By Whole30 headmistress Melissa Hartwig, who sometimes has a very hard job
Kombucha—a fermented tea—is a delicious beverage that may add some probiotic benefits to your already healthy Whole30 diet. But “Is kombucha Whole30-compatible?” isn’t the easiest question to answer. This article is designed to give you an insider’s look into the thought process behind the Whole30 rules, and explain a bit about why this subject is actually legitimately confusing.
It’s not just you. It was confusing for me too. I’ll do my best to explain.
Kombucha is a fermented tea dating back 2,000 years, to ancient China. It requires tea, sugar, and an active starter culture of bacteria and yeast (called a SCOBY)*. You start with a black or green tea, then add spring water, your SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), and cane sugar. You then cover it, store it, and allow it to ferment for 7-30 days, to taste. (The longer it ferments, the more sour it becomes.)
*Note, there are many kombucha recipes and techniques out there. There is no one “right” way; it’s all based on personal preference. I’m just giving you the very basics here as an example.
But SUGAR is not Whole30!
Added sugar of any sort is not permitted on the Whole30, true. But in this case, the sugar isn’t added to the product after the fact, it’s used in the beginning to feed the SCOBY. That’s how it ferments. Sugar is a necessary part of this fermentation process.
Does ALL the sugar get “eaten up”?
Well, no, that’s actually a myth. Some sugar remains, depending on how long you ferment. The longer you ferment, the less sugar is left.
ASIDE: Doesn’t kombucha contain alcohol, and isn’t that a no-no too?
Well, yes. But again, alcohol isn’t added to the product, it’s a natural byproduct of fermentation. Most things with a high sugar content (fruit, fruit juices) have bacteria that, through fermentation, produce ethanol—even orange juice! This natural fermentation by-product is not implied in the Whole30 rules, so in this article, we’re just going to focus on the sugar.
What about store-bought kombucha, like GTs? Is there sugar in that too?
Yeah, so this is where it gets really Whole30-tricky.
The Whole30 Rules vs. Application
The Whole30 rules say, “No added sugar; if there is any form of sugar on the ingredient list, it’s out.” This makes the program really easy to follow—just read your labels, and if you see any form of sugar listed with the other ingredients, put it back on the shelf.
The trouble is, kombucha labeling isn’t as tightly regulated as other food labeling. That’s because it’s controlled by the FDA, not the USDA. This is why some kombucha brands (like Health-Ade) list sugar in their ingredients, while others (like GTs) do not.*
Let me be clear—ALL kombucha uses sugar in the fermentation process. But some brands are transparent about that, and others are not. This means if you’re walking through Whole Foods and pick up a bottle of Health-Ade, you’ll have to put it back on the shelf, because they choose to provide a full list of ingredients. They’re transparent. I like that about them, but it also rules them out for the Whole30. This kind of sucks.
But when you look at GT’s label… no sugar. Cool. It looks compatible. So you can drink it.
*Still other brands of kombucha (like Kevita) use sugar in the fermentation process, AND add sweetener after the fact. This rules it out for the program, because if you look at the ingredient list, you’ll see “stevia.” This part isn’t tricky. They add sweetener to the finished product to make it sweeter. It’s out.
The Place Where It Gets Tricky
Is this fair? No. Is Health-Ade just as healthy and high-quality at GT’s? Yes. Do they use the same all-natural ingredients (including sugar to feed their SCOBY)? Yes. So why can’t you drink Health-Ade on the program?
One of the key elements of the Whole30, and part of what makes it so incredibly effective for nearly everyone who completes it, is that the rules are black-and-white and easy to follow. This takes much of the decision-making process out of “effort” territory in the brain, and into “automatic” territory, where habits are formed. Is there sugar in the ingredients? It’s a “yes” or “no” answer; no willpower or executive function required. These kinds of black-and-white rules are a huge element of the Whole30’s habit-research-based approach.
Now imagine the Whole30 rules weren’t so black and white here. If I said, “No added sugar, but added sugar in kombucha is okay because even though there is sugar in the ingredients, it’s used by the SCOBY, as with many fermented goods, but not all kombucha is okay because sometimes they add sugar after, and you’re going to have to figure that out for yourself.” Can you imagine me trying to communicate the message of sugar and fermentation the SCOBY and FDA labeling regulations to millions of Whole30’ers, such that they all understood why one kombucha was okay but these others are not?
There is no way I could do that. No way.
So I rely on the black-and-white rules. If there is sugar on the label, it’s out. Period. Which means Health-Ade is out, but GTs is in. Is this fair? No. Is it the best way I know to implement the Whole30 rules? Yes.
Now… if you can drink GTs kombucha because of their labeling practices, how can I say, “This kombucha is okay, but you can’t make your own kombucha at home, because you’re adding sugar?”
I can’t. Which means there’s a loophole here in the strictest sense of the Whole30 rules.
If you’ve followed along thus far, you can see how managing the Whole30 program can be complicated at times. Please know I’m doing the best I can. I have to make the rules easy to follow, and in the case of kombucha, it’s the FDA’s laxity in labeling laws that is making my job hard. And I guarantee I’ll be criticized no matter what I do, so I’m going to stick to my guns and make the call that I think is in the best interest of the program, and your results.
The Final Word
If you make kombucha at home and don’t add sugar after the fermentation process, is that Whole30-compatible? Yes.
If you buy store-bought kombucha and sugar is not in the ingredient list, is that Whole30-compatible? Yes.
If you buy store-bought kombucha and sugar is not in the ingredient list, but you do see fruit juice, is that Whole30-compatible? Yes.
If you see store-bought kombucha and see any form of sugar (including stevia) in the ingredients, is that compatible? No.
Resources for Homemade Kombucha
Guest blogger Lisa McLeod will be giving you a recipe for homemade kombucha on the @Whole30Recipes Instagram feed later this week (search for #whole30homemadekombucha on Instagram), for those of you interested in trying your hand at at-home fermentation.
You can also take Sarah Ramsden’s online Fearless Fermentation course, which walks you through step-by-step how to make your own kombucha, sauerkraut, water kefir, and fermented vegetables.
If you have follow-up questions, please visit this post on our Instagram or Facebook page. Thanks for taking the time to read. I hope this makes it abundantly clear how much we all want to see you succeed with the program, and the lengths we’ll go to do our research to make sure you get there.
Melissa, and the Whole30 team
NOTE: This article is in no way sponsored by or connected to Health-Ade. I have no relationship whatsoever with the company, although I did stop by their booth at a convention earlier this year. Their brand just happens to be the kombucha I drink as part of my food freedom, and I appreciate their commitment to transparency. They had no idea I’d be using them as an example here.
Melissa Hartwig is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and the author of the New York Times bestselling books It Starts With Food and The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to Total Health and Food Freedom; and the upcoming Food Freedom Forever and The Whole30 Cookbook. She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa lives in Salt Lake City, UT.
Photo credit: Marie Carmel Photography