One registered dietitian shares what no one is telling you about the fermented tea.
Photo: Oksana Mizina/Shutterstock
Kombucha might be the ultimate oldie-but-goodie health food—it's been around since 200 BC but really came on the mainstream food scene in the 2000s. And there are a lot of benefits to sipping on that booch.
If you're not familiar with kombucha, it's a fermented tea. At our private practice in NYC, Foodtrainers, we're fermented food fanatics. "Ferm foods," as we call them, are great for your digestion, appetite, mood, and weight. (They can also make the food you're eating even healthier.) Bonus: I find kombucha makes an awesome wine replacement at night—it mellows you out with a negligible alcohol/calorie content. (Related: Kombucha Cocktails for a Refreshingly Healthy Happy Hour)
But a few weeks ago, after receiving my regular grocery delivery with a bunch of kombuchas, I noticed something alarming on the bottle. As I scanned the nutritionals—something I've done a million times before—my eyes caught something new: 10g of sugar per serving. I'm no mathematician but two servings per bottle make 20g of sugar in a bottle. That's 5 teaspoons of sugar!
Like many of my clients and friends, I've been kombucha-ing for years and have downed several hundred of these bottles, thinking I'm having negligible (~2g) sugar per serving. There is no way 10g sugar would've gotten past me. Was it a labeling mistake?
After contacting the brand, I received a confusing message that boiled down to: "It's the same product you've always had." And upon my further email-ambushing, I was told that the higher sugar count was part of a new FDA regulation requiring brands to provide the total amount of sugar used in processing the kombucha, not just the amount left after the fermentation process.
At first glance, this seems legit. Fermentation requires some sugar, and during the process, good bacteria metabolize most of the sugar into lactic acid. The end product has far less sugar—but it's tough to be 100 percent accurate with exactly how much less. So, they are *now* required to label with the amount in total they initially use. This sounds fine.
But as it turns out, there is much more to the story. In a 2016 sugar-testing study funded by kombucha brand Kevita of eight different competitor brands, it was reported that there were massive discrepancies in the amount of sugar in the product and reported on the label. (We're talking up to 300 percent higher.)
I reached out to another one of my favorite low-sugar kombucha brands who confirmed that "the labeling requirements have changed, but they are not enforced at all"—meaning brands can guess or flat-out lie about the sugar content. In fact, if you look at some labels carefully they don't even include sugar in their ingredient list, even though sugar is one of the main ingredients in kombucha.
I've been told that the common "fermenter's wisdom" is that the residual sugar in kombucha is treated differently in your body from just plain old sugars because it has already been metabolized by the microorganisms. I love the idea of "fermenters wisdom," but shouldn't food labels be standardized? I've loved sipping on this as a nightcap. But personally, I'd rather have a cookie if I'm going to have all that sugar.
Before you freak out and cut all kombucha, here's what you can do: Always read labels (and then take that info with a grain of salt—err—sugar). Be sure to cut any kombucha with *added* sugar or juice, and keep it to one serving (half a bottle) instead of the whole thing. (My rule of thumb is 4g per serving max). And in addition to kombucha, try other awesome ferm foods like miso, sauerkraut, pickles and pickled veggies, kimchi, and kefir.