Concerns Raised About Secret Alcohol in Kombucha, Drink Long Lauded as Health Tonic

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NEW YORK, NY (WPIX) -- Kombucha is a wildly popular drink that has devotees believing it can help asthma, high blood pressure and prostate problems, even cancer.

About $600 million a year is being spent on it, with yearly growth of 25 percent expected.

Now it’s being called out for problems because of its alcohol content.

Kombucha has been around for thousands of years and is a non-alcoholic tea brewed from yeast and bacteria. The claim to fame for most of these elixirs is their live probiotics.

Lucie O’Donnell was a fan.

"I'm thinking that I’m drinking something with probiotics that’s good for my digestion," she said.

As a mother of three, O’Donnell said she started drinking them in the afternoon at work as a low-calorie pick-me-up, looking to shed her final few pounds of baby weight.

Sober for seven years, Lucie never thought twice about the safety of the beverage.

Then something changed.

“I went out to dinner, and all of a sudden I’m ordering a glass of white wine out of nowhere," she said.

O’Donnell said she drank GT’s Kombucha the afternoon before breaking her sober pledge.

“For myself as a recovering alcoholic, it sets into motion a compulsion I can't stop," she said.

For years now, GT’s Kombucha is labeled with a warning on its bottle saying it has “naturally occurring alcohol” because of fermenting. The label warns drinkers: “do not consume if you are avoiding alcohol.”

Kombucha, as a non-alcoholic drink, under federal law, is capped at no more than .5 percent alcohol, otherwise it would be taxed the same as beer and wine.

However, some kombucha brewers have been shown to come in far higher.

Noel Rivers is an attorney specializing in consumer protection.

“It rises over the allowable level, which is .5 percent. In some cases, it comes in at double or triple. The public needs to be made aware of what they’re purchasing,” Rivers said.

In fact, Rivers points to prior investigations that found alcohol levels five times higher than legally allowed and says she is now preparing a lawsuit on behalf of a client she says was severely sickened by the still-fermenting brew.

Rivers’ tests show recently purchased bottles of GT’s Kombucha tested above legally allowed levels, by as much as more than double.

She insists these drinks keep making more alcohol after they leave the brewery.

“Once you put it on the shelves, it continues to ferment and the fermentation process increases the level of alcohol,” Rivers said.

Andrew Schuman has pancreatitis, and drank kombucha.

“I get angry. It could have killed me," he said. "I have two children. It’s pretty serious.”

He’s been warned by doctors to completely avoid alcohol.

Schuman said he drank a bottle and half of GT’s Kombucha.

“I drank kombucha and I started feeling it that night. My brother and son drove me to the hospital and that’s where I spent the next week," he said.

There’s a track record of some kombucha makers breaking the law.

An inspector crackdown in 2010 found kombucha being sold at Whole Foods in Maine with alcohol levels up to 2.5 percent.

In 2015, several undisclosed kombucha brewers received warning letters from the federal government’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

A class action suit against GT's Kombucha settled in January with the company agreeing to pay more than $8 million over allegations they mislabeled antioxidants, as well as their alcohol and sugar content. GT was forced to change its label and promised to have outside testing for alcohol compliance.

Those who said they’ve been harmed just want others to know what they’re really drinking.

“It’s horrifying to think that could be in the hands of minors or someone pregnant of myself a recovering alcoholic,” O’Donnell said.

Schuman is even more blunt.

“I can’t believe a kombucha, something that’s supposed to be healthy, could have killed me," he said.

GT’s Kombucha did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but industry group Kombucha Brewers International told PIX11 News they’ve been working on this issue for four years.

They are pushing for legislation to raise the allowable alcohol to 1.25 percent and they said they believe Congress never intended to make kombucha subject to taxes that are intended for beer. The organization said their drink is not intoxicating, nor is it consumed as an alcoholic beverage.

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