Fermented frenzy

Age-old foods like kimchi, tempeh and sauerkraut are experiencing a surge in popularity thanks to consumer interest in gut health

Like the fermented foods they sell, ideas around new products are perpetually percolating at Pyramid Ferments in Picton, Ont. “We have five different sauerkraut flavours and a kimchi line,” says Jenna Empey, Pyramid Ferments’ owner, who currently sells 13 fermented food products at Metro, some Sobeys locations and Whole Foods Market, as well as smaller Toronto-based indie grocers such as The Big Carrot and The Sweet Potato.

For Pyramid, the business of selling fermented foods is good. “Our sales doubled between 2016 and 2017,” says Empey. As a result, Pyramid Ferments is now moving to a new production facility to keep up with growing demand. “We need to stay ahead of the curve,” she says.

Fermented foods, though very old, are new again. And many are a far cry from the dusty pickling jars sitting in grandma’s pantry. Kimchi and sauerkraut
now sport a number of trendy flavours such as kale, smoked garlic, jalapeno, pepper and harissa. Fermented sausages are increasingly popular, as are tempeh (a traditional soy-based fermented food from Indonesia) and lactic-acid fermented pickles.

And they are getting a whole lot of press. Fermented foods were ranked the No. 1 superfood for 2018, according to a Today’s Dietitian’s survey. “It’s more mainstream,” says Jess Pirnak, staff dietitian and nutrition manager at Choices Markets in Vancouver, when asked about the growing fermented foods trend. She adds that while the foods are being purchased by virtually all demographics for their health properties, it appears that health-conscious women in their 30s are the main consumers. “Gut health is huge right now,” says Pirnak.

Jeremy Burton, a scientist at Lawson Health Research Institute and deputy director, Canadian Centre for Human Microbiome and Probiotics, devotes much of his research to gut health. He’s currently working with small fermented foods producers, making connections between the foods they produce and the probiotic benefits they possess. At the moment, he’s working with a company that makes vegan fermented cheese and a kombucha manufacturer.

Burton says there’s a theory that all disease originates in the intestines. “We are meant to eat bugs,” he says, noting that fermented foods repopulate the microbiome of the body with good bacteria that have been linked to better digestive, cardiovascular and brain health, as well as heightened immunity. “I’m trying to eat more of this stuff,” he says, confessing that some products such as sauerkraut are an acquired taste.

That said, Pirnak notes that because every culture has its own fermented foods, everyone can find something that works with their cultural preferences and palate. At Choices Markets, kimchi and sauerkraut are top sellers and the store makes room for new products in the category. “Tempeh is the next big thing,” she predicts, with vegetarians seeking fermented protein sources.

Empey predicts kvass, a “Ukrainian Gatorade” made of fermented beets, will also be one of the next big sellers. It’s refreshing and filled with electrolytes, she says, making it a popular choice among fitness types.

Meanwhile, grocers are taking stock, promoting fermented foods aggressively and selling them in higher-traffic areas of the store. Sarah Dobec, marketing manager at Toronto’s The Big Carrot, says the store has even put on a large-scale fermented foods event. “We have hosted an entire event around fermented foods and supplements called ‘The Ferment Event Under the Tent.’ It was a big event in our courtyard with vendors, speakers and samples.” She says the store also puts its fermented products on sale regularly and offers weekly samples.

So, what’s the outlook for fermented foods? Pirnak says some fermented product categories could become saturated. But overall, it looks like fermented foods are here to stay, and are expected to see a lot of sales growth in the coming year. “I think everyone is on that bandwagon,” says Pirnak.

This article appeared in Canadian Grocer’s August 2018 issue.

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