If you’re confused about what the term “cultured” means when it comes to food, then you’re in good company! That term gets used quite a lot these days and, depending on the context, it can mean different things. So here’s a little explainer:
First, let’s look at the difference between fermented foods and cultured ingredients.
Traditionally, cultured foods are those that have been fermented. Food fermentation is a process whereby microorganisms -- such as bacteria or yeast -- interact with ingredients in a way that improves the nutritional profile, taste, and shelf life of food. Examples of cultured foods that you’re likely familiar with are yogurt, sauerkraut and tempeh.
Fermented foods offer a range of advantages compared to their unfermented counterparts. Namely, fermentation of food can increase the bioavailability of certain nutrients and increase the shelf life (as growth of "good bacteria" basically prevents the growth of pathogens). But, arguably the main health benefit of fermented food comes from the microbial cultures themselves. These microbes responsible for fermenting foods are commonly referred to as probiotics.
So, eating whole, fermented foods is one way to consume “cultured” products.
But cultured products don’t only exist in fermented foods. It’s also possible to benefit from the goodness of probiotics by simply consuming the bacteria itself in supplemental form.
For example, you might choose to buy a bottle of probiotics rather than a jar of unpasteurized sauerkraut. (Microbes are living organisms, and the process of pasteurization will destroy these probiotics.) The difference between a capsule of probiotics and a spoonful of unpasteurized sauerkraut is that the former contains only microbes, where the latter is a combination of fermented cabbage and microorganisms.
The upshot here is that cultured products don’t just apply to whole, fermented foods. For instance, Because Animals’ Superfood & Probiotic Supplements contain a blend of unfermented food ingredients along with the cultured bacteria, Bacillus coagulans. This strain of probiotic has been clinically shown to improve immunity and digestion. In this way, cats and dogs benefit from cultured bacteria, even though the entire supplement has not been fermented.
Whether we’re talking about a whole fermented food, or a cultured ingredient in supplement form, microorganisms are integral to both types of “cultured” products.
But here’s where things start to get a bit more confusing.
There’s a third type of cultured food that has nothing to do with microbes. This product is cultured meat.
In the case of cultured meat, animal cells rather than microbial cells are grown to create the final end product.
All living cells need nutrients in order to grow. And regardless of whether one is growing animal cells or microbial cells, the “culturing” process is similar. Consider the case of brewing beer.
In this scenario, yeast are grown in a warm, nutrient-rich environment, obtaining their nourishment from grain (often barley). Amazingly, the situation isn’t that different for animal cells! Although animal cells require many more nutrients than yeast, the culturing principles are the same: provide cells with the proper environment in terms of temperature and access to nutrients and they will grow.
As far as “cultured” terminology goes, the practice of culturing meat is certainly the new kid on the block. While civilizations have been fermenting food and culturing ingredients for many thousands of years, cultured meat has not yet made a commercial entry (look out for our first cultured meat pet food products in 2021!)
Nonetheless, as the benefits of culture-grown versus animal-grown meat become clearer, folks can expect to see this definition of “cultured” become increasingly common.