What is Novel Food?
Novel Food is a food that had not been consumed to a significant degree in the EU before 15 May 1997. Novel Food can be food produced using new technologies or production processes. It can also refer to food which is or has been traditionally eaten outside of the EU. All novel foods need to be authorized by the EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). The novel food needs to be safe for consumers, properly labeled so as not to mislead consumers and if the novel food is intended to replace an existing food it should not be nutritionally disadvantageous for the consumer.
Is tempeh a novel food?
Tempeh was consumed to a significant degree in the EU before 1997, so it is not a novel food. However, at that time, tempeh was made of 100% soybeans or a combination of soybeans and rice. Today, we see a lot of tempeh that is made from other substrates, such as peas, black beans or lupines. Are these types of tempeh novel foods and do they require authorization by the EFSA?
Scientists at the University of Wageningen also looked into this matter. They presented their findings on a Symposium on 22 April 2021. The scientists are of the opinion that foods are not subject to novel food regulation as long as the cultures and substrates have a history of significant consumption in food prior to 15 May 1997 within the EU and that the final foods show no significant changes in the composition or structure. For example, lupin tempeh and hemp tempeh are not novel foods.
Does this mean that you can ferment any substrate with Rhizopus to obtain tempeh? From a food safety point of view, the answer is no. For example, fermenting coconut or corn with Rhizopus can result in bongkrek acid poisoning. Bongkrek acid is a a toxin produced by the bacterium Burkholderia on fermented coconut or corn products. Coconut tempeh was a specialty in Java, but the production is now officially banned.
Tempeh factories that use new substrates should do a thorough risk analysis before launching them. Also consumers that make tempeh at home should be careful about the substrate they use. Some try to make tempeh from substrates such as cooked spaghetti or tofu, substrates that are known to harbor Bacillus cereus, a bacterium that can cause food poisoning.