Fermented Foods

“I accidentally became a meme”

Kombucha girl, 2019

Curiosity transcended borders when an American girl called Brittany Broski became famous for trying Kombucha for the first time last year. She had the most vivid set of expressions within 21 seconds on TikTok and is now called the Kombucha girl. But what was she drinking really? What goes on behind this “new cola” as it is referred to by the millennials.

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Well, fermentation happens!

Fermentation is a natural process. It uses the “good” traits of microorganisms to convert complex nutrients into simpler ones resulting in food and beverages with definitive characteristics. The most notable examples would be wine and beer. [1]

Who discovered it?

The earliest records of fermentation date back to 7000-6600 BCE. Neolithic China, Caucasus regions in Georgia, and Zagros mountains in Iran have recorded proof of fermented beverages dating back to these times. Interestingly, Rome and China also established well-documented records relating to the nutritive and well-being benefits of consuming such products. [2]

Back in the days, one of the most important discoveries was the combination of salt for fermenting food. With the addition of salt, there was a change in smell, taste as well as appearance. It made food more wholesome and prevented it from the toxins produced by microorganisms. Given the accidental addition of salt and its “positive networking” for fermentation, it is assumed one of the first products to be fermented was fish. With that, this combination was further explored on plants especially by those who avoided meat for religious purposes. [2]

Provision of food security?

In many countries where malnutrition and poverty are still key issues, factors such as nutrition driven food, preservation, easily digestible food products, food made with minimal sources and safe products are extremely important. Along with this, there is an ever-increasing global population that demands more food production every day. Coupled with these challenges are climatic changes, post-harvest losses, and food waste. To fight these major challenges, fermentation plays a key role. [3]

Asian and African countries that face a high issue of post-harvest loss have worked on a wide variety of fermented foods. Interestingly, most of these are based on vegetable proteins, starchy, and roots. Very few products in comparison are actually dairy fermented. In contrast, fermented dairy products are a common occurrence in the European and North American regions. [3]

What are the health benefits of fermented foods?

With the magic of microorganisms, fermented products provide a distinct texture and taste, and surprisingly, these tastes and textures might be completely different from their starting materials. 

There are studies that link the use of fermented dairy foods and maintaining weight. Consumption of fermented foods has been linked to a reduced risk of type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular diseases. The muscle soreness caused by exercise is reduced when fermented milk products are consumed. This is because they support better glucose metabolism. Increasing research in the microbiota-gut-brain area suggests fermented foods also support better moods and brain activities. However, this research is still in the very primary stages. [1]


An Asian originated fermented drink that is highly trending in the Western market. The traditional basis of this drink is sweetened black tea. This is fermented with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeasts within a cellulose film, also otherwise known as SCOBY, tea fungus, or kombucha mother. Majorly, the yeasts ferment the added sugar in tea to alcohol and the bacteria oxidize the alcohol to acetic acid. The SCOBY is added to the base together with a specific proportion of already fermented kombucha. As for flavor, kombucha is acidic and carbonated. The final product is then pasteurized and refrigerated. It is important to note that refrigeration reduces the “viable count” of microorganisms but the health benefits are a result of the by-products of fermentation. Kombucha is associated with multiple health benefits such as anticarcinogenic, antioxidative, and antidiabetic to name a few. [4]


Tempeh is an Indonesian originated fermented product made from soybeans. Soybeans are soaked and cooked. To these cooked beans, a starter substance is added (similar to a sourdough starter) after which it is left for 24 hours. This results in a firm product with a typical texture like a chewy mushroom and nutty flavour. This is proving to be a very promising meat alternative. The starter substance is typically a fungus. Interestingly, there was an accidental discovery of a bacterial species possibly naturally present in soybeans called Klebsiella pneumonia. This bacterial species was also working its magic along with the fungus such that it resulted in the production of vitamin B-12. Tempeh is considered a staple in Indonesia and is a rich source of proteins and fibres along with other nutrients. [5]


Kimchi is a very well-known Korean food that dates back to 1145AD. To put it down simply, it is a vegetable fermentation carried out in a brine solution traditionally in a stone jar. It is a combination of vegetables (the most common one being Chinese cabbage), spices, seasonings (here is where the salt or brine goes in) and other additional materials. This is one of the most versatile fermented foods as you can put together any seasonal vegetables to create a variation. Spontaneous kimchi production has no additional microorganisms being introduced into raw materials. The fermentation is typically being carried out by microflora that is naturally present in the vegetables. [6]


Although the origin of Kefir is disputed, it is believed it was discovered somewhere between Russia and Georgia [7]. Kefir is a fermented milk beverage. It is made from the fermentation of kefir grains (consists of naturally present yeast and bacteria) which act as starters for the process. The substrate in the process is raw milk from cow, camel, goat, sheep or buffalo. The kefir grains are added to this substrate. The final product is an acidic milk drink with a creamy consistency.[8]


Injera is an Ethiopian fermented bread that is very similar to a pancake. The grain used for this bread can be teff, wheat, maize, barley, sorghum in combination or individually. It can also be interestingly mixed with cassava root which is a very promising starchy tuber that grows widely in Africa. It is important for the Cassava root to be well cooked as it is poisonous in its raw form. The root is washed, peeled, cut, oven-dried, made into a flour, mixed with the flour of a grain of choice. It is eventually fermented for a defined period of time into a batter which is then used to make the pancakes on a hot griddle until a typical colour, flavour and texture are derived. [9] It is a staple for Nigerians and is very similar to a traditional dosa in India. [10]

Future of fermented foods

With an increasing demand for plant-based products and animal protein alternatives, fermentation has a key role to play. One of the major challenges faced by the plant-alternative world is to mimic the meat protein textures. This is ideally where fermentation is playing and will play a role in the future. Additionally, it can also be utilized to address issues regarding flavour and nutrition enhancement. One of the most promising developments of fermentation is the identification and extraction of soy leghaemoglobin by Impossible Burger which gives its patties the distinct red colour as well as meaty taste. [11]

About the Author

I am Anjali Patel, I come from India and completed my Masters in Food biotechnology from Wageningen University in the Netherlands before moving to Canada. Currently, I am working as an intern with Rainfed foods as an innovation and research associate. If not discussing food, you will see me reading books or chasing travel blogs to plan my next holiday

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[1] Marco, M. L., Heeney, D., Binda, S., Cifelli, C. J., Cotter, P. D., Foligné, B., … & Smid, E. J. (2017). Health benefits of fermented foods: microbiota and beyond. Current opinion in biotechnology, 44, 94-102.

[2] Mahapatra, D. K., Talele, S. G., & Haghi, A. K. (Eds.). (2020). Applied Pharmaceutical Science and Microbiology: Novel Green Chemistry Methods and Natural Products. CRC Press.

[3] Fusco, Vincenzina, Folarin A. Oguntoyinbo, and Charles MAP Franz. “Fermentation to improve food security in Africa and Asia.” Soft Chemistry and Food Fermentation. Academic Press, 2017. 337-378.

[4]Coelho, R. M. D., Almeida, A., do Amaral, R. Q. G., da Mota, R. N., & de Sousa, P. H. M. (2020). Kombucha. International Journal of Gastronomy and Food Science, 100272.

[5]Babu, P. D., Bhakyaraj, R., & Vidhyalakshmi, R. (2009). A low cost nutritious food “tempeh”-a review. World J Dairy Food Sci, 4(1), 22-27.

[6]Patra, J. K., Das, G., Paramithiotis, S., & Shin, H. S. (2016). Kimchi and other widely consumed traditional fermented foods of Korea: a review. Frontiers in microbiology, 7, 1493.

[7]Guneser, O., Hosoglu, M. I., Guneser, B. A., & Yuceer, Y. K. (2019). Engineering of milk-based beverages: current status, developments, and consumer trends. In Milk-Based Beverages (pp. 1-37). Woodhead Publishing.

[8]Farag, M. A., Jomaa, S. A., & El-Wahed, A. A. (2020). The Many Faces of Kefir Fermented Dairy Products: Quality Characteristics, Flavour Chemistry, Nutritional Value, Health Benefits, and Safety. Nutrients, 12(2), 346.

[9]Halake, N. H., & Chinthapalli, B. (2020). Fermentation of Traditional African Cassava Based Foods: Microorganisms Role in Nutritional and Safety Value. Journal of Experimental Agriculture International, 56-65.

[10]Neela, S., & Fanta, S. W. (2020). Injera (An Ethnic, Traditional Staple Food of Ethiopia): A review on Traditional Practice to Scientific Developments. Journal of Ethnic Foods, 7(1), 1-15.

[11]Liu, S. (2019). A Better Burger.

Image References:


Tempeh: Lauren Wicks | Cooking Light

Kimchi: Sylvia | Feasting at home

Kefir: Rahul Kakkar | Medium

Injera: Used Under Creative Commons License From

Kombucha girl:

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