Canadian report finds elevated alcohol levels in some kombucha

A 30-page report released by the British Columbia Center for Disease Control (BCCDC) in March highlights the risks to consumers posed by elevated levels of alcohol in some commercial kombucha.

The BCCDC collected samples of 53 brands from 142 premises, including restaurants, stores, farmers’ markets, gyms, and recreational centers. They note that alcohol levels in kombucha sold as a raw, living, and unpasteurized beverage might increase over its shelf-life as a result of temperature abuse.

Nearly half the samples were manufactured in BC; other brands came from elsewhere in Canada, the States, and Australia. Temperatures of the products at the point of sale were recorded, and ethanol levels tested via the head-space gas chromatography-mass spectroscopy (HS GC-MS) method.

Survey results

Overall, 31.5% of the samples exceeded BC regulations for beverages sold as non-alcoholic (above 1% ABV). The highest found was 3.62%. Over 70% of home-grown, BC product was above the limit, while 33% from other regions had an issue. The report notes that the level that defines an alcoholic beverage varies by country, from 0.5% in the USA to 1% in Canada, 1.1% in New Zealand and Australia, and 1.2% in the European Union. Interestingly, of the eight American brands tested, five had maximum levels in some samples that exceeded the 0.5% level.

The study also looked at labels. Just over half the brands had precautionary information about alcohol on the label — often in small print. While 92% of labels advised that the product should be kept refrigerated, none explained that it was important to do so to avoid increases in alcohol content. There were also issues with illegible ‘best before dates’ on the containers.

Recommendations

Concerned that people at risk from low levels of alcohol consumption (young children, pregnant women, those with underlying medical conditions, those who wish to avoid alcohol for personal or religious reasons, drivers, and those with an alcohol use disorder) need to be better served by the kombucha industry, the report makes eight recommendations:

  1. Brands should state on their labels the amount of alcohol they contain.
  2. Labels should include precautionary notes for ‘at risk’ groups.
  3. Social media and health messaging campaigns should be developed to inform consumers about the risk of alcohol in homebrew and commercial kombucha.
  4. Brands should test for alcohol at the point of manufacture and over the shelf-life of the product.
  5. “BCCDC recommends that processors include alcohol as a chemical hazard in their food safety plan and include how the hazard will be managed…”
  6. Brands should monitor the pH to make sure it does not fall below 2.5.
  7. Labels on raw kombucha should say “Keep Refrigerated”.
  8. The ‘best before dates’ should be readable.

The study includes a useful reference list of 45 articles and other studies.

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