Why Drinking Kombucha Could Be Bad For Pregnant Women And P-Plate Drivers

Despite being marketed as a health drink, some kombucha brands can have half as much as alcohol as a beer, prompting calls for changes to labelling and safety information.

An investigation from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand (FSANZ) into the growing market of fermented drinks has found that kefir, ginger beer and kombucha can contain more than 1.15 percent alcohol -- a number that would probably surprise those who see the drinks as a health product.

Kombucha, made from fermenting tea, is often spruiked as being beneficial to gut health, and a healthier alternative to sugary soft drinks; while kefir is a fermented, usually milk-based drink, but can also be made with water or coconut water.

Kombucha can be bought in stores, or made at home. Photo: Getty

Both have been growing in popularity for some time, with FSANZ reporting Australia had "the second highest number of kombucha product launches globally in 2016 (closely following the United States)".

"The fermented soft drink industry is reported to be worth between 33 and 200 million dollars in retail sales," the authority said.

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But while the market is growing, the spotlight has turned to whether the health benefits of the drinks are all they are cracked up to be -- and specifically how much "excess or undeclared" alcohol is in them.

Most people would know that kombucha can be slightly alcoholic, thanks to the fermentation process, but the FSANZ investigation found nearly a quarter of commercially available brands contain at least 1.15 percent alcohol.

Photo: Getty

For kefir, nearly 37 percent of the samples were at or above that threshold.

Compare that to light beers such as Hahn or Cascade, both at 2.4 percent alcohol, and 0.7 standard drinks each.

The presence of "undeclared alcohol" can raise "a range of public health concerns", FSANZ said

The body warned these effects could include "the potential for consumption by pregnant women and underage consumers, the potential for drivers to inadvertently drive under the influence of alcohol and the potential for alcohol consumed to interfere with other medications."

A fully licensed driver in NSW has a blood-alcohol limit of 0.05, with police information generally saying this represents one standard drink of alcohol per hour.

While that limit is unlikely to be troubled by a kombucha with approximately half the alcohol content of a light beer, there is the potential for provisional P-plate drivers -- who must maintain a zero blood-alcohol level behind the wheel -- to be affected.

The drinks have been compared to light beer varieties. Photo: Getty

10 daily is aware of bar staff who are wary about serving kombucha to patrons who say they are driving, over concerns about the alcohol content of the drink.

"It's not so much worrying about putting people over the limit, but it could make a mixed kombucha drink stronger than a customer expects," said Rose, who works at a bar in Melbourne.

"It's also about whether somebody isn't drinking due to religious religions, or if they're a recovering alcoholic, things like that."

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In the U.S., major grocery stores recalled a line of kombucha in 2010 after it was found to contain up to three percent alcohol. This also led in part to a U.S.$8 million lawsuit settlement, over a labelling dispute regarding the product's antioxidant, sugar and alcohol content.

In Australia in 2015, a line of kombucha was recalled over alcohol levels which "may potentially be intoxicating" of between 1.3 and 3.7 percent.

FSANZ raised fears of driving after consuming the drinks. Photo: Getty

The latest FSANZ study included 239 versions of kefir, kombucha and 'other' types such as ginger beer, which were collected in 2017 and 2018. Expert analysts took measurements of alcohol in each, "in accordance with standard laboratory methods and conducted in National Association of Testing Authorities Australia accredited laboratories."

The authority said manufacturers have the responsibility to ensure their drinks comply with Australian food standards, which compel the disclosure of alcohol contained in products.

"For foods (including alcoholic beverages) that contain more than 1.15 percent ABV, the statement of alcohol content must be expressed in one of either: mL/100 g, mL/100 mL or percent ABV," the report outlined.

"The control of alcohol production needs to be managed across the entire shelf life and needs to be taken into consideration when determining the products’ shelf life."

FSANZ said it would "continue to monitor the compliance of fermented soft drink products in the market place and take action as necessary."