It’s hard to find a bigger recent food trend than fermentation. In Western Europe, fermented food and drink sales are increasing by 38% yearly, and the market will grow by 6.35% CAGR between now and 2027. 

Fermentation isn’t a new process, and fermented products aren’t new to the food industry. So what’s driving its surging popularity? Consumer interest in functional foods for wellness.

1 in 4 consumers say digestive health is the most important part of their overall wellbeing, and a diet rich in fermented foods is scientifically proven to enhance gut microbe diversity and decrease inflammatory proteins. 

New research into the beneficial properties of fermented foods should make product claims easier to validate. However, legislation remains fragmented and inconsistent, with no global standard for regulating fermented food and beverage products. 

Fermented food brands must carefully navigate varied local legislation if they want to bring compliant products to market. So let’s take a deeper dive into this subject.

What are the most popular fermented products?  

While fermentation is a recent food trend, consumers may not realise they’ve been eating fermented products for centuries. Many household favourites – including yoghurt, sour cream, buttermilk, beer, cider, chocolate and sourdough bread – are produced using fermentation processes, along with popular condiments such as fish sauce, soy sauce and vinegar. 

Newer fermented food and drinks trends reaching the mass market include regional delicacies like German sauerkraut, Icelandic Skyr, Japanese miso and Korean gochujang. Fermented plant-based meat alternatives like tofu and tempeh are gaining popularity too. 

No fermented food list would be complete without the ‘poster products’ of the fermentation trend: kimchi, kombucha and kefir. Kombucha is now the most important product in the non-alcoholic fermented drink market, accounting for 86% of all retail sales. However, with popularity comes changes to manufacturing processes – and kombucha is a prime example of how wider adoption can raise regulatory questions. 

The key difference between the first and second group of products we mentioned versus the third group is the role of fermentation. With ‘traditional’ products like bread and yoghurt, the fermentation process primarily makes foods tastier and more digestible. Whereas with ‘newer’ fermented foods like kombucha and kefir, the amounts of live gut-friendly bacteria these foods offer is a primary reason why health-conscious consumers are seeking out these products.

For brands in the latter category, it’s important to keep culture counts high – which can create scalability issues during production. Fermentation can be a slow process, so mass production needs to be achieved safely and without contamination. And consumers also need to be educated on the benefits of gut-friendly bacteria when produced in a controlled environment. 

Kombucha: is mass-market adoption diluting product benefits?  

Every so often, a food or beverage catches the consumer zeitgeist and its popularity explodes. Kombucha is one of the latest products to experience this. But its mass-market appeal has created discrepancies in the production processes, which has led to criticism from craft kombucha brewers. 

Traditionally, kombucha production involves expensive raw materials, and the beverage is produced slowly in small batches. To achieve scalability, however, some kombucha brands have taken shortcuts to enable mass production – such as adding sweeteners like stevia. Although stevia is a natural sweetener, scientific research links it to gut irritation, which goes against the principle that kombucha is good for digestive health. 

Another criticism of commercially produced kombucha is the use of instant mixes and laboratory engineering to fast-forward the fermentation process. Manufacturers pasteurise the kombucha to kill off naturally occurring bacteria and then add their own back in – meaning the product doesn’t contain the live cultures that many consumers desire.

Several brands have also called for more explicit product labelling to distinguish which kombucha drinks contain live cultures. Remedy Drinks UK’s Anna Dominey remarked in an interview with The Grocer, “if I walk into a shop, being able to understand what it is that I’m buying is important. We shout a lot about being live and unpasteurised because we think that matters to the people who drink Remedy.”

From a regulatory perspective, fermentation processes can control which food legislation affects kombucha production. While fermentation is a traditional process, new techniques used to produce kombucha at scale may involve microbial cultures that can be subject to Novel Food laws. These cultures must have received a Novel Food Authorisation confirming they may be used in the production of fermented drinks.

To create greater delineation between traditional and modern processing techniques, some craft kombucha brands have joined forces to create organisations such as Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) in the US and the UK’s Real Kombucha Revolution. KBI has successfully lobbied US senators to propose a kombucha law, defining composition to ensure product consistency and exempt kombucha brands from paying the same tax as alcoholic beverages. However, this legislation is not yet ratified by the Senate.  

How is a lack of international legislation affecting other fermented foods? 

It’s not just kombucha where clearer categorisation is required. Globally, the regulation of fermented food and drink products is inconsistent.

In Europe, for example, most fermented foods are governed by the General Food Law Regulation. However, as we previously mentioned, the starter cultures used to create fermented foods could be classed as Novel Foods.

In other countries, some fermented products are regulated differently from others. For example, the FDA has specific guidelines for acidified foods produced in the USA (including yoghurt) but no legislative framework for other fermented foods. An acidified food is a product created by adding an acidic ingredient to a normally low acid food so that its pH falls below 4.6 – for example, pickled vegetables. You can read more on acid food regulation in the United States here

It’s interesting to compare legal infrastructure in emerging markets with the regulations in countries like Japan, where fermented foods have been popular for decades. 

Japan first formed Food for Specified Health Uses (FOSHU) guidelines in 1991 before introducing the New Functional Products (NFP) Regulation in 2015 to stimulate product innovation. NFP guidelines encourage a broader spectrum of applicable health claims, as the framework accepts systematic scientific reviews as proof of health claims. Gut health features highly in the country’s functional food research

Can clearer fermented food legislation lead to stronger product claims? 

The lack of standardised international legislation isn’t just a product manufacturing complexity: it can prove problematic when fermented food and drink brands want to develop product marketing claims. We touched on this subject in our blog post on another emerging ingredient, collagen; without clear guidelines, it’s difficult to get statements approved. 

Read our blog on the challenges associated with collagen regulation. 

Of the 400+ health claim applications made for probiotic and fermented foods, only one has been authorised by the European Commission. That claim relates to live cultures in yoghurt improving lactose digestion in individuals who experience difficulty with digesting lactose. All other gut function and immunity claims have been rejected because of insufficient scientific evidence. 

Even the term ‘probiotic’ –  derived from the Latin preposition “pro,” which means “for” and the Greek word “biotic” meaning “bios” or “life” – is considered a general health claim in the EU. However, ASEAN in Spain (a major EU member state) is willing to accept the term probiotic on food and food supplements.

Will further product innovation accelerate fermented food and drink regulation? 

Clearly, there is scope for greater clarity in regulating fermented food and drinks and the business case for global legislation will develop as product innovation continues. Precision fermentation is a core process in developing cell-cultured meat, for example. Our blog post on the cultivated meat movement explains this in more detail. 

There is already international momentum to make fermented food development more cohesive. For example, the EU’s Horizon Europe Framework Programme for Research and Innovation and the Swiss State Secretariat for Education, Research and Innovation have jointly funded a €13m, four-year research project to explore the role of fermentation in creating nutritious novel plant-based ingredients. Additionally, the UK’s recent mini-budget includes more capital allowances for start-ups, who may want to look into buying the machinery needed for precision fermentation. This high-level NPD investment is likely to impact fermented food regulation positively.

Until then, fermented food and drink brands will need to pay careful attention to product compliance if they want to ensure that product claims are legal in every market.

Want to know more about fermented food and beverage regulation? Hooley Brown is an international compliance agency specialising in product innovation and localisation. Book a free discovery call to share your challenges.

You can find more about us and what we do on LinkedIn.
Follow us.