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Kombucha Recall: Why Did Whole Foods Remove Kombucha?

Updated on September 20, 2010
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Last Thursday, June 17th, Whole Foods pulled down all of the Kombucha from their shelves. Citing a concern about levels of more than 0.5% alcohol in the drink, Whole Foods across the country have had their shelves stripped bare of the fermented tonic and the company has been talking with suppliers "to review potential labeling issues for a swift resolution."

The reason for the yank is because any drinks with an alcohol content over 0.5% need to come strapped with a government warning label. Even though Whole Foods says they don't know exactly how much alcohol content the Kombucha in question contains, they aren't taking any chances.

The Associated Press reports that dozens of manufacturers have voluntarily pulled their products while WFM reviews the situation. When and if you go looking for Kombucha at Whole Foods you'll find a sign saying this: "Key suppliers and Whole Foods Market have elected to voluntarily withdraw Kombucha products in bottles and on tap from our stores at this time due to labeling concerns related to slightly elevated alcohol levels in some products. This is not a quality issue. Sorry for any inconvenience."

Kombucha drinkers (myself included) have long advocated its use, claiming it aids digestive health, boosts the immune system, and has a cleansing and energizing effect. But does it now pack an extra punch with a more than trace amount of a buzz? What is the difference now? Why are the drinks being pulled now and not before?


How it's Made/Alcohol Content

Kombucha is a living culture of micro organisms. For Kombucha to produce all of its enzymes, probiotics and amino acids it must be cultured for about 30 days. During this process a bit of fermentation takes place. Kombucha is a living food, meaning that it still grows after bottling. Those little floating cultures that are found in bottles are indications that it is still alive.

It seems that some batches had continued to ferment after they had been bottled, perhaps owing their high fermentation to fruit juices put in after initial fermentation had taken place. Apparently, in some batches that Whole Foods tested, the alcoholic content is said to have been as high as 3-4% by volume. In this video Steve Dickman, co-founder of High Country Kombucha, breaks down the alcohol content in Kombucha and what happened from his perspective during last week's pulling.

Others Following Suit

When I first found out about the new controversy surrounding Kombucha, I was actually quite shocked. Not only were the shelves bare at Whole Foods when we went shopping for Father's Day dinner, but at Lexington's local Good Foods Market, I heard a similar story. Only they didn't pull down their remaining Kombuchas. When I purchased one last night one of the employees told me that I might want to stock up as they were going to stop shelving them after their current stock ran out. Today, I went in and bought another and was told that Good Foods couldn't buy them any more because the suppliers wouldn't sell them any. So it seems that the suppliers are covering their assets just in case the feds are watching. Which I'm sure they are.

Conflicting Information

I'm still a bit confused, befuddled and critical of this move by Whole Foods. Mostly for personal reasons of not being able to purchase a Kombucha at a discount, although I do understand why they did it. However, after looking up a few articles about the situation, there are a few points I'm a little fuzzy about, and some questions I still have.

  • First, I have to question the fact that in one article they are saying that they (Whole Foods) don't know how much alcohol is present, and in another there are estimates of 3-4%.
  • Second, how and why did Whole Foods randomly test bottles of all different types of Kombucha for alcohol content. It seems that this issue would have come up before now. Even in the video interview at about 2:19, Steve Dickman says that he's "not really sure exactly, really what happened." Did they take a random sample from many stores? Were all of the tested bottles just in one store? How did they know to test them? Just a hunch? Why did they decide to do it now after carrying these products for years?
  • Finally, I've read a few articles (and in the video Dickman claims that they did) that have said that they did test it, which would mean that they do know how much alcohol is present. I've also read an article, the AP one, that said it was only after conversations about the alcohol content that they were pulled.

It would be nice for Whole Foods to clear up the issue by disclosing these facts so that there isn't any confusion around the situation. Maybe I'm nitpicking here, but it seems that you would want your consumers to know exactly how and why you decided to pull one of your more popular products from the shelves.

Speculation Anyone?

Since things are a bit hazy around the issue, let's go ahead and speculate about this matter. Here I'd like to state a warning: none of what you're about to read is verifiable fact. It's basically just coming from my perspective and perceptions of what I know about how Whole Foods works (I'm still technically an employee) and what I know about Kombucha. Like I said, since Whole Foods hasn't disclosed any information about how and why they tested their Kombuchas for alcohol content, they're basically inviting us to speculate. I welcome any and all points of view, and none of mine are intended to offend or hurt anyone's feelings.

That being said, here is what I think:

Let's look at why they decided to test their bottles. The first rational thought I have about it is that it was probably due to a customer complaint. I'm guessing a bunch of customers called in with similar stories about feeling buzzed off of the Kombucha that they had purchased, which then sparked them to test the product. Yet, unless your consumer base is totally outraged, why would you pull one of your top selling products?

Then, I had to wonder, if that wasn't the case, then perhaps they already knew that they would test over 0.5%. See, Kombucha is a very delicate culture. Also, most of the Kombucha that is made to be sold at stores like Whole Foods, is made West of the Mississippi (GT's in Beverly Hills, CA and High Country in Eagle, CO), which obviously isn't a big deal for distributors and stores that are close, but becomes quite a factor when a refrigerated temperature must be maintained across the country. The Lexington store's distributor is located in Maryland, a good 8-9 hour drive. Factor in the summer heat and you begin to see why Whole Foods may have been wondering about a little extra fermentation. Yet, when thinking further, why hadn't this happened every summer before now?

Then I stumbled upon something else: Kombucha sales have been doubling every year! Last year sales topped $295 million! Even Coca-Cola (which owns 40% of Honest Tea, a Kombucha maker) and Red Bull (with Carpe Diem Kombucha) are trying to get in on the action. That means that the industry is certifiably hot, (no pun intended) possibly attracting some attention from federal regulators. It reminds me of the Dietary Supplement Safety Act, a bill conceived by Sen. John McCain. You can read more about the bill by searching google, but in a nutshell it would give the FDA regulatory control over the $25 billion-a-year-certifiably-hot supplement industry when there are already laws in place that protect consumers.

I'm not gonna lie. I definitely think that there was some pressure put on Whole Foods by the FDA to test their product. There, I said it. To be perfectly honest, this thing kind of seems a little fishy. Just when a product that has many health benefits is soaring in popularity and gaining momentum in the consciousness of mainstream consumers, it's content is called into question. In a society invested in treating disease (pharmaceuticals, hospitals, physical therapy) and not preventing it, this move- after giving it some thought and analysis- really comes as no surprise.

Now don't get me wrong, it definitely does contain trace amounts of alcohol. If you chug one (not recommended) you probably will feel a bit lightheaded. But let's be real, one Kombucha will not impair your ability to function properly on any given day in this society. In fact it will probably enhance it. Unless you are a recovering alcoholic, or someone who just cannot stand any alcohol whatsoever, then Kombucha will most likely just make your stomach feel all warm and fuzzy and regulate your bowels a little better. If you feel a buzz off it, it's most likely due to the fact that the cells in your body haven't had a boost like that in a long, long time.

It seems to me that the FDA (who conveniently turns a blind eye to high fructose corn syrup, preservatives, and some sketchy pharmaceuticals) can't resist shooting down the dreams of a righteous business that has had great success beyond the mom-and-pop level. It's as if, once you have people feeling really good off an organic product which could prevent some gastro-intestinal problems, you are then subject to some hair-splitting BS on the federal level. It's really unfortunate because the Kombucha manufacturers aren't going to market their product as an alcoholic beverage- which would mean it would be subject to increased taxes and a smaller consumer base. And they can't pasteurize their product because it would strip it of all it's probiotic, healthy qualities.

What to Do? Make Your Own Brew!

Now, I'm no "doom and gloom" forecaster. I'm confident that this issue will be resolved soon enough. However, I understand the concern from consumers at the same time. When and if Kombuchas come back to the shelves, they may be pasteurized, which would nix all of the alcohol content. The problem with this is that it would also kill all the beneficial bacteria and culture in each bottle. So there would be no point in really buying it. On Whole Food's Facebook page, there are 5 wall posts in the past 20 hours asking where all the Kombucha has gone. On their website's forums page, WFM has been totally quiet about the issue.

Yet there is hope. It's called DIY, do-it-yourself, and making homemade Kombucha is actually quite easy. In fact there are plenty of informative hubs about it. So if you are a Kombucha consumer, I would have to recommend at least giving the home brewing method a shot. Here some things you will need:

  • 1 Kombucha mushroom, also known as a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast) purchase one here
  • Black tea
  • 1 gallon glass jar (using metal will cause it to leech into the mixture)
  • Granulated sugar
  • White distilled vinegar
  • Purified Water
  • Unbleached Coffee Filters or cheesecloth
  • Rubber Bands
  • Clean bottle or glass to pour finished product into

There are plenty of how to recipes on the web. Below I'll list a few of them since this hub is already so long winded. I guess I'll wrap it up, please feel free to comment. I know this issue is on the minds of any of the health conscious consumers out there, let me know what You think. Thank you! Infinite peace and love!


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    • profile image


      6 years ago



    • profile image


      7 years ago

      I live in Brazil and I grow my own Konbucha. For those who want it, I happily donate scobys from my always growing stock. I am 65 y.o.and since September 1984 I do not use any medicine, and I still play capoeira. Garlic tea and bee propolis are my chief resources against illness, besides vegetarian diet. In October 2007 I had serious prostatic problems, which I solved with Aloe Vera from my garden, that I eat every day since then. My fear about medicines grew when I read Kevin Trudeau's book "Natural Cures "They" Don't Want You to Know About". Your article reinforces my conviction that FDA, as well as Brazilian ANVISA, are only concerned with protecting the big pharmaceutical market.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      It really depends on which Kombucha your drinking. True the synergy had such insignificant amount of alcohol in it that I think anyone would be crazy for pulling it. HOWEVER other brands of Kombucha like Townshend Tea "Brew Dr." have one hell of a punch to them and if you drink one 16oz Brew Dr it feels like you've just had 1-2 beers. One time I drank 2 Brew Dr almost back to back and I was basically drunk. Definitely in no shape to drive. Of course Brew Dr is sold in most places as a 21+ drink. However I am not sure they card at the tea company itself. Point being is that they are not labeled as alcoholic content and they obviously have strong alcoholic content, unlike other Kombuchas which have little to none.

      The verdict is still out on Kombucha. Obviously it has powerful health benefits. But no one's done clinical trials to prove this, most of these benefits are anecdotal. Little is known about negative side effects from prolonged consumption. This makes it a little risky.

      I agree with what was previously said about sensitive immune systems, Irritable bowel syndrome, and other diseases. People suffering from these issues should avoid Kombucha. I recently had a bout with IBS and I honsetly don't know whether or not Kombucha was helping or hindering recovery. It certainly increases stomach noise and the digestive processes which may be bad if your trying to quiet an upset stomach. After stopping all consumption of Kombucha for 48hrs I noticed a slight improvement in my IBS symptoms. So I caution anyone who's had stomach problems to be a little wary of Kombucha's digestive-aid claims. These are not proven in clinical trials nor double blind studies. They are purely anecdotal. Some may feel it improves digestion, just as the case with other strong teas while others may find it hinders or prolongs functional disorders of the bowels. Be careful and if you feel like it is hindering health or you have an underlying disorder or illness stop consumption (or don't start) and see if your symptoms don't improve. Not every thing labeled as "digestive aid" works for everyone. Keep this in mind. It's most likely the natural alcohol content that may be an allergen to some peoples stomach.

      As a drink alone it is wondrously delightful with a zippy citrus taste and the carbonation makes it taste beer-like. It makes Rockstar energy drink seem cheap in comparison and it can be difficult to hunt down. Most local health food stores, whole foods, wild oats, have Kombucha tea drinks.

    • JosephRanseth profile image


      8 years ago

      Amazing article my friend. I just got back to the US after being out of country for a few months and I have been missing kombucha like crazy. What a disappointment to only find one bottle in the store, and it had no fizz whatsoever. I couldn't tell from the bottle, but it felt like it had been pasteurized.

      Thanks again for the great content. :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago


    • profile image

      Marvin Clonkey 

      8 years ago

      Unpasteurized kombucha has been known to have alcohol levels as high as 4% for years. 2-4% is NOT a trace amount. That it hasn't been an issue until now is the perplexing part. Europeans have been pasteurizing the stuff for years. All of these brands were well aware of the alcohol problem! And now they're like, "Oh, gee, never thought of that. It was .5 when it left our place."

      God help you if you were a pregnant woman or an alcoholic drinking this stuff every day. It's hard to believe lawyers aren't salivating right now. This is one of the few times I'm thankful for the FDA. When it comes to mass distributed product—like we learned with Odwalla—safety and honest labeling has to be a given.

    • snkhan120 profile image


      8 years ago

      this good

    • Andrewskis profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lexington, Kentucky

      izettl- you're right about taking control and being intelligent about what we put in our bodies, that is an absolute must for all. if something doesn't sit with you well, no matter if others claim it is harmless or even good for you, then you should not consume it. glad we can find that middle ground :)

      dawnM- Thank you for your comment, greatly appreciated

      SafeCard-i totally agree, they should not have removed it. however, the ceo of the synergy kombucha says that the Lohan thing didn't effect the decision... i dunno i think its all tied together though. thanks for the comment!

      Jcat- i miss it too. its funny how we become spoiled so easily... just go into the store and pick up a bottle of finely fermented goodness that took weeks to make. this may be a good lesson in patience and ingenuity for those of us who crave it. thanks for the comment!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      All I know is that I sure miss my kombucha!!! Unfortunately, I'm so busy that it's hard for me to brew my own...I'm waiting for a friends batch to get my own baby mushroom...I keep bringing it up to my local whole foods - it's definitely more expensive to buy in the store, but one of my guilty pleasures!

    • profile image


      8 years ago from Charlotte, NC

      Personally I do not think they should have removed it. The alcohol amounts are so small, it is only the Lindsay Lohan thing getting attention they want to avoid.

    • dawnM profile image

      Dawn Michael 

      8 years ago from THOUSAND OAKS

      great information thank you for sharing it with us.

    • izettl profile image

      Laura Izett 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Kombucha is supposed to aid the digestive system and the digestive system is basically our immune system, which can be extremely harmful if messed with. Kombucha alters the ph levels in our body- this will not have a positive effect on everybody in the same way. My dad drinks Kombucha and tried getting me to drink it, but I did some research on it several months before they pulled it off shelves there were many cases of ill effects, but who knows if they were actually kombucha related.

      Anybody with an autoimmune illness, though, like myself have to be careful of immune or digestive boosting products because we already have an overactive immune system. I wouldn't compare it's safety to coffee, but I get your point- probably safe for the average healthy consumer.

      Kombucha's high sales probably put it on the radar- I can agree to that, but I don't think it's part of a higher scheme to take healthy options away from people. We'll agree to disagree on that. We do need to take control and be intelligent about what we put in our bodies. So much info out there and it becomes hard for people to trust their doctor, a claim on a supplement bottle- information overload.

      Thanks for the conversation!

    • Andrewskis profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lexington, Kentucky

      izettl, I know what you mean when you´re talking about how products touted as all natural can be just as bad as anything else. yet, i don´t think comparing Kombucha to Ephedrine or hGH is totally fair. Both are hormones that naturally occur in the brain and have physiological effects when released. Kombucha is a culture of bacteria and yeast that has been fermented and acts on the digestive system.

      Ephedrine has some pretty specific effects on the sympathetic nervous system. It increases the activity of noradrenaline in the brain (AKA norepinephrine, a stress hormone)which then causes a number things to happen: Increased heart rate, blood pressure, and blood flow to skeletal muscle just to name a few. Along with its more Methyl counterpart, epinephrine, it is the chemical that underlies the timeless fight-or-flight response in our physiology, when confronted with an enormously stressful event. No wonder you were having anxiety attacks, your nervous system was being flooded with a stress hormone without any need for it!

      All science aside, I definitely think that this controversy is strictly over "correct" labeling and alcohol content and not actual risks the product might have. I also believe that it was brought up to put Kombucha sales, which were skyrocketing, on hold in order that they may be taxed to a greater extent in the event that they were above the .5% alc. by volume mark.

      I think of it as almost a reverse loophole... like a giant sticky web of BS, painted to look like the horizon of a future where a business can be successful AND provide a healthy product without the meddling of outside forces, only to trap those bold enough to walk towards it...

      For me? I wasn't necessarily suffering from anything specific. The first time I drank it, I felt a warm tingle through my stomach, followed by an increased awareness of the effects of anything I consumed. I'm not saying Kombucha was the one and only cause of this but it was definitely a factor.

      Yes, the alcohol in Kombucha may have adverse effects on those hyper-sensitive to alcohol or those with say, Irritable Bowel Syndrome or Chrons disease. But you can drink too much water and kill yourself. So if you are on meds that don't agree with alcohol, take a little responsibility for yourself and read the label. Why should that FDA take on our own responsibilities? That just turns us into blind, babied consumers who take whatever is given us. I wonder where there is such an uproar about a health care crisis? The real crisis is a crisis of personal responsibility to our own individual health and lives. We've been spoon fed garbage for so long that we don't realize the beautiful simplicity in a healthy product.

      I know that Kombucha is not any more dangerous than a cup of coffee, and better for you. I think we're all to some degree already healthy, and in simply realizing that is better for you than any physical product.

      Anyway, this was a giant, long winded ramnbtle, so I'll stop now. I do appreciate your comment though, hope to hear more from you.

    • izettl profile image

      Laura Izett 

      8 years ago from The Great Northwest

      Overall a good hub to ponder...Instead of a health care reform bill maybe we should have had an FDA control bill or the same money used to somehow get homeopathy and natural remedies covered under insurances. Politics aside, and always doing my own research on natural proucts. I remember when Human Growth Hormone and Ephedrine were making people "feel" great and touted as "all natural", but a few cases suggested otherwise and those supplements were tested with specific outcomes to be on the safe side. One person may do great on the product while others may even die. Ephedrine caused anxiety attacks for me.

      The aclohol content may be ok for some, but those on certain meds or with certain conditions may not do well. So you are right that a few cases probably spurred the testing. The variance in outcomes from testing probably caused concern.

      Rest assured if it's ok overall, it will be back on shelves.

      Natural supplements and healthy drinks like Kombucha may be are all great if we're to some degree already healthy- kind of a catch 22. What did the drink do for you? were you suffereing from something in general that it helped with or were you in general already healthy? But anyway even natural products can be bad for people, those with illnesses, and on other meds.

    • Aussieteacher profile image


      8 years ago from Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.

      I will have to do some more research - I had not heard of any problems with this product, though I confess I do not use it. I did use a brew of kombucha some time ago - can't recall why I stopped using it.

    • burning bush profile image

      burning bush 

      8 years ago

      Good info.

    • fres40 profile image


      8 years ago

      i can't beleive it!! they could care in the least to help us heal and stay in goo health. gov. control

    • Island Hopper profile image

      Island Hopper 

      8 years ago from USA

      I tried Kombucha before and it made my legs numb for a few seconds. This is what happens when I try a sip of wine. It didn't have any lasting effects though. I wonder if it's just a mild sulfite sensitivity. Probably harmless to most.

    • Andrewskis profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lexington, Kentucky

      Hi steve! Thanks for the comment... it looks like Kombucha brewing could go underground, which wouldn't be a bad thing IMO.

      Kipani- Thanks for the recipe recommendations!! using all organic ingredients definitely improves quality.

      Girly Girl, Hopefully a new label will be all they need, with no pasteurization or alcoholic beverage tax required.

      Ron- very true. I find it funny/sad that there isn't a required warning label on soda cans.

      Isabellas- let's make it ourselves... There's no law against it yet!

    • Isabellas profile image


      8 years ago from Ohio

      Wow, I was just thinking about purchasing that the next time I go to the store. However, now I know that I cannot.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Probably the FDA would prefer we continued guzzling carbonated soft drinks: "Sugary soft drinks linked to pancreatic cancer: study" (Reuters), February 9, 2010,

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Probably the FDA would prefer we continued guzzling carbonated soft drinks: "Sugary soft drinks linked to pancreatic cancer: study" (Reuters), February 9, 2010,

    • girly_girl09 profile image


      8 years ago from United States

      I was wondering why I couldn't find them at a local health food store the other day!!!! They just had a sign which said they were sold out, which I found odd. I was always surprised that the product wasn't limited to 21+. I remember reading an article about a canadian lemonade sold in the US that had small alcohol content, similar to GT's and they were required to re-label their product.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      ooops! I meant 7-10 days. Also, your recipe above says to use white vinegar, but really apple cider vinegar with the mother is much better. And you only need that for the first batch because after that you should use your kombucha from the previous batch to make. The taste and result will be more ideal. Of course, all organic is better to avoid impurities and improve overall taste. One batch only cost me $5 tops--all organic with apple cider vinegar :)

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Mahalo for writing a comprehensive article on this strange occurance. I can also report that kombucha is being pulled at Whole Foods in Hawaii, and, strangely, the other health foods stores seem to be following in the scare. I started brewing my own at home with sweet success! (Guess what, I already love my own better than the store bought kind.) I am thinking about offering the mushrooms available locally and teaching others how to make their own. btw, it only takes 7-19 days to brew and ferment, especially in the summer (the heat speeds up the process.) I am working on developing recipes that include ginger for my next batch :))

    • profile image 

      8 years ago from Austin, TX, USA

      Very thorough article, thanks! FDA is always getting in the way of health and local farming.

    • Andrewskis profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from Lexington, Kentucky

      Josh and Kam: First of all thanks for the props. It seems Kombucha is going to have to be made by the people for the people now. It's really unfortunate for guys like GT's and High Country. I truly feel sorry for the successful businesses that were thriving off such a righteous cause. At least making your own is still kosher.

      JPL: check this out...

      John: You know what's up my friend! Combined with plenty of oxygen and a mind focused on health, disease cannot live in a properly pH balanced body, period. I basically look at this move as one last ditch effort to try and hide the facts about a TRUE healthy lifestyle before the information about natural herbs, foods and products reaches a tipping point where the masses start making more conscious choices about what to consume. Thanks for commenting!

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      They put that crappy Red Bull kombucha called Carpe Diem right in the same place as the removed Kombucha brands. This is BS...

      I blame the FDA… Kombucha Tea is an alkaline producing beverage. Most people have very acidic bodies. Disease and cancer can NOT live nor survive in an alkaline state. You drink Kombucha to improve your PH. On the flip side, the FDA is a criminal institution that ensures that pharmaceutical companies have enough sick people to sell their legal and patented drugs to. They do this by helping food companies promote dead food. You can not patent what comes from nature only what comes from a lab. They do not want people to be able to buy food and beverages with nutrition in them. The FDA is a joke. Pasteurization kills essential enzymes and thats what the FDa wants.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      I was just at my local natural foods store and was told that the rumor is that someone had their alcohol leg band be triggered by drinking the tea, which is why they are now looking into it.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      Very interesting! Festival near La Crosse, WI pulled all of theirs off the shelves just the other day. I had some of the very same feelings about it as this article does. seems that anything that helps in preventing illness and becomes popular the FDA has to try to stop it. thank goodness I know some people who make it and I will be doing the same thing soon!

    • profile image

      Levi Joshua kell 

      8 years ago

      Great hub. I like Kumbocha, I can't really notice any difference in the way I feel. I grow my own. As a grower of commercial medicinal and gourmet mushrooms, I can tell you that I am getting sick and tired of government interference through the FDA. I have so many restrictions that I can hardly run my business the way I am supposed to or would like to. Thanx.


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