Between dire predictions of climate change and political stability on the global stage, some of us will be forgiven for turning – albeit only very occasionally – to the world of Hollywood and/or celebrity gossip for relief from the seemingly unstoppable torrent of Bad News. Whether it’s binge watching Game of Thrones or tabloid surfing in search of juicy gossip – ‘How the mighty have fallen!’ – it’s sometimes a necessary stress relief in an oftentimes unsettling reality. But for the times when neither Hollywood nor HBO will cut it, it’s tempting to turn instead to that other ‘H’ of relaxation: hooch. (By way, of course, of HACCP or that final dreaded ‘H’: hangover. But we digress…) And so when we find instances of those two worlds colliding, it is, of course, supremely satisfying. And thus it was when we read – ahem, for recalls research purposes only! – of Lindsay Lohan’s ‘drug bust’ for violating the sobriety edict of her probation terms. Yet it wasn’t just the Schadenfreude that drew us in, but rather the fact that Lohan blamed a surprising culprit: kombucha. Let’s take a deeper dive into that darling of the health beverage world: fizzy fermented tea…
Anyone who has run out to Starbucks on their all-too-brief lunch break for a pick-me-up shot of caffeine will recognize the existential agony of standing in line behind someone fresh out of a yoga class, pondering their kombucha selection. Available in a bewildering array of flavors, this ‘go-to’ for the health conscious consumer has ‘been credited with stimulating the immune system, preventing cancer and improving digestion and liver function.’(1) Moreover, aficionados of the drink also allege that it aids in relieving ‘arthritis, high blood pressure, acne, liver disorders, and gastrointestinal disorders.’(2) And it is for these and other similar claims that it is revered as a tonic and elixir amongst some sectors of the wellness community.(3) According to Food Source Information, a resource of the Colorado Integrated Food Safety Center of Excellence at Colorado State University, tests on animals have shown ‘bioactive components that display antioxidant, detoxifying, and antimicrobial properties,’ although these tests have not been replicated in humans.(4) But apart from being a flavored bacteria colony in a well-branded bottle, what exactly is this drink and why would it be a culprit in a failed sobriety test?
First brewed around 220 BCE in northeastern China, kombucha is also documented in Japan in 414 CE where it was popularized by the Emperor.
Portuguese and Dutch explorers later distributed the drink to Europe and Russia in the early part of the 20th century, and the first commercial beverages in the U.S. arrived in 1995. Now widely available from companies such as Kevita (now owned by soft drinks behemoth PepsiCo) and Suja (a brand from Coca-Cola), kombucha – like many fermented products – is relatively easy to craft. Sugar is first dissolved in hot tea – black, green, or white for a more delicate infusion – before what’s known as a kombucha ‘mushroom’ is added. The technical term for this ‘mushroom’ is a SCOBY, or ‘Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast,’ which floats in the liquid for between a few days and a month. During this time, microbes in the SCOBY will metabolize sugars from the liquid and produce gas, acid, and alcohol. Essentially this is the same process as proofing bread dough (gas), fermenting wine (alcohol), or creating yoghurt (acid). Albeit a natural process, it is not inherently an attractive one. According to an article by Amy Brothers in The Denver Post, the floating SCOBY can look like ‘a whitish glob, with dark, hair-like tendrils hanging down from it, and strands of an almost opaque matter, like a jellyfish, drifting underneath.’(5) Er…yum?
However, once fermented, the drink offers a slightly effervescent tang, the exact profile of which depends upon the fruits, herbs, and spices introduced post-fermentation. And it contains a small amount of alcohol – 0.5% to 3% depending on the brew. To put that into context, a bottle of Budweiser comes in at 5%, Sam Adams Boston Ale offers a higher ABV of 5.4% and Lagunitas IPA scores a whopping 6.2% with wines averaging between 12% and 14% ABV.(6)
But the picture is not all rosy. Kombucha’s detractors state that the drink has been associated with a clutch of negative effects on human health. According to Poison Control (PC), the information resource from the National Capital Poison Center, these ‘include at least one death, a case of cardiac arrest, several cases of hepatitis, one of severe muscle weakness and inflammation of the heart muscle, and cutaneous [skin]
anthrax.’(7) Indeed, according to FSI, the first outbreak of food borne illness related to kombucha occurred in 1995 in Idaho. Following regular consumption of the beverage during a two month period, two victims suffered acute metabolic acidosis with such elevated pH and lactic acid levels that they experienced cardiac arrest. One died in hospital, the other recovered. Significantly the kombucha had been produced from a SCOBY distributed by the same local purveyor and analysis by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA), and the Idaho Department of Public Health (IDPH) ensued. Ultimately although causes related to cardiac health, poisoning (carbon monoxide or cyanide), and toxic aversion to pharmaceuticals were all ruled out in the death of the first victim, a direct link to the kombucha could not be made and the origins of the outbreak were never established.
We can’t help thinking, however, that it may not be such a harmless beverage after all.
Moreover, the PC goes on to urge caution in home brewing: ‘Lead poisoning occurred after kombucha tea, which is acidic, was brewed in ceramic containers. None of these cases was attributed to bacterial contamination of the beverage, but authorities warn that contamination is possible if home brewing is not carried out carefully.’(8) Per Ethan Tsai, assistant professor of chemistry at Metropolitan State University of Denver, secondary infections can result from the creation of an environment conducive to microbial interaction. Fully sterilizing equipment is critical to ensure product safety, notes Tsai, who strongly recommends the kinds of caustic sterilizing agents most home brewers might be reluctant to use. Moreover, while the microbes are working hard to digest the liquid’s sugars, it is not advisable to refrigerate the SCOBY as the low temperature will at best retard, and at worst kill, the fermentation. Astute readers will see where we are heading with this line of thought: potentially inadequate sterilization coupled with a warm and humid environment is a perfect breeding ground for other, less desirable agents within the beverage. With that said, Haley Bettin of Denver brewery Happy Leaf Kombucha is quick to emphasize that a bad brew is relatively obvious: ‘when a batch goes bad […] It doesn’t look right or taste good.’(9)
That’s all well and good for the occasional home brewer who has a small circle of potential poisoning victims. But for commercial operations, a look and sniff test if not sufficient to rely upon. Which is where safety protocols are so critically important and it is worth noting the the FDA has a set of SOPs and cGMPs specifically for the safe production of kombucha. These include maintaining a certain temperature for brewing water, creating a very specific pH range, and discarding product at the first sign of contamination. Furthermore, it is fortunate that the guidelines published by the Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) are very exacting when it comes to the implementation of and adherence to a Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP) protocol in the production of the drink. The non-profit trade association which provides ‘stewardship for 2,000 years of brewing history’ acts in an ambassadorial role in public education, promotion, and ‘fostering transparency’ within the industry.(10) Acknowledging that HACCP is not technically required for the kombucha brewing industry, the organization ‘highly recommends that all commercial Kombucha brewers have a HACCP Plan in place.’(11)
In general terms, we’re all aware of the importance to the public safety of protocols such as HACCP, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), and Current Good Manufacturing Practices (cGMP) but what makes this ‘health drink’ qualify for such specific regulatory oversight from the start of production through to the finished product and subsequent distribution? For a simple fermented tea drink, the answer is more complicated than you might imagine.
Kombucha is often crafted as a raw drink which means it is not subjected to heat to eliminate pathogens such as bacteria. The process stabilized the product – usually milk and fruit juices – and retards the development of enzymes known to contribute to spoilage, thereby extending shelf life. Named for Louis Pasteur, the 19th century French scientist whose interest lay in preserving wine, the process is now also achieved via high pressure processing (HPP), also known as Pascalization. In this process, packaged foods are preserved using ‘extremely high pressure instead of heat. Hydraulic fluid (normally water) is placed in a chamber and pressurized with a pump. The pressure is transmitted through the package and into the food itself. This process extends the shelf life without the use of preservatives and helps to maintain the nutrients.’(12) Additionally, a second non-thermal procedure, the pulsed electric field (PEF) process, achieves pasteurization through the application of electrical pulses to achieve cell disintegration within microbes. According to an article published in New Food Magazine, the inactivation of microbes that occurs after exposure to the electrical stimulation results in the gentle decontamination of food products that could otherwise be be at risk of ‘fouling at heater exchange surfaces.’(13) And these non-thermal methods are efficient alternatives for products whose tastes could be affected negatively by exposure to heat. Fruit juices, for example, are prone to losing some volatile aroma compounds – making that promised ‘scent of freshly squeezed pleasure’ at breakfast just a fraction dulled. In addition, deaeration – the removal of oxygen – also occurs during the process and can result in lowered levels of nutrients such as carotene and Vitamin C. Recently, however, microwave volumetric heating (MVH) has gained in popularity due to its ability to expose the product to a very even heat for a shorter time, thereby preserving more of the taste and nutrients of the final product.
…some of the kombucha bottles on the shelf were leaking.
But the debate about raw versus pasteurized product is not the only one raging around the beverage. According to BevNet, a newsletter for the beverage industry, a large recall of kombucha drinks occurred due to an eagle-eyed Consumer Protection Inspector with the Maine Department of Agriculture. Conducting a random inspection at a Whole Foods location in Portland, ME, Randy Trahan noticed that ‘some of the kombucha bottles on the shelf were leaking. Being a public health official, I know that alcohol is a by-product of the fermentation process [and] I could immediately see that this might be a public safety issue [where kids] could get hold of this and get a buzz.’(14) Much to the consternation of adult kombucha drinkers, a recall of the products followed and it would be more than a year before the affected brands – now without their elevated alcohol levels – were back on the shelves once more. Furthermore, thirsty fans were not the only ones disrupted by the recall: during its year of kombucha abstinence, Whole Foods is estimated to have lost approximately $75 million – at that time, almost 1% of the company’s revenue.(15)
And finally, a very recent recall was issued for bottles of the fermented beverage that were at risk of exploding.
The ‘Organjc Kombucha’ in raspberry-lemon and lemon-lime-bitters flavors was recalled in Queensland, Australia, after it was found that an elevated gas pressure within the bottle could blow the cap off, rocking injury to those within the putative line of fire.(16) Customers with unopened bottles who were leery of transporting them back to their place of purchase were advised to dispose of them very carefully indeed.
So what’s the bottom line when its comes to this fermented tea? It all really depends on who you ask. If you’re concerned about the potential for GI toxicity such as the isolated cases from Idaho in the mid-90s, it’s probably better to steer clear of the product. But if cutting down on alcohol when drinking socially is an objective, kombucha definitely seems like a good alternative to the sugar-laden fruit juices or the lonely sadness of the seltzer water. With or without that twist of lemon. Moreover, if you believe the hype, kombucha’s probiotic, antioxidant, and antimicrobial properties make it a wise beverage of choice for any occasion. And it must be admitted that the FDA agrees. With the exception of certain individuals such as those with compromised immune systems. Kombucha has officially been declared safe to imbibe, which is good news for the industry which is currently projected to grow in market share to reach $1.8 billion by 2020.(17) So as old the saying goes ‘You pays your money and you takes your chances’ but with only a couple of cases of health problems even remotely connected with the drink, the odds do really rather seem to be in your favor.
What do you think? Is kombucha a go-to drink for you or are you concerned about alcohol content or possible adverse health effects? Let us know in the comments!