Published on July 8th, 2010 | by Jennifer Lance2
FDA & TTB Investigate Kombucha for Elevated Alcohol Content
Kombucha tea, made from fermented yeast and bacteria often referred to as a “mushroom“, has become increasingly popular in recent years. Enjoyed since the 1800s, this beverage is touted for its detoxifying and energy boosting properties. Small amounts of alcohol are created in the process of fermentation, but the quantity is small enough to classify kombucha as non-alcoholic. Recently, the federal government has discovered unpasteurized kombucha tea at retailers, like Whole Foods, contain elevated levels of alcohol prompting an investigation.
Looks and aroma notwithstanding, kombucha is gaining popularity among those who favor organic beverages, and it is showing signs of turning into a gold mine for some companies. While the poor economy and worries about health and the environment have diminished the national thirst for soda and bottled water, sales of kombucha and other “functional” juices in the United States topped $295 million last year, up 25 percent over a two-year period, according to SPINS Inc., a market researcher.
Although there is little scientific evidence of the health benefits of kombucha, regular drinkers claim the fermented beverage aids in digestion, sleep, weight loss, complexion, and hair loss.
Kombucha is made by combining acetic acid bacteria with yeast(s). Brewer usually begin with a starter “daughter” from another kombucha “big momma“. According to Wikipedia, “Alcohol production by the yeast(s) contributes to the production of acetic acid by the bacteria. Alcohol concentration also plays a role in triggering cellulose production by the bacterial symbionts.” The more acidic and older the “big momma”, the higher the alcohol content.
TTB has been advised that a major chain of grocery stores has removed a number of kombucha products from its shelves because of concerns about elevated alcohol content levels. The distribution of an alcohol beverage product that is not labeled as such misleads consumers and could cause potentially serious consequences for consumers, especially pregnant women, children, and individuals who should avoid alcohol for medical reasons. Accordingly, TTB encourages producers and distributors of kombucha products that are alcohol beverages to take immediate steps to ensure that their products comply with applicable Federal, State, and local laws regarding alcohol beverages.
Kombucha manufacturers claim the increased alcohol content could actually occur after the product has been bottled and distributed to retailers, thus the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) may mandate that all kombucha be pasteurized. Health activists worry the high heat involved in pasteurization may affect the health benefits of the fermented beverage.
Will this become another incident of the federal government restricting consumers access to raw products like milk? Would not a warning label stating that kombucha may contain elevated levels of alcohol in excess of 0.5 percent be sufficient for consumer protection? If the FDA does not mandate pasteurization, you may need to show your ID the next time you buy kombucha.