Supply Chain, Inflation & Climate Change


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2021 is, in many respects, a continuation of 2020’s dominant story – the global Covid pandemic. But much of what occupied our attention this year on matters of food and agriculture involves the effects of the pandemic rather than the disease itself.

Jump ahead to:  Inflation    Climate Change    Trade    Supply   Tech    …and, um, these stories

The Supply Chain Mess – No Easy or Quick Answers

A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, according to the old adage. 2021 helped reveal what happens when several links in the supply chain from dirt to dinner show a weakness.

Most immediately visible to consumers, perhaps, was the sporadic lack of select food products. A shortage of as many as 80,000 truck drivers helped leave store shelves thinly stocked or even empty from time to time.

Trucks handle more than 70% of our domestic freight, and “nearly every good consumed in the U.S. is put on a truck at some point,” according to the American Trucking Associations.

Our food supply is no exception.

Images of ocean vessels waiting to unload at ports showed how the transportation problems extended far beyond the local store to the entire global marketplace. Costs for ocean shipping, domestic barge cargoes, and trucking rates soared across the board, reflecting the imbalance in transportation supply and demand. Demand for food remained robust, despite the system disruptions.

The big problem wasn’t a shortage of products as much as the inability to maintain the smooth, reliable delivery system that makes our food system normally so efficient. In recognition of that reality, the Federal Trade Commission has demanded information from nine major food retailers as part of a planned investigation into the reasons behind the disruption.

A persistent shortage of workers in meat plants, dairies, and row-crop farms also played a role in disrupting the system, as the effects of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and extensive government supports played out over the year.

Frustrated farmers, plant managers, and others across the food chain reported difficulty in finding the willing workers needed to harvest crops, maintain herds and flocks, service machinery and equipment, and all the other seemingly countless chores that go into growing, harvesting, storing, processing, manufacturing and distributing the $1.8 trillion dollars spent on food in the United States each year.

Just to put that number in context, note that the much-ballyhooed infrastructure bill passed by Congress this year costs about $1 trillion. So, when America’s food supply chain has problems, everyone sees the effect in the food choices available day to day – the prices paid for that food.

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Inflation – Up, Up and Away

No one needs to be told the cost of food has been going up. We see it every day, in the prices paid at the local grocery store and the bill as the local diner, and everywhere else, for that matter.

The latest data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) pegs the annual inflation rate for food running at 6.8%.

Soaring energy costs account for a significant portion of the increase. But the cost of disruption to the supply chain, higher commodity prices, and other factors also have been playing a role in a steady rise in food costs in the second half of the year, and economists across the public and private sector caution that inflationary pressures will continue across the economy well into 2022.

What’s so significant about 6.8%Consider this fact…

At 6.8% annual inflation, your food bill would double in less than 11 years. At the “normal” annual rate of food inflation over the past 20 years – roughly 2% – it would take 35 years to reach this level.

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Climate Change – For the Better

Concern with global warming accelerated during 2021, from the halls of international organizations and national governments all the way to the farm gate.

Efforts to assess the role played by agriculture in dealing with greenhouse gases, and other climate-related issues dominated the public-policy arena and the minds of farmers everywhere.

The 26th United Nations Climate Summit in Glasgow attracted as many as 30,000 supporters and political leaders from 197 countries, where delegates reaffirmed an international commitment to reducing gas emissions and limiting the projected increase in global temperature. The meeting produced lofty words, but many observers noted that much of the actual work being done to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is being done at the local level.

Farmers, often working with various environmental groups and businesses, expanded their adoption of no-till, expanded grassland and crop rotation, and various other regenerative production techniques that help keep carbon in the soil rather than the atmosphere.

Government support for the development of carbon markets also helped drive farm-sector support for these “carbon smart” practices, as an investment in improved technology and environmentally-friendly equipment expanded sharply. The Department of Agriculture’s commitment of $633 million for “climate-smart” infrastructure investment in rural America only added to the momentum.

2021 may well be remembered as the year the ag sector’s role in climate change shifted in public perception from being a cause of global warming to emerging as a critical part of the solution to climate change.

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Trade – An Unquestioned Bright Spot

Despite the gyrations of the domestic market, U.S. agricultural exports are projected to reach record levels in 2021.

Department of Agriculture projections for FY2021 indicate total exports could reach a record $164 billion – up almost $28 billion (21%) from last year.

The United States also continues to rely on numerous food imports, turning to foreign suppliers for about 15% of our food, including about one-third of our fresh vegetables, half our fresh fruit, and more than 90% of our seafood. The fruit and vegetable market in 2021 is estimated at about $5.2 billion, and the seafood market at $3 billion.

Perhaps unlike 2020, the politically contentious issue of U.S.-China agricultural trade seemed to recede from the daily headlines. U.S. officials continue to press China to live up to the purchase commitments made in the 2019 trade agreement, and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently expressed concern with the declining U.S. share of total Chinese imports.

But out of the media spotlight, China remains our largest customer, buying almost 18 percent of total U.S. agricultural exports, valued at $28.8 billion.

The trade data makes an important point for producers and consumers alike. Demand for U.S.-grown commodities and food products continues to grow. The world needs food, and the United States exports more food than any other country in the world.

Even when conditions complicate the task of bringing food from dirt to dinner, rising populations and robust economies continue to drive demand – and the U.S. food and agricultural sector consistently comes through in helping to meet it.

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Supply – Enough to Go Around

The supply news from 2021 is good. Despite production challenges created by drought, floods, pandemics, continuing urbanization, political unrest, and so many other factors, we continue to produce enough food to satisfy the caloric needs of a growing world.

Total global production of wheat is up slightly from last year (at 773 million metric tons). Feed grain production is projected to rise to a record 780 million metric tons. Palm oil crops are projected at about 75 million metric tons and soybeans as roughly 60 million.

With the U.S. corn and soybean harvest virtually complete, the Department of Agriculture reports “excellent” national results. Final figures won’t be available until the new year, but initial results indicate a very slight decline in soybean and corn yields from last year, due largely to drought conditions in select growing areas.

The take-away on supply: We continue to produce enough to satisfy a growing world demand for food.

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Technology – No Flashy Headlines, But Important Nonetheless

It rarely gathered headlines in the popular media. But it sure attracted investment dollars in 2021 – and investment drives improvement, according to economists.

2021 helped drive home an important truth: farming is a technology-dependent activity. Better technology can offset labor issues and enable the better productivity and operational efficiency critical to solid bottom lines.

Investment dollars continue to flow into a constantly expanding array of digital and material technological development. Consider just a small sampling:

  • Enterprise software
  • Drones
  • Water management tools
  • Remote sensing
  • Data collection, management & analysis
  • Robotics and automation for crop production, food processing, storage, and transportation
  • Genetics and CRISPR
  • Resource recovery & waste reduction
  • Food sampling and safety

Even before the onset of the Covid pandemic, the global agricultural artificial intelligence market alone was estimated at just over $600 million – with projected annual growth rates of 25 percent in 2019-2025.

It’s not often shouted from the rooftops, but technology may be the single most important factor in the dramatic productivity increases of the past decade.

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And now for something completely different…

From time to time, we also noticed items that didn’t quite grab headlines in the mainstream media or elsewhere. To celebrate the end of 2021 and welcome the new year, we share some of our favorite news items that few seemed to notice.

Joey Chestnut routinely grabs headlines when he wins the annual July 4th Nathan’s Hot Dog Eating Contest. This year was no different when the 37-year-old American scarfed down 76 hot dogs (and buns) in 10 minutes to win for the 14th time in his career. Less noted: Women’s champion Michelle Lasco managed to down 30 and ¾ hot dogs in the same time span. Yup, together that’s nearly 100 hot dogs in 10 minutes. It’s also close to 29,000 calories – or over 10 times the daily caloric intake of the typical person. Is this a great country, or what?

A Brazilian cow, unhappy with its prospects as a future delicious dinner, escaped and sought safety in a nearby water park, where it managed to take one last fling at fun by sliding down the park’s lengthy waterslide into the cool and refreshing pool below. Officials reportedly denied the fun-seekers request to “do it again, do it again…” but the happy animal was given a consolation prize of spending the remainder of what we all hope will be a long and happy life courtesy of a kind-hearted rancher 500 miles west of Rio de Janeiro. And BTW, the cow’s new name: Toboga, Portuguese for “waterslide.”

The fine folks in Austin, Minnesota, for years, have enthusiastically observed the glories of the pork delicacy SPAM, with parades, cookouts, and sundry celebratory events. Dirt to Dinner actually has attended this august event and can honestly report it to be one of the finest examples of true Americana anywhere. But we also must note that word has spread about another “Spam Jam” – this version found on Waikiki in Hawaii, where 7 million cans of Spam are consumed each year as a self-proclaimed “cultural tradition.” Cans of the pork delicacy are donated to local food banks if that helps explain the event’s real allure. Let’s ALL go…

And from our friends across the pond, we have this item from the village of Wonersh in Surrey, England. Police report a serial baked-bean bandit, who has a penchant for pouring the product everywhere, from doorsteps to mail slots to cars. Neighborhood watch groups apparently are on stand-by, but the bandit remains as elusive as the wind. There is no word on what snacks may be on hand or if toast also is involved. Sounds like a waste of good protein to us.

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5 Things You Don’t Need to Worry About this Holiday Season

Whether you’re looking for quick information, or want something to impress your friends at dinner, here’s our Featured 5 of the Week!

The holidays are a busy time for all of us! Buying presents, cooking food, wrapping gifts, and hosting family and friends can be stressful. So, here are five things that shouldn’t be on your list of concerns this holiday season when it comes to your food.

1. GMOs

GMOs are still a very controversial topic in mainstream culture. But, this is because not many people truly understand what a GMO is. Well, if there is one thing you should know by now, it’s that you do not need to worry about GMOs on your dinner table. Aside from having many benefits for farmers, GMOs also have benefits for us consumers and are not a danger to our health whatsoever. It is actually, the most studied food technology that exists.

To learn more about what a GMO is, click here.

2. A Food Shortage

As the new Omicron variant is making its way through our country now, and between that the labor shortage and high food prices, it’s easy to be worried about not finding our favorite holiday foods this year. But, we’re here to tell you, there will be no food shortage this holiday season! However, if you want to avoid higher prices, we recommend buying your food early.

3. Pesticides

A big push for the organic movement is around a pesticide-free agricultural world. However, farmers who grow organic foods still use pesticides, and these pesticides are not harmful to us. This is especially true for glyphosate or RoundUp. It’s the world’s most heavily-used herbicide, and many people believe it’s dangerous for humans, but this is simply not true.

So, don’t worry about pesticides in your food this holiday season, and to learn more about glyphosate, click here.

4. Cyberattacks

Recently, some food production companies have been attacked by cyber-hackers. These companies include JBS, NEW Cooperative, and Crystal Valley. Yikes, does this mean we should be worried about a cyberattack shutting down our food supply chain? Nope! Even with these threats, the American food system has never been safer, and industry experts are working tirelessly to keep our farms and food safe and the supply chain in motion.

5. Restrictive Diets

The holidays are about enjoying ourselves and our time with friends and family. It’s not the time to put ourselves on a restrictive diet, then punish ourselves when we don’t stick to it. The most important thing to remember this holiday season is to eat a balanced diet and everything in moderation. It’s ok to have a slice of pie or a Christmas cookie; just remember to eat your fruits and veggies, and get some exercise, too!

FFA’s Nicholas Mello: The Importance of Seed Science

Nicholas Mello of California’s Hanford Future Farmers of America (FFA) Chapter is a finalist in the Agriscience Research–Plant Systems Proficiency field. Plant systems proficiency…what does this mean, exactly? Nick conducted research at Zonneveld Dairies, comparing the yield per acre of three different hybrid corn seed varieties planted on 95 acres each to determine the highest yielding variety.

Nick learned that nearby Zonneveld Dairies was interested in investing in higher yield producing corn seed variety to feed their dairy cattle. Mello developed and designed this experiment to ensure that each seed had the same acreage and grew under the same conditions. Dirt to Dinner had the opportunity to communicate with Nick about his experiment’s findings and his FFA experience.

Want to learn more about Nick’s research? Check out his video here.

Defining Research Objectives

Describe your Agriscience research experiment in detail for our readers—how did you develop the idea, what problem were you trying to solve, and how did you go about achieving results?

My agriscience research experiment compared three hybrid corn seed varieties based upon the yield they produce. These hybrid corn seeds are being used for silage for Zonneveld Dairies. I compared 3 branded hybrid seeds: Dekalb 67-44, Masters Choice 6522, and Croplan Genetics S5700. These seeds were selected based upon their similar and outstanding characteristics to grow in the Central Valley conditions, such as high heat and drought.

The goal of my experiment was to find which hybrid corn seed variety would produce the greatest yield to help the farmer generate more revenues and help Zonneveld save money in feed and make more money by providing the cows starch to produce more milk for dairy cow feed.

I hypothesized that out of the hybrid seeds, the Dekalb 67-44 seed would produce the most yield per acre due to its size and coating. I separated each seed into three 95-acre fields, totaling 285 acres of experimental land. I collaborated with DeKalb agronomists and 3D’s Family Farming about crop management, irrigation scheduling, and fertilizer management.

I then prepared the ground of each 95-acre field by ripping the soil in the fields, two passes of disking to break down the soil to be soft, then furrowing the ground into rows, and pre-irrigating the land so the soil has moisture for planting. I then planted the seeds at 34-35 thousand per acre.

We waited till the corn sprouted to begin soil compaction and injection of UN-32 fertilizer. After this, I irrigated the corn with 3D’s Family Farming and maintained the corn with fertilizer. Our goal was to reach 300 units of UN-32. I maintained the corn till it was a hard dent and was at peak starch. Starch is the nutrient that will allow the dairy cow to produce more milk.

Danell Custom Chopping came to harvest the corn, where I recorded the weight of the trucks and silage to find the total amount of yield. Masters Choice 6522 produced the most yield at just over 32 tons per acre, Croplan Genetics produced just under 31 tons per acre, and Dekalb 67-44 produced 28 tons per acre, going against my hypothesis.

Why this experiment? Have you always been interested in seed technology?

What got me into this experiment and interested in hybrid corn seed varieties is from working at 3D’s Family Farming. I work in the summer there as a tractor mechanic and operator. When I ran this experiment, my father, who normally furrows and does groundwork, had to take time off because he had surgery on his thyroid to remove cancer. Another worker also had to take time off. This opened the opportunity to step up and gain responsibility in the business and gain knowledge in farming.

When I found out that Zonneveld wanted to plant different hybrid corn seeds for silage, that sparked my interest in hybrid corn seed varieties. I collaborated with Dekalb Agronomists Barbra Kutzner, Pete Lain, Robert Fahey, and Jacob Lehar, who provided expertise on both hybrid corn seeds and crop management.

Crop Tech’s Future in Soil…and Beyond

This is such an exciting field that seems to be constantly evolving and innovating. How do you see seed technology advancing in the future?

I see technology evolving to make better crops that will hopefully help continue to fix the problems we face in agriculture. Agriculture has made a lot of advancements in technology and machinery. I can see technology evolving further in that field, as well as with hybrid crops and GMOs.

I believe technology in hybrids and GMOs will allow agriculture to produce more crops with fewer resources such as water, fertilizer, or other crop inputs such as potassium and phosphorus. This is especially true in California where water is scarce and creates more yield with less ground to feed a growing population.

Looking ahead to 2050, where there will be more mouths to feed, what do you think is the key to feeding this growing population? And why?

Advancements in modified crops and machinery will be vital in providing for this ever-increasing population. Maybe crops can be modified to require fewer resources such as water and nutrients from the solid but still produce more yield or crop.

This modification would allow for more production and may even allow our ground to last longer because the crops will take fewer nutrients from the ground. This modification in the crop can also enable more resources to be used elsewhere around the world or in agriculture.

Machinery advancements are needed to make agriculture more efficient in the production aspect of groundwork such as disking, ripping, furrowing, crop maintenance such as injection rigs and spray rigs and harvesting such as choppers, and also the repair and maintenance part of agriculture as well. Parts need to become more accessible for repair and maintenance.

These advancements will allow agriculture production to be faster, possibly allowing farmers to double-crop their land to produce more. This will also minimize the downtime lost when a tractor or implementation breaks.

These advancements with crops requiring fewer resources while producing greater yield and improving crop efficiency via machinery will allow agriculture to keep up with the growing population.

A Vast Array of Careers in Ag

We love to share about the diversity of career opportunities in the ag space. We know farmers and ranchers are just one piece of an enormous ag puzzle. Where do you see yourself in the ag field in the future? And why?

I can see myself in the agronomy field of agriculture as a Certified Crop Adviser (CCA) or research agronomist to continue experimentation and also try to find new ways to help agriculture.

I am currently pursuing a biology degree at UC Merced, focusing on ecology to use in the agriculture field. My dream job would be either a research agronomist or CCA because a research agronomist does similar actions such as my experimentation and also tries to find new ways to help agriculture.

I want to make a change in agriculture and try and solve one of the many problems agriculture is facing. I would also enjoy being a CCA as it helps farmers with their crops and production.

I would enjoy both of those careers because they are both involved in science which is my favorite subject, and understanding plant science and the interaction of plants with the soil and the environment is crucial for agriculture.

If you could advise other young people interested in seed science or agriculture in general, what would it be?

My advice to other young people interested in seed science is that it’s complex but exciting. Don’t let the complexity of genetics steer you away because this is a field of research that will be needed in agriculture to help solve the problems that agriculture is facing.
My advice for young people interested in agriculture is that it isn’t just farming and animals. There are so many aspects to it, and I’m sure one may have your interest for a career.

Also, don’t believe all the stereotypes and bad things in the media about agriculture because a lot of it isn’t true, and it just gets generalized over all of agriculture. The best thing to do is to actually get involved in agriculture through classes, FFA, or even working in an agricultural job.

By being involved, you learn the true experience and knowledge of what agriculture is all about. I would like to also say that although agriculture seems to be frowned upon by many, please remember that we eat, have shelter, clothing, other jobs, and actually survive because of agriculture because everything depends on it.

Gratitude and Community Building with Farming

Many of our regular readers are farmers. Is there anything you would like to leave them with – a piece of advice? Something to consider? A call to action?

I would like to tell farmers please don’t give up even if times are rough because everyone depends on you to feed them and provide resources. Although I understand you don’t always get thanks or appreciation, I know that I appreciate agriculture. I know I’m not the only one and know that a whole community is out there supporting you.

I would also like to say to farmers that many kids are willing to go into agriculture in this future generation, but not enough for the future of agriculture.

I would like to ask that farmers and any agriculturalist who listen please try to draw in the younger generation’s attention to agriculture and don’t try to push them away from it.

My family tried to warn me of the hardships of agriculture as if trying to push me away, but I found my roots there and am happy I did. Agriculturalists can reach the younger generations through FFA, agricultural advisors, and a big one is social media. Use social media to try and draw their attention to truly understand the different aspects of agriculture, which may help them find their passion by holding events or tours of agricultural business and destroy these stereotypes of agriculture.

Let’s try to get the younger generation into agriculture for the world’s future, but also have them understand that agriculture isn’t just farming, dairies, and cattle, but so much more and a great big community that is more than happy to teach anyone that decides to explore agriculture.

Steak & Veggie Soup

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Study shows dairy’s effect on heart health


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Published in the George Institute for Global Health, an international team of scientists studied the fat consumption of a considerable cohort of 60-year-olds in Sweden — one of the world’s largest dairy-producing and consuming countries. They did so by measuring blood levels of fatty acids found primarily in dairy foods. Researchers followed the group for almost two decades, observing circulatory events, strokes, and heart attacks.

The Findings

Researchers discovered that those with high levels of dairy-derived fatty acids had the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease. This data, combined with 17 other studies out of the U.K. and Denmark, aggregated 43,000 participant results to amass these significant new findings.

Participants with the highest intake of dairy fat showed the lowest risk of cardiovascular disease.

They were sure to note in their findings that it was difficult to isolate all variables, such as lifestyle, dietary habits, and other diseases. Furthermore, results certainly have influences of factors other than dairy, so further study is needed to better understand the full impact. But the lead author and researcher out of George Institute for Global Health, Kathy Trieu, detailed that dairy foods, especially fermented products, are beneficial for heart health.

A lecturer at the Department of Health and Nutritional Sciences at Ireland’s Institute of Technology Sligo, Brian Power, made a thought-provoking statement that should make us all question sweeping health recommendations: “[this study should prompt us to] rethink what we think we know about food and disease.”

Dairy Fat and Heart Health

Dairy fat contains over 400 different types of fatty acids. Two crucial fatty acids are C15 and C17. These both contain Milk Fat Globule Membranes, or MFGMs, which have been proven to lower type 2 diabetes risks.

With cardiovascular disease killing upwards of 350,000 people every year in the U.S. alone, it is no wonder scientists and researchers continue to study the various roles that food, and specifically fats, can play on heart health. A notable study out of Sweden looked closely at the relationship between fatty acid biomarkers in blood samples and cardiovascular disease.

Ultimately, in conjunction with numerous other studies, they discovered that the higher the dairy fat intake, the lower the risk of cardiovascular disease. Now, this doesn’t mean run out and eat cheese for three meals a day. But what it does mean is that previous recommendations to transition to vegan, non-dairy or dairy-alternative diets are antiquated.

Fermented dairy produces gut benefits, too

Fermented dairy products contain safe-to-eat bacteria that can produce what are called short-chain fatty acids (SCFAs). The benefits of SCFAs cannot be overstated—they can reduce inflammation by decreasing the risk of heart disease and blocking cholesterol production.

SCFAs’ intestinal barrier supports healthy mucus production and colon health and provides an energy source for microbiota to conduct essential signaling functions for efficient digestion.

Dairy and its role in cancer prevention

While not part of this notable study’s findings, dairy has also been shown to play a role in the reduction of cancer onset. As we know, cancer risks are strongly impacted by our diet. It is important to note that the studies performed on the relationship between cancer and any food group are correlational studies, meaning that they use statistics to estimate the relationship.

Colorectal cancer, one of the most common types of cancer worldwide, has been studied numerous times, with most studies indicating that eating dairy may reduce the risk due to its makeup of calcium, vitamin D and lactic acid bacteria (a fermented food!).

The casein and lactose contained in milk may increase the calcium bioavailability to the body, making its range of protective benefits more easily accessed. Furthermore, the short-chain fatty acid, butyrate found in milk, may also serve as a protective mechanism against colorectal cancer.

While there has been talk over the past year about dairy having a relationship to the onset of breast cancer, no studies have been substantiated to support this claim. In fact, after aggregating 20 of the more prominent studies, the Susan G. Komen Institute conducted a pooled analysis and confirmed that there is, in fact, no link between dairy and breast cancer risk.

What to eat to increase dairy fat in a healthy way

Continue reading about the benefits of Fermented Foods here.

Are fermented foods key to our health?


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You’re at a baseball game and throw some sauerkraut on your hotdog. You’re dashing between meetings, and you grab a yogurt to tide you over until lunch. You’re sitting down to relax after a long week and grab a little wine and cheese. Each of these tangy products are made using fermentation and contains live bacteria that can improve your health.

Fermented foods and your health

Your gut is teeming with healthy bacteria, creating a unique microbiome that some researchers refer to as our body’s “second brain”. Our other brain is the enteric nervous system which controls the entire gastrointestinal system. Weighing only 2.2 pounds, it’s a bacterial ecosystem swirling around our intestines, brimming with flora, bacteria, archaea, and yes, even viruses. Our hardworking microbiome helps us digest our food, boost our immune system, and allow our bodies to absorb much-needed vitamins from food.

When we don’t have the right balance of gut microbes that meet our body’s specific needs, then we are more prone to chronic disease, from gastrointestinal issues to neurological, cardiovascular, and respiratory illnesses. The Journal of Experimental Medicine reports increasing gut probiotics can help improve gastrointestinal conditions like diarrhea, inflammatory bowel disease (IBS), and liver disease. Scientists also point to the increase in probiotics that can help other chronic conditions ranging from gastrointestinal inflammatory, neurological, cardiovascular, and even respiratory illnesses.

Fermented foods with live cultures are like a multiplier for microbiomes. They have been shown to help us increase the amount of “good bacteria” and probiotic material (12 strains of bacteria grown together) in our gut. When a fermented food with live cultures hits your belly, it releases healthy bacteria and enzymes that make the flora in your digestive system more efficient at synthesizing nutrients. We want those probiotics to stay healthy!

Eating fermented foods is like sending a superhero to your gut. She lands in your intestinal tract and starts busting through other digested food’s cell walls, releasing the nutrients. Without our fermented superheroes – those nutrients remain trapped in the cells, unused by our bodies.

But fermented foods’ superpowers don’t stop there. Scientists have found that probiotics in some fermented foods also help reduce inflammation in the body. Inflammation has been tied to a host of metabolic and autoimmune problems. The NIH also has some promising studies showing the fermented probiotics can have a positive impact on our nervous system and improve mental health. By adding fermented foods to your diet, some scientists are finding it can also help with weight loss.

Are all probiotics the same?

All probiotics are the same if we follow the definition laid out by an international panel of experts at the Gut Microbiota for Health World Summit in 2001 and 2014.

Scientists all agreed a probiotic is a live bacterium that confers health benefits when consumed in the right amount (the “right amount” is still being debated). A probiotic is only a probiotic if it can confer some type of health benefit to humans when consumed.

Robert Hutkins is a professor of Food Science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He has spent his career studying bacteria in fermented foods and what does and does not impact their ability to survive in our gastrointestinal tract. Hutkins wants people to take the definition of probiotics seriously – especially when it comes to fermented food. Not every fermented food contains probiotics.

We were surprised to learn that the fermentation process of making certain foods can actually remove the live culture and its associated health benefits, thus losing its probiotic component. That’s true of wine, beer, and canned sauerkraut – although there may be other health benefits from eating them.

Hutkins says foods like yogurt, most cheeses, kimchi, and non-heated sauerkraut contain probiotics that can positively impact your health.

How much fermented food is enough?

The experts behind Harvard Health say there is no guidance or data on how many probiotics to consume in a day, and therefore no scientific advice on how much fermented food we should eat. Some experts argue that fermented foods shouldn’t be singled out but rather included in an overall healthy diet.

Lori Zanini, a spokeswoman for the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, says about two to three servings a day of fermented foods should suffice. But, like anything, too much of a good thing isn’t always so good. Experts warn too many fermented foods in your diet could cause gas, bloating, and other gastrointestinal issues.

Sharon Flynn is the author of Ferment for Good: Ancient Foods for the Modern Gut and is considered one of Australia’s leading experts on fermented food. She says, like anything, it is possible to overdo it on fermented foods. But, Flynn notes, “You’re more in danger of having poor health from not including these things in your diet than you are from including them.”

Help with Leaky Gut Syndrome?

One of the common ailments of the western diet is something called “leaky gut syndrome”. Scientists have found that microbiomes in our gut are changing from what our ancestors had, which is not necessarily a good thing. Thanks to better hygiene (a good thing) and a western diet rich in processed food (not as good), there’s an imbalance between the good and harmful bacteria in the modern gut. If this persists, it can weaken the walls of our intestines and leak its content into our bloodstream (definitely a bad thing). That condition, leaky gut syndrome, can lead to a host of bad health outcomes. Scientists now believe it could contribute to everything from Alzheimer’s disease to schizophrenia.

But Harvard scientists believe more fermented food could be the answer. Dr. David S. Ludwig, a professor of nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says, “most societies throughout the world and throughout time have included fermented foods as part of their diet.” It started as a preservation process: cabbage left in your fridge will go bad after about a week. If you convert it via fermentation to non-processed sauerkraut (a.k.a. not canned), it seems like it can last forever.

Thankfully food growers and producers have long recognized the benefits and popularity of fermented foods with live cultures. They’re found in almost every culture and cuisine. Historians have found signs of the fermentation process in food dating back to 7000 BC – making it likely this process has been around as long as humans.

The Process

Do food producers still use ancient processes to ferment food today? Many still do, especially in certain cultures. Some people do it at home through canning and pickling from their own fruits and vegetable gardens.

Before refrigeration, fermentation would be one of the only ways to preserve food. If you lived in ancient or medieval times, fermented foods were less likely to make you sick. It’s why most people drank beverages like beer or malted water rather than water up until the 1900s.

The term fermentation comes from the Latin fervere – which means to boil. It’s also where we get the word fervor and fervent – meaning excitable and easily worked up. And that’s a great way to think about the chemical process behind fermentation.

Fermentation is a metabolic process that takes sugars and converts them into alcohol or acid. It removes energy from carbohydrates without oxygen.

Fermentation is also known as “culturing” – you can watch this 3-minute video to learn more about this process.

Looking beyond yogurt

Today, there’s is an increasing variety of fermented foods landing on our grocery shelves every day. We’re not limited to kombucha and sauerkraut (although at D2D, we like both).

Here’s a list of some uncommon, fermented foods starting to pop up in our local supermarket. And here’s a website exploring the vast array of fermented foods across the globe.

  • Natto
    • Fair warning here: most people say natto is an acquired taste. While rarely eaten in America, it’s a popular food item in Japan. It’s traditionally made by wrapping boiled soybeans in rice straw, which naturally has the “good” bacteria “bacillus subtilis” on its surface.
    • But what does this unique fermented food taste like? It’s been described as having a “slimy, sticky, and stringy texture” with a pungent smell and a nutty flavor. In Japan, it’s served over a bed of rice and topped with soy sauce, mustard, chives, and other seasonings.
    • You can find a list of natto recipes here.
  • Kombucha
    • Kombucha is growing more popular in the United States. The beverage can now be found on more grocery store shelves. It begins with a base of green and/or black tea. Sugar is then added to the brewed tea and white vinegar or previously made kombucha for an acidic base. Brewing kombucha also requires a SCOBY, short for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.” And, don’t worry too much about the sugar used for the fermentation process, most of it is burned off by the time the product gets to the shelf, but check the labels to make sure extra sugar wasn’t added at the end process.
    • Check out how to make kombucha tea at home.
  • Kefir
    • Another item now regularly found on grocery stores shelves in America. Kefir is teeming with probiotics and good bacteria that can make your gut sing. It’s a drinkable yogurt but tangier and higher in probiotics than what’s traditionally found in supermarkets. It’s fermented by taking kefir cultures and adding them to a milk product, and letting it ferment for a day. Watch for the sugar content in some brands, though.
    • How to make homemade Kefir.
  • Tempeh
    • Tempeh is a soy-based product that tends to be popular with vegans and vegetarians because it has vitamin B12. It is also a complete protein, meaning it has all nine essential amino acids needed for healthy bones and bodies.
    • Check out this marinated peanut tempeh recipe.
  • Miso
    • Miso is another culinary delight from Japan but more common in the United States than natto. Like natto, it’s made with boiled soybeans, but instead of being fermented using rice straw, it’s combined with molded rice and salt.
    • Easy Miso Salmon
  • Kimchi
    • Korean cooks use kimchi in almost every meal. Kimchi, unlike other fermented foods, can be made in different ways. It usually contains a comb of some type of vegetable (often cabbage) and garlic, ginger, chilies, and/or fish sauce.
    • The most famous dish is known as Kimchi Jjigae (or Spicy Kimchi Stew). Recipe here.