Hailed as a health drink 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, and now it’s for sale in local restaurants, shops and through online retailers.
This fermented tea is created out of a starter culture of bacteria and yeast, with the mane for this charmingly shortened to “scoby.” While that doesn’t sound like the most appetizing bevvie — and the scoby itself is quite hideous — the end result is a refreshing drink that can be lightly sweet, with just a hint of bubbles.
Part of kombucha’s popularity is linked to the growing trend toward fermented foods, touted for their beneficial impact on the gut flora.
It’s something local online retailer Kibsons noted, picking up a locally produced line called Saba Kombucha.
“Kibsons has seen a significant increase in interest in gut healthy, fermented foods… as more and more consumers are becoming aware of gut health,” says David Prokopiak, procurement development manager for the company.
Is it 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 specializing 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.
But there simply have not been enough studies for science to back up the many anecdotal health claims about kombucha and the gut.
Fans of the drink note it contains antioxidants, 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 it haram?
Possibly not, maybe, in some cases, a tiny bit, thanks to the fermentation process involved. The amount is so minimal kombucha is 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.
In the UAE, kombucha has long existed in a bit of a gray 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 passable or not. And as a result, for years it was only available in the region within the homes of the 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 her 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.”
The company’s founders have a background in the organic snacking industry in France, moving to Dubai with a goal of promoting health in the region, and make their kombucha through local producers, in glass bottles, using organic ingredients.
How to find the good stuff
If you’re brewing at home or drinking a friend’s concoction, be careful. Since kombucha requires a specific fermentation process, it can go bad quickly, and the health risks are real.
Claudia Padgett, a travel influencer from Bolivia 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.
When buying kombucha 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; naturally fermented; there are no probiotics added; and the ingredients are limited to 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: you won’t have a lack of options.
Where to find kombucha in the UAE
DesertCart.com sells a “brewmaster kombucha kit,” which 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. Or you could opt for the “kombucha starter kit.”
To get started brewing your own kombucha, check out any number of Facebook groups uniting local kombucha fans, including UAE Culture Club. DIYers can find starter scoby cultures at Kombucha Dubai and Kombucha and Kefir Dubai.
This article was first published in 2020.
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist and globally recognized influencer and leader in the body acceptance movement.