Kombucha Controversies: Concentrates, Pasteurization, and Consumer Confusion

An article in the May 20 edition of the UK’s Daily Mail newspaper headlined ‘How to tell if your kombucha has been stripped of its good bacteria and filled with sugar – and how to find the ones that really will give your gut a boost’ highlights the lack of standards when it comes to labeling commercial kombucha. This echoes the Oct 31, 2023 report in Spain’s El Pais newspaper ‘Kombucha is not what it appears to be: How to avoid being deceived.’

The Mail notes that in the UK kombucha is “now well and truly mainstream” with Brits consuming 4.4 million liters of kombucha last year — an increase of more than 800,000 liters on the previous year.

However, the distinction between home-brewed kombucha, made with basic ingredients like hot water, sugar, tea, and a SCOBY, and commercial offerings is often stark. Some brands claim to follow the ‘traditional’ method, indicating that they are unpasteurized, require refrigeration, and may use terms like ‘raw’, ‘pure’, ‘unpasteurized’, and ‘unfiltered’ on their label. Whereas the growth in the market has seen the emergence of other production methods, using techniques that are not immediately apparent to the consumer.

The article notes:

But a live drink, which is time-consuming to make and unstable out of the fridge, isn’t immediately suited to mass production, which is why some manufacturers put their kombucha through pasteurisation (where heat is added to kill off bacteria that could ‘spoil’ the product) or micro-filtering (which filters out sediment and bacteria).

Some brands ferment the product for so long that no sugar remains, and they then add sweeteners such as stevia or erythritol. [The Mail subeditor was not paying attention when they created a title in the online version that this kombucha has been “filled with sugar” … far from it!]

Traditional kombucha brands are not happy with these developments.

Now, however, some brands are making their drinks in a ‘more industrialized manner,’ says Lou Dillon, a nutritionist and founder of Twisted Kombucha, a brand that makes kombucha in this traditional way. ‘These include processes to extend shelf life by up to a year and make the product more stable — even at ambient conditions. Artificial sweeteners may also be used. This may give the consumer a far wider choice — not everyone likes the sweet-yet-vinegary taste of traditional kombucha — but its health benefits might not be the same.’

Dillon also takes issue with the use of ‘concentrate’

Other kombuchas may be made with a concentrate or ‘instant’ mix — essentially, a concentrated tea vinegar, diluted with tea blends, then flavoured with artificial sweeteners with probiotic powder mixed in.

This refers to Manna-K, distributed in Europe by Good Culture Kombucha, whose FAQ states, “Nearly all our customers declare it on their ingredients as “Kombucha Culture.” You do not need to name it as Manna-K.”

Therein lies a problem.


Dillon points to the lack of any regulations around labels as a root cause of consumer confusion:

a lack of labelling regulation means such products can be hard to spot. ‘Producers can get away with noting a product contains live cultures whether they are naturally occurring or simply added after the manufacturing process.’

[Ditto to my comment about the sloppy sub-editing of the online title. The print version advises “why you should always check the label…” despite the root cause of the issue being precisely that labels are NOT transparent.]

KBI has recently launched a Verified Seal Program to bring “peace of mind and transparency to the kombucha industry.”

The organization has proposed a three-tier set of ‘verified seal’ labels.

In a recent presentation, KBI past-president Hannah Crum stated:

There are many in our industry who have a sort of home-brew purist vision of what kombucha is. And when we try to take a home-brew product and scale it to commercial size, that doesn’t always work, especially if we’re looking for something that’s going to be consistent … And so, we need to help educate the public about the benefits of all kombucha because I truly believe that there is a kombucha for everyone. And yes, that means kombucha from concentrate. That means pasteurized kombucha, along with raw unpasteurized kombucha, or kombucha that is not from concentrate.

KBI acknowledges “it takes time to get people to buy into the concept,” admitting “we haven’t seen any labels yet…we’re still aspirational.”

Reader comments

I’d be remiss if I didn’t report on some of the readers’ comments on the Mail website in response to the article. Among my favorites:

  • Its tagline should be ‘it’s good for you even though it tastes disgusting.’ How this sells is beyond me.
  • No fad left unadvertised.
  • I’ll stick to Guinness not woke water.

Given that over 75% of the British public have yet to taste *any* kombucha, these remarks are not unexpected and means calls for clarity in labels probably fall on deaf ears!

You may also like...

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *