Kombucha. You may have heard of it or seen it popping up on the shelves of Whole Foods or other grocers. Or you may have even had some but weren’t sure exactly what it was. So what is kombucha and why should Mormons care? Put simply, kombucha is a fermented tea drink. To our Word of Wisdom primed Mormon ears, fermented tea sounds like a double strike against both alcohol and tea. However, kombucha might not be as off-limits to Mormons as we might initially think…
Kombucha fermentation is accomplished by both specific types of yeast and bacteria that have co-evolved to symbiotically feed on tea. In order to make kombucha, you must first procure these microorganisms in the form of a SCOBY(Symbiotic Culture Of Bacterial Yeast). This SCOBY is the key to make tea into kombucha. And because it is a colony of living organisms it must be kept healthy. Making kombucha is simple: start with sweet tea, then place in the SCOBY, leave it out for a number of days, and voila, kombucha (for a guide, watch this video)
What I hope you come away with is a fuller understanding of what kombucha is, how it’s made, what other drinks it can be compared to, and its potential health benefits. Mormons, for good reason, are very interested in the health of our bodies. The relationship we have with this world through the foods we eat and the liquids we drink has a powerful impact on our spirituality. Meaning, we should be very involved with understanding each bite of food or sip of liquid we bring into our bodies. So let’s dive in.
Fermentation and the Word of Wisdom
First I want to address the fermented nature of kombucha. Fermentation is the chemical change from sugar to ethanol (a form of alcohol) using bacteria or yeast. Check out this video for a simple explanation of the process. The Word of Wisdom specifically prohibits alcohol but enforces only wine, beer, and hard liquors— the most well known and obvious products of fermentation.
However, those drinks are only the tip of the fermentation iceberg. Humans have used fermentation to not only purify their drinks and foods of unwanted germs but also to create new foods entirely for nearly 10,000 years. The breadth of foods we consume that has undergone a fermentation process is surprising:
- Kombucha! (as well as lots of fermented drinks that aren’t sold at a bar)
- Most cheeses (cheddar, Brie, blue, feta, etc.)
- Pickled anything (pickles, kimchi, sauerkraut, olives, kvass, etc)
- Most bread (especially sourdough)
- Cured meats (prosciutto, salami, Genoa, etc.)
- Chocolate (yes it’s true)
- Soy sauce
- The list goes on and on…
So what does this list mean? It means fermented foods are so ubiquitous that simply because kombucha is fermented does not mean Mormons shouldn’t drink it. Bread, one of the two main ingredients in our Sacrament, is on that list. And how many Mormons have had chocolate in the last 24 hours? I’ll explore the idea of alcohol consumption vs inebriation further down, but for now, I’d say it’s safe to say that fermented food and drink is a-okay.
Health Benefits of Fermented Foods
One of the main reasons every inhabited continent in history independently utilized fermentation is because it is a beneficial probiotic.
Each of our divinely gifted bodies comes stocked with a full host of symbiotic germs and bacteria. Our digestive system can only operate properly with a healthy colony of bacteria. Stomach acids break food down only so far, but as it travels through our upper and lower guts, our bacterial family breaks it down further. This enables us to have healthy bodies that digest foods wholly and completely. When we take antibiotics or drown our gut with poor nutrition, that bacteria can suffer and die. Making probiotics an essential part of anyone’s health.
Because humans have been fermenting food and drink for so long, that bacterial colony in our bodies has evolved to benefit from that fermentation process. This is why drinks like kombucha and kefir as well as other fermented foods have been so loudly praised recently as being beneficial to healthy digestion. And seeing as over 70% of Utah based Mormons are overweight due to the overindulgence of simple carbs and sugar— which are harmful to gut bacteria—a little fermented kombucha might not be a bad idea.
But Does Kombucha Have Alcohol?
Short but misleading answer—yes. Anything that is fermented does. The long but more complex answer—the amount of alcohol in anything fermented is entirely dependent on how long it has been fermented for and what exactly is being fermented. Any kombucha you buy at the grocery store will be comprised of less than .05% alcohol. Any alcohol content over this amount for anything (drink or food) and they’ll check your ID. Just for some context, wines and beers that are listed as non-alcoholic that literally anybody of any age can buy and consume with safety, have an alcohol content of .05% or less. Beer has on average 4% (almost ten times .05%), wine has 11-17%, spirits and other hard liquors can have 30% or higher. These percentages dwarf any amounts that are found in almost all kombucha.
At this point, most Mormons might be asking “is the Word of Wisdom prohibition of alcohol more concerned with getting drunk from alcohol or simply prohibiting any alcohol ingestion?” What is the spirit of the law? It is a question worth pondering. And I don’t think there is a simple answer. But let me assuage any fears of either in the case of kombucha.
Can Kombucha Get Me Drunk?
If you take the Word of Wisdom’s prohibition of alcohol to mean “to not consume alcohol for the purpose of getting drunk”, then kombucha might be the drink for you. The short answer is—no, kombucha cannot get you drunk. You’d die before it happened.
In order to get drunk off of kombucha, you would practically have to drown in it. I am not kidding. This article is one man’s experience of trying to get drunk off of non-alcoholic beer (.05% or less). It’s a fun read but his conclusion after trying to get drunk on an alcohol content akin to kombucha is this— “I’m a shell of a man… I’m not drunk, but will be spending the rest of the night face down on my bed…I hate myself and I want to die.”
One’s capacity for inebriation depends on a lot of factors from age, weight, metabolic rate, etc. Even to get the infamous alcoholic “buzz” and not be drunk still takes a fair bit of alcohol. Basically, your body burns alcohol quickly and in order for it to impair your brain in any way, you have to drink it faster than your body processes it. That’s why it’s easier to get drunk off of liquors and wines than beer.
But each body processes alcohol at different rates because of all the competing factors. For a rough comparison, it takes a 200-pound male an average of 36 oz of beer to become impaired. Beer has a 4% alcohol content. Kombucha has .05% or less alcohol (the vast majority of purchasable kombucha have less). In order to get above the BAC limit of .08% with kombucha, this person would have to drink 1.5 gallons, 180 oz of it every hour. This would absolutely be enough to kill you. Even to get a buzz from kombucha you would make yourself sick from drinking it. For some added context, it is easier to get drunk off of liquid Benadryl and laxatives than it is on most beer.
That article above about the guy trying to get drunk off of alcohol-free beer? He only had 72 oz within two hours. Only half the amount needed. His body was simply burning the alcohol faster than he could put it in. Which meant he would’ve had to drown himself in alcohol-free beer to get drunk. So even if your kombucha had the maximum legal amount of .05%, it is impossible to get drunk and be alive. The nearly magical capabilities of your body would burn it too fast.
Shouldn’t I just not ingest alcohol?
If you take the Word of Wisdom’s prohibition of alcohol to mean “do not ingest alcohol of any kind”, I’ve got some bad news for you. You’ve probably, unknowingly, ingested alcohol this week. Hidden in the most innocent of foods and drinks is lurking alcohol in various amounts. Let’s see where they might be.
Have you ever heard that alcohol will cook out of your food? Like all things—it’s more complicated than that. We’ve covered this before, here at MormonHub, but it’s worth repeating. The reason alcohol cooks out of food is that it has a relatively low boiling point(roughly 173℉). This means it evaporates quickly when heated. However, once alcohol reaches its boiling point, it doesn’t all immediately evaporate. It takes time. For a 12 oz can of beer to become alcohol-free it takes roughly 30 minutes of boiling. And wines and liquors can take up to three hours to do the same. Which means those beer battered fries and that chicken marsala you made likely had upwards of 80% of their alcohol left. And this also goes for baking. Rum cakes, cookies, brownies, or muffins? Did you add vanilla or almond extract? Still has alcohol. Tiny amounts to be sure—but still alcohol.
Remember that list of fermented foods? Most of it has some type of alcohol in it. Even all fruits and fruit juices have a slight alcohol content. Here is a list of everyday products that contain alcohol and the amounts they contain. Even the beloved Mormon darling of Diet Coke and Pepsi have alcoholic contents.
So obviously the questions of whether or not Mormons should avoid ingesting alcohol, in general, is largely trivial. To deny yourself of alcohol would be to deny yourself of most of your diet. Especially if you’re a Mormon, because Diet Coke. I take this to mean that my responsibility to both my body and the Word of Wisdom is to not ingest alcohol for the purpose of getting drunk and numbing myself to life. With the fermented living drink of kombucha, I am embracing life.
Kombucha and Tea
In general, kombucha is made with black and green tea— which are no-nos in the Word of Wisdom. For Mormons, this aspect of kombucha is little trickier because the reason the Word of Wisdom outlaws tea is unclear. Doctrine & Covenants simply says that hot drinks aren’t for the belly. This is pretty ambiguous, to say the least. For instance, does this prohibit hot water or hot chocolate? Modern-day prophets have interpreted this verse to mean coffee and tea. Ok, so coffee is gone. But prohibiting tea is still pretty ambiguous— there are as many types of tea as there are plants. This ambiguous wording has further been interpreted to specify non-herbal tea or any tea that comes from the tea leaf (white, black, green, oolong, etc.)
For something like tobacco and alcohol, it is a little easier to understand the reason why the Word of Wisdom says no. But tea and coffee have always kinda been unclear. Some think it’s because of caffeine levels. But that logic doesn’t work because of our cultural obsession with the aforementioned Diet Coke and Pepsi and the continued allowance of energy drinks. It could also be that there is some substance in tea that can be harmful in large amounts. Which is potentially true. But most health reasons to avoid tea have to do with caffeine which is not prohibited by the Word of Wisdom.
Further complicating the issue, though, are the multiple, plentiful, and notable health benefits of herbal tea So, largely the reasoning for teas prohibition in the Word of Wisdom comes down to “because God said so.” Fair enough. But let’s examine why Kombucha is made from tea plant and whether or not it’s fair to say kombucha is tea anymore after fermentation.
Why does Kombucha need tea?
To ask why kombucha is made from tea is to ask why chocolate is made from cocoa. Kombucha by definition is fermented tea. If it were fermented milk it’d be kefir, sour cream, buttermilk, or cheese. If it were fermented meat it would be salami, prosciutto, or Genoa. By nature of what it is made from it is kombucha. But, as ever, let’s look closer…
Because Kombucha is a probiotic made from a live culture of bacteria and yeast, those organisms must be fed in order for fermentation to happen. Specifically, tea is the fuel/food for the SCOBY to live on. As well as sugar and other elements, tea has in abundance nitrogen, caffeine, and theanine. The SCOBY needs these nutrients because it has evolved to live specifically on tea. In fact, while kombucha can be made from herbal teas, eventually the SCOBY would die because herbal teas don’t have the same combination of nutrients found in actual tea.
So you can’t really separate the kombucha from the tea and still call it kombucha. But the real heart and magic of the SCOBY and kombucha are in fermentation…
The Alchemy of Fermentation
Above I discussed why fermented foods are healthy, ubiquitous, and totally ok under the Word of Wisdom. So I’ll reiterate again but shine a light on another aspect of fermentation. Fermentation is the chemical process of transforming one thing into another. In most cases, this is carbohydrates into ethanol. In the case of milk, the bacterial culture will feed on lactose in the milk, creating proteins which coagulate proteins making the milk “curdle”. Hence you have to separate the curds and the way. This is why cheese is solid and milk is liquid.
The process of fermentation is so complete that to say that cheese is the same thing as milk is nonsensical. Yes, it has some of the same properties as milk, but it isn’t milk. In the same way, kombucha isn’t tea anymore—it’s kombucha. Yes, it was derived from tea, but fermentation is a chemical process which molecularly changes it from tea to kombucha.
These days, processed food equates to food that largely has had most of its nutrition removed. Though a twinkie may have started with natural ingredients, the sheer amount of processing each of those ingredients has undergone has robbed it of any nutritional value it may have started with. But in the case of fermentation, the processing adds value rather than removes it.
Remember how tea is actually quite healthy for you despite being prohibited by the Word of Wisdom? Because the fermentation process is a value-added process you get the health benefits of tea without actually drinking tea. During fermentation, the SCOBY feeds on the sugar, caffeine, and theanine, which leaves behind a lot of healthy compounds. This means antioxidants and other compounds that help prevent heart disease and the buildup of unhealthy cholesterol remain in the kombucha.
This is all to say that after the magic of fermentation has happened, kombucha is an entirely different drink than tea. All you have to do is taste it to know that it is materially different than tea. Yes, it was derived from tea but the process of fermentation is so total that kombucha is chemically not the same. Meaning that the Word of Wisdom has no issue with it and neither should Mormons.
Thou mayest choose for thyself, for it is given unto thee…
At the end of the day, it will be up to each of us to determine what is right and wrong for ourselves. I have tried to demonstrate, using science, why kombucha should not make any Mormon flinch. But ultimately, it will be your own decision. We are fortunate that there are some less defined areas of our Mormon practice where we can flex our own strengths as agents. And the Word of Wisdom is a relatively low stakes arena to figure things out for yourself.
The development of our capacities as agents is one of the principal purposes of mortality. Mormons specifically believe that God’s designs with the Plan of Salvation is to make beings very much like himself. After Adam and Eve had eaten of the Fruit of Knowledge, they were as the gods, knowing good and evil. This one quality of being able to think and act independently that makes us very much like God. And God expects us to figure out how to choose.
There are a lot of thorny, muddy, grey areas within Mormonism where what is best isn’t spelled out. Luckily, God has already told us how he wants us to treat these situations. “For behold, it is not meet that I should command in all things; for he that is compelled in all things, the same is a slothful and not a wise servant…men should be anxiously engaged in a good cause, and do many things of their own free will” (D&C 59:26-27). God wants us elbow deep getting messy and figuring out these things for ourselves.
Personally, I find great value in kombucha. The health of my body is something I take very seriously. As a result, I haven’t had soda in years and avoid refined sugars. Water is, and always will be, my favorite beverage, but kombucha comes in at a pretty close second. And rather than relying on store-bought ‘buch, my mom and I make our own kombucha. Our SCOBY is over a year old and we’ve kept up a continuous brew each week. This way, we’re a little more involved in the process which is just more fun.
So can you drink kombucha as a Mormon and still be a worthy Temple Recommend holder? Yes! Lemme say that again for kicks. Yes!
But how do you feel about kombucha? Let me know in the comments. Don’t like it? Great! Can’t get enough of it? Also great! So long as you don’t use your choice to shame anyone else who’s made a different one, I don’t care. But it is given to us to decide for ourselves.
Post-Script about Soda-Pop
I wanted to add a little about Mormonism’s sugar addiction but someone else at MormonHub beat me to the punch. Click here to read that. Suffice to say that drinking soda has a net negative effect on your bodily health. The number one thing you can do to improve your health is to stop drinking soda and restricting your sugar intake. And this means all soda. That diet stuff is still loaded with artificial sweeteners that are worse for your body than the actual sugar you’re trying to avoid.
But, if you’re like the rest of America and can’t stomach drinking just plain ‘ol water, kombucha is a brilliant solution. Kombucha should be the first go-to soda alternative. It’s carbonated. It is sweetened naturally through fermentation and the addition of fruits and flowers. And depending on how long the ferment went, there might be some leftover caffeine from the tea. And if you brew it yourself, the sky is the limit as far as flavor combinations go. Putting its more outlandish health benefits aside, simply by virtue of being a probiotic, it’s good for you. So do your God-given body a favor—put down the soda and pick up a kombucha.