The F word - fermentation!

“What is fermentation?”
Fermentation is a word which covers a vast amount of processes. The dictionary defines it as “the chemical breakdown of a substance by bacteria, yeasts, or other microorganisms, typically involving effervescence and the giving off of heat”. In my opinion this definition covers everything from chocolate to your compost heap, however it does not cover the fact that there is also creation involved as well as breaking down.
For fermented foods I would give the definition “the purposeful transformation of a food by utilising microbial life”, which I think sums up things much better. It also allows people to realise fermentation is essentially a form of cooking. In the same way we transform foods with heat we can also transform them using fermentation.
In fermented foods the desired inputs and outputs are very specific; a brewer knows exactly what he wants the yeast to impart to his beer, a baker knows exactly what he wants the bacteria and yeast in his sourdough starter to impart.
Hence, I think the word “purposeful” acts as a clear differentiator between fermentation and the simple breakdown of organic matter, which is much better defined by the words decomposition or rotting.
As most forms of fermentation can be elevated to an art in the forms or great wine, beer, bread, cheese, chocolate (and soft drinks creations 😊) I think it’s a small crime to compare it to random decomposition.

“So are fermented foods living?”

Another distinction I believe gets muddled is the term probiotic. A probiotic is a living microbe consumed for its health benefits, while fermented foods use microbes to transform a food but do not necessarily leave them living in the final product. For example, fermentation is essential to make good bread. It not only produces CO2 to make the bread rise, but over a long prove will decrease various irritating or hard to digest compounds such as phytic acid and gluten. It also increases levels of many vitamins and the bioavailability of certain minerals.
When the bread is baked almost all the sourdough culture is killed. However, all the good work they have done in changing the chemistry of the bread is retained. Real sourdough bread is a fermented food which is much healthier than regular mass-produced bread by quite a big margin but it is by no stretch of the imagination a probiotic. Fermented foods in general have had many health benefits associated with them, but this is most likely due to the changes in the chemistry of the food during fermentation, rather than the living bacteria.
The term ‘probiotic’ is not permitted in the EU, mainly due to the benefits of ingesting living microbes being largely unproven thus far. As so few microbes survive the acid in the stomach, they are unlikely to influence the 40 trillion microbes already in the gut. This was highlighed in a recent study which you can read about here.

“So do your drinks contain living cultures?”

After our water kefir culture has done its work we remove any remnants via filtration. All their good work transforming the sugar and molasses into various healthy compounds is retained, and this is where we believe most of the health benefits arise from.
If we were to leave living culture in the bottles it would create more problems than benefits both for the consumer and ourselves. Here are the main reasons why:
  • Fermentation would continue!
    • Gas would build up, carbonating the drink and eventually creating a dangerous amount of pressure in the bottle.
    • As there is no air in a sealed bottle the fermentation in the bottle would be anaerobic and produce alcohol which is certainly not good for something sold as a soft drink. Undeclared alcohol content over 0.5% vol is not permitted in a soft drink.
  • Refrigerated transport and storage would be required.
    • The cost of refrigerated transport and storage would drive up the cost of our product significantly.
    • Refrigerated transport and storage is also very energy intensive. As an environmentally conscious company this does not fit with our views.
    • If not stored correctly our customers would receive an inferior and potentially non-compliant product. As we cannot control how every outlet stores our product this is simply not an option.
  • It’s not the “Middle Way”
    • We are looking to provide a real alternative to mainstream drinks, not another niche product. By distributing a living probiotic we would not be able to achieve our goal. We could not be cost competitive enough or accessible enough to make a real difference to the health of our consumers.
    • Our drinks have half the sugar of conventional soft drinks and fruit juices, have no additives of any kind and are full of vitamins and minerals. If everyone switched from high sugar additive-filled soft drinks to something as genuinely good as our products it would make a real difference to overall health.

2 Comments

Derek · 8th November 2018 at 1:10 pm

I’m very wary of fermented foodstuffs as I am a recovering alcoholic. I eat bread, pastries, cheese and chocolate (except for alcoholic variants e.g. rum baba ; Red Windsor ; Rum & Raisin) with no ill effects, but avoid fermented Ginger Beer for example as there is a small amount of alcohol in it.
What is the status of your “soft” drinks? I appreciate that, legally, they may be termed “soft”, but do they in fact contain any alcohol at all?

    Gavin · 8th November 2018 at 1:59 pm

    Our soft drinks are extremely low in alcohol. So low in fact that when we distilled 6 liters of our kefir into a 100ml measuring cylinder, concentrating the alcohol 60 times we still could not detect any alcohol with a standard refractometer. We brew in a completely aerobic environment meaning we make sure there is plenty of oxygen available during brewing. This means the yeast in the kefir produce much less alcohol in the first place and that the other bacteria in the drink can oxidize any remaining alcohol down to acids, like acetic acid (vinegar) very easily. On top of that, we pasteurize our drinks at 80 degrees so any remaining alcohol would boil off at around 78 degrees C.

    I understand alcohol can be a battle for some people and can understand why people like yourself would be concerned. One thing to understand is that there is a huge difference between consuming minuscule amounts of alcohol present in things like fruit, kombucha and kefir and the high amounts consumed drinking beer and spirits.

    People like to put things into good and bad categories but in the end alcohol in small amounts is harmless and a natural part of biological chemistry, it performs the same role in plants and yeast as lactic acid performs in our own biology allowing respiration when oxygen levels are low. It only becomes harmful when consumed in large amounts overwhelming our body’s ability to deal with it safely.

    So the short answer is no, our drinks do not have any meaningful quantity of alcohol. I would encourage you to not worry too much about trace alcohol levels in your diet. An orange is still good for you if it contains 1% alcohol.

    I wish you the best on your journey of recovery.

    All the best

    Gavin Monson
    Director

    Additional – Although I can guarantee our products are alcohol-free. I cannot speak for another kombucha/kefir producers. It is entirely possible to make kefir or kombucha quite alcoholic if brewed incorrectly/differently. Any brewing in a sealed container without air is likely to yield alcohol to some degree. One example is where manufacturers allow their products to naturally brew in the bottle for carbonation, often called bottle conditioning, this will yield at least some alcohol content. Legally speaking, if they exceed 0.5% without declaring it they are breaking the law, so I assume you could sue them at that point.

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