March 23, 2018, by Brigitte Nerlich
Fermenting hope; fermenting hype?
When I first became involved with the Synthetic Biology Research Centre here at the University of Nottingham in 2014, I wrote a blog post in which I pointed to fermentation as one of its historical and intellectual roots. I called it ‘Fermenting thought’. Now, four years later, I have come across an article in The Guardian (published on 10 March) and a subsequent tweet which prompted me to write this blog post entitled ‘Fermenting hope’. (However, I could only post it properly after a bit of a delay)
It’s about a newish excitement surrounding claims that fermented food has health benefits; claims that, it seems, emerged at the time when there was also increased excitement about friendly bacteria, the microbiome and so on. When I read the article, I asked myself, as it seems many others do: are these claims about the health benefits of fermented food just hype, or is there something in it? (I have to confess to buying kefir because I think it’s good for me; so, I understand the hope aspect).
The article, by Zoe Williams, is entitled “Fit in my 40s: ‘I hadn’t realised that fermentation is so vital to the gut’”. This headline reminded me of the early adverts for probiotics (around 2006/07), such as “I am a very happy, lucky lady, and I am full of Vitality!” – which we, i.e. in this case Nelya Koteyko, analysed as part of a small ESRC research project into public representations of probiotics (Koteyko, 2009). In particular, Nelya examined the rhetorical means by which probiotics emerged “as a credible ‘tool’ for building the ‘inner armour’ of immunity and as a locus of interlinked discourses on biomedicine, science, nutrition and the body”. I won’t be able to do a similar/comparative analysis for fermentation adverts and articles in this short post – but I bet somebody could!
The Guardian article is partly based on an interview with what one may call a ‘visible scientist’, namely Tim Spector, “professor of genetics and author of The Diet Myth”. He has become one of the go-to scientist for journalists writing about up-and-coming developments in genetics and society, including epigenetics and microbiomics. I am not sure he’d have supported some of the following lines in the article though: “The process [of fermentation] works differently depending on the food type, but there are a few key principles; you can’t just pickle, you have to pickle in brine, not vinegar, because acid kills everything. The English were left behind by fermentation, having prematurely fallen in love with vinegar, which is why we’re not as hardy as the Hungarians. Problematically, if you like your health awareness with a side order of self-flagellation, fermentation is quite delicious.” (Italics added) The statement regarding Hungarians was gently or rather not so gently slated on twitter.
The article goes on to talk about the potential health benefits of various fermented food stuffs, such as miso, Kombucha, sauerkraut, my own beloved kefir, and, surprisingly, chocolate and sourdough, but, of course, also wine and beer…. And here things become a bit dicey regarding the health benefits of fermentation … as some commenters pointed out underneath the article.
But be this as it may, fermentation is all still about this elusive hope encapsulated by the term ‘vitality’ in the era of probiotics, a hope that now carries over into the era of microbiomics and fermented food. So, when talking to Professor Spector, Zoe Williams begins to think about her gut in a new way: “I started to think of my gut as like a 1990s rave, the mad vivacity of partially intelligent life forms all mimicking each other. It’s a strangely hedonic health kick.”
The comments underneath the article seem to be quite well-informed and largely sceptical of the claims being made. This was mirrored on twitter, where a professor of microbial (meta) genomics called many of the assertions found in the article ‘absolute nonsense’. I’d love to know what other experts in the fields of microbiology, genomics, synthetic biology and microbiomics make of it.
Of course, this article is only one of many. A quick search online made me think that interest in fermentation and fermented foods seemed to increase around 2013/2014 for some reason. To test that assumption, I went to the newspaper database Lexis Nexis and searched All English Language News with the key words ‘fermentation’ OR ‘fermented food’ AND health for the last two decades (on a high similarity setting) and got this graph.
The graph has to be used with caution as there are probably many articles in there that one should, in principle, remove manually, as they are not important to the topic. However, putting aside these quibbles for the moment, it sort of confirmed my feeling that fermentation and claims that it benefits health became a trendy topic around 2014, preceded by a bit of a, probably probiotic inspired, peak in 2007 and 2008.
I then also searched PubMed to see what trend I could discover amongst scientific/medical publications (and again this has to be read with caution, as people just publish more and more articles; so an increase is inevitable); but again, setting this aside for more formal future research, the graph is also quite telling. Although the graph that one can extract semi-automatically from PubMed (unlike for Lexis Nexis where one has to count things by hand) starts in 1899, I have only focused in on the last two decades.
Again, things picked up a bit around 2007 with the advent of probiotics marketing and then again in 2014, around the same time that the microbiome began to go ‘viral’. However, in this case there is no downward trend in 2017.
Hope or hype?
I am not totally sure what happened around 2014, but one blog published online that year said: “Fermented foods, such as sauerkraut and kombucha, have become popular for health reasons. I have made my own sauerkraut in the past and have recently made the tasty, fermented Korean side dish, kimchi. I did it not only for the taste but also for the hope that the bacteria responsible for the fermentation of the cabbage — lactic acid bacteria (LAB) — would contribute to the diversity of my gut microbiota.”
This blog was written by a “research scientist in the field of bacterial pathogenesis” and it’s probably worth reading (and here is a more cautious assessment, and there is much much more online stuff out there, mostly not captured by either Nexis Lexis or PubMed). Surprisingly, the blog comes to the conclusion that: “Fermented foods probably deserve their healthful reputation.”
So, are claims made about the health benefits of fermented food just ‘nonsense’ or do these foods ‘deserve their healthful reputation’. Or do we have to think in more nuanced ways about all this? I’d love to know more!
And IF there are SOME health benefits, is there a danger of exaggerating them in marketing, advertising and what one may call the wellness industry, as is currently happening around epigenetics? Having written about epigenetic woo, I was not surprised to come across ‘food woo’ – so we need to keep an eye on that.
I am looking forward to working with Carmen McLeod at the Nottingham SBRC, who will be leading a social science project from April, exploring some of the cultural and social aspects of fermentation within synthetic biology research.
PS: For personal reasons I won’t be able to write blog posts as regularly as before. However, if anybody wants to contribute a guest post, in whatever language and on whatever (science/society) topic, just let me know!