have realized it or not, customers are incorporating the health benefits of fermented foods (and the famously healthful Mediterranean diet, too) in their favorite gourmet items, from cheese to salami to olives and pickles.

Successful Selling

Suprmarket delis can successfully market fermented foods to customers by touting their health benefits.

“In-store demos are the best form of marketing according to suppliers,” says Nielson-Stowell of The Fermentation Association. “Supermarkets and delis can work in partnership with brands to bring demos into their stores and get consumers to taste the products.”

Piller’s Brando recommends showing off fermented foods’ characteristics by sampling at the store levvel and pairing with products that compliment the items’ unique depth of flavor.

“Provide a charcuterie pairing guide that includes an in-depth flavor profile describing our signature salamis as well as food and beverage pairings,” he says. “This assists customers in implementing a beautiful charcuterie board.”

Vitale at The Fermentation Association recommends an increase to the square footage devoted to this category in the deli.

“We’re seeing fermented foods consolidated in more of a shopping area, and chains like Whole Foods and Sprouts justifiably devoting more space to this category,” he says.

Many predict an influx of fermented deli items with unique flavor combinations in the years ahead.

Pozzuto at DeLallo predicts fermented foods will remain prevalent, as consumers seek out functional foods that are healthy and flavorful.

“Olives and antipasti are tasty snacks and ingredients that offer more natural health benefits than over-processed shakes and bars,” she says. “That said, I think we will see more and more marketing geared towards fermented and more products come about because of it.”

Girard at Van Holten’s agrees, saying he’s seeing a lot of competition, even if it’s not direct, in this space.

“Consumers continue to turn away from salty snacks to easy grab and go items that are healthier,” he says. “Pickles were often a spear at the side of a sandwich, which it still is, but can be a snack. Fermented foods will garner more shelf space in delis in the future, but companies will need to innovate with flavors to keep it fresh and top of mind.”     DB


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