Bread, sauerkraut, cheese, wine, beer, yoghurt, chocolate, coffee, kimchi, tempeh, soy sauce, miso, etc. – all these are fermented foods and are part of our daily diet. What exactly are fermented foods and what role do they play in a healthy and sustainable diet?
There is a huge range of fermented foods around the world, involving a wide array of production methods. In certain regions these foods are of great cultural significance. As fermented foods have become more popular, discussion has arisen as to how they can be defined, what their effects are on human health, and also on regulatory aspects. There are even efforts afoot to include them as a separate category in national dietary guidelines and recommendations.
Fermented foods: frequently consumed, little studied
Many fermented foods in Switzerland are among the staple foods. In terms of number of servings, coffee, bread, butter and hard and semi-hard cheeses are the most popular. The greatest number of living microorganisms is ingested via animal-based foods. Fermented dairy products are particularly notable in this regard, with the most popular products being yoghurt, hard and semi-hard cheeses as well as quark, a type of fresh acid-set cheese.
The regular intake of fermented foods, especially those that contain a sufficient amount of living microorganisms when consumed (e.g. raw sauerkraut, yoghurt), influences human health. Scientific research to date does not however allow for a categorical statement to be made as to whether the resultant impacts are beneficial, damaging, or neutral. Although interest in fermented foods has grown strongly in recent years, legally binding specifications for many novel fermented foods are as yet lacking. Fermentation is essentially an artisanal, low-input technology which also allows for side-streams of food processing such as okara (tofu dregs), oil press cake, molasses, whey, etc. to be utilised and up-cycled.
- More research is needed to better understand the effects of fermented foods on human health. In particular, long-term studies are needed to gain clear insights into their effects.
- Regulatory advances are needed to establish legally clear, coherent and harmonized specifications for novel fermented foods.
- Innovative and sustainable approaches to valorise side-streams of food processing for fermentation should be promoted.
- Also of significance is the development of guidelines and recommendations for fermented foods that take into account health effects, sustainability, food loss minimisation and a widening of the range of food choices.