By Lorrie Baumann
The founders of Among Friends are unabashedly advocates for whole grains, as is today’s CEO Darcy Zbinovec, who joined the company in 2014. Among Friends, founded by Suzie Miller and Lizann Anderson, makes a whole line of gluten-free baking mixes based on whole grains. The company started several years ago as a local enterprise, but began expanding nationally in 2013 after the products had built a fan base.
The baking mixes are based on whole grains, but also include low added sugar and no added fillers or high-glycemic starches for a clean-label appeal that draws consumers who are seeking to eat foods made only with ingredients their grandmothers would have recognized. “We continue to see gluten free growing, and as it grows, we see consumers looking for better quality – not just that it’s gluten-free anymore, but that it’s got some positive aspects,” Zbinovec said. “Even people who aren’t looking for gluten free are looking for clean labels, and we’ve got really clean labels.”
High-glycemic starches like tapioca and potato starch as well as fillers like xanthan gum are often added to other gluten-free products to hold them together in place of gluten, which creates the structure in conventional baked goods, said Zbinovec. The result is an end product that doesn’t have the traditional texture associated with traditional home-baked goods. “The typical products that use these ingredients have a very fine crumb with a very smooth texture caused by the starches and the gum,” she said.
Among Friends, by contrast, has found ways to use whole grains and other clean ingredients to produce mixes that turn into baked goods whose texture more closely resembles that of the cookies and muffins that grandma might have turned out. “We’re using whole-grains oats, brown rice, sorghum. These whole ingredients rather than a processed starch give a more natural-tasting texture – more like the kind of texture that homemade products that are not gluten free have,” Zbinovec said. “We get a lot of consumers who write to us and tell us that they passed it off as their own. We love reading this because that’s kind of our intent.”
The Among Friends baking mixes are all certified gluten free, non GMO, and each package is labeled on the front of the package to let consumers know how much whole grain they’re getting per serving. “It’s really about nutrition,” Zbinovec said. “Whole grains contain both probiotics and prebiotics. They’re just better for the body.”
The baking mixes are designed to allow consumers either to bake them exactly according to the package directions or to customize them with add-ins that turn the end product into something that is customized to their taste. Among Friends helps with recipes and ideas on the company’s web site. A box of Shane’s Sweet n Spicy Molasses Ginger Cookie Mix, for instance, can turn into Bananas About Pie, a banana cream pie with a sassy ginger-molasses crust. Cora’s Honey Cornbread Mix might get a pop of heat with the addition of some jalapenos or show up for brunch with some blueberries stirred in. Blueberry Lemon Muffins might start with a box of Francie’s Make it Your Own Cinnamon Sugar Muffin Mix. “There’s a lot of different things you can do with the product. We just had a contest and someone made a bundt cake with the muffin mix, and it was delicious,” Zbinovec said. “People do like to try new things. It depends on how venturesome they are,” she added. “A lot of times what we’ll see is people tweaking the recipe a little bit – adding nuts, maybe a glaze. It gives the consumer a chance to play with it a little bit and make it the flavors that their family likes, whatever it might be.”
Among Friends baking mixes are distributed nationwide. They retail for $4.99 to $5.99.
By Lorrie Baumann
Away out West where the sun sets over the ocean, Bradley Bennett is a pickle-packing pro. He’s the founder of Pacific Pickle Works, which is making a name for itself as a maker of some of the zippiest garnishes you can plunk into a cocktail.
Last year Pacific Pickle Works’ Jalabeaos won a Good Food Award, and this year, Brussizzle Sprouts won the Specialty Food Association’s sofi Award for the best appetizer and Asparagusto! won a Best of Show award from the Los Angeles International Spirits Competition. “That run of victories was kind of fun!” commented Bennett, Pacific Pickle Works’ Principal Pickle. Those are on top of awards for the company’s Bloody Mary Elixir from the San Francisco World Spirits Competition, Los Angeles International Spirits Competition and the SIP Awards, an international spirits competition in which consumers are enlisted to judge.
Bennett defines the Pacific Pickle Works product line as a West Coast take on pickles. “So much of the pickle tradition in the U.S. is an old East Coast, New York kind of a thing that came mostly from European immigrants who brought their tradition over,” he said. “We saw that as an opportunity to do something a little different.” The West Coast influence gave the Pacific Pickle Works products their Latin flavors inspired by the cuisine to be found in the local taquerias and Asian-inspired flavor fusions like Fenn Shui, for instance, which is a fennel root pickled in a rice vinegar blend spiced with citrus zest, ginger and Thai chili. The Asian-influenced ingredients make a nice complement to the fennel root, which doesn’t work with a traditional savory treatment, Bennett said. “We’re just sort of paying homage to those kinds of things – using chiles, keeping everything very fresh and crisp,” he added.
Pacific Pickle Works also relies heavily on southern California’s bounty of produce. Bennett buys much of his produce from local organic farmers the day after it’s picked, and then it’s in the jar soon afterwards. The speed of that transition from field to pickle jar produces a product with both extra crispness and fresh taste, he said.
Bennett’s been playing with combinations of local produce and spices for about a decade, making batches of pickles and handing them out as gifts to friends and family before he started selling them to a few local Santa Barbara retailers in 2011. The pickle packing continued to be a small side project for the next few years, but then more retailers started spotting his pickles on their competitors’ shelves and began coming to him. By late 2012, Bennett realized he had a full-time business on his hands and started looking for ways to increase his production with the construction of a new facility to take the place of the shared space in which he’d been working, trading his pickles for the use of a kitchen. He found an old warehouse and built a kitchen into it, leaving the rest of the space as storage for his pallets of jars and the product that’s waiting to be shipped. The new facility opened in September, 2015, and the increased capacity has meant that Bennett was able to team up with a distributor and expand the distribution of his products outside southern California. “We make everything here, by hand. No outsourcing, no copacking of anything,” Bennett said. “It has really changed things for us – allowing us to scale our business to these new demands.”
Retail prices for Pacific Pickle Works products range from $8.99 to $10.99 depending on variety. For more information, visit www.pacificpickleworks.com.
By Lorrie Baumann
Cheese has always been a very convenient, very versatile food, but CHEVOO is upping the convenience factor with a product that offers both trendy flavors and enough versatility to make it an attractive option through the entire day.
CHEVOO is cubed fresh goat cheese marinated in an infused olive oil and packed in a 7.1-ounce glass jar. Service as a snack can be as easy as dipping into the jar and spearing out a cube of the cheese, but CHEVOO is also useful as a convenient ingredient to toss over a salad or into an omelet pan. “When I was importing and distributing artisan cheese in Australia, 50 percent of our customers were chefs. They’d buy a lot of different cheeses for their menus, but they would typically not use any one cheese on breakfast, lunch and dinner menus. Marinated cheeses, because they’re flavorful, crumble, spread and melt well, could be stirred through a dish or crumbled on top of a dish, so chefs were using them throughout the day on all three menus. Foodies saw that trend and followed suit,” said Gerard Tuck, who founded CHEVOO together with his wife Susan.
The Tucks were living in Australia, with Gerard working with an importer and distributor of artisan cheese, when they decided that they’d like to strike out for themselves in the United States. “We just decided to pack our bags and move to California and start the process of seeing whether it was something we could do,” Gerard said. “Having worked for the largest importer and distributor of artisan cheese in Australia, with marinated cheeses being our biggest category, it was a telling sign that this category had potential in the U.S.”
Gerard spent the first year in the U.S. attending Stanford’s graduate business school, living on campus with his wife and three children. “As an international person wanting to move to the U.S. and start a business, it’s a bit tricky to get a visa,” Gerard said. “Going to school was a shortcut to getting the visa; you get a 12-month honeymoon after graduating to get established.”
After 15 months developing the recipes for CHEVOO, which is now offered in three varieties: Aleppo-Urfa Chili & Lemon, California Dill Pollen & Garlic and Smoked Sea Salt & Rosemary, the product was launched onto grocery store shelves in September 2015.
CHEVOO is made from goat curd sourced from local goat dairies in northern California. Then, a flavoring is blended through the goat curd. Olive oil is infused with a botanical that’s crushed and steeped into the olive oil over four to eight weeks. “It’s a very slow and natural process to get the flavor into the olive oil,” Gerard said. “Our most popular blend has smoked sea salt and cracked pepper blended through the goat curd. We then pair that with a rosemary-infused olive oil. It works nicely in that you get one flavor that pops out from the goat curd and one that pops out from the oil.”
The product, selling for $9.99 for the 7.1-ounce jar, has been in stores up and down the West Coast for about 12 months now, and it’s been enough of a hit that the Tucks are moving their operation out of a shared space in southern Oregon and into a new facility in Healdsburg, California, that’s currently under construction. “We’re absolutely planning to stay in the U.S. We love it here. It has a mix of cultural elements that are very familiar to us, and some that are quite different, quite exciting,” Gerard said. “The depth to which the U.S. culture embraces entrepreneurship and innovation is unique and really attractive.”
For more information, visit www.chevoo.com.
BJ’s Wholesale Club has donated more than 50 million pounds of food through its BJ’s Feeding Communities Program®. BJ’s has contributed items to 45 food banks, including fresh produce, frozen meats and fish, baked goods and dairy items.
In partnership with Feeding America®, the nation’s largest domestic hunger-relief organization, BJ’s clubs have donated unsold fresh foods to network member food banks since 2011.
To celebrate the 50 million pound milestone, BJ’s is donating $50,000 to local food banks, with 10 donations of $5,000 each made to local Feeding America member food banks. These funds will be used to support the food bank’s holiday meal programs.
Meijer began carrying its first craft brew more than 20 years ago. Today, Meijer remains committed to the growing industry and the up-and-coming local breweries across the Midwest.
The Grand Rapids, Michigan-based retailer’s commitment to local craft breweries represents an annual economic impact of more than $100 million across the Midwest. Meijer expects to stay on par with its projected double-digit volume growth in craft beer sales, as the retailer has experienced over the past three years. With respect to Michigan-based craft beer alone, Meijer reports it has seen a 20 percent increase across its six-state footprint so far this year, said Rich O’Keefe, Meijer Senior Buyer, during a recent exclusive roundtable gathering of some of the best craft beer breweries in southeast Michigan.
“We attribute this growth to establishing a great dialogue with craft beer breweries throughout Michigan and cultivating their popularity across our retail foot print,” said O’Keefe at Atwater Brewery in Detroit. “The consumer response has been tremendous. It proves that the thirst for Michigan craft beer is apparent throughout our retail markets. We are proud of the great products Michigan-based breweries produce and look forward to expanding the availability and building the popularity of other great regional breweries.”
Meijer gathered together several Detroit and Michigan-based brewery owners and founders at Atwater Brewery to discuss product trends and the state of the local craft beer industry. The event kicked off local in-store tasting events with area craft “brewlebrities” on site at select Meijer stores.
Joe Short: Founder/Owner of Short’s Brewing Company
Mark Reith: Owner of Atwater Brewery
Eric Briggeman: Vice President/General Manager of Rochester Mills Brewery
Kyle VanDeventer: Sales Manager of Griffin Claw
John Leone: Owner/President of ROAK Brewing Company
Tony Grant: Owner of Jolly Pumpkin Artisan Ales, North Peak Brewing Company and Northern United Brewing Company
Chase Kushak: Co-Founder/CEO of Founders Brewing Company
Matt Moberly: Director of Business Insights of Bells Brewery
“The concept of craft beer – especially in Detroit – has grown quickly from a garage hobby to a viable economic engine for Detroit and Michigan,” said Peter Whitsett, executive vice president of merchandising and marketing for Meijer. “We are proud to celebrate the craft masters who drove this industry to where it is today in Detroit. Their commitment to quality and craftsmanship is fueling demand for craft beer in and around Detroit.”
Meijer began carrying its first craft brew – Bell’s Oberon – 20 years ago at a single Kalamazoo store, and today sells more than 550 different craft beers from 220 local breweries across the retailer’s six-state footprint. Of those, 40 are produced by Detroit or southeast Michigan breweries. Meijer continues to partner with local craft brewers to expand their distribution. In fact, Michigan craft beer sales account for 31 percent of the retailer’s craft beer sales and 10 percent of the retailer’s total beer sales.
“Being in the same room with this group of craft brewlebrities – knowing their histories and the how far they’ve come is truly amazing,” said Shannon Long, Producer and Co-host of “Pure Brews America,” who moderated the roundtable discussion. “I think what makes them great is that they are focused on their core and not the next hot thing. They don’t need to follow a trend because they are the trend. “
By Lorrie Baumann
Your store’s brand, encapsulated by the stories you tell about yourself and your business, can be a powerful tool for connecting with customers, according to design and branding consultant Debbie Millman. “Take your branding seriously. People see branding as devil’s work, that you’re creating a false image in the market, that it’s based on lowest common denominator and lies, and that is not the case,” she said during a presentation at this year’s Natural Products Expo East, held September 22-24 in Baltimore, Maryland. “You want to uncover your origins and share that in a way that is authentic and compelling…. You have to capture the imagination of your consumer in a very quick way.”
Millman is also the host of the “Design Matters” podcast, the first and longest running podcast about design. Over the past 11 years, the podcast has garnered a million downloads a year and a Cooper Hewitt National Design Award. iTunes named it one of the best podcasts of 2015.
The concept of branding first became legally recognized with the passage of trademark legislation in 1876. Bass Ale was the very first trademarked brand. “I love what this says about us as a species,” Millman said. Bass Ale’s trademark application was rather quickly followed by what may be the first example of product placement: the painting “A Bar at the Folies-Bergere” by Edouard Manet. Painted in 1882, the work includes depictions of a couple of ale bottles with their Bass Ale labels clearly visible.
Brands as we know them are late 19th-century products of the Industrial Revolution, with mass manufacturing of goods that began to be distributed beyond face-to-face transactions between the individuals who made them and the individuals who used them. Brands were what guaranteed the purchasers that they were getting an identifiable, distinguishable product, even though they didn’t know personally the individuals who made it. “Stories about brands were meant to inform us, to describe what it is we were receiving,” Millman said. “Part of it was a sort of guarantee that the things we were buying were safe and unadulterated. We were supposed to be able to have the security of knowing that we were interacting with a product that would keep us safe.” Early brand leaders were Ivory Soap, Campbell’s Soup and Coca-Cola.
In about 1920, products started coming onto the market that looked very much like other products already on the market. Pepsi followed Coca-Cola; Quaker Oats was followed by other breakfast cereals. Since some of these new products’ appearance or performance weren’t easily distinguishable from their forerunners, marketers began finding other ways to distinguish their products from others, and they started creating characters that would entertain and create relationships with consumers. Betty Crocker was a complete fabrication; Uncle Ben wasn’t a real person, and yet consumers developed real relationships with brands based on the way they understood these characters. “You could relate to and project onto a character, and these stories about brands engaged us,” Millman said.
Around 1965, brands began to say more about the consumers who bought them than about the products behind them. Brands like Levi’s, Nike and Marlboro didn’t say as much about the pants, shoes and cigarettes as they did the consumers who were wearing the Levi’s jeans and the Nike sneakers and smoking the Marlboro cigarettes. “Stories about brands reflected us, what we wanted other people to believe about us,” Millman said.
Then around 1985, brands like Disney, Apple and Starbucks began to stand for an experience rather than a specific product, and consumers began responding, not just to the specific item that carried the brand but to the way that having that item made them feel. “This is when brand zealots were born,” Millman said. “Stories about brands emotionally transformed us.”
“Why as a species are we so compelled by this?” Millman asked. “Why do we form tribes of our own around brands?”
She noted that nearly every species of animals on the planet prefers to congregate, organizing into some kind of pack for safety and comfort. Humans are not different in this respect, Millman said, pointing to scientific studies that have shown that given the choice between being held by his mother and not fed or being fed but not held, a baby will choose the connection with his mother. “If the baby has to choose between starving to death and being held, the baby will always choose to be held,” Millman said. “We feel happiest and most secure when our brains resonate with others.” Our symbols, including our brands, have been ways to facilitate this congregation – before there were military uniforms, flags identified that place on the battlefield where our fellows could be found, just as today, a product bearing the Apple brand identifies its owner as a member of a particular tribe.
Beginning in about 2005, the leading brands were no longer just identifying concrete, physical products and had begun to be about the ways we connect with each other. Think Facebook, Twitter. They’re means by which we tell each other our stories, regardless of the physical devices through with we do that these days. “The more popular brands of the moment are all around stories,” Millman said. “Now we’re being inundated with reality stories in everything we watch.”
That being the case, Millman advises that we make sure that we’re telling the authentic stories that will help others connect with us and that will help them feel that they are accepted as they are rather than judged for their flaws. “To create brands, help people feel connected and accepted and okay as is,” she said. “If you can capture that acceptance, you will likely grow your brands really quickly. I see a huge social shift about accepting as is.”
“Communicate something in your brand that will help consumers make a difference in their lives,” she added. “You must be absolutely, positively authentic. You can’t make these stories up. Consumers today have a very strong BS meter, and they know when they’re not being told the truth.”
Wixon, a manufacturer of seasonings, flavors, and technologies for the food and beverage industry, has made a five-year commitment to donate $250,000 to the construction of the new University of Wisconsin-Madison Meat Science Laboratory.
Ground was recently broken on the 67,540-square-foot building, with occupancy expected in spring 2018. The current meat laboratory, built in 1931 with additions in the 1950s and 1970s, did not have the space or facilities to meet current industry and research demands.
According to the University of Wisconsin-Madison Meat Science Laboratory website, the mission of the new facility is four-fold:
A lecture/demonstration suite, a biosafety lab suite, teaching and research offices, and an expanded retail space will be included in the building. The retail shop will be in the entry atrium of the new building and will be open daily, providing the public an opportunity to buy meat and poultry products, plus learn about meat.
“We are very excited to play a role in championing pioneering research, providing outreach instruction, supporting the economic development of the meat industry, and educating future meat industry leaders,” Wixon President Peter Gottsacker. “As a provider of spices and seasonings to the meat industry for more than 100 years, Wixon and all of its employees are proud to join other companies and individuals in helping to keep UW-Madison at the forefront of meat science, which will provide benefits now and for generations to come.”
By Lorrie Baumann
The Food and Drug Administration has decided that the agency will not enforce a regulation that the agency has interpreted to limit the use of the word “healthy” on food labels in a way that excludes products like some of KIND’s nut and seed bars. The new guidance from the FDA represents only the agency’s current thinking on this topic, and it’s intended to fill a gap between changing understanding about the role of fats in a healthy diet and a regulation that many said was stuck in the past.
Under the new guidance, FDA will allow foods to say they’re “healthy” on their labels if they’re not low in total fat but have a fat profile that’s predominantly mono and polyunsaturated fats or contain at least 10 percent of the daily value of potassium or vitamin D in the amount of the food that would be customarily consumed. “We’re encouraged by the speed of progress within the FDA and see this as a notable milestone in our country’s journey to redefine healthy,” said KIND Founder and CEO Daniel Lubetzky.
This change in thinking comes partly as a result of KIND’s urging the agency to take another look at the issue after the FDA sent the company a warning letter in March that the labels of its KIND Fruit & Nut Almond & Apricot, Kind Fruit & Nut Almond & Coconut, KIND Plus Peanut Butter Dark Chocolate + Protein and Kind Plus Dark Chocolate Cherry Cashew + Antioxidants bars were misbranded because the labels included the word “healthy.” Under the FDA rules at that time, a food had to contain no more than 15 percent of its calories from saturated fat, and the agency noted that the products didn’t meet that criterion. The FDA had a few other quarrels with the labels – among them that KIND had listed its address as its post office box instead of its street address. KIND fixed its labels to comply with FDA requirements, resulting in a stand-down from the agency with a closeout letter on April 20. “The FDA concluded that KIND satisfactorily addressed the violations contained in the warning letter,” according to the agency.
Following receipt of the closeout letter, KIND requested confirmation that it could use the phrase “healthy and tasty” in text clearly presented as the company’s corporate philosophy rather than in the context of an actual nutrient claim for any particular product. “The FDA evaluates the label as a whole and has indicated that in this instance it does not object,” the agency decided, and then followed up with a notice that the newest nutrition research, reflected in the “2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines,” as well as a citizen petition requesting a reevaluation of regulations regarding nutrient content claims suggested that the time had come for the agency to take another look at the issue.
KIND reinstated the word “healthy” on its wrappers. “Earlier this year, the FDA closed out a warning letter issued to KIND in March 2015 affirming that we could use healthy on our wrappers again – just as we had it before – in connection with our corporate philosophy,” said Justin Mervis, KIND’s Head of Regulatory Affairs.
The agency’s next step will be a re-evaluation of the regulatory criteria for use of the implied nutrient claim “healthy” in light of the latest nutrition science and the current dietary recommendations and the seeking of input on how to update the existing regulations for this claim. ”The FDA has posed a number of important questions for comment, and in our continued efforts to advocate for public health, we’re actively convening experts to help provide answers grounded in current nutrition science,” Lubetzky said.
In the meantime, KIND won’t be taking advantage of the FDA’s decision not to enforce current rules, according to Mervis. “At the moment, we have no plans to use healthy in other contexts in reliance of the FDA’s enforcement discretion,” he said. “For us, healthy has always been more than just a word on a label – it’s a commitment to making wholesome snacks that consumers can feel good about putting in their body.”
America’s 75 million Millennials are devouring organic, and they’re making sure their families are too. Parents in the 18- to 34-year-old age range are now the biggest group of organic buyers in America, finds a new survey on the organic buying habits of American households released recently by the Organic Trade Association (OTA).
Among U.S. parents, more than five in 10 (52 percent) organic buyers are Millennials. And this influential and progressive generation is stocking their shopping carts with organic on a regular basis.
“The Millennial consumer and head of household is changing the landscape of our food industry,” said Laura Batcha, CEO and Executive Director of the Organic Trade Association. “Our survey shows that Millennial parents seek out organic because they are more aware of the benefits of organic, that they place a greater value on knowing how their food was grown and produced, and that they are deeply committed to supporting a food system that sustains and nurtures the environment.”
OTA has partnered with KIWI Magazine to conduct surveys of the organic buying patterns of households since 2009. This year’s survey marks the first time that generational buying habits have been studied. The survey looked at Millennials (born between 1981-1997, currently age 18-34 years), Generation-X (born between 1965-1980, currently 35-50 years old), and Baby Boomers (born between 1946-1964 and currently 51-69 years old).
Compared to Millennials who account for 52 percent of organic buyers, Generation X parents made up 35 percent of parents choosing organic, and Baby Boomers just 14 percent.
OTA’s “U.S. Families’ Organic Attitudes and Beliefs 2016 Tracking Study,” a survey of more than 1,800 households throughout the country with at least one child under 18, found that more than eight in ten (82 percent) U.S. families say they buy organic sometimes, one of the highest levels in the survey’s seven-year lifetime. The number of families never buying organic has steadily decreased, going from almost 30 percent in 2009 to just 18 percent today.
Organic and Living Green
While 35 percent of all families surveyed said that choosing organic products is a key part of their effort to live in an environmentally friendly way, a greater percentage of Millennials said buying organic is a key eco-conscious habit than any other generational group. For 40 percent of Millennials, choosing organic is an integral part of living green, versus 32 percent of Generation Xers and 28 percent of Baby Boomers.
Organic buying continues to be on the rise across the generations. Forty-nine percent of all households surveyed said they are buying more organic foods today than a year ago.
Knowledge about organic is also growing across the generational spectrum of parents, but Millennials in particular are likely to view themselves as very knowledgable about organic products, with nearly eight in 10 (77 percent) reporting that they are “well informed” (34 percent) or “know quite a bit” (44 percent). With that knowledge comes a great deal of trust for the organic label. Parents’ trust in organic labeling is the strongest and highest among Millennials, with 54 percent saying they have confidence in the integrity of the organic label. Almost 60 percent of Millennial parents say they have a “strong connection” with the label and feel the organic label is an important part of how they shop for food.
“The Millennial shopper puts a high premium on the healthiness and quality of the food they choose for their families,” said Batcha. “This generation has grown up eating organic, and seeing that organic label. It’s not surprising that they have a greater knowledge of what it means to be organic, and consequently a greater trust of the organic label.”
Organic sales in the U.S. in 2015 posted new records, with total organic product sales hitting a new benchmark of $43.3 billion, up a robust 11 percent from the previous year’s record level and far outstripping the overall food market’s growth rate of 3 percent, according to OTA’s “2016 Organic Industry Survey.” Of the $43.3 billion in total organic sales, $39.7 billion were organic food sales, up 11 percent from the previous year, with non-food organic products accounting for $3.6 billion, up 13 percent. Nearly 5 percent of all the food sold in the U.S. in 2015 was organic.
By Lorrie Baumann
There’s been a surge of consumer interest in fermenting foods over the past few years, fueled in part by scientific research into probiotics, prebiotics and gut health in general and aided by the increasing availability of pre-prepared vegetables in grocers’ produce departments. Leading the way in this is fermentation guru Sandor Katz, author of “Wild Fermentation” and “The Art of Fermentation.” “I got a reputation, and my friends started calling me ‘Sandor Kraut,’” he said.
That surge in interest has created a market for products like the Perfect Pickler, a do-it-yourself kit that enables consumers to make an unlimited supply of affordable fermented vegetables with no spillage or odors and with a minimum of counter space. The Perfect Pickler kit includes an airlock that prevents odors and spillage and simplifies the process. “There are no spills, no odors; it’s completely foolproof,” said Perfect Pickler Owner and Fermentation Visionary Wendy Jackson. “There’s no managing through the process This is just load it, lock it, leave it. Every time it’s foolproof. Fast and easy results.”
“Our kit is an affordable option. It only takes four days and it’s foolproof,” she added. Perfect Pickler has two products in the line, the Master System, which supplies everything the consumer needs to make fermented vegetables on the countertop except a wide-mouth Mason jar, the vegetables and water, and an add-on system that allows users to ferment in two jars at once. “This reflects the demand from customers who were looking to do two at the same time, maybe one jar with curried cauliflower and one with sauerkraut,” Jackson said.
The actual fermenting process is very simple – it’s a matter of chopping vegetables into small pieces, or buying ready-chopped vegetables, adding salt to create a brine and submerging the vegetables under the brine to keep them away from oxygen, then waiting while anaerobic bacteria do their work. In this oxygen-free environment, natural bacteria digest the natural sugars in the plant material and manufacture lactic acid, which discourages the growth of the kinds of microbes that cause food poisoning and adds its own flavor. Four days later, the sauerkraut or kimchi in the Perfect Pickler jar is ready to eat. It’s essentially the same process that’s also used to make wine, beer, yogurt and cheese.
“Almost everybody in every part of the world eats and drinks the products of fermentation every day,” Katz said. “Fermented foods are integrated into culinary traditions in every part of the world.” Jackson herself has traveled to Africa and to India to teach fermentation workshops in places where that local culinary tradition had died out over time. Her workshops gave them back the skills to recreate traditional foods from their own culture. “Even in India it was gone,” she said. “It was amazing to connect with the people.”
Historically, fermentation has been regarded as a practical strategy for preserving extremely perishable foods. Fermentation predates recorded history: human beings learned early that if they could control the microbial changes that happen naturally to foods, they could make it last longer. “The alternative is that food decomposes into a ugly mess that no one would want to eat,” Katz said. “I have dabbled in every realm of fermentation, but I am not an expert…. Indigenous cultures around the world – that’s where the real experts are.”
Katz noted that the most frequent questions he hears as he travels the country speaking and teaching about fermentation is about whether the beginning fermenter runs a risk of making himself sick. Katz says no, that fermenting raw vegetables actually makes them safer. “People project all kinds of fears on fermentation,” he said. “There never has been a single case of illness or food poisoning from fermented vegetables.”
Much of the recent interest in fermented vegetables has resulted from greater understanding of the complexity of the microbial communities that exist within the human body and within the gut in particular. Katz noted that the cells in each of our bodies that carry our own DNA are actually outnumbered by the bacteria living inside each of us. “They’re not parasites. They’re not freeloaders. They contribute to our functionality,” Katz said.
These bacteria are thought to be part of our natural defenses against harmful bacteria, and some research suggests that there may be a connection between our mental health and the health of these gut bacteria in ways that aren’t currently understood, according to Katz. He noted that widespread chlorination of drinking water has deleterious effects on gut bacteria, decreasing its biodiversity, and consumption of probiotics is a strategy for remedying this, he said. “If we’re really interested in cultivating biodiversity, we need to consume different kinds of fermented foods and beverages,” he said. “Bacteria are not our enemies. They are our ancestors and our allies and they give us wonderful foods.”