Monday, June 21, 2010

Whole Foods Stops Selling Real Kombucha

Citing concerns over its alcohol content, Whole Foods has pulled leading brands of kombucha off the shelves in its stores. Kombucha is generally thought to have less than 0.5% alcohol-by-volume, but since it is a live, raw food that continues to ferment even once it's bottled, I can imagine its alcohol content varying from bottle to bottle. That said, I have never heard of anyone getting drunk from kombucha, and I have known teetotalers and recovering alcoholics who have consumed it without any problems. In my experience, kombucha's acidity is sufficient to prevent anyone from binging on it. For reference, weak American beer starts at 4.0%, so even assuming that kombucha can creep up to 0.75% ABV, say, you'd need to drink more than 5 bottles of it to get the amount of alcohol you get from one bottle of weak beer.

I visited my local Whole Foods to see for myself. There were a couple of brands of "kombucha" still in the cooler, but when I looked more closely, they turned out to be flavored teas with some kombucha added to them, and it was unclear whether or not they were raw. I asked an employee why my favorite brand was no longer on the shelves, and he said something about "labeling problems" that they were working on resolving. I told him that I was going to go to the food co-op around the corner to buy my kombucha.

A few months ago, in a similar move, Whole Foods pulled all raw milk from all its stores, citing safety concerns (see here). They called this move "temporary", but the raw milk never came back.

It's clear to me that Whole Foods no longer have the stomach (as it were) to be on the leading edge of the food movement. They are becoming more and more focused on liability, and less and less on real food.

(But to keep it in perspective, there are still much, much worse companies in the world. Monsanto? BP? ConAgra? Altria?)

For more information about the Whole Foods kombucha situation, see this posting on kombuchafuel.


Jenn said...

Actually, there are online reviews where impressionable people claim they felt a mild euphoric feeling from drinking kombucha and blamed the alcohol content. It's like the kids in my high school that thought they were getting drunk by drinking Irish cream coffee creamers from 7-Eleven: dumb.

So now Whole Foods isn't just "Whole Paycheck," but also "Whole Lot of Posturing When They're Just as Bad as a Conventional Grocery Store About Denying Real Food Under the Guise of 'Food Safety.'" But at least we can get "organic" cookies, right?

Alex Lewin said...

Yes. Unfortunately, Whole Foods ≠ real food. They have become yet another corporation whose primary focus is preserving stockholder value.

Annabelle Ho said...

Nice post. Some people say that they sometimes get a slight buzz from drinking kombucha. But I agree that kombucha’s acidity will prevent the alcohol in kombucha from becoming a problem.

It is really too bad that Whole Foods has removed raw kombucha products from shelves. I am hoping that they will return back to shelves again soon, especially the raw kombucha products that already meet the required alcohol standards. Luckily there are many other places other than Whole Foods to purchase kombucha, at least around Boston.

Annabelle Ho said...

And it's interesting that Listerine can be bought by anyone of any age while it has a 26.9% alcohol content (I know it's not meant for consumption, but still)...

Alex Lewin said...

Annabelle, yes indeed. There are still plenty of good places to get kombucha, at least around Boston.

For that matter, there are plenty of places to buy plenty of things around Boston. Whole Foods is becoming less and less relevant, and I am putting more intention into buying food from other places.

Now that it's farmers' market season, it's easy to get local, seasonal stuff without even having to go indoors. For other stuff, I try to go to my local food coop.

One big reason I go to WFM these days is to get store-brand cat food for my cat. I suppose it's time to switch him over to something available elsewhere...

Alex Lewin said...

PS here's Annebelle's google map mashup showing where to get Kombucha around Boston!

(ignore the Whole Foods sites for now...)

Alex Lewin said...

Annabelle...if they keep carding you, I'd recommend you go for the vanilla extract or almond extract instead of the Listerine. :-)

Lukaduke said...

A major "natural" food distributor know as UNFI has stopped supplying stores with any raw kombucha for the time being....saying a similar statement to whole foods ! Looks like everyone is gonna have to start making their own... hopefully we will not need a licensed distillery to make our sauerkraut and kombucha in the future!

Anonymous said...

I was drinking the Synergy kombucha almost daily. I'm not sure I could have stopped drinking without it. So I went from being a daily consumer of alcohol (wine or beer) to being a daily kombucha drinker. I found it completely eviscerated any desire for alcohol. Did I get a buzz? Not sure what that entails. I found it energizing, whereas wine made me sleepy. I've never had a kombucha hangover, nor has kombucha ever put me to sleep at 10 pm in the middle of a good book. Interestingly enough, I lost my taste for it some months ago, so now I'll have one only "once in a while." But the good news is that I'm still off alcohol, and I'm grateful to have had access to GTs Gingerade during the transition.

nika said...

Nika here ( )

You know I am advocate for raw milk (drink our own from our own goats) and all things fermented.

I dont understand the the physiological basis you imply that has acid counteracting alcohol?

The acid, in a living ferment, would impact the metabolism of lactobacilli but it would not keep alcohol already present from inebriating the consumer. Increasing alcohol content would also impact the metabolism of all species in the ferment (bacterial and fungal).

The kombucha bottles were usually labeled so as to indicate that alcohol content could vary depending on each batch (the ethanol concentration might vary even before bottling and then likely slightly afterward. The closed bottle would lead to metabolic shutdown pretty quickly).

I am not "an impressionable person" (am an observant scientist actually) and I can assure you that I can not drink kombucha without getting a buzz. Due to my ethanol intolerance (impaired alcohol dehydrogenase) I react in two ways to alcohol: I get a buzz and I get an almost instant intense migraine. This happens when I drink kombucha and especially the nice bottled GT kind at Whole Paycheck.

Alex Lewin said...

Nika, I only meant that the acidity would make drinking 5+ bottles unpleasant...nothing about anything counteracting the alcohol.

I guess some people are sensitive enough to alcohol that it can be an issue!

Curious, are there other, more common foods that set off your built-in alcohol-o-meter? Like raw apple cider vinegar, fruit juices, etc.? Or even some fruits?

Alex Lewin said...

Another comment that someone emailed to me (they were unable to post it directly):

Just want to say that I do notice the alcohol content in Kombucha. I will admit to being a lightweight when it comes to alcoholic beverages, and that most people are less sensitive than I am. When I first began drinking kombucha I was confused because I felt like I had consumed an alcoholic beverage when I hadn't (this was after a 4 oz serving) - then I read the label on the bottle and learned that there was a small amount of alcohol in it. I am a big believer in the health benefits of kombucha, so I continue to consume it as my "nightcap". Perhaps people who are more habituated to alcohol consumption don't notice it because the amount of alcohol in kombucha is so small, but don't assume that because you don't notice the alcohol it's not there. Not everyone notices an ill effect from msg, but that doesn't mean some people aren't bothered by it.

The alcohol content may be more of an issue for children who are given kombucha, since they haven't had experience with alcoholic beverages (hopefully). Fortunately kombucha is easy to make at home.

Just my 2¢ worth - I was unable to post this to your blog.

Alex Lewin said...

To which I would add:

Maybe they should think about labeling/limiting MSG content in products too!

Alex Lewin said...

Lukaduke, your comment about needing a licensed distillery to make sauerkraut and kombucha is apt. I'm sure there are folks in the "public health" business who would love to see this happen.

nika said...


I can smell and taste alcohol in a bread that proofed/fermented too long but its very light once baked.

Kefir has enough alcohol so that I do not drink it straight - I use it alot in cooking though.

I drink one small glass of wine, beer, or spirit and I am suffering.

I do not have any issue when I make my ACV/water drink on a hot day.

Fruit juices - I dont drink fruit juices (its sugar my body doesnt need, trust me)

I am not able to think of anything else right now.

I am VERY sensitive to MSG too but that tends to be non-drink foods and is off topic to this post!

N said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
N said...

Whole Foods lost its edge and shifted over to metro upscale.

I still shop there but no longer feel they possess the allegiance to those who made them what they are.

But to their defense, I have read about serious illness from raw milk (on an attorney's site - who claims one of his clients suffers paralysis) and don't really know what to think or who to believe. (I can dig up the url if you'd like.)

Too, when they swab the cows down with iodine, is that healthy for the cow day after day? How much iodine? Is it absorbed?

Not trying to bash raw milk (as I am totally for whole foods) I'm just trying to sort out the issue before dipping my toe, and my compromised immune system, into the vat.

As far as kombucha, though I love it I sometimes notice a sensitivity and must drink just half a bottle. I have read that people with candida issues should avoid it until they have resolved their problem.

Lovely site. Thanks!

Alex Lewin said...

Nika, funny you should mention MSG and drinks. If you search for

msg starbucks

you will find some discussions about exactly what is in the flavorings used in the fancy coffee-based drinks they sell. MSG may be a component in some cases!

Somehow I doubt you're a big Starbucks customer...but if it's in Starbucks drinks, it's probably in all sorts of other drinks, too.

Alex Lewin said...

N, totally agreed about Whole Foods having shifted their focus.

I'm guessing that the attorney you speak of is Bill Marler. He is an interesting guy--an opponent of industrial ag, but also a pretty committed opponent of raw milk. He and David Gumpert (author of _Raw Milk Revolution_) go at it pretty vigorously in their blogs. David Gumpert's blog is better reading than Marler's, in my somewhat-biased opinion. :-)

As with any food, I think it's good to understand the associated risks. I am very happy drinking raw milk, whereas I no longer eat Meat Of Unknown Origin, and certainly not "luncheon meat". For me, the benefits of raw milk outweigh the possible risks. Not so with the nasty meat they sell at most supermarkets.

I won't advise you one way or the other, as everyone is different, and immune systems, especially compromised ones, are complicated things.

I'm glad you're enjoying my blog!

Mary said...


I am still new on the journey to real foods. I have read a lot about the benefits of kombucha, but I don't really have a "food network" yet where I can find all the old-school foods that people talk about, including kombucha. If I can't get it at Whole Foods, where should I look?


Alex Lewin said...

Mary! Thanks for commenting.

It turns out that Whole Foods is selling kombucha once again, so if you have access to a Whole Foods, you can find it there.

Local food coops are usually good places to look too. Or health food stores.

Where do you live? This link will help you find raw milk, depending what state you are in:

Mary said...

Thanks for the quick reply. I know where I can get raw milk from and soon I will make the transition. I'm glad Whole Foods is selling real kombucha again, hopefully I will be able to find it next time I go there.

Thanks again.

Mary said...

Hey! I was able to find it (finally!) and it was great! It was fun because I actually saw a little mini colony starting to form at the bottom of the bottle. My husband wasn't as impressed with the "little floaty things" as I was though.

It's kind of expensive though. Then I saw your very next post about making your own so I may be trying that in the next month or so.. once I get my husband sold on drinking it.

I just thought you should know that your blog is helping me find all sorts of good info. Thanks! Keep it up.

Anonymous said...


Last year, I was drinking a ton of kefir and I had to stop 9 months after cause of new stomachaches. Maybe the kefir affected my stomach? I could only take small amounts of it afterwards... Maybe it was because of the coconut kefir?

Icemill said...

Just a note to the above comments..

Do any of you highly impressionable folks realize that kombu, the primary ingredient in kombu-cha is packed full of MSG?

Alex Lewin said...

Icemill, I have never seen kombucha containing kombu. They are two entirely unrelated things. (And for what it's worth, the glutamate that occurs naturally in kombu doesn't cause the same problems as synthetic MSG...)

Anonymous said...

There is a drink made from powdered kelp (kombu), but this is different from what we call kombucha. And I do not believe that there is any scientific evidence that free glutamate, natural MSG, and synthetic MSG have different effects on our bodies. I have not been able to find any information about how much glutamate is in kombucha.

Alex Lewin said...

My understanding is that natural glutamate is always L-glutamate, and that synthetic MSG contains L-glutamate but in practice also contains toxic compounds such as R-glutamate and others. If scientific studies are testing the effects of L-glutamate on subjects, they may be missing the point. I'm quite sure we have not heard the last about this.

And please keep in mind that just because we don't have any studies demonstrating a hypothesis doesn't mean that it's "wrong". Take anything that we believe about health because we've read a study about it--there was a point in the past when were no studies about it. And in some cases, there will be a time in the future when we change our minds, because new evidence surfaces, old studies are found to be flawed, etc. Margarine is a great example--for how many years were cardiologists feeding it to heart patients? And now margarine is a pariah.