Just a mom of two trying my best to keep up with all the latest trends, pitfalls, philosophies, and challenges of parenthood.
Kombucha: Alcohol or Tea?
On her first spring break from college, my daughter came home with a kombucha habit. I thought, this stuff is expensive. . . but it could be a lot worse! So I happily drove to the grocery store to stock up.
As the cashier rang up my selections, she asked to see my I.D. "But why?!" I asked. She explained that some kombuchas are alcoholic. She picked one up to show me the little piece of plastic wrapped around the bottle's neck, and when I put my glasses on, I could read the warning.
But wait! The kombucha wasn't stocked in the alcohol section of the store: It was in with the sodas. To make things even more confusing, it sat on the shelf next to other kombuchas whose labels said nothing whatsoever about alcohol. Not only that, but the labels on all the kombuchas looked "healthy," not "boozy." Clearly, this product is being marketed as a health elixir, and it's confusing.
Since I didn't want to serve my kids alcohol by mistake, and since I like to know what I'm drinking, I did some research, and here's what I found.
What is kombucha and how is it made?
Although kombucha comes in many flavors, they're all made by leaving sweet tea to ferment for several weeks with a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (aka SCOBY), which releases probiotic bacteria. The resulting brews contain various degrees of alcohol and taste tart, acidic, vinegary, and fizzy. Some types can taste quite boozy, too. Sometimes, juice is added to this concoction to make it fruitier and sweeter.
So is kombucha tea, or is it alcohol?
It's made from fermented tea, but as you probably know, fermentation is how alcohol happens. The yeast eats the sugars and ferments, and alcohol is a natural byproduct of fermentation. The longer the tea ferments, the more alcohol it has (up to a certain point). Most kombuchas can be classified as teas, but some push the line.
Instead of "hooch," they call it "booch."
Is Kombucha Alcoholic?
Yes, it is. Many kinds of kombucha contain anywhere from 0.5% to 2% alcohol. Some types have less than 0.5%, but some have more, even though it is marketed as a non-alcoholic health drink.
Although the Food and Drug Administration sets the dividing line between non-alcoholic and alcoholic beverages at 0.5%, all kombucha contains at least a small amount of alcohol, and some have significantly more, and you can't always tell if or how much alcohol there is by reading the label.
Back in 2010, when the FDA warned consumers that some bottles of kombucha had significantly higher levels of alcohol, it was a surprise. In fact, tests showed alcohol levels of 0.5% to 2.5%.
Since kombucha had always been marketed as a healthy, natural, non-alcoholic drink, some people (children and alcoholics, for example) were truly shocked to discover that they'd been chugging booze all along. But then proper tests were finally conducted by independent groups, and it was revealed that some bottles contained almost six times more than the 0.5% limit, with some "non-alcoholic" types containing up to 3% alcohol. That compelled a bunch of stores to pull the kombucha off their shelves until the labeling confusion could be dealt with.
So how does kombucha compare to beer?
An average bottle of beer is 4.5% alcohol, and most kombucha has less than 0.5%. So you'd have to drink nine bottles of mild kombucha to imbibe the same amount of alcohol you'd get from one beer.
However, a problem arises because many kombucha labels give no information at all about the alcohol content, many have more alcohol than their labels claim, and some have so much alcohol that they are as strong as a beer and should be kept in the alcohol section of the store. So you really can't know for sure.
Why is some kombucha alcoholic, but some isn't?
In order to keep those great probiotic benefits, kombucha is left raw, unfiltered, and unpasteurized. The problem with this is that if it's raw, it continues to ferment unless it's refrigerated.
Note: Recently, some companies have begun producing pasteurized versions, which have no probiotic benefits but also no alcohol.
Are Some Kombuchas More Alcoholic Than Others?
Certain brands of kombucha are brewed for those who are over 21 years of age only. Sometimes these types are labeled "kombucha beer," but sometimes they're not (which only adds to everyone's confusion). Not only that, but some stores don't separate the types with lots of alcohol from the ones with less, so you'll need to read the labels very carefully and hope they are accurate.
The Problem With Kombucha Labels
How do I know which kombuchas have alcohol?
You have to read the label carefully to know how much alcohol is in your kombucha... but unfortunately, not all kombucha is properly or accurately labeled. Sometimes you have to search hard to find this important information, and sometimes you find no mention of alcohol whatsoever. Not only that, but the label might not always be an accurate reflection of the alcohol content, since the brew may have fermented a bit after it was bottled.
Why doesn't the label on this bottle of kombucha say anything at all about its alcohol content?
Unless it contains more than 0.5% alcohol, the company is not required by law to say anything whatsoever about the product's alcohol content. There is a chance that the bottle of kombucha you bought has no alcohol at all since some companies are putting out pasteurized, nonalcoholic lines, but there's no way to know for certain exactly how much alcohol an unpasteurized kombucha has without testing the product in a lab.
If kombucha has alcohol, why doesn't the label say how much?
If a product has more than 0.5% of alcohol, it must have a warning label (and the company must pay alcohol taxes). The problem is that alcohol content increases with fermentation, so if your kombucha was left out of the refrigerator for any part of its journey from the brewery to your hands, it probably has more alcohol in it now than it did when they slapped that label on. So instead of risking a penalty for labeling misinformation, some breweries are leaving that information off the label entirely.
So how much alcohol is in my kombucha?
It's impossible to know exactly how much alcohol you're getting with raw kombucha. Keeping kombucha in the refrigerator until you drink it will help keep its level of alcohol stable, but if it ever gets warmer, it will start fermenting again. So it's impossible for the kombucha breweries to put an exact percentage on the label because the alcohol level will fluctuate, depending on storage.
The Problem With Kombucha Storage
Unpredictable storage may affect the alcohol level in any bottle of kombucha...and since most storage is unpredictable, most bottles were likely affected.
Will the amount of alcohol in a bottle of kombucha change over time?
Because real kombucha is fermented and not pasteurized to kill the yeasts and bacteria, and because it's not filtered, the amount of alcohol in kombucha varies from brew to brew and depends very much on refrigeration. If you take the bottle and let it sit, it could become more alcoholic (and more acidic, too).
Can I Get Drunk on Kombucha?
No matter how hard you tried, you probably wouldn't get drunk on "nonalcoholic" kombucha, even if you left it out to ferment. You'd have to drink so much you'd probably get sick to your stomach before you got even a little tipsy.
Most beers are 4.5% alcohol, and most kombucha has about 0.5%. So you'd have to drink nine bottles to equal a beer's worth of alcohol. It takes most people more than a beer to get drunk, so any way you do the math, that's just way too much kombucha for one person to drink!
Without pasteurization, any bottle of kombucha that sits too long unrefrigerated, or simply too long in a refrigerator, or simply rots for another reason, could have a significant alcohol content.
— James Hamblin in The Atlantic
Is Kombucha Safe to Drink?
I don't want anyone to think that kombucha is unsafe. It's certainly as safe as any other raw, unpasteurized drink sold commercially. Although the validity of all the health claims (see list below) can't be verified, it's probably a fairly healthful drink for most people to enjoy.
However, drinking it should probably be avoided by some people. If you're worried, you should discuss it with your doctor.
Who might think twice about drinking kombucha?
- alcoholics, or anyone who wants to carefully monitor their alcohol intake
- people with alcohol or caffeine sensitivities
- pregnant or breastfeeding women
- people who are on medications that don't mix with alcohol
- diabetics or people who need to watch their sugar intake
- people with weakened immune systems
- people with acid reflux or heartburn
- anyone who has candida
- those who have been diagnosed with small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or ulcers
- and anyone whose religious beliefs prevent them from drinking alcohol.
Although it's touted as a gut-improver, some report feeling gassy or bloated after drinking kombucha, so everyone should pay close attention to how their bodies react to the stuff.
Can I drink kombucha if I'm pregnant or breastfeeding?
Although there have been no reputable large-scale studies on the subject, avoiding kombucha might be the safest bet for pregnant or breastfeeding women—not only because its alcohol content is questionable but also because it contains caffeine and isn't pasteurized.
What Are the Purported Health Benefits of Kombucha?
- Gut Health. The probiotic bacteria in kombucha are very much like the good bacteria that occur naturally in your gut, so consuming probiotics may improve your overall gut health and support digestion. Probiotics have been used effectively to treat diarrhea and ease IBS.
- Anti-Inflammation. Chronic inflammation is strongly linked to arthritis and can trigger numerous other problems, including arthritis, allergies, periodontitis, and maybe even cancer. (I have rheumatoid arthritis. If you do, too, you might want to try Homemade Ginger & Turmeric Tonic for Joint Pain.)
- Bacterial Infection or Illness Prevention. A 2000 study found that kombucha killed microbes and bacteria, so it might help prevent gut infections or illnesses caused by bacteria.
- Mental Wellness. A 2017 survey was done that looked at many kombucha studies and found strong evidence that suggests probiotics help with depression.
- Lowers Cholesterol. Studies done on rats in 2012 and 2015 both found evidence that kombucha might assist in the reduction of cholesterol levels linked to heart disease in rats... although I can't find any studies done on humans.
- Liver Health. Since kombucha has antioxidants, and antioxidants are proven to help reduce damaging molecules in the body, it can help the liver do its job. On the other hand, alcohol is not great for liver health.
- Cancer. Some think kombucha might help fight cancer cells, although no significant studies have been done on real people that fully verify this claim. One 2008 lab study found that it helped prevent the growth of cancer cells, and another conducted in 2013 found evidence that it diminished the survival rate of cancer cells.
Even though a kombucha beverage may have less than 0.5% alcohol by volume at the time of bottling, fermentation may continue in the bottle after it leaves the production facility, depending on how the kombucha beverage is made and stored. As a result, the alcohol content may increase to 0.5% or more alcohol by volume. Such a product is an alcohol beverage, which is subject to the laws and regulations governing the production, taxation, labeling, marketing, and distribution of alcohol beverages.
— U.S. Department of Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau
Will Kombucha Keep Getting More and More Alcoholic Over Time?
I wondered if the kombucha in my refrigerator would grow more alcoholic the longer it sat there. It actually will get boozier with time, but it won't change much. Why? Firstly because the refrigerator slows the fermentation process, and secondly, because the bacteria and yeast work in tandem, so as the yeast produces ethanol, the bacteria keep working on converting it into acid. It's a closed system, so the alcohol level is contained and self-limiting.
Since beer is brewed with the express purpose of driving up the alcohol content, beer brewers leave out ingredients that would limit this process and add in grains and other ingredients that aid it.
However, if you were to buy a partially-fermented kombucha and leave it out, it would certainly get more alcoholic. It would be unlikely for most types of kombucha to ferment past the 3% alcohol limit, however, unless grains were added and the third stage of fermentation was performed.
So if I were to leave it unrefrigerated, what would happen?
If you leave it out, kombucha gets slightly more alcoholic, but much more acidic. Those probiotic cultures activate at room temperature, producing carbonation and acidity. If left out in an opened container for a long time, kombucha could turn into vinegar. Eventually, it would lose its flavor.