My friends Will and Susan Revak, founders of OraWellness, recently wrote a thoughtful article on their concerns about fluoride content in kombucha. The research they uncovered convinced them that the best course of action was to stop drinking kombucha – either store bought or brewed themselves.
Given the devastating health effects that fluoride can wreak, particularly on growing children, they are certainly right to be troubled about the potential for excessive fluoride exposure from kombucha, a traditional Russian drink made from fermenting plain black tea (or a combination of black and green tea) and sugar.
The Fluoride Action Network lists black and green tea consumption as the sixth top reason for fluoride overexposure. Consumption of fluoridated water is #1. The reason is because the leaves of the tea plant tend to accumulate high levels of fluoride which they take up from the soil. Excessive intake of tea, particularly bottled or instant tea, has been known to cause a painful bone disease called skeletal fluorosis.
The cause of widespread fluorosis in cattle in Central Florida in decades past resulted from the creation of phosphate plants in the 1940′s.
Raw phosphate contains high concentrations of fluoride estimated between 20,000 and 40,000 parts per million or 2-4% of the ore.
When raw phosphate ore is processed into water-soluble phosphate via chemical reaction with sulfuric acid, large amounts of fluoride are vaporized into the air which can contaminate surrounding land with toxic fluoride in the form of hydrogen fluoride and silicon tetrafluoride.
As a result of the land contamination from the phosphate industry, the cattle population of Polk County, Florida dropped by 30,000 between 1953 and 1960. Farmers fearing for the health of their herds caused an estimated 150,000 acres of cattle land to be abandoned.
According to the former President of the Polk County Cattlemen’s Association:
“Around 1953 we noticed a change in our cattle… We watched our cattle become gaunt and starved, their legs became deformed; they lost their teeth. Reproduction fell off and when a cow did have a calf, it was also affected by this malady or was a stillborn.”
With one of phosphate’s primary uses being the production of commercial fertilizers, the possibility of fluoride residues being absorbed by commercial tea crops being repeatedly treated with phosphate based fertilizers is a very real concern. It is already known that dairy cattle can suffer the effects of severe fluorosis simply through use of mineral supplements made using mined phosphate.
In addition, commercial crops are treated with an array of pesticides and herbicides, 150 of which include fluoride according to the Organic Consumers Association. The category ”Fluorine Insecticides” include Cryolite, Barium hexafluorosilicate, Sodium hexafluorosilicate, Sodium fluoride, and Sulfluramid and the herbicides Trifluralin, Fluometuron and Benefin (Befluralin) (EPA, Aug 97).
Is Organic Tea Any Safer?
With the potential for high levels of fluoride in the soil and uptake by commercially grown tea plants, it seems best to avoid drinking commercially grown tea as much as possible.
What about organic tea?
While studies on fluoride levels in organic tea are sparse, the results are very encouraging. In tests performed on organic tea by the Weston A. Price Foundation, levels of fluoride in organic tea were found to be very low compared with commercial tea and even lower in kombucha brewed with organic tea.
According to the USDA, commercial black tea was found to contain fluoride at levels of 3.37 parts per million (ppm) in 2005.
Tests on organic tea made with filtered water by the Weston A. Price Foundation found fluoride levels nearly 75% lower at .94 ppm and even lower in kombucha brewed with organic tea (.9 ppm). The testing was performed by Soil Control Lab, Watsonville, CA.
These results suggest that fermentation of the sugar tea water into kombucha may potentially remove some of the fluoride from the tea perhaps via absorption from the kombucha culture itself.
How Does Kombucha Compare with Fluoridated Water?
Probably this statement from the Orawellness article generated the most concern:
“One 16 ounce serving of kombucha can contain as much fluoride as 6 gallons of fluoridated water.”
I’m comfortable challenging this conclusion in that the article only addressed the worst of all possible scenarios and did not include available data on organic tea. I’d like to provide some balance by providing you with a simple layout of the Orawellness data contrasted with a best case scenario using data on fluoride in organic tea published by the Weston A. Price Foundation.
In summary, the worst case scenario of 200 mg of fluoride per gallon of kombucha estimated by OraWellness translates to 25 mg of fluoride per 16 oz serving. While this is indeed high, two other sources measured significantly less even when commercial tea was used.
The Weston A. Price Foundation measured an even smaller amount of fluoride when organic black tea was used to brew the kombucha.
So does a 16 oz serving of kombucha contain as much fluoride as 6 gallons of fluoridated water?
No, not if organic black tea is used.
And, if organic white tea is used, the already low levels of fluoride are reduced even further as white tea is made up of the buds and very young leaves of the tea plant and contain less fluoride than even organic green or black tea.
Strategies for Consuming Kombucha Safely
The Fluoride Action Network says that the ideal goal of consuming tea safely without excessive levels of fluoride is an attainable objective.
The key is for consumers who drink tea and fermented teas like kombucha to be aware of how to source and brew these healthful beverages. This is not such a different task than learning to source quality meats, vegetables or dairy.
With enjoyment of the many anti-oxidant, enzymatic, and probiotic properties of fermented kombucha tea while minimizing excessive fluoride exposure the goal, here are ways to brew your kombucha and drink it too:
- Source high quality organic tea. It is important to avoid commercial tea grown with the use of pesticides, herbicides and commercial fertilizers that contain potentially high levels of toxic fluoride from industrial waste sources. Tea grown organically will only take up natural fluoride present in the soil which will be at much lower levels. Traditional cultures have consumed tea and kombucha grown in organic soil where the natural fluoride is in balance with other minerals for hundreds of years safely and with no ill-effect.
- Consider using mostly organic white tea. Older tea leaves not only contain less anti-oxidants but they also contain up to 20X more fluoride! Making kombucha with higher quality, young tea leaves will boost the health effects of the fermented tea while also minimizing fluoride. White tea is made with the leaves and buds of the tea plant and would be the highest quality of all and also lowest in fluoride. In my experience, approximately 20% of the tea used to make kombucha needs to be black tea to achieve optimal fermentation, so using a small amount of high quality organic black tea with the rest organic white tea and filtered water would be a very low fluoride strategy. Click here for the brand I use.
- Check the country of origin where your tea was grown. The World Health Organization lists areas of the world where the groundwater is naturally high in fluoride such that it affects the fluoride levels of crops. These areas include large parts of Africa, China, the Middle East and southern Asia (India, Sri Lanka). If you aren’t sure of the source of your tea, call the company and ask and only buy from areas where the tea is not grown in a known fluoride belt.
- Steep your tea water for no longer than 10 minutes. Longer steeping times appear to increase the fluoride content of the tea water. The minimum time for steeping is 5-10 minutes in my experience, so set the timer and remove the tea from the tea water immediately when time is up.
- Avoid bottled kombucha from the store. There is no way to know if the kombucha purchased at the store is made with high quality, young tea leaves or not. Most likely it was not as older tea leaves are cheaper than young ones. In addition, it is unknown how long the tea was steeped in the sugar water. As a result, it is best to make your own kombucha where you can control the quality and reserve the bottled kombucha for an infrequent occasion.
- Use only nonfluoridated water for making kombucha. This recommendation goes without saying, but I have come across people who make kombucha with tap water that is filtered with a device that does not remove fluoride, so it bears mentioning.
- Maximize fermentation time. Ferment your kombucha as long as possible as it seems likely from early test results that the fermentation process itself removes some of the fluoride from the tea. The suggested time for fermentation is 7-10 days under home temperatures between 65-80F, so opt for a longer fermentation time rather than a shorter cycle. Longer fermentation results in a stronger drink, but you can dilute with a bit of filtered water or bubbly spring water if necessary to cut the taste.
- Drink kombucha in moderation. Drinking kombucha with abandon is not a good idea. I personally do not allow my children to drink more than 8 oz per day. I myself do not drink more than 12-16 oz per day. Even healthy beverages should not be consumed to excess. Addiction to any food or drink even a beneficial one that has been consumed for generations by traditional cultures is not a healthful practice. Also, remember that fluorosis from tea has only been found in excessive tea drinkers, with bottled and instant the absolute worst likely because old, low quality, commercial tea leaves were used.
- Learn to make other fermented beverages. Kombucha is not the only game in town when it comes to fermented beverages. Water kefir, beet kvass, fermented lemonade, orangeade, and ginger beer are just a few of the others. Learn to make other healthful beverages that your family will enjoy and then you won’t be dependent on just drinking kombucha for the probiotic and enzymatic benefits it confers.
I will stay abreast of any further testing on the amount of fluoride in various types of tea and kombucha as it becomes available. For now, I consider home brewed kombucha made with organic tea to be an extremely safe beverage. The benefits of kombucha far outweigh any risks from fluoride provided proper precautions to source high quality tea and brew it properly are taken.
Want to learn to make kombucha? Click here for two beginner and two advanced videos on this healthful and delicious traditional beverage.
Sarah, The Healthy Home Economist