Editor's Spotlight: Startup Focus

Kefir and kombucha going mainstream but science is yet to ferment

By Nikki Hancocks

- Last updated on GMT

KO Kombucha at the Probiota fermented foods showcase
KO Kombucha at the Probiota fermented foods showcase

Related tags Fermentation Gut health

The mass market is already convinced that fermented food and drink is healthy but the more mass produced these products become the less likely they are to offer health benefits, meaning consumers could lose faith, so better science and education are needed to ensure this trend doesn’t become just another passing fad.

Hundreds of experts from across the microbiome health industry heard about the huge commercial potential of fermented food and drink during Probiota 2020 in Dublin earlier this month (February 10-12th​).

Professor Paul Cotter, Head of Food Biosciences, Teagasc and Principal Investigator, APC Microbiome Ireland, spoke about the science behind the health benefits of fermented food and drink.

“The fermented foods industry is expected to get to 700 billion dollars by 2023. We don’t need to convince the market that there’s a health benefit. In a sense, the science needs to catch up and provide scientific backup.

“The issue is there’s a lot of fake science and a lot of information out there for which there isn’t always scientific background – ideas that these foods could help cure cancer and all sorts of other things.”

He explained that research has shown that some supermarket bought kefir will provide no health benefits and he said it’s important for people to understand that a kefir made in one kitchen will be completely different to that made in another.

“With more science to back up health claims this is not just a short term trend but something that will be constant for years to come.”

Ireland-based functional kombucha startup founder Tracy Armstrong joined the fermented foods showcase at the conference and said this Professor Potter has touched on her exact worry for the industry.

“There’s not many companies scaling up production whilst keeping their small batch brewing process. Instead they are creating a bigger batch and speeding up the fermentation process by using a big tank, with no air inside, for a quicker turn around. This process also gives the final product a longer shelf life but the amount of good gut health benefiting bacteria in that product will be far lower.

“Real kombucha is supposed to be made using an aerobic fermentation to ensure the cultures and yeast can survive.”

The former marketing manager co-founded her startup KO Kombucha​ with her boyfriend Ronan Coughlan, a former business manager, when they became frustrated by the lack of truly functional

KO Founders

kombucha drinks on the market.

Armstrong explains that the functional element was important to them as it was this that led them into the brewing business.

“We lived in London for six years and Ronan was looking into ways to boost his immune system because he was always getting sick, with different cold bugs.

“We tried a bunch of kombucha drinks already on the market but we were disappointed that they either didn’t seem to offer any real gut health benefits, or the taste was not what we wanted.”

Coughlan therefore decided to retrain to become a kombucha head brewer.

“Once we’d started making our own kombucha, Ronan noticed his immune system seemed stronger and I really noticed the benefits to my digestion which I would often struggle with.

“We started off selling it to friends, family and colleagues, but it organically continued to grow and we ended up deciding to move the business to Ireland where the market was much less competitive.”

They created three different flavours of kombucha - original, blueberry and strawberry - and named it KO Kombucha, an acronym for ‘knock out’.

Armstrong explains they wanted to make it clear that their products are made using the traditional method.

"The ‘O’ on the bottle, which matches the colour of each drink, signifies the kombucha scoby, which is an essential part of the traditional kombucha process,” she adds.

The SCOBY, short for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast, is a gelatinous substance which floats on the top of the kombucha as it ferments and turns to the colour of the drink. It's this that hosts the yeast and good bacteria needed to turn the brew into kombucha.

 “We have managed to scale-up our business without decreasing the fermentation time. We still leave every batch to ferment for 14 days.

“But because there is no legislation on what exactly what can constitute a kombucha drink, there are many 'kombucha' products out there which aren't made using the traditional method and won't provide the health benefits.”

Armstrong explains that any kombucha sold un-refrigerated or in plastic bottles, won’t be the real deal as the acid would disintegrate the plastic and the ambient temperature would cause the drink to continue fermenting meaning it would eventually turn to alcohol.

"It is hard to tell from the label unfortunately as there's currently no regulation on this. 

"Kombucha should have a SCOBY in it and it should be unpasteurised. While KO is 100% kombucha there are new entrants to the market which have just 8% kombucha for example. If you’re looking for functionality rather than a mass produced, low sugar kombucha soft drink then customers need to do their homework, find out who actually makes the kombucha, how its made and this should tell them what they need to know.'

KO Kombucha is currently available in bottles or on tap in a range of health food stores, cafes, restaurants and bars throughout Ireland but the couple hope to eventually expand the business to supply across Europe.

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