Hailed as a health food with numerous benefits for the gut microbiome, kombucha has taken the global wellness world by storm. Yet it was never officially for sale in the UAE — largely due to concerns over whether or not it contains traces of alcohol — leaving fans to brew their own or get their fix elsewhere. But that issue appears to have been addressed, as in recent months kombucha has been turning up for sale in local restaurants, shops and through online retailers.
Kombucha is essentially fermented tea created out of a starter culture of bacteria and yeast, charmingly shortened to “scoby.” While that doesn’t sound like the most appetizing bevvie, the end result is a refreshing black or green tea that is often lightly sweet, with a hint of bubbles.
Part of kombucha’s popularity is linked to the growing trend toward fermentation — which has been shown to have considerable health benefits for gut flora when done correctly.
It’s something local online retailer Kibsons has taken note of and seized upon.
“Kibsons has seen a significant increase in interest in gut healthy/fermented foods in the last 12 months, as more and more consumers are becoming aware of gut health,” says David Prokopiak, procurement development manager for the company.
That interest prompted Kibsons to begin carrying a locally produced line called Saba Kombucha.
Is Kombucha really good for you?
Since it’s full of living bacteria, kombucha is thought to act as a probiotic, putting it in the same category as cabbage, kimchi and other fermented foods.
“A person has around 300 to 500 different species of bacteria in their digestive tract,” explains Iuliana Cotocel, a UAE holistic esthetician specialized in hormonal nutrition and gut health. “These intestinal organisms control our metabolism, digest our food, manage our immune system and influence our mood. In order to have a healthy microbiome, we need to add friendly bacteria to help colonize our gut and prevent unfriendly bacteria from overpopulating it.
“High stress, too little sleep, eating processed and high-sugar foods and taking antibiotics can all damage our gut microbiome,” she continues. “This in turn may affect other aspects of our health, such as the brain, skin, heart, immune system and more.”
If you suffer with issues like bloating, constipation, acid reflux, or sugar cravings, you might have a dodgy gut health.
Can kombucha help? Maybe. There simply have not been enough studies for science to back up the many anecdotal health claims.
Fans of the drink note it contains antixoidants, vitamins and minerals to help detoxify the body; cynics counter that it has been touted as a cure for everything from grey hair to AIDS to stomach issues — without proof.
It’s also not helpful for everyone, and can worsen conditions in others.
“While kombucha is safe for most people, it can cause severe side effects in some,” continues Cotocel.
This happens when certain bodies can’t really tolerate the microorganisms found in a wild ferment, she adds.
“This is especially true if you’re suffering from small intestinal bacterial overgrowth, candida overgrowth, irritable bowel syndromes, yeast infections or acne.”
Is kombucha haram?
Possibly, maybe, in some cases, a tiny bit, thanks to the fermentation process involved. The amount is so minimal it is often considered non-alcoholic. There have been some small issues in the past; in the US in 2014, Whole Foods had to pull kombucha from its shelves after higher rates of alcohol were found in one particular brand. But manufacturers changed their recipes to drop these back down.
In the UAE, kombucha has long existed in a bit of a grey area, toeing the line between halal and haram. Since there is the risk of some minor fermentation, there seemed very little clarity about if the drink was ok or not. And as a result, for years it was only available in the region within the homes of most dedicated scoby fans.
Now that’s changing, but it’s still not entirely clear what the official line is on kombucha. A trendy new contemporary restaurant in Dubai that offers kombucha on tap didn’t want to speak about it for this reason. Asma Hilal Lootah, founder of The Hundred Wellness Center in Dubai, wants to produce and sell kombucha in the cafe but has so far erred on the side of caution.
“I was worried about the alcohol content,” she says.
Dubai Municipality did not respond when asked to clarify its kombucha policy. However the drink is appearing more frequently, tested and approved for sale by the appropriate authorities.
“Saba Kombucha has been tested and approved by the Dubai Municipality,” says Prokopiak of Kibsons. “The range is produced in accordance with the UAE’s stringent laws concerning soft drinks, juices and fermentation.”
Saba Kombucha, he explains, was created by a company whose founders have a background in the organic snacking industry in France. They moved to Dubai with a goal of promoting health in the region, and produce their kombucha through local producers, in glass bottles, using organic ingredients.
How to find good kombucha
If you’re creating kombucha at home or drinking one a friend has made, be careful. Since kombucha requires a specific fermentation process, it can go quite bad quite quick, and the health risks are real.
Claudia Padgett, a travel influencer from Bolivia now based between the US and the UAE, tried her hand at making kombucha earlier this year. While the process itself was pretty straightforward, she notes that the fermentation afterward was not.
“The scoby is pretty funny looking and it ferments and gets all funky,” she says.
After 11 days, she wrapped her kombucha container in a towel.
“Unfortunately this seems to have disrupted the bacteria, and mold grew on my scoby,” she says, adding she had to throw it all away.
In shops, keep an eye out for excessive sugar or gas, advises Cotocel.
“While it’s a great fermented beverage, kombucha is also a high-sugar juice if you choose a mediocre source,” she says. “That’s why reading labels and knowing what to look for is the key to finding the best quality kombucha.”
To do that, look for four main things: that it is brewed in 100 percent glass; that it’s naturally fermented; there are no probiotics added; and that it contains only water, tea, sugar and culture, not dozens of other things. If you want organic, this will be marked separately on the bottle.
Finally, find a flavor that suits you. Different brands add different spices and elements to their teas.
Where to find kombucha in the UAE
In addition to Saba Kombucha from Kibsons, DesertCart.com sells a “brewmaster kombucha” kit that will set you back Dh2,179. It comes with scoby cultures, recipe guides, a PH tester, a heating pad, an organic tea leaf blend (enough for eight gallons!, the advert notes) and more. A more minimal “kombucha starter kit” sits at Dh839.
You can also buy kombucha at Pure South Store and Cafe in The Greens, Dubai.
Sanderson’s cafe in Abu Dhabi has started selling kombucha, with additions including wild cherry and coconut water.
Check out any number of Facebook groups uniting local kombucha fans, including UAE Culture Club. There is also Kombucha Dubai and Kombucha and Kefir Dubai, where kombucha fans offer up the bevvie fully finished, as well as starter scoby cultures if you want to DIY.
If you’re ever outside of the UAE, Padgett recommends Kevita (for beginners, especially the pineapple flavor) and GTs (for kombucha pros).
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist. In addition to working as editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East, Danae has written for The Sunday Times, CNN Travel, Dubai Tourism, The Guardian, Afar, Bloomberg and many more. She's based in Dubai and is a trainer at Crank. instagram.com/danaemercer