Is Kombucha Safe for Sober People?
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Is Kombucha Safe for Sober People?


does kombucha have alcoholI report on this recent news article with a heavy heart. Ever since I was a wee lass in recovery, one of my favorite alternative choices to a cocktail has been kombucha—a cold tea drink whose fermentation process produces both a refreshing effervescence and a trace amount of alcohol. Of course I had no idea of the latter until 2010, when a federal recall caused Whole Foods to pull the product off its shelves due to its varying alcohol content. I was shocked to realize the lift in mood and energy level the drink gave me clearly had more to do with that than it’s probiotic qualities. It was a real bummer.

But at some point, kombucha returned to my favorite earthy crunchy organic markets and everything seemed to be fine. However, I didn’t start drinking it again until couple of years ago when I noticed it was being sold under two different labels: one indicating that there may be more than .5% alcohol and one that did not. Then I started seeing the beverage in the coolers of mainstream grocery stores, even Walgreens. I figured if they were delineating between slightly alcoholic and not, the non-alcoholic version must be just that and therefore fine for someone like me—someone who can’t safely consume alcohol.

Raining on Their Parade (and Mine)

Well, US News recently reported that my beloved fermented beverage is in the hot seat again. After the latest federal intervention, which happened over the summer, many kombucha makers received letters requiring them to pay a fine due to failing the standard government test for alcohol levels. Since the law says a beverage has to contain less than .5% to be sold as non-alcoholic, and apparently the fermentation process has somewhat a mind of it’s own, kombucha manufacturers feel like they are constantly under the microscope and being unfairly scrutinized.

Tom Nieder, founder of Companion Kombucha, said the test for the fermented tea is the same as for other alcoholic beverages and therefore they have to fight against those comparisons.

“It’s almost like a witch hunt,” he says, implying that the powers that be aren’t so much looking for alcohol content that is over the legal limit as they are specifically targeting the makers of this popular drink. Politically poignant or totally paranoid?

F the Man, Man

I am not saying the suits that go into these Petri dish breweries aren’t hoping to catch some hippies in the act of trying to beat the system. Governmental bureaucrats don’t strike me as the kind who are interested in trying a drink adorned with globs of bacterial cultures, no matter what they heard the health benefits might be. But that doesn’t mean they are conspiring against manufacturers.

The gripe is that that the current law that .5% or more of alcohol content makes something “alcoholic,” isn’t fair—that it’s too low to intoxicate people and that many fruits naturally ferment on shelves at about the same level. “We’re working on a more accurate test that will show people that kombucha is not an alcoholic beverage,” states Hannah Crum, head of the Kombucha Brewers International group.

Come Again?

Coming from the perspective of a kombucha drinker (and lover), who is also a recovering alcoholic and a person living in this world, no part of this argument makes sense to me. Trust me, I want to buy into it but I can’t help but feel like these kombucha brewers are full of a lot of brouhaha.

First of all, why would a test for alcohol content need to be different for the fermentation process? Alcohol content is alcohol content. It’s not like certain alcohols are going to affect you less than others. Still, I have been drinking this beverage for 12 years so if you are looking for a boozy loophole, I wouldn’t get too excited. Kombucha isn’t going to be your new replacement for Smirnoff Ice (but it could be a nice alternative to Activia).

Second of all, in what universe would a maker of kombucha be equipped or even allowed to create a new testing system for their own product? That is like a bar owner inventing a Breathalyzer, it just seems like a whopping conflict of interest. And thirdly, what is this BS about fruit fermentation? Maybe I am missing something, but is fruit really fermenting on shelves and where are the people who buy these spoiled fruits and eat them? I mean, I whipped myself up a fruit salad last week with a questionable kiwi but I certainly didn’t experience the zip in my step that I do after a 16 oz. kombucha.

Another Dumb Argument

Colorado’s Democratic Rep. Jared Polis caught word of this apparent conspiracy and decided to get involved, arguing that kombucha stays below the alcohol threshold when refrigerated.

“Eight spoiled kombuchas are roughly the equivalent of one beer, but that doesn’t mean we should regulate it like we do alcohol — it makes absolutely no sense,” he wrote. Well one thing is very clear; Mr. Polis is not a recovering alcoholic. Otherwise he would understand why a single beverage that isn’t going to get anyone drunk could potentially be very dangerous for a  person like me. We call it the phenomenon of craving. But thanks for looking out.

What’s All the Fuss About?

I guess the real question is, if brewers insist kombucha should be sold to minors because it isn’t “intended” to give anyone a buzz, what is it intended to do?

Advocates, who I assume shop exclusively at natural foods markets and have monthly memberships to Bikram yoga, say that fermented tea has many health benefits—aiding in digestion, fighting Candida overgrowth and promoting mental clarity and mood stability. But if you want to get scientific about it, there is actually very little evidence (beyond personal anecdotes) that support these claims. However, many naturopathic people I know aren’t that concerned about western medicine’s scientific research (aka “the man”). Not because it’s wrong but because but because it tends to be behind in researching the medicinal benefits of foods that compete with big Pharama. Touché.

The other side, “the man,” or more specifically, the mainstream—people who bow down to science and/or feel that if the powers that be deem something as unsafe and having no real health benefits, then it must be true—seem to only be focused on the law. They claim if something doesn’t fit the criteria of being non-alcoholic, it shouldn’t be allowed to be marketed that way, regardless of the supposed health benefits; Also a valid perspective. While it’s not something I want to agree with, but as someone who is directly affected by the accuracy of these things, I must say that I have to agree.

Final Thoughts

So is all in all, is kombucha safe for sober people to drink? I think the jury is still out on that one. In the meantime, it is certainly something to think about. This is one of those things probably best decided with your sponsor (if that is your thing) or your HP (higher power), but knowing what I know about alcoholics, I wouldn’t suggest making the decision on your own.

Photo courtesy of LifeSourceNaturalFoods

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About Author

Danielle Stewart is a Los Angeles-based writer and recovering comedian. She has written for Showtime, E!, and MTV, as well as print publications such as Us Weekly and Life & Style Magazine. She returned to school and is currently working her way towards a master’s degree in Marriage and Family Therapy. She loves coffee, Law & Order SVU, and her emotional support dog, Benson.