Kombucha: Yay or Nay for Alcoholics?

Kombucha: Yay or Nay for Alcoholics?

NOTE: All articles are my opinion based on my research, experience in nutrition consulting, work in the field of substance abuse treatment, and my own recovery from alcoholism and drug addiction.

To say that Kombucha has become very popular in recent years is an understatement. You could consider it promoted to superfood status now. It occupies an entire refrigerated end cap at my Whole Foods. You can find it “on tap” at various stores and restaurants. Kombucha is a fermented beverage made from tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. The variety of fruity and zesty flavors you find in Kombucha comes from a second fermentation when fruit and spices are added. Many people attribute great healing properties to Kombucha including boosting immune function, preventing cancer, improving digestion, and helping the liver.

As with any fermented beverage, it can contain trace amounts of alcohol. Trace amounts of alcohol are defined in the US as less than 0.5% by volume (1). In fact, in 2010, Whole Foods pulled all Kombucha from its shelves, including the popular GT’s brand, as it turned out that it contained more than “trace” amounts of alcohol (2). GT’s then rebranded their Kombucha by coming out with two separate lines. The original formulation has a black label and bottle top seal and it contains over the 0.5% alcohol. You must be 21 or older to purchase any of the flavors in this line. The other line, and all other Kombucha I’ve ever seen at Whole Foods and other grocery stores, contains less than the 0.5% requirement.

So if Kombucha might contain alcohol, even if it’s less than 0.5%, should recovering or recovered alcoholics drink it?

Like everything, it really depends on the person. Just like one diet, not everything works for every person.

My first instinct back when I first became aware of Kombucha (way before 2010) was absolutely not. Some think that even trace amounts of alcohol can trigger the body to crave more alcohol. So in my early stages of recovery, I abstained from things that “might” contain alcohol like Kombucha, alcohol containing mouthwash and baking extracts like vanilla extract. I didn’t cook with alcohol even though I knew that most if not all the alcohol is gone after cooking. Looking back at the Whole Foods incident, I was right not to drink it back then.

As I progressed in my recovery probably after the 10 year mark, my attitude somewhat changed. I rarely thought about drinking alcohol, it had become a non-issue for me. I think this passage sums it up best for me:

And we have ceased fighting anything or anyone – even alcohol. For by this time sanity will have returned. We will seldom be interested in liquor. If tempted, we recoil from it as from a hot flame. We react sanely and normally, and we will find that this has happened automatically. We will see that our new attitude toward liquor has been given us without any thought or effort on our part. It just comes! That is the miracle of it. We are not fighting it, neither are we avoiding temptation. We feel as though we had been placed in a position of neutrality – safe and protected. We have not even sworn off. Instead, the problem has been removed. It does not exist for us. We are neither cocky nor are we afraid. That is our experience. That is how we react so long as we keep in fit spiritual condition.” (3)

As long as I do the things that keep me in fit spiritual condition like going to 12-step meetings, being of service to others, eating right, sleeping enough, exercising smart and managing stress, I feel bulletproof – safe and protected.

I learned that other things that I eat or drink also contained trace amounts of alcohol like vinegar (4) and even soda (5) (I don’t drink soda now but I sure did back then!). I slowly began using wine in recipes that called for it and baking with real vanilla extract on occasion. And guess what…nothing happened. I never chugged the bottle of vanilla extract or poured the entire bottle of wine into the sauce. I didn’t sneak down at night and polish off the remainder of the wine bottle. It just wasn’t an issue.

I decided to try Kombucha about 4 years ago since I was looking to add more probiotic-containing foods and drinks to my real food diet. I tried the GT Synergy Trilogy flavor – of course the under-21 version. And guess what happened again…nothing. Now, I probably drink a Kombucha or two every week. I even make my own sometimes. And I’ve never woken up the next morning wondering what I did the night before, I haven’t hidden Kombucha bottles all over the house so my husband doesn’t know how much Kombucha I’m drinking, or ever wanted more than one at any given time. I’ve never felt anything remotely akin to a buzz from Kombucha. It doesn’t make or hasn’t led me crave or want an alcoholic beverage, ever.

Let’s go back to answer my question, “Should recovering or recovered alcoholics drink kombucha?” The answer is yes for me but could be no for you. The decision is a very personal one. I suggest that if you attend 12-step meetings you discuss this decision with your Sponsor. I always recommend against drinking Kombucha for my clients in early recovery. I don’t bring a kombucha drink to any 12 step meetings. It just doesn’t feel right to me.

Do you drink Kombucha? Do you feel it’s appropriate for abstaining alcoholics to consume? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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References:

  1. http://www.ttb.gov
  2. http://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-1022/EXCLUSIVE-Interview-with-GT-Dave-of-Synergy-Kombucha-Product-Back-on-Shelves-in-Weeks.html
  3. Alcoholics Anonymous: The Story of How Many Thousands of Men and Women Have Recovered from Alcoholism. 4th ed. New York City: Alcoholics Anonymous World Services, 2001. 84-85. Print.
  4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vinegar
  5. http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/06/28/alcohol-soda_n_1635190.html

24 thoughts on “Kombucha: Yay or Nay for Alcoholics?”

  1. Interesting and will be sharing. My husband and daughter are both in recovery. My daughter has no issues with it, but my husband swears he feels buzzed every time he has tried it and runs from that feeling.

    1. Sandra-
      I’ve known even a few non-alcoholics that have felt “buzzed” from kombucha. It might be that your husband has some healing to do. His body might not be producing enough of the enzymes that breaks alcohol down – alcohol dehydrogenase. I would stay away from it if I were him as well. -Susan

  2. I’ve only tried kombucha once and it was after I got sober. I knew that there was fermentation involved in the process but there is also fermentation in the process of making soy sauce so I didn’t think twice about it.

    The kombucha was from Whole Foods and it was mango flavored. With the first sip I thought it had gone bad because the taste reminded me of orange juice that has gone bad, it’s the taste of fermentation so it made sense. I kept drinking it, thinking I would get past that taste but it just wasn’t happening. At no point did it make me feel buzzed or anything like that, but for some reason I just couldn’t get used to the taste and that taste made me uncomfortable so I really wasn’t able to enjoy it and I doubt I will ever try it again.

    I wasn’t worried about my sobriety or anything like that it just wasn’t a pleasant experience. I imagine this was similar to drinking a non-alcoholic beer, just in a less dramatic fashion.

    1. Jeff,
      You were right to listen to your body. Not liking something is sometimes a way for our body to tell us it’s not right for us. Also, the mango flavor is really high in sugar so that could be it as well. I always stick to those with 2g or less of sugar per serving.

  3. Trust YOUR gut! Every body is different. There was a recent study showing there may be a link between gut diversity and alcoholism recovery –> http://sciencenordic.com/alcoholism-linked-lack-intestinal-bacteria

    http://www.pnas.org/content/111/42/E4485.full

    Consuming a variety of fermented foods is a great way to diversify the gut – Kombucha, kefir, yogurt, sauerkraut and kimchee are a few examples. Eat your bugs and they will make you feel better!

  4. Thanks for the write-up. I’ve been clean since December of 2005 and have been drinking Synergy for the last two or three years. I did develop something like a bad habit to where I was drinking a case of 12 a week for most of that time, but there was no buzz or anything consciousness-altering. I recently cut it down to three or four every weekend as it was eating quite the hole in my bank account and had become unaffordable. This was surprisingly very difficult to do; I imagine it’s something like what a person goes through when trying to cut back on Coca-Cola, minus the headaches.

    I’ve got a 21-up bottle in my fridge that someone gave me today and am trying to decide if it’s safe for me to drink it, which brought me here. I don’t ascribe to everything AA teaches about alcoholism and recovery, so I’m on the fence as to whether it’s my intentions going into drinking it that matter or if they are irrelevant. I’ve never wanted to drink beer or liquor or wine or do any drug “socially” or “just on the weekends”, so any temptation there has existed almost solely as an all-or-nothing type of thing, or anyways I’ve at least been able to understand that the AA saying “One is too many and a thousand never enough” is applicable when it comes to these. This is the first alcoholic beverage I’ve encountered where my intention is to drink it for its own sake as opposed to drinking it to get drunk or buzzed. I’m thinking the risk is much greater than the possible reward if I do drink it and turn out fine.

    1. It’s a very personal decision. For me, the 21+ is not worth the risk as I think you get the same benefits from the under21 versions. If you do try it, let me know how it turns out!

      Warmly,
      Susan

      1. I decided not to drink it, especially since I was unsure of interactions with Bentyl & Wellbutrin, but then in a sort of last minute caution-to-the-wind decision that later on reminded me of my using days I got up and grabbed it and popped it open. I ended up splitting it with a friend. I will say first that the taste was DELICIOUS. It was significantly better than any kombucha I’ve had previously. I had the Classic Synergy Trilogy, and it was basically the same taste but much stronger and bolder. (I tried the non-alcoholic Synergy again tonight and now it tastes too weak, like it’s watered down.) Hands down it is superior to non-alcoholic Synergy.

        As for the alcohol content – that was the downside and I’m starting to regret drinking it. I felt a little buzz build up, very tiny, and surprisingly I just felt immense fear and discomfort over it. All these years I’ve fought for total control over myself and I didn’t like the feeling of losing it. I’ve gone under anesthesia a couple times and came out wanting to be high forever and then struggled for a few weeks with intense cravings but for some reason this slight buzz felt awful. No cravings for more.

        But tonight I found myself entertaining the idea of drinking just “one” unique beer a week since I can’t get Classic GT around here and I started researching the possibility of alcoholics achieving moderation in drinking and oh boy… Slippery slope. I’ve got that familiar dull craving in the back of my head now and I’m a little nervous I’ll convince myself to drink “just one” now that I’ve managed to drink “just half of one”. Which reminded me of your post. So I stopped to write this. I feel a little stupid sharing this but thought others may like to know for themselves.

        I wouldn’t recommend the 21+ for recovering alcoholics. It tastes nothing like beer or any other alcoholic drink I’ve had but the feeling comes out the same in the end.

        1. Thanks for letting us know your experience! I’m sure it will help someone who is on the fence. Sounds exactly what would happen if I drank one. I never ever “crave” a under 21 kombucha but could see my mind going there if I felt a buzz.

          Good luck to you and I hope your cravings dissipate quickly!
          Susan

        2. Thank you so much for that last paragraph. Because I was contemplating today, drinking the classic version. I’m 4 year sober and I’ve never had a problem the other ones. Although the very first Kambucha I ever had gave me the slightest euphoric feeling. So maybe that’s why subconsciously I wanted to try the classic. But now I definitely will not thanks for your comment.

          1. Glad to help! I’m now in Idaho and they don’t even sell the classic over-21 version. Even if they did, I still would avoid it. I stick with the lowest sugar content GT’s Enlightened.

  5. I am so glad you wrote this!! I have been sober since March 11, 1985. I cook with alcohol-it doesn’t bother me. My husband has the occasional 6-pack in the fridge-I could care less (except when it takes up space for >2 weeks!)

    I got a scoby from a friend of mine and I am brewing my first batch! Thank you!

    1. Christine-
      I’m the same way about my husband’s beer – I never understand how he can just let it sit there for weeks taking up space. Good luck on your kombucha brewing. I’ve taken a break from making it myself but it really does save money.

      Susan

  6. Hello everyone!

    I have found this to be a very controversial subject in AA. Many people feel that the fact that it says on the bottle – This contains trace amounts of alcohol – is enough to say no. And, Susan is right – soft drinks like coca cola, energy drinks, a ripe banana, and anything with sorbitol ( like sugarfree gum ) contains alcohol. The list goes on.
    Even orange juice!
    http://quezi.com/14067

    There are many things that people are forewarned about before taking a breathalyzer test – bread, fruit juices, etc because consuming these things can cause someone to fail the test. One could be very serious and vigilant about these things but that is just not for me.

    I agree with Susan. It is a personal choice. I have been sober for over 18 years and last year my doctor recommended I drink a kombucha for digestive issues. I drink 1 each day at lunch time – the under 21 version. It has never impaired my ability to do anything, I don’t crave 5 more, and it does not alter my awareness in any way. It has wonderful health benefits and for me, I feel this out weighs the possible cons.

    I love AA, always have, always will. I continue to work a solid program and have a wonderful sponsor. I am incredibly blessed to be sober today. On this issue, I believe we each have to choose what is right for us.

    1. Nicole-
      Thanks for commenting!
      I’m glad you have found benefits in drinking kombucha. I drink a kombucha a few times per week and really look forward to that crisp, tart fizziness. It’s so refreshing, especially when it’s hot outside. Congrats on the 18 years and keep on working a solid program!
      Susan

  7. I use to drink a beer just about daily – started brewing my own Kombucha – I notice I never yearn for that beer anymore – still drink one on occasion. I drink about 12 oz of Kombucha a day – I really feel it is healthy for my body. Defintely better than drinking soda – which I maybe use to have once a week.

  8. This has been an issue for me the last couple of weeks. Of course, I was not much of a drinker but an opium fiend.
    My sister introduced me to Kombucha one day and I loved it. I’ve always loved soda and it was a healthier option. The carbonation is the thing the I enjoy. There’s something childlike about it. I had one today and my sponsor is a 100% type person, of anything even containing a smidgen of alcohol he says it’s a no-no. When it says NA on the bottle, I thought it meant 0 alcohol, but there is still a trace amount. When I consume one, I don’t feel dazed but a little happier and healthier. Like I made a good meal choice. They are filling!
    But a part of me still wants to be as stoic as the other men in the program and I have those old feelings of being some sort of a traitor if my recovery isn’t EXACTLY like theirs. Or like a fraud. I had one today in class and like you said . . . nothing happened. I never crave alcohol. It just isn’t an issue. But I still want to impress the die-hard alcoholics. Your post really helped me ponder these questions. It’s a personal thing, ultimately. Moderation is the key. Besides, an attempt at drunkeness, as stated above, on Kombucha, would just equal many trips to the bathroom, which might be a good thing in disguise.
    -Gregory >^..^<

  9. I’ve been sober for five and half years. Last week I was hanging out with a buddy, and we stopped at a Whole Foods. He wanted to buy a kombucha, which I had never tried before. I got one too, enticed by the promise of healthy bacteria. As an alcoholic in recovery, I like finding tasty alternatives not only to alcohol, but also high-sugar sodas, like ginger beer, which is a treat for me. So I drank the kombucha (which happened to be ginger flavored), and I liked the tangy flavor and the carbonation (I’m a fan of fizzy mineral waters too). The next day I bought another one to go with my sandwich at lunch. Tonight, almost a week later while grocery shopping, I picked up two more and opened one to have with dinner. When I sipped it, I remarked to myself that it tastes a bit like an alcoholic beverage, somewhere between beer and wine. It never occurred to me that it might actually contain alcohol. But I am very sensitive to traces of alcohol in desserts, and when I unknowingly take a bite of one of those at a dinner party and taste the alcohol, I stop eating it. So based on these past experiences, I suspected that kombucha, which is fermented, might have a bit of alcohol in it, and sure enough the label states that the product contains trace amounts of alcohol. So I put the cap back on the bottle and put it in the refrigerator, while I decide whether or not I’m going to drink it. Then I googled up this site. I’m probably not going to drink kombucha, because the big book says “no amount of alcohol,” and that’s why I don’t eat the desserts. But it kind of bums me out, because I think that the bacteria likely is heathy.

  10. I drank a kombucha yesterday and I was reading the label. The company had changed what I recall it advising; “May contain trace amounts of alcohol.” Now it states: “If you have a sensitivity or are avoiding alcohol for religious reason please do not consume this product.”

    This weirded me out. The “may contain traces” was fine for me. Similar to a vegan enjoying food that might have been made in the same factory with dairy products. This new warning rubbed me the wrong way.

    When I asked my sponsor he said, “Why do you need to drink fermented tea? What’s wrong with regular tea?” To which I say, touché.

  11. I’ve been sober for seven years, and I think they’re great! I drink ten a day!

    Jk about the last part, but I do drink them from time to time (about once every 1-2 weeks) and have not experienced any problems. Out of curiosity, I breathalyzed myself after drinking one, and still blew a 0.000. It is possible that the EtOH level varies from bottle to bottle, and whether they are safe for anyone in recovery varies from person to person. A good rule of thumb: if you question whether it might be a problem for you, assume it is and treat it accordingly. Sobriety is too valuable a thing to go “testing” oneself on…

  12. Thanks for the great article! I completely agree that it’s a personal decision! To thine own self be true. I’ve been in recovery for over 8 years now and will sip on a Kombucha occasionally. I think it tastes great and has many wonderful health benefits. I remember being new in recovery and I would obsess about not drinking or eating ANYTHING with trace amounts of alcohol in it! I feel like the longer I’ve stayed clean, I’ve began to realize life is as simple or as complicated as I want to make it. I could obsess myself to death (which is diseased thinking) or I can give myself a break and live life. You wouldn’t believe the list of foods and beverages that contain trace amounts of alcohol in it! Also, I might add that caffeine is a mind and mood altering substance, and I would go out on a limb to say that I feel more of a negative bodily effect from too much caffeine than a half a bottle of Kombucha! Lol

  13. I’m trying to kick ETOH now before it gets to be more of a problem. I’ve been “religiously” drinking two doubles a night since I got out of the Army generally so I can sleep. A friend who is a doctor of Chinese medicine recommended kombucha to help kick the cravings. I find it’s working. The drink doesn’t buzz me, I enjoy drinking it, and my body isn’t punishing me for not drinking ETOH. I don’t wake up hung over or tired either. I think I’m going to roll this way and hope my body continues it’s detox – craving isn’t there but there are some effects of quitting!

    You’re gonna have to find your own path but I think I found mine.

    Cheers!

    Jesse

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