Is Unpasteurized Kombucha Safe?: Pasteurized Vs Raw Kombucha
Updated: Feb 10
Someone once said ‘All good kombuchas are unpasteurized’. That, someone, was me.
People often get attracted (or scared) by brands using terms like pasteurized and unpasteurized but truly don’t understand what it means. Yeah, that was me too. But loads of research later, here I am, completely up to date with everything you need to know pasteurization and kombucha.
Yes, unpasteurized kombucha is completely safe and healthy due to kombucha having a low pH (<3.5) that makes it extremely rare for pathogens to inhabit the beverage. In fact, unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding, you should only be consuming unpasteurized kombucha as it contains the beneficial probiotics (good bacteria) that are not killed off by pasteurization.
But if pasteurization kills the probiotics, you must be wondering why do kombucha brands pasteurization their product. Read on to know!
Kombucha Is Alive!
Before we move on to what is pasteurization let me add some context to how all this matters and its relevance to kombucha. If you didn’t already know, Kombucha is a live probiotic beverage. This means that kombucha at any given point is teeming with millions of good bacteria, also known as probiotics. These good bacteria are essentially the main call to fame of kombucha and why it is so healthy for our gut health and in turn why it is so healthy for ourselves. Now keeping in mind that kombucha (rather ‘raw’ kombucha) is a live beverage, let’s move onto the pasteurization!
Origin Of Pasteurization
The concept of pasteurization was invented by French microbiologist, Louis Pasteur. Commonly referred to as the father of microbiology, Louis first coined the term back in the 1860’s. Yeah, it’s not something new. Pasteurization has been done for over 150 years!!
Read your milk label and you’re probably going to come across the term.
So getting back to Mr. Louis; he realized that food generally goes bad due to bacteria and other microorganisms that are present in it and he figured out that applying controlled heat to the food can effectively kill off these harmful microorganisms and protect food. But with kombucha being alive, it’s a bit different.
What Is Pasteurization Of Kombucha?
Although this big word sounds very scientific, it’s pretty basic to understand. So once the kombucha ferment is ready to bottle, store, and then drink; some commercial brands opt to pasteurize their kombucha. Pasteurization of kombucha is basically the process by which the ready to drink kombucha is heated to a very high temperature (anywhere from the range of 60-80 degrees Celsius) to kill off all the life microorganisms present in the live drink. What is important to note is that these high temperatures kombucha is treated with kills of both the good and bad(although very rarely do exist) bacteria
Why Pasteurization Of Kombucha?
So why are more and more commercial kombucha brands beginning to pasteurize their kombucha? The main reason behind this is to put a halt to the fermentation of the beverage once it’s ready to drink, and the effects that come from halting the fermentation. Keep in mind, the effects of halting the fermentation are only for the business and not for you!!
So How Do The Commercial Kombucha Brewers Benefit?
Increased Shelf Life of Kombucha
One of the main reasons why commercial kombucha brewers like to pasteurize their kombucha is so that they can let it be on the shelf of a retail store for a much longer time than otherwise. Unpasteurized kombucha, when left out of the refrigerator will keep on fermenting and becoming sourer and sourer and ultimately become vinegar and gets unpalatable for the general consumer like you and me. This is why most kombuchas have a recommended shelf life of 60 days even though technically kombucha never goes bad.
A longer shelf life results in the kombucha company leaving its kombucha for a longer time on the shelf of a retail store without having to do inventory callbacks and lose some amount of sales. A big win for the business here.
2. Alcohol Content Maintained
One of the other main issues with raw & alive kombucha is the fact that the alcohol content steadily increases. The longer that it is left on the shelf, the beverage being raw and alive keeps on fermenting and converting the remaining sugar into alcohol.
In fact, in 2011 there were reports of some kombucha on the shelves of major retail stores in the US having alcohol content upwards of 2.5 %. Fearful of action from the FDA, Whole Foods overnight removed all their kombucha stock from their shelves. To combat this crisis in 2011, kombucha companies had to make sure that their alcohol content is limited to the prescribed guidelines, and that was when pasteurization became one of the solutions to the same. The killing of all the bacteria and microbes in the beverage would make sure fermentation comes to a complete halt, thus limiting the alcohol content.
3. No requirement for refrigeration
This third benefit, of non-refrigeration, is one of the greatest benefits that commercial kombucha brewers get by pasteurizing their kombucha. Having now run a kombucha company for a couple of years, trust me when I tell you that requiring a cold supply chain and cold storage becomes immensely difficult for a brand to grow operationally on a national level.
Just imagine shipping across the country and requiring cold storage or always having to make sure that the retailer you’re approaching has enough space in the refrigerator; it’s a nightmare!
Kombucha, when pasteurized, kills off all the microbes and puts fermentation to a halt, taking away the requirement of refrigeration. The point of refrigerating in Kombucha is to actually stop the fermentation as at that cold temperature in the fridge the yeast and bacteria go dormant and do not continue the process of feeding on the available sugar which would otherwise change the taste and make it extremely sour and vinegar-y within a couple of weeks.
While the benefits of pasteurization kombucha are legitimately beneficial to commercial kombucha brewers, it is the consumer who always loses out by consuming kombucha which has been stripped off of all its probiotics.
What About Us Consumers? How Does Pasteurization Of Kombucha Affect Our Beloved Booch?
No live probiotics and enzymes – Much Fewer health benefits
We all know, kombucha’s call to fame is the probiotics. Probiotics are extremely important for our gut health and in turn, our overall health and that is what separates kombucha from any other fizzy beverage.
Now, as explained above, pasteurization kills the microbes and this also includes the good bacteria aka the probiotics. So when you are having kombucha that has been pasteurized, you should be fully aware that you are not getting any probiotics.
Drinking pasteurized kombucha is just like drinking any other fizzy soda which has low sugar and some other health benefits, but then it doesn’t have the probiotics that we all generally drink kombucha for.
So you are effectively losing out on all the benefits that the probiotics have such as a healthy immune system, improved gut health, better digestion, more optimal nutrient absorption, and just in general a much better overall health.
2. Less Alcohol Content
Although most kombucha brands claim to have less than 0.5 % alcohol, it is impossible to know if the alcohol content in the actual kombucha has increased while it has been sitting on the shelf of your neighborhood store for 30 to 45 days. Pasteurized kombucha can actually be beneficial if drunk by people who are supposed to avoid alcohol such as pregnant or breastfeeding women. So if you have just conceived and you’re hooked on to the taste of kombucha but are thinking of avoiding it due to the increased alcohol content, then and only then, pasteurized kombucha should be an option for you.
Of course, I have never tried pasteurized kombucha (#ProbioticsForLife). However, having read other people’s experiences of drinking pasteurized kombucha and comparing their taste to normal kombucha, I now know that pasteurized kombucha does not taste as good as raw kombucha. Kombucha tastes like it does, due to the subtle balance of sweetness and tartness. The fermented taste gives a certain depth to the flavor of kombucha as compared to having any other flavored soda. Many people who have tried pasteurized kombucha have cited that it misses the depth that raw original kombucha has.
4. Reduced risk of bad bacteria
Firstly, the risk of kombucha being contaminated by bad bacteria is extremely low. Kombucha has an extremely low pH that makes it extremely for pathogens to inhabit the beverage. Pasteurization completely kills all bacteria (good and bad), there is an upside; bad bacteria has zero chance of contaminating the ferment. Though, we should have never been worried about bad bacteria in the first place.
Again just like with the alcohol, unless you are pregnant or breastfeeding and have to take extra precautions; in those in cases when you want to continue to enjoy drinking your tasty kombucha then pasteurized kombucha would be a good option for you to avoid any risk at all (although extremely low) of ingesting any bad bacteria.
How To Know If Your Kombucha Is Pasteurized Or Unpasteurized?
Unfortunately, there is no mandate by any food regulatory body that makes it compulsory for brands to mention if they are pasteurized. Yet some will inform you by mentioning it on the label.
Having said that it is yet very possible to judge whether a brand has pasteurized their kombucha or not. Here are four tells how to know!
If the product label does not mention that the kombucha requires refrigeration, it is a clear tell that they have pasteurized the kombucha. All kombucha brands would of course mention it on the back of their label (if not the front) if their kombucha was unpasteurized and required to be refrigerated.
If the label mentions that the kombucha has a shelf life of above 6 months it is very likely that it has been pasteurized. Most commercial unpasteurized kombucha even when stored in a refrigerator will be unpalatable for the general consumer within 60 days
The third way to know no is that if the brand label does not mention ‘live probiotics’. Since the live probiotics are the main benefits of drinking kombucha, it’s quite obvious that most brands would mention it on the front of the label. So if you do not see the term ‘live probiotics’ or ‘live enzymes’ it is possible as they have pasteurized their kombucha and hence killed off the good bacteria and cannot make the claim that they have them amazing probiotics!
Another extremely visual & effective way to know whether your kombucha is raw and alive is by keeping it at room temperature overnight. The next morning, if unpasteurized, it will develop bits and strands of bacteria/yeast and mini-SCOBYs, indicating that it has the good bacteria and is hence unpasteurized.
Who Should Avoid Unpasteurized Kombucha?
So while it is pretty evident that pasteurized kombucha makes it pretty much useless for people who actually consume it for the probiotics, realistically it might actually make sense that you should have kombucha that has been pasteurized. let me explain!
Now if you’ve just conceived and are pregnant or you’ve just given birth and are breastfeeding, it might make sense for you to avoid raw kombucha. Although I have written an entire article on this which you can read here, I’ll just summarize it in brief.
Unpasteurized kombucha does contain very minor amounts of alcohol, so it will most likely be of no determinant to your child’s birth. Yet, just to be on the safer side, consuming small amounts of raw kombucha should be done only during the first trimester of pregnancy. Post that, if you’re yet hooked on to the taste of kombucha, I’d recommend opting for a pasteurized variant to make sure there isn’t any excess alcohol by any chance.
Sometimes what happens to good unpasteurized kombucha is bad bacteria like listeria can sneak in. However, we need to understand the kombucha is acidic and has a low pH. This makes it rare, and almost impossible, for bad bacteria like listeria to survive in the kombucha brew. So although this might be rare, it can pose a significant problem considering the fact that gut bacteria play an extremely important role in pregnancy.
All the pregnant and/or breastfeeding women should be the only ones picking up a pasteurized bottle of booch!
The Verdict: Should You Go For Pasteurized Or Unpasteurized Kombucha?
I am pretty sure you know the answer, but anyway, let me just sum it up.
Pasteurized kombucha has been heated to high temperatures That kills all the bacteria including the good bacteria or the probiotics that are extremely beneficial for our gut health and our overall health. So, yeah, drinking pasteurized kombucha doesn’t seem like a good idea at all unless you’re pregnant or breastfeeding.
On the other hand, unpasteurized or raw kombucha is kombucha that contains all those millions of good bacteria that are great for our gut. This is the type of kombucha we all should be drinking. It’s gut to be good!