Kombucha Tea… Is This Processed Beverage Safe for Clients with a History of Addiction? (February 2016)
How often do you see someone walking down the street with one of those fermented drinks that are purchased at natural foods markets? Kombucha tea (pronounced kom-BOO-cha) is a fermented beverage which has been around for centuries. It is made with tea, sugar, bacteria, and yeast. The producers of these drinks make many claims including that they may improve digestion, have anti-aging properties, and reduce the risk of cancer, but there is not much legitimate scientific data that would support these claims.
The tea is not complicated to make: one would need what producers refer to as a “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast” (SCOBY) which resembles a mushroom and can be purchased online as part of a starter kit. The tea can take 7-14 days to ferment, a temperature-dependent process. The warmer the environment in which fermentation takes place, the faster the tea will become fermented. However, according to the Mayo Clinic there are health risks when kombucha tea is made at home due to the bacteria that can grow in it when it is allowed to ferment for too long.
As a consumer if you choose to make your own kombucha tea, be aware that SCOBY is vulnerable to mold therefore it is recommended that you discard it if mold growth is evident. Also, if the tea that the SCOBY is being used to ferment shows signs of mold growth, it should be discarded as well. That would seem logical, right? It is also recommended that home-brewers sanitize the brewing containers between batches and store the kombucha away from direct sunlight to minimize the risk of contamination and the growth of health-threatening micro-organisms.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that people limit their consumption of kombucha to 4 ounces per day. This recommendation came about when older people became sick after consuming 12 ounces per day of very acidic kombucha, a finding which was published in the November 2013 edition of the Journal of Environmental Health. Some people have died from home brewed kombucha and kombucha tea-like products.
Since kombucha tea is a fermented beverage, as are beer and wine, a very important issue which seems to come up with my clients who have a history of addiction and are recovering alcoholics is whether or not kombucha is a beverage they can drink. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) a beverage can be sold as non-alcoholic if it contains less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV). Since not all kombucha beverages are created equally with respect to alcohol content, it is clear that only the kombucha that contains less than 0.5 percent ABV can be considered non-alcoholic by the TTB.
For commercially prepared kombucha the “primary fermentation” is a 5-30 day process, depending on the desired flavor of the end-product. The sugary taste will decrease over time and the kombucha will become more vinegary. “Secondary fermentation” occurs when the liquid is bottled and then allowed time to develop the flavor and fizz. During this phase, the ABV levels can climb as high as 2.5 percent. In order to reach ABV levels in excess of 3 percent, the goal of some producers, the beverage must not only have grains added but must also be subjected to a third fermentation to produce what brewers call “kombucha ale” or “probiotic beer.”
In 2010, Whole Foods removed the tea from their shelves as some bottled kombucha contained over 0.5 percent alcohol. The TTB gave the producers of kombucha two choices: to become licensed as a “brewery/winery” or change the brewing process to bring the product to non-alcoholic levels. Some companies choose to make both alcoholic and non-alcoholic kombucha. For example, Synergy Kombucha differentiates their alcoholic beverage by their color-coded labels: the black label indicates the beverage is for consumers who are 21 years of age and older.
The law states that if the beverage is more than 0.5 percent ABV, it is legally beer and must be labeled, sold, and treated as such. Not even making kombucha tea at home is assurance of a non-alcoholic beverage because home brew kits usually produce a tea that is 0.5-1.5 percent ABV. When all is said and done, for a person with a history of addiction and a goal of living a sober life, the choice seems evident. Rather than take a chance with kombucha, that person should choose other non-alcoholic beverages … the only way to assure that s/he will remain 100 percent alcohol free.
1. Nummer, BA. Kombucha brewing under the Food and Drug Administration model Food Code: risk analysis and processing guidance. J Environ Health. 2013;76(4):8-11.
2. Unexplained severe illness possibly associated with consumption of kombucha tea — Iowa 1995. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. http://www.cdc.gov/mmwr/preview/mmwrhtml/00039742.htm