El Pais Report: Kombucha is not what it appears to be…
El Pais, Spain’s main daily newspaper and “the most influential online medium in the Spanish-speaking world” published a report today (Oct 31, 2023) headlined Kombucha is not what it appears to be: How to avoid being deceived. Subtitled A lack of regulation and a fashion for drinking this fermented tea has led many brands to sell vinegary soft drinks as if they were the real deal.
Spain is a country where, as Booch News reported in February, kombucha is experiencing explosive growth. The newspaper’s gastronomy correspondent, Sarah Serrano Pino, reports on the lack of kombucha labeling standards and concludes:
Beware! Not everything goes when it comes to selling, and none of these products is what it claims to be or has the qualities it promises.
She quotes Javi Maeztu, author of the recently published book (in Spanish only) Entre Fermentos who boldly states that “there’s not much difference between some of those [kombuchas] on the market and Coca-Cola.”
The trendy drink exists in a legal vacuum in which anything goes. The food industry has seen a boom in this supposedly healthy alternative to sugary soft drinks, and has taken advantage of the lack of regulation to bring soft drinks and other ultra-processed products to the market that have little to do with the age-old formula. Under this umbrella, tea bags are marketed as infusions, as are powders to dissolve in water, and vinegars with sweeteners and carbon dioxide. They all claim to be kombucha when in reality they are not.
Pino lays the blame for this on the absence of labeling standards, claiming that KBI’s Code of Practice lacks credibility:
…the organization sets the values of what a real kombucha available for purchase is. However, its link with the industry, which is widespread in the United States, has caused this code of good practices to become more lax over time. In its latest version, it has come to allow the addition of carbon dioxide, flavorings, vitamins, and colorants, among other ingredients.
Many of the brands on the market are actually vinegars to which sweeteners and sparkling water have been added and can be sold as calorie-free foods,” Ruiz complains. Among the most used compounds is Manna-K, a super-concentrated kombucha vinegar that promises to “reduce production times from a month to a day,” but which has lost the microscopic life it had at the beginning. It is an ingredient widely used today by startups that want to compete in this promising market. It allows them to skip steps in addition to resulting in much more stable drinks suitable for large distribution, but which do not differ much from soft drinks full of gas and sweeteners. Another very common practice is to add bacteria from the bacillus group to pasteurized kombuchas in order to sell them as foods with probiotics, although these microorganisms are typical of other fermentations.
However, Manna-K has become an established production technique for, as their website states “over 150 companies in Europe and the US,” and claims
Manna-K is a long aged fermented Kombucha Base that is high in organic kombucha acids and GUARANTEED alcohol-free. It has the perfect flavour balance on which to build your product.
The company does note that current labeling standards means “Nearly all our customers declare it on their ingredients as “Kombucha Culture”. You do not need to name it as Manna-K.” Indeed, most of the brands that produce their kombucha with Manna-K are not identified.
(You can read more about Manna-K in our interview with Good Culture CEO Denis Kelleher.)
Seal of Approval
As the kombucha industry continues to expand, there’s a growing need for a clear and consistent set of labels so that consumers know what they are drinking. Indeed, KBI is formulating a Verified Seal Program to address these very concerns:
For brewers, this can lead to less regulator oversight and more market acceptance. This is an example of self-regulation, where KBI sets the requirements for food safety, HACCP, labeling, and alcohol compliance, and participating brewers comply, provide documentation and sign a certificate of conformance. Compliance will also be further verified through randomly selected, periodic on-site audits to maintain the integrity of the seal by the third-party auditor.
Were the Verified Seal Program to become accepted by the industry, consumer confidence in their choice of kombucha could be restored, even in Spain!