Trade association Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) released a code of practice to establish quality standards for the beverage and is also in the process of developing a seal for manufacturers to identify their kombucha as authentic, according to Food Navigator.
The code of practice requires kombucha to be made with tea leaves, natural sweeteners, water and Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY). Flavoring is allowed to be added if it does not exceed 20% of the finished product.
Other categories of kombucha, such as hard and herbal kombucha are allowed, but the code of practice requires labels to clearly define the ingredients and manufacturing process to build consumer trust and protect the integrity of the category, according to the group. The full list of categories also includes Jun, honey, coffee, yerba mate, yaupon, wild and processed kombuchas.
The explosive growth of kombucha has dramatically changed this once niche beverage category. From 2018 to 2019, the category grew 25.4% after leaping 60.1% the year before, according to SPINS data cited by Food Navigator. Kombucha, however, has faced a tough road for the last few years with questions about its definition and alcohol content, resulting in a slew of lawsuits. Now, this new label may help to clearly define the beverage and how it fits into the array of drinks that consumers see filling cold cases across the country.
KBI previously considered pursuing a standard of identity with the FDA, but KBI president Hannah Crum told Food Navigator that with a code of practice in lieu of a legal definition “we can broaden or narrow the definition based on what we learn over time and update it on a regular basis to reflect innovations and additional research.”
Standardization and official labels can help assuage consumer worries about products, and for kombucha specifically, it could help head off any questions related to fermentation and alcohol content. In the product standards, kombucha is defined as having “trace amounts of alcohol,” but clarifies that the product is not heat treated or pasteurized, which could kill the probiotics in the SCOBY, a key component of the fermented tea. In the code of practice established by KBI, the alcohol level for kombucha is between 0% and 3.2%.
However, preventing the development of alcohol during the course of kombucha’s shelf life can be tricky and causes many companies to process their teas to prevent potential lawsuits. Manufacturers who do elect to process their kombucha to prevent secondary fermentation must label their product as “Processed Kombucha,” according to the trade association’s standards. Processing includes pasteurization, de-alcoholization, filtration, filter sterilization or any other ways that changes the nature of traditional kombucha.
Having standards that define the tea is also beneficial in the courts. The continued lack of clarity over the definitions of “raw” as well as the sugar and alcohol content in these products has resulted in companies like Health-Ade and Brew Dr. facing lawsuits on multiple occasions.
Despite the formal nature of this standardization attempt, it is not mandatory. However, if some of the major players in the space adopt these standards and begin selling products with “certified kombucha” industry seals, it is likely to prompt smaller companies to participate. Already, GT’s Living Foods supports both the code and the proposed industry seal. As one of the largest kombucha companies on the market, its acceptance of these regulations is likely to push others in the same direction.
Although kombucha popularity grew rapidly in recent years, its growth may be petering out. In the year ending Jan. 26, the beverage posted only 3% growth in retail sales, according to SPINS data.