The Fermented Foods Industry Is Built on Global Ingredients. So Why Are Its Most Visible Faces White?
The Fermented Foods Industry Is Built on Global Ingredients. So Why Are Its Most Visible Faces White?
While the fermented foods industry evangelizes products rooted in global, often East Asian, traditions, its most visible faces are predominantly white
The first time I tasted kombucha was in 2010, at a Whole Foods in San Francisco. As I drank the ice-cold bottle of GT’s Multi-Green, I was surprised by how familiar it was: Its sharpness reminded me of long-fermented Taiwanese fruit vinegars and suan cai, while its funk called to mind the diverse array of ferments, such as furu, tempe, belachan, and doubanjiang, that flavored my ’80s Malaysian childhood.
After I immigrated to Australia in the ’90s, my white friends mocked these ferments as “smelly,” “gross,” and “weird.” But 20 years later, the large refrigerated probiotic beverage section at Whole Foods was dominated by a funky drink, covered with psychedelic labels and buzzwords like “rejuvenate,” “restore,” and “regenerate.” And just as I’ve seen the popularity of kombucha continue to grow, I’ve watched as many of the once-ridiculed ferments of my childhood have been declared not just acceptable, but trendy by white people eager to festishize and commoditize them.
Over the last several years, it has become big business for white-owned companies to “discover” “new” ferments from BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) cultures and bring them to Western markets. Kombucha may have been the gateway, but other traditional ferments, such as kimchi, miso, tempe, and tibicos, are increasingly popular with white producers and consumers. It’s a trend I’ve observed as both a consumer and a member of what I would call the fermentation community, a loose collective of fermentation enthusiasts and experts, mainly from the West, who celebrate and teach fermentation, as well as those who research fermented foods and sell fermented products.
The community is grounded in reconnecting people to traditional food systems, lost tastes, and microbial heritages. The nuances and complexities of sharing cultures — one’s own and those of others — are something I’ve thought a lot about since joining the community in 2013, when my partner and I started one of Australia’s first tibicos companies. We called our product by its Mexican name to recognize its pre-Columbian Aztec origins, researched its complicated history extensively, and did our best to present it to the public. Because I am Chinese-Malaysian (then a rarity in the industry), many customers assumed our product was of Asian origin, and I endured racist comments about its price point, taste, and provenance; many retailers and customers found tibicos hard to pronounce and asked why we didn’t call it by its more commonly used name, water kefir. We struggled with access to financial and social capital, and were soon overshadowed by white entrepreneurs selling similar ferments. After five years, we closed the business and I went on to study the potential health benefits of fermented foods as a Ph.D. student.
As I have continued to promote the study of diverse ferments with clear recognition of their histories and sociocultural importance, I’ve watched the small Western market for fermented goods gradually turn into a booming industry, one that by at least one projection could be worth $690 billion by 2023. As my own experience showed me, the accompanying shift in profit margins and exposure has revealed an uncomfortable truth: The fermentation industry, like any other, has a whiteness problem.
To understand what this means, you could start with Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), an international trade association that claims to represent 90 percent of all bottled kombucha on store shelves and on tap today. Nearly two-thirds of KBI’s members are white, based on a survey KBI conducted in June. You don’t have to look far to find illustrations of this statistic. Take, for example, Kombucha Kamp, which bills itself as the “#1 place online” to learn about and buy kombucha; the smiling white woman on its site is founder Hannah “Kombucha Mamma” Crum, who is also the co-founder of KBI. Or look at GT’s Living Foods, started by George Thomas Dave. The so-called king of kombucha, who owns 40 percent of the nearly-$500-million U.S. kombucha market, rose to success upon his claims that he was introduced to kombucha by a “Himalayan Mother” SCOBY (or symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, the gelatinous culture used to make kombucha) gifted to his family by a friend who claimed to have gotten it from a Buddhist nun, and that it cured his mother’s aggressive breast cancer.
Beyond kombucha, there are plenty of other examples of the fermenting industry’s whiteness. On Julie Feickert’s Cultures for Health, you’ll find various starter cultures, including trendy koji and tempeh spores, but scant acknowledgement of their origins, history, or cultural context. Chris de Bono, owner of Meru Miso in Tasmania, Australia, calls himself a “Miso Master” despite first making miso commercially in 2015; he also claims to be “Australia’s premier producer” of “authentic, traditional” miso. Peace, Love and Vegetables, established in 2011, claims to sell “Australia’s Number 1 Sauerkraut”; its “untraditional” “kim-chi” Superkraut (vegan, of course) bears such little resemblance to actual kimchi that it seems mislabeled. Many white-owned businesses that produce fermented vegetables have at least one kimchi product, cashing in on its popularity with varying degrees of kimchi-ness: Madge’s Food Company, Gaga’s Gut Loving Ferments, Eden Foods. Tepache, a pre-Columbian Mexican fermented beverage made with pineapple rinds and spices like cinnamon and cloves, has been co-opted by Western healthy drink companies, cider, and spirit makers alike, with varying degrees of similarities to its namesake.
Wherever you look, you’ll see that the fermentation industry in the West (meaning North America, the U.K., Europe, and Australasia) is dominated by mostly white fermenters, who often sell whitewashed BIPOC ferments and associated white-gaze narratives about these foods to mainly white consumers. This dearth of diversity is problematic in and of itself, but it’s worsened by the fact that white fermenters are commoditizing ferments that are ingrained in the cultural identities of BIPOC, whose centuries-long labor developed and refined the microbial relationships required to produce them.
Even the idea of sharing cultures (so to speak) can be problematic, as Feby, a fermenter reclaiming Indonesian food identity via her tempe subscription business Reculture Kitchen, pointed out on Instagram. “‘Sharing cultures’ benefits white people and Western nations, not countries that have been entrenched in colonial violence,” she wrote. “It’s easy for [Westerners] to reap the benefits of shared cultures and then claim a specific fermentation process as their own because of their literacy in capitalism … whereas people from a colonized nation are asked to acculturate to whiteness and their time and resources are spent on surviving.”
While it is exciting that the Western market for ferments such as kimchi, miso, and kombucha is growing at an explosive rate, BIPOC fermenters are frequently rendered invisible in the fermentation industry through a lack of access, representation, and voice, only to have their traditions and cultures at turns stolen, appropriated, or erased altogether. At almost every level, success is determined by white gatekeepers, from which companies gain access to capital, to who organizes festivals and teaches workshops, to who gets spotlighted by the food media or given book contracts or space on grocery store shelves.
Nearly every culture on this planet ferments. An ancient culinary technology that reaches back around 10,000 years, fermentation is the controlled transformation of food by bacteria and fungi. Humans have long depended on this transmission of microbial cultures to produce ferments for flavor, nutrition, and survival.
The growing mainstream popularity of ferments in the West has its roots in the Western agrarian movement of the ’60s and ’70s, when members of the white counterculture became enamored with and capitalized on the ferments of “the Orient” and old Europe. Inherently antithetical to industrialized foods, these ferments appealed to the segment of the white middle class choosing to swim outside the mainstream. Miso, kombucha, sauerkraut, and tempe were particularly popular, though their popularity was largely limited to countercultural circles. Zen philosophy, which was espoused by numerous poets and artists at the time, further fueled the interest in East Asian ferments, as did the macrobiotic boom. Their purveyors often alluded to their ancient origins and purported healing properties to lure those hoping to attain health nirvana through their alimentary tract — a strategy that effectively kicked off the appropriation of (primarily) East Asian ferments, a picking and choosing of narratives and flavor profiles to suit white tastes.
The mid-’90s saw a growing mainstream interest in fermented foods, thanks in large part to Sandor Katz, an irrepressible self-described fermentation fetishist who traveled the U.S. giving fermentation lectures and demonstrations. Meanwhile, Sally Fallon Morell’s Nourishing Traditions blog and popular book and the raw food trend also helped popularize the practice, bringing foods that had been part of the hippie mainstream in the ’60s and ’70s, such as sauerkraut, water kefir, rejuvelac, and miso, to the forefront of the health-focused natural food movement. Although they still appealed mainly to radical lefties and health-conscious coastal liberal elites, a small American artisanal cottage industry began to bubble, beginning with companies like GT’s Living Foods and the revered Cultured Pickle Shop, which both started in 1995.
When the artisanal foods movement began gaining steam a decade later, this quiet bubbling got noisy. Ferments were the perfect product for many would-be artisans, with their old-timey, back-to-nature appeal and purported health benefits. House-made pickles, wild sauerkraut, and small-batch kombucha flourished in gentrified neighborhoods and restaurants everywhere, culminating in a period of peak pickle that was skewered on Portlandia in 2012. Other ferments soon gained traction, including kvass and milk kefir, and by 2014, they had ascended to fine dining status. That was the year that both David Chang and René Redzepi started their own fermentation labs; Chang, who is Korean American, aimed to revolutionize the use of edible microbes — especially Japan’s beloved Aspergillus oryzae, or koji, mold, which produces miso, soya sauce, and grain-based alcoholic beverages like sake.
Fermented foods were given an additional boost by ongoing scientific research into the role of the gut microbiome in human health. Many popular ferments contain live probiotic bacteria and yeasts, shown to have potential beneficial effects on gut health and associated modern diseases such as obesity, heart disease, and diabetes. Thanks in part to wellness juggernauts like Goop, the white worried well became convinced that optimal gut health was a panacea for their chronic malaise. Where better to spend one’s dollars than on those natural, healthy fermented foods teeming with beneficial probiotic bacteria? Multinational food corporations, weakened by growing disdain for their obesity-inducing sugary drinks in the West, began swallowing up artisanal fermentation businesses. In the last few years, companies making low-alcohol, low-sugar kombucha and water kefir have attracted investment from the likes of Coca-Cola and Pepsi, while General Mills has put its substantial dollars into Farmhouse Culture’s sauerkraut and other probiotic products.
In the process, fermented foods finally made their way out of the health food aisle and into the mainstream, where East Asian ferments like kimchi, miso, and gochujang have found particular popularity. Orientalism and gastrodiplomacy certainly have a hand in the continued love affair with Japanese ferments, as well as kimchi’s current popularity among Western palates. And more recently, ferments from other regions, such as Nigerian iru, Indonesian tempe, Ethiopian injera, Mexican tepache and pozol, and Indian dosas, have attracted the attention of white fermenters, recipe writers, and consumers.
Regardless of whether white interest in these cultural ferments is rooted in social justice or a way to virtue signal white worldliness, BIPOC fermenters are still getting lost in the brine of the industry’s overwhelmingly white narrative. Although it’s not as if only Japanese people can make Japanese ferments or white people cannot gain expertise or profit from their hard work, there needs to be a stark recognition of the inequities at play and a collaborative effort to correct them, even when it is uncomfortable for white fermenters.
One way to start is by looking more closely at the problems within our community: namely, cultural appropriation, the tailoring of certain ferments to suit white tastes, and the gatekeeping that disproportionately benefits (and is exercised by) white members of the industry. All of this falls under the overarching issue of whitewashing, which results in the colonialist muddling of the cultures and histories of BIPOC people.
“I think that [fermentation] knowledge needs to be shared and needs to be spread, but it ignores the fallout of colonial thought and that kind of behavior,” says Mara King, the co-founder of Ozuké, a fermented foods company, and the co-host of the YouTube show The People’s Republic of Fermentation. “People are not even aware of the subtle ways they embody racism,” she points out. That’s one reason why recognizing “that you are in a precarious position when you try to represent someone else’s culture” is key, King says, as is “always being open to learning and being submissive to somebody else’s understanding.” In other words, she adds, don’t be like Alison Roman: “She was not giving due, she was not offering any scholarship, and she was saying her version was the version.”
Fermented products are often marketed to appeal to white audiences, by both BIPOC and white producers. “Overall I think BIPOC fermented foods are either exoticized and touted as the ‘next big thing,’ or they come with a disclaimer,” says an Asian-Australian fermenter I’ll call Sarah (like some other fermenters I approached for an interview, she feared potential negative repercussions for speaking out, which is why I’ve given her a pseudonym).
The common emphasis on health benefits in decontextualized sales narratives further exoticizes these foods. “Sometimes because they can’t add health claims, I think [the] marketing will delve into the traditions almost to validate the ‘Asian wisdom’ or something,” Sarah adds. “Like ‘brewed in Ancient China’ or ‘eaten widely to strengthen the immune system in Korea.’ It feels like they cherrypick and glean which cultural information to show off.”
This romanticization of BIPOC traditions — and the accompanying failure to provide historical or sociocultural context that centers BIPOC and their relationship with these ferments — is rife in the health and wellness space: Modern life made me (or my kids) very sick, doctors didn’t know what to do, and then I discovered the magical healing powers of ancient, traditional fermented foods. Last February, the onset of COVID-19 led to a 952 percent surge, year over year, in kimchi sales. (More recently, the national medical director of England’s National Health Service publicly rebuked Gwyneth Paltrow for suggesting that long COVID could be treated with — among other things — kimchi and kombucha.)
The tendency to exoticize and romanticize fermented foods in order to sell them leads us to another abiding problem in the fermentation community: the editing of flavor profiles so that certain ferments will appeal to white audiences. While nuance, surprise, and pungency are welcome in traditionally made, at-home ferments, white-focused commercial enterprise requires predictable and approachable products. The vinegary tang of kombucha, for example, is diluted with artificial sweeteners, fruit juice, and forced carbonation for consistency; “smelly” fish sauce is left out of kimchi — see, for example, all of those vegan kimchis; and “mild” and “sweet” misos, which are fermented for shorter periods of time, are easier to sell in Western markets that have yet to embrace funkier ferments like natto, furu, and belachan.
BIPOC fermenters are hardly immune to the pressure to appeal to white consumers. In playing up one’s cultural background to sell a product, King points out, “you create an illusion of culture, a curated flavor profile that you know will be accepted and enjoyed. The chaotic, stinky, and messy are edited out of this scenario for the benefit of both the performer and the consumer.”
This need to satisfy perceived white tastes is pervasive enough that it has led to an attempt by Korean researchers to engineer the smell out of kimchi, a food that comes in hundreds of varieties and is so deeply ingrained in Korean culture that the South Korean Ministry of Culture stated it was gaining “a worldwide reputation as a representative food of Korea.” Such accessibility to white audiences is the top priority for many fermentation businesses in terms of both their financial and cultural bottom lines.
The past several years have nonetheless seen a new generation of Korean-American-owned companies whose owners have defiantly stuck to their traditional recipes. Companies like Mama O’s Premium Kimchi, Mother-in-Law’s Kimchi, Choi’s Kimchi Co., and Sinto Gourmet have expanded the variety of kimchi available on store shelves, building in turn upon the quiet multi-decade success of unsung heroes and kimchi diplomats Sunja’s and Cosmos Food Co. While older kimchi businesses catered mainly to Korean Americans and adventurous consumers outside of the Korean community, the proliferation of these new companies reflects kimchi’s growing commoditization in the West over the last decade — a shift arguably due to its “discovery” and glorification by white producers, chefs, and wellness influencers.
The inclination of white people to place greater trust in an unfamiliar food when it is being promoted by other white people means, unsurprisingly, that white people are often the face of the fermentation community. “Whenever a media outlet wants to fill a pickling or fermenting space in print, online, and on social media,” they go with white fermenters, Sarah says. “The recipes are often called ‘easy,’ ‘quick,’ or ‘foolproof,’” instead of embracing the complexity of carefully developed traditional techniques. This is why, for example, Bon Appétit has someone like Brad Leone presenting a context-free kimchi making video — one that was so wrong it inspired a gentle scolding from actual Koreans — instead of featuring an experienced kimchi maker like Maangchi, the Korean food expert. This kind of implicit endorsement of white expertise may be one reason why BIPOC are often expected to sell their traditionally made products for less than, say, a watered-down version made by a white chef or producer.
This highlights another problem perpetuated by the white gaze: The market encourages BIPOC fermenters to only make and present ferments from their own cultures, and to not stray too far from what is perceived by white consumers as authentic and traditionally made. This is particularly true when it comes to ferments tied to specific cultures, such as kimchi and koji-derived products (although kombucha is thought to originally be from China, it has been widely marketed as a beverage without cultural context, save for some vague notion of the “mythical” East). In food media especially, Sarah observes, white fermenters “seem to just ferment across all cultures whereas BIPOC fermenters are often just brought up in special cuisine-specific ways.” White fermenters, free from such cultural constraints, can forage microbes, ferments, and techniques from BIPOC cultures, claiming creative innovation while promoting increasingly meaningless concepts like “tradition” and “authenticity” when it suits them.
White fermenters often also have more access to social, political, and financial capital, allowing them to run workshops and events, which further centers them as experts — and creates more potential for whitewashing. “I have attended several online workshops where white women who identify as European demo or share an often Asian recipe,” Sarah says. “Most of them do talk about the origins, but almost always they talk about putting it in a toastie.” When others share the recipe, she continues, “more and more history is lost.” Recent global online events, organized by white fermenters, have included many BIPOC fermenters, which is a step toward alleviating whitewashing of ferments, but still brings into question who makes the most social and capital gains in these situations.
The question of who gets to be the expert is central to the larger problem of gatekeeping in the fermentation community. While a new generation of BIPOC fermenters is eager to educate students and consumers about different fermenting traditions — in Australia, for example, Saeko Iida, Yoko Nakazawa, Tomoko Onuki, Kaori Takahashi, and Hiroshi Sugihara, a.k.a. @foodritual, all lead workshops or sell products to share their enduring love of koji, and the Korean-born chef Chae Jeong-Eun uses her Melbourne-based private dining business and Instagram to demonstrate how ferments are an intimate, integral part of culture and cuisine — they are still working to disrupt deeply entrenched patterns and norms.
Yoko Inoue, the founder and chef of Shoku Iku, a raw food cafe in Melbourne, thinks that a contributing factor is the differing cultural attitudes to expertise. “White people tend to study for two years and think they understand,” she says. “And because it’s a niche market and they don’t have many competitors in that area, they feel they deserve that [expertise]. If you go to Japan, real masters never call themselves masters.”
Many of the fermenters I spoke to, especially second-generation migrants to the West, shared my experience of learning about fermentation from white sources. As thankful as I am for the work of many white fermenters, I now recognize the white saviorism at play. The white expert has more capital and thus more exposure; their work saving these foods — as the story goes — helps BIPOC reclaim their fermenting cultures, which in turn validates the white expert’s position, obscuring the inequities that led to BIPOC losing these skills in the first place.
When Jessica Wang, a fermentation educator who runs community-focused Picklé workshops in Los Angeles, learned how to make kimchi in her early 20s, it was from David Lebovitz’s blog. “I am grateful for that recipe,” Wang says, “but I now see this is a valid example of this issue.” Because white fermenters don’t have to contend with the disadvantages faced by their BIPOC counterparts, specifically that of coming from cultures that have been “othered,” Wang explains, “when people of influence in mainstream food culture discovered how delicious and wonderful the fermentation practices of BIPOC cultures are and made their techniques widely known, they were already viewed as authorities on cooking in general, so of course they were trusted as legitimate sources of knowledge on fermentation.”
While Inoue is glad that so many people are talking about Japanese fermentation — “it’s not like we own the spores,” she says — she adds that “it’s easier for Western media to talk to Western people because it’s more accessible; they have more status in the society, [and] that makes it more accessible.”
When BIPOC fermenters are given access to Western audiences, such as when they’re invited to attend fermentation events, they are often tokenized and compartmentalized, used as authenticity props to center white experts. Aviaja Lyberth Hauptmann, a Kalaaleq Inuk microbial geneticist who studies Greenlandic ferments, is “very conscious about this dynamic,” she says. “It can be difficult to weigh an opportunity against its potential implications. My experience is most often with outsiders trying to get access to our food culture through me, using me as a stepping stone or research assistant rather than a collaborator.”
All the BIPOC fermenters I spoke to respect and appreciate many of their white fellow fermenters and their work. But they identify the need for white fermenters to do their part in providing equal footing for BIPOC in the fermentation community. It is not easy to tease out the practical realities of how this should be navigated. Even among the 14 fermenters I interviewed, ideas about how to tackle these issues fell across the spectrum: to engage in inclusive collaborations that focus on social justice; to do proper research and give attribution for BIPOC fermentation recipes; even for white producers of ferments from BIPOC cultures to step aside entirely.
King, who is writing a book about oft-ignored Chinese fermentation practices, would like to see “more emphasis on context, more celebration of our differences,” and for more opportunities to go to women and people of color. On Instagram, Feby has called for collaborative conscious reciprocity when navigating the complicated and at times painful sociocultural dynamics of sharing ferments, writing that “Sharing a culture is only equitable once communities initiating the sharing are uplifted, empowered, fairly compensated, and healed.” Hauptmann asks for “more patience from the non-BIPOC community. Just because there is no one in a certain community doing what you dream of doing, does not mean you can go ahead and take that space. That space can never be untaken, and you will have made the barrier for becoming a name in that space higher than it was before.”
Despite these frustrations and challenges, the reach of BIPOC fermenters continues to grow. From East London to Melbourne, from Bengaluru to Bangkok, and from New York to Florida, they’re using their social media platforms to build their businesses and amplify their own voices. Collaborative BIPOC fermenters uphold their cultural fermenting traditions, working alongside conscientious white fermenters to delve — with respect and sensitivity — into other fermenting cultures, staying curious and innovative.
All biological systems benefit from diversity, from the microbes in our gut to the makeup of human societies. By creating equal footing for BIPOC, the fermenting community has an opportunity to be a model for promoting social justice in our food systems. “Imagine the diversity of ideas and perspectives that could be in the world of fermentation if the fermented foods we see around the world are represented by people who are gastronomically skilled and grew up with a grandmother who made this food for them and who have a close emotional tie to the taste and texture of that food,” says Hauptmann. “Someone for whom the food is not a curiosity or an ingredient.”
Dr. Miin Chan is an MD, Ph.D. nutrition researcher, and food and science literacy advocate. She communicates evidence-based nutrition, fermentation, and gut microbiome science at @dr.chans.
Dingding Hu is a New York-based illustrator who has has worked on projects for Google, MIT Media Lab, and DOT NYC, and whose work has appeared in HuffPost, the New York Times, and TED.
Fact-checked by Rowan Walrath