Posted in Food Safety on July 22, 2018
Are you kombucha curious? What is it anyway? Kombucha is essentially a fermented tea made by adding a culture to a sweetened tea mixture. The culture of beneficial bacteria and yeast consume the sweetened tea and transform it into a healthy probiotic beverage in the nearly the same way cream is transformed into yogurt.
How’s your gut doing today? If you hesitated to answer that question you have found yourself in the right place at the right time. Kombucha might just be the answer to all of your digestive ails. Or at least a tasty answer to part of them.
Before you pour yourself a glass, consider some safety factors you might use when choosing your brew. You may discover a friend brews their own booch, or find a great local brewery at a farmer’s market, or in the refrigerated aisle of your typical grocery store. While it’s possible that all of these products are safe to consume, some may prove riskier than others.
What is Kombucha?
Kombucha is essentially a fermented tea. Alcohol? With fermentation there is a possibility for trace amounts of alcohol to be present in the product. Generally, to get enough alcohol to be detectable something must go wrong. The product could be left out at room temperature after bottling, too much sugar was added to the initial brew, or additional yeast made its way into the beverage for fermentation. In most cases, you do not have to be concerned about alcohol content in kombucha.
Kombucha is generally made in a two-step process. The first step is call the first fermentation and occurs at room temperature in an aerobic environment (exposed to oxygen). A proprietary ratio of tea and sugar are brewed and a culture called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast) are added to the jar of tea. The top of the jar is not sealed with a lid, but rather a breathable material such as cheesecloth or muslin. The jar is left for the duration of this fermentation period (often proprietary or based on taste preference) at room temperature and undisturbed. During the second fermentation the SCOBY is removed and the jar is sealed closed to provide a room temperature anaerobic environment (without oxygen). During this step a brewer might decide to flavor the kombucha by adding fruits, herbs, or extracts to enhance flavor. Once the second fermentation is complete, either by a proprietary number of days or to taste, the product is filtered through cheesecloth and bottled. To slow the fermentation the product should be refrigerated.
How Does Kombucha or a Probiotic Help?
Kombucha is a probiotic. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary, a probiotic is “a microorganism (such as lactobacillus) that when consumed (as in a food or a dietary supplement) maintains or restores beneficial bacteria to the digestive tract.”
Essentially a probiotic is good bacteria. Good bacteria do a few things for our bodies. First, the good bacteria use up space and resources in our gut, displacing the bad bacteria. This helps to boost the immune system. The good bacteria also help your body process your food more efficiently by breaking down the larger pieces into its small component parts. This helps to regulate the digestive system. The culture breaks down the tea into organic compounds, amino acids, and B vitamins which translates to a great anti-inflammatory, a boost of energy, and a slew of other health benefits. [Please note disclaimer at the end of the post.]
Where to Get Kombucha?
Kombucha has recently increased in popularity and you may have noticed it has popped up seemingly everywhere (depending on where you live). You may have heard about it on talk shows or even pseudo news shows touting the health benefits of this “new” health elixir. While this product is fairly ancient. In fact, the first use of kombucha, known as “The Tea of Immortality” begins in China in 221 BC. In modern 2018 you can find kombucha at the grocery store, natural food stores, juice bars, breweries, coffee shops, your local farmers market, and many other places such as from a friend or family member.
Wherever you get your booch, keep in mind a few factors to ensure the brew you consume is safe.
What’s the Risk?
Any unpasteurized product comes with an inherent risk. The benefits of kombucha lie in its beneficial bacteria properties. If the product was pasteurized, the health benefit would be voided. But why is that risky? If good bacteria are present, then the nutrients that made the good bacteria grow can also feed the harmful bacteria.
Another risk factor is pH. If kombucha is not fermented properly the pH may to basic, which allows for harmful bacteria to flourish. On the flip side, if the pH is too acidic, it could lean more toward vinegar. This could be caustic to your throat and even begin to shift your pH too far if too much is consumed.
How Do I Know the Brew Is Safe?
Chances are if you are buying your kombucha from a grocery store it is safe. Commercial kombucha, like any other manufactured food or drink, is heavily regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The major concern comes from products not stored immediately to the refrigerated cases. Sometimes grocery stores and health food stores allow products to set out longer than the manufacturer intends when restocking. Refrigerated kombucha should remain below 41⁰ F and not venture outside of that temperature for very long to ensure fermentation in the bottle does not restart.
Most coffee shops, juice bars, breweries, and coffee shops will offer draft or bottled kombucha from a regulated manufacturer. This is going to be similar to purchasing the brew from a grocery store. While there is an inherent sense of safety with commercial kombucha, a few things are sacrificed in the process.
If you are looking for fresh home-brew style, small-batch kombucha (and trust me there is a HUGE difference if flavor and quality) you might find yourself looking for a friend or at your local farmers market. This is as simple of a comparison as craft beer versus national brand beer. Small batch makes all of the difference in the world. While these options are a little more on the risky side, asking a few simple questions can help ensure you are consuming a safe brew.
Ask the kombucha vendor questions. Someone who is knowledgeable is happy to share information about safety measures they take in the kitchen to prevent contamination and while they may not give you their secret recipe, they can explain the process for making the product. Speaking of kitchen… Most states do not include kombucha in their cottage law. Selling Kombucha in Texas requires an inspected facility (not a home kitchen) and a Food Manager Certification along with a manufacturing license. This puts the farmers market kombucha vendor at relatively the same risk level as your big brand commercial kombucha. If you do not feel comfortable asking the kombucha vendor, ask the Market Manager. The Famers Market Manager is responsible for vetting the vendors they allow in their market. If your state requires these same criteria, chances are the Market Manager has already obtained this information from the vendor.
When it comes to consuming kombucha prepared by a friend or family member, this is your riskiest option yet. In a home kitchen many other bacteria and yeast can find their way into the fermented product and grow alongside the SCOBY. This risk increases if other fermentation activities or bread making activities occur in the same kitchen. Additionally, anytime you consume food that you did not prepare and that also comes from a home kitchen, there is an inherent risk. It could be perfectly safe. Or could go badly in the wrong direction.
Make the Right Choice for You
As a small batch kombucha brewer, I lean more toward the Farmers Market option. You get the same protections as from a national brand commercial product with the taste and benefit of the home-brew style in smaller batches.
Armed with this information and the ability to ask questions, you can make the right choice for you and your family. So, raise your glass and toast to good gut health, and tasty kombucha!
By: Heather Van Tassell, Contributing Writer (Non-Lawyer)
This Post is Informational Only
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