Kombucha, Vitamins & the Rise of Nutritionism

Prevention not PrescriptionsOne of the Kombucha benefits lauded by long time drinkers are the vitamins it contains.

However, these vitamins and other beneficial enzymes are not present in what modern nutritional science considers large enough doses to be effective.

So how can Kombucha deliver benefits with seemingly low levels of these compunds?

An attentive and engaged reader Victoria (my favorite kind) posted just this kind of question in response to my recent conversation with Kombucha researcher Michael Roussin.

“In (his research) he says that there are virtually no B vitamins in Kombucha… it is misinformation to say that it contains B vitamins.”

This is an excellent point that goes to the heart of a very important debate about how our body uses the nutrition (and psuedo-nutrition) we supply it with.

It involves two main concepts:

  • Daily Microdoses

  • Bioavailability

These concepts are critical to understanding our current American food crisis. I have wanted to touch on this topic for awhile as it ties in closely to the Kombucha lifestyle & philosophy.

How Does Kombucha Stack Up To Other Beverages?

First, let’s examine Michael Roussin’s research and compare it with what others are finding. Though his homepage states Kombucha is not “rich in B vitamins,” in his research he writes:

“As traditionally accepted nutritional components, such as vitamins, did not appear to be sufficiently present to account for the reports of health benefits attributed to Kombucha, we decided to identify some of the other unknown constituents which did appear in the analyses.”

Consuming whole foods is the best way to get the micronutrients your body needs.

That is to say, his research did in fact detect the presence of the following micronutrients (same thing as a vitamin): Thiamin (B1), Riboflavin (B2), Niacin & Niacinmide (B3), Pantothenic Acid (B5), Pyradoxine (B6), Biotin (B7), Folic Acid (B9), B-12, and Vitamin C.

The research does not quantify the amount of vitamins per serving, merely noting their presence.

It is widely accepted that the fermentation process raises the levels of some B vitamins while lowering others, and that different types of fermentation produce different results. So has anyone published findings about the quantities of those B vitamins in Kombucha?

In fact, another study conducted 6 years later, “Mineral and water soluble vitamin content in the Kombucha drink (Bauer-Petrovska, 2001), states “four soluble vitamins have been determinated (sic) to have the following concentrations;”

  • vitamin B1 0.74 mg mL-1
  • vitamin B6 0.52 mg mL-1
  • vitamin B12 0.84 mg mL-1
  • vitamin C 1.51 mg mL-1

What do those numbers mean? For comparison, this site says milk contains:

  • vitamin B1 0.45 mg mL-1
  • vitamin B12 2.7 mg mL-1
  • vitamin C at about 1.8 mg mL-1
Milk contains vitamin B1 and so does Kombucha
Kombucha contains more vitamin B1 than milk, according to studies.

In a quick comparison of the only three that match up, Kombucha wins one (B1), loses one (B12), and comes up just shy but very respectable in the third (vitamin C).

Milk is consistently touted as being packed with vitamins for growing children, so it seems Kombucha stacks up alright to other foods, which is what Kombucha is: a healthy food. It is not intended to serve as a supplement.

And how about a quick comparison to the supposed godfather of vitamin C beverages, orange juice. This research article from 2009 states that vitamin C was present in store bought orange juice “from 0.22 to 0.54 mg mL-1.” That would mean Kombucha contains three to six times the vitamin C of storebought orange juice, which sounds surprising even to me I have to say.

How much sugar in Orange Juice
Kombucha contains about 1/10 the sugar of some brands of OJ.

It’s fantastic though, especially since we know that properly fermented unflavored homebrew kombucha contains about 2 grams of (partially fermented & therefore “pre-digested”) sugar per 8 ounces, while orange juice often contains as much as 27g per cup. (I’m assuming PASTEURIZED orange juice was tested, which has been robbed of much of it’s nutritional value. Children especially should not be given these glass shaped sugar bombs disguised as health food.)

A note to the readers: I would like to compare a glass of Kombucha to say, a banana, but have been unable to determine how to convert these measurements appropriately (i.e. mg per 4 ounce serving). If anyone out there can help me with this, I’d be much obliged.

Controversy over Supplements

These vitamin levels pale in comparison to supplement options such as a “B12 Shot,” a 100mg dose you can down in 5 seconds. Or what about a standard 250mg vitamin C pill? It seems like absolutely no contest in terms of the dosage. But then, how much does your body use?

If other supplements are any measure, not much. Repeated studies show they are not effective and don’t provide benefits when taken in this form. Some have gone so far as to link certain high dose supplments to increased health problems and even early death. Additionally many claim high bioavailability but do not deliver, further confusing consumers.

The secret is, it really doesn’t matter if Kombucha has “tons” of vitamin content. Our relationship to food and the nutrition we are meant to derive from it has been perverted. Traditional menus implemented utilizing modern technology offer a ticket back to natural health and a deeper understanding of one’s own inner workings.

Plus, Kombucha has a secret weapon on its side as always, the magic of fermentation, which offers the second key to it’s effectiveness.

Modern Nutrition, Vitamins & Our Bodies

Important Note: This article reflects my opinion and is not intended as medical advice. Always consult your doctor before undertaking changes in your current health routine. Obviously, in cases of severe deficiency, certain high quality supplements may offer clear benefits to the user. This discussion primarily concerns otherwise healthy individuals.

On the one hand, many nutritionists and other highly regarded health professionals often promote the use of supplements and vitamins in pill form as the most efficient and, some even claim, absolute best way to deliver micronutrients to the body. (I won’t be linking to them.)

A growing chorus, however, including authors such as Michael Pollan, Weston A. Price Foundation’s Sally Fallon and nutrition experts such as Dr. John Macdougal (and many others) are championing the the idea that foods must be consumed in their whole forms in order for the real nutritional benefits to be realized in the body.

What that means more specifically is that your body can’t use isolated vitamins nearly as well as a it can use the nutrients from healthy food that contains those vitamins.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts

It makes sense, right? The piece of fruit you eat has all kinds of good stuff in it that MUST be important or it wouldn’t have evolved that way (bioflavinoids, for example, which seem to offer a synergistic effect with vitamin C).

Another example: whole raw milk (unpastuerized), complete with the good bacteria to help aid your digestion, does not cause the side effects of pastuerized. Dr. MacDougal says:

Whether you are scientifically minded and believe in the perfection created by 400 million years of evolution, or devoutly religious and believe in the perfection of a Divine Creator, or both, you must believe that the world we live in is inherently correct. The trillions of interactions that occur between flora, fauna and Mother Earth are purposeful and harmonious. You have also observed that man’s interference with Nature’s mysterious workings usually results in unintended catastrophes.

a hand full of vitamin pills
A handful of synthetic pills or a handful of fresh spinach. Which delivers real benefits?

It seems almost silly to consider the opposite (yet seemingly prevailing) opinion: that eating processed foods (even healthier ones) and taking processed supplements is a recipe for better human health than eating fresh whole foods raised sustainably by local farmers. How in the world could we as a society be made to believe something like that? The answer as always is “follow the money.”

Selling health pills to millions of time crunched Americans who face constant poisoning at the hands of their food supply is very lucrative. Telling people they can just pop a (vitamin) pill and get better without changing their behavior is very lucrative. Telling the truth about these ideas sells fewer books and no pills. These are only my observations.

The side effect of selling pills that don’t work is a perversion of the physical and psychological understanding of what it means to derive nutrition from food. These pills deliver massive doses of (lifeless) vitamins, almost none of which is absorbed by the body and put to use. Consumers looking for direction are confused by the FDA Food Pyramid (Scheme) and it’s ever moving goal posts, the position of which are subject to whomever spends the most on lobbying.

Bioavailable Vitamins: A Must For The Body

The real issue here isn’t how much of which vitamins are present in a single serving of Kombucha, but rather in what form are they present and how often you consume them. Study after study after study (all pdfs) has shown that fermentation makes essential vitamins and minerals easier for your body to absorb, or more bio-available.

Periodic table of vitamins and minerals used by the body
A periodic table of the micronutrients needed by the human body to function properly. Click to enlarge

Due to the rise of nutritionism, the ideology perpetuated by the FDA and supported by the processed food lobbies, the constituents of whole foods that are vital for healthy functioning of the human body have been reduced to a small handful of nutritional components – macro & micronutrients. Macronutrients include protein, fats and carbohydrates. Micronutrients are the trace vitamins and minerals that are not produced by the human body, but are required to catalyze a host of metabolic functions.

The main problem with this reductionist thinking is that research still hasn’t fully understood what exactly it is that whole foods provide on a nutritional level beyond just their nutrient elements. Delivering food in pill form has been a staple of science fiction movies, but the pharmaceutical companies work every day to bring that reality closer to existence. However, without all the other parts of a food to help deliver those benefits, the body cannot make use of them.

Everything we need to sustain our health, is here on Earth in whole food form. As Michael Pollan points out in Omnivore’s Dilemma, these nutrients are found in a variety of sources (Omega 3’s are found not only in fish but also nuts) such that they are available in every eco-system.

Instead, Americans these days, a great majority with at least some of access to fresh foods, are generally in worse health and more susceptible to cancer and other degenerative diseases than ever before. Add to that, pollution and monocropping are stripping the soil of the very nutrients that are needed, generating less nutritious food each harvest.

What’s This All Mean?

Vitamins available in living form from whole foods are the easiest for the body to assimilate. By drinking small doses of Kombucha over a long period of time, you are delivering these water soluble vitamins in a bio-available form such that can be immediately utilized by the body. These microdoses over a long period of time have a far more beneficial effect than any megadose pill or synthetic supplement can provide.

So in response to Victoria’s comment, no, it is not misinformation to say that Kombucha contains B vitamins. While they may not be present in significant quantity to uphold all of the health claims made by Kombucha drinkers in a single serving, they are present in quantities that help the body, especially when consumed over long periods of time. The longer you drink Kombucha, the more benefits you receive.

This has been directly reflected in the experiential data. Many drinkers report immediate benefits such as improved digestion and hang over relief whereas other benefits take longer to manifest such as weight loss and the disappearance of gray hairs, the smoothing of skin or help with arthritis and gout. How Kombucha will work for you is based on a variety of factors. But one thing is certain, the reason Kombucha works to deliver the nutrition your body needs is because the micronutrients are available in living form.

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Responses to Kombucha, Vitamins & the Rise of Nutritionism

  1. […] of a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) into a probiotic rich beverage teeming with bioavailable nutrients like vitamin C and B vitamins that your body needs to stay well. The probiotic elements of kombucha help to populate your digestive system with healthy bacteria, […]

  2. Bio-availability is a legitimate concern. I think we should also consider whether the nutrients are natural or synthetic and the possible negative effects of other ingredients such as preservatives, color etc.

  3. Hello,

    I am wondering about my attempt to enrich my 2nd ferment of some kB. I wanted to add some energy boosting properties to a nice goji flavor brew and added 1 vitamin b12 pill (Rite aid brand, 2,000 mcg, as “cyanocobalamin”). After reading more on b12 on wikipedia it is interesting that only bacteria and its cousin has the ability to produce b12 naturally. My questions are, do you think it is safe to drink and is there any benefit of doing this?


    • The Kombucha fermentation process already creates the vitamins you need. We never recommend adding vitamins in an artificial form to the Kombucha as it is a living beverage. While it likely won’t have an adverse effect, it is hard to say for certain how the chemicals will react with the Kombucha. If you want to boost your B-12, we recommend finding food based sources such as fermented foods, shellfish, pastured eggs, raw dairy and grass fed, antibioitic free organ meats.

  4. Great article. Do you happen to know how to translate all the mg mL -1 to the amount of these vitamins in a 32 oz bottle?

  5. If kombucha has roughly 1/3 the amount of b12 as milk, that doesn’t seem insignificant to me at all. We need 2.4mcg. Milk gives, according to one source I saw, 0.88mcg per cup. If Kombucha has 1/3 the amount of b12, that’s about 0.29 mcg per cup or 1.17mcg per 32 oz , which is what I normally drink in a day. I’m happy with that. I have read that is about the amount our body uses in a day. (1mcg). Not to mention the probiotics in Kombucha feeds our gut and so we probably make more of our own b12. (Yes, I know it is debated whether we can absorb b12 from our gut, but I think we can if we have a healthy gut). Maybe someone will correct my thinking here?

  6. Our bodies naturally make b-12 when we get enough organic sulfur. We get organic sulfur from eating raw fruits, veggies, nuts, seeds etc. Its when we eat processed food we don’t get proper nutrition. By cooking our food, pasteurizing it, cooking it, etc, we destroy the nutrients in the food, including the sulfur.

  7. Hannah,
    You guys are awesome! I can’t believe how quickly you reply to my questions or concerns. Thank you so much for this web site and everything else that goes with it. I am forever indebted.

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