Debra’s Natural Gourmet second-generation owner Adam Stark speaks with Dr. Kathryn Oh, creator of Panbiotics, at his Commonwealth Avenue store in West Concord.

The doctor is in… the fermented rice business? 

By Celeste Katz Marston
July 28, 2023

After nearly 30 years as a primary care physician, Concord’s Dr. Kathryn Oh has hung up her stethoscope. Now, she spends her days crafting batches of her new fermented-rice “superfood,” Panbiotics, and introducing it to curious shoppers at Debra’s Natural Gourmet. 

“It’s a huge step, but I felt like, ‘[I’m] already 55 years old. If I don’t try now, when I still have a little bit of energy left, I don’t want to regret,’” Oh says.

Concord’s Dr. Kathryn Oh stepped away from her work as a practicing physician to create and market Panbiotics, a fermented rice product she says can help people improve their gut health and immunity.

Over 18 years with Acton Medical Associates, Oh and her patients were “aging together,” and she saw that “bloating, constipation, weight gain, not able to sleep at night — these were all the ailments.” The pandemic made things worse: More people sedentary, isolated, eating more of the wrong foods… and developing digestive woes.

“I started to realize that for gut health, maybe I do have a potential food that I can make that could be very helpful,” she says. 

To focus on what would become Panbiotics — including the labyrinthine process of getting a license to manufacture food — Oh took a leap and retired from Acton Medical at the end of 2022. 

The doctor now hand-makes Panbiotics at a professional kitchen facility in Westwood. In trying to catch the wave of the nation’s fascination with gut health and probiotics — “good bacteria” that may boost the digestive and immune systems — Oh looks to ancient traditions and a belief that nature creates healthier foods than high-tech labs. 

Oh, who lived in Korea, Montreal, and New York before settling with her family in Concord, took inspiration for Panbiotics from a Korean family recipe: Cooked rice — brown, in this case — is inoculated with Aspergillus oryzae, a fungus also known as koji that’s used in soy sauce and miso. The temperature-controlled process releases nutrients the body can’t easily access from regular rice.

In some cultures, fermented rice recipes are presented as more of a drink, but Oh wanted to adapt her recipe for a North American palate and lifestyle. Panbiotics is closer to a yogurt texture, or possibly tahini. It can be eaten alone, topped with fruit, or blended into smoothies and sauces. So far, Oh’s offering “natural” and cocoa flavors. Both are dairy, fat, and gluten free and mingle mildly sweet and savory tastes.

Dr. Kathryn Oh is introducing customers at Debra’s Natural Gourmet to her new creation, Panbiotics, a fermented “superfood” she created after decades as a practicing doctor.

When she’s not making Panbiotics — or promoting it on social media — she’s at Debra’s, encouraging people to taste it and add a container (price: $4.99 for seven ounces) to their carts. 

Adam Stark, Debra’s second-generation owner and “chief miscellaneous officer,” says not every product pitched to him by a Concordian makes the cut: “Sometimes you do have to say no, and it’s not nice to say no to a local person… It’s so heartwarming when there’s a local person who doesn’t just have an idea and doesn’t just have passion, but really is committed to making it work — and that’s what Kathryn’s done.” 

From the Panbiotics launch at Debra’s in early June through mid-July, the store sold 74 cups of the cocoa and 119 of the natural — “quite a lot for a new product,” Stark says, although the store has seen peaks (and troughs) of interest in fermented foods since opening in 1989. 

Like Stark, Oh isn’t positive when or if Panbiotics will be the Next Big Thing — but she hopes so.   

 “I’m fortunate enough that I have a little bit of financial freedom, so I was able to go for it,” she says. “I’m thinking that if it doesn’t work — if I fail — then [in] this climate right now, as a physician, I can always retrain and go back.”