Is Kombucha Safe? The great Alcohol Debate

If you're a listener to the most amazing Balanced Bites Podcast, you may have heard Liz Wolfe teasing a new fertility program/site, Baby Making and Beyond, that we are hard at work on. I'm SOOO excited to share this comprehensive information source for everything from fertility, pregnancy, trimester by trimester real food nutrition and popular postpartum topics. We want to have answers to all your questions so if you have something you'd like us to include, please send me a message! This program hopes to launch mid-2015 and will be kicked off with a fantastic 28 day Baby Makin' Bootcamp. Stay tuned for more info on that. 

One of the topics covered on the podcast last week was a question regarding the safety of Kombucha during pregnancy. I wrote about this topic a while back. Here's the link to the Kombucha Saved My Life Post.  Our Baby Makin' and Beyond program will answer questions just like this but until it's launched here's a brief rundown on the safety of Kombucha consumption in pregnancy.

Let's start by breaking down just what's in commercially made Kombucha. As I wrote about in my previous post, I ONLY recommend commercially made Kombucha during pregnancy. 

Kombucha Composition in a Nutshell

Tea (green, black, white): contains caffeine ~ 8-14mg/ 8oz

Sugar:~ 2-6g/8oz

  • This isn't much sugar at all. Kombucha's low sugar content is considered safe for women with blood sugar regulation issues and one serving of Kombucha is even considered acceptable on many Paleo 30 day challenges or while on the 21-day Sugar Detox Program.

Scoby: good bacteria to feed your gut flora

  • Optimizing gut flora is a great idea for both fertility and during your pregnancy. Kombucha was originally used as a digestive aid because the bacteria helps you optimize your gut flora and thus digest your food more efficiently. This can help to maximize the nutrient absorption from your diet. Adding a new probiotic into your regime can sometimes cause a "cleansing effect". If you are newly pregnant and aren't already a long time Kombucha drinker, I would recommend starting with very small doses (2-3oz/day) or just avoid it entirely just to be on the safe side. Once your system has gotten used to the bacteria, it is theoretically safe to continue during pregnancy and many of my pregnant friends happily enjoy 8-16oz/day with no side effects. In fact, a number of friends use GT's Gingerade as a pretty effective remedy for first trimester nausea. 

Alcohol: ~0.5%

  • This is the big concern for most women. While we don't know if there is ANY safe amount of alcohol consumption in pregnancy, we do know that 0.5% is a very small amount. In Canada and the US, non- alcoholic beer and wine are defined as anything 0.5% or less. I know many physicians who have told friends that it's okay to enjoy a non-alcoholic beer (0.5% alcohol content) a day with no evidence of harmful effects. One study even indicated that upwards of 40% of physicians tell their patients that even the occasional glass of wine (11-14%) is safe after the first trimester.  If drinking the occasional glass of 13% wine a week is considered by some to be safe and a bottle of 0.5% O'Dooles beer a day is safe can we say the same for Kombucha?

Some of GT's Classic Synergy products in the United States are labeled a must be "21 or over" with contents at or above 0.5%, while the Enlightened and Classic Kombucha versions have lower amounts of alcohol and do not require special labels. In Canada, there are no such label regulations or warnings on any GT products.

But is it really safe? Well, we don't totally know. Obviously it is unethical to run randomized clinical trials on pregnant women, but, there have been some studies that analyze long term data from pregnant women that we can use to make our assumptions. Once study of over 7600 women measured levels of behavioural problems among 2-year olds. The results were similar between women who reported zero drinking (11%) vs < 1 drink/wk (13.7%) vs light drinking 2-3 drinks/ wk (9%). Multiple studies seem to conclude that very light alcohol consumption may be safe during pregnancy. 

Studies indcate that it isn't the occasional small amounts of alcohol that put our babies at risk for Fetal Alcohol Disorder but it is the BINGE type drinking that is most dangerous. This makes perfect sense when we consider the science behind alcohol metabolism. 

Alcohol is metabolized in the body by a variety of enzymes including alcohol dehydrogenase (ADH), cytochrome P450 (CYP2E1) and catalase. ADH is the powerhouse of the metabolizers and is found in our liver. It's a supply and demand system. The more you drink, the more dehydrogenase you produce. This is why midwives, who live a life on call, are classically cheap dates :) This enzyme is also present in variable amounts depending on your ethnicity. Aboriginal and people of East Asian decent tend to have less and metabolize alcohol at a much slower rate. When you overwhelm this system with LARGE amounts of alcohol in one sitting, like when you binge drink, your body can't keep up with the demand for the ADH enzyme and your blood alcohol content goes up dramatically, crossing the placenta and potentially causing great harm to your developing baby. Bottom line...NEVER binge drink during pregnancy.

So what happens when we consume small amounts of alcohol like what's found in Kombucha or even baking extracts (like vanilla)? While we have no proof that this level of consumption is 100% safe, I feel like it's pretty fair to say that it's likely fine. While I'm not advocating going out and drinking a glass of wine every night, I am suggesting that perhaps the 0.5% we find in our daily 8oz of GT's may be totally safe. What do you think? Send me you're thoughts.