Kefir and kombucha unbottled: Industry experts talk gut microbes, health claims, and bubbling growth
Gut health is arousing interest from the food and beverage industry. While the main focus is on digestive health, Euromonitor International suggests it goes beyond consumers’ physical health to tap into mental wellbeing via the ‘gut-brain axis’.
“Many consumers now discover the health benefits of fermented products such as kefir and kombucha,” noted the market research provider in a 2019 report. “Sales of such products have exploded in markets such as the US, Australia and the UK and are expected to debut in other markets.”
Indeed, the kombucha industry is seeing continued 30% growth in the natural channel and at least 50% growth in the conventional channel year after year. As a result, the product – made by fermenting sweet tea with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) – is regarded the fastest growing functional beverage category.
Kefir, a milk drink fermented with kefir grains, is similarly on an upwards trajectory. According to Fortune Business Insights, the global market was valued at $1.23bn in 2019 and is projected to reach $1.84bn by 2027.
As fermented food naturally contains good bacteria, both kefir and kombucha are thought to help increase the absorption of nutrients, detoxify, and reduce inflammation. Their benefits are touted to range from digestive health and immune support.
Do consumers understand the health benefits of these two effervescent beverages? Could more be done to improve awareness surrounding the importance of gut health? And what changes should we expect to see in these industries over the next five years?
FoodNavigator catches up with Hannah Crum, president and co-founder of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), and Natasha Bowes, founder of Biotiful Dairy, to find out.
Understanding the goodness of kefir: ‘Brits remain in the dark’
UK kefir start-up Biotiful Dairy was founded in 2012 by Russian-born Natasha Bowes. Today, the brand is the fastest growing in yogurts and milk drinks at 85% in the last two years, according to market research firm IRI.
“At Biotiful, we follow the ancient, natural recipe of making kefir,” Bowes explained. “Our Original Kefir is simply British milk and unique Biotiful Kefir cultures, and to make our flavoured kefir we add natural fruit purée with no preservatives.”
Kefir is more easily digested than regular, unfermented milk, suggested the Biotiful founder. “Fermented foods made with live cultures, such as kefir, give your body a dose of gut-friendly bacteria that are crucial to healthy digestion.
“The kefir cultures break down the lactose sugars in the milk during the fermentation process, making kefir low in lactose, which is usually the main cause of people’s discomfort when consuming dairy.”
The fermentation process also ‘pre-digests’ milk proteins for consumers, Bowes elaborated, making the essential minerals from the milk and vitamins from the culture ‘so much easier’ to absorb than ‘from any supplement’.
But do consumers understand these benefits? Bowes believes there is room for increased consumer education.
“This year we have seen unprecedented consumer demand for Biotiful kefir due to additional health concerns,” she told this publication. According to OnePoll research, 60% of consumers admit they are more concerned than ever before about their immunity and gut health.
“Given the macro trend for healthy products, 73% of UK consumers are buying more products with immunity & functional health benefits, like gut health,” she continued, citing Mintel data, “something that Biotiful delivers naturally”.
However, the OnePoll survey also indicated that Brits remain in the dark when it comes to the important role gut plays in our health. “Just 7% of people realise that over 70% of the immune system is located in the gut, with people thinking, on average, it’s just 35%.
“So, whilst the research shows that Brits are more concerned about gut health than ever before, there is still an education job to do on gut health, with nearly a quarter of us (23%) not knowing how to support the gut.”
Kombucha benefits travelling by word of mouth
For KBI president Crum, consumer understanding of the health benefits of fermented tea beverage kombucha is spreading.
“We didn’t see a lot of paid marketing in the first several decades of its rapid growth, which speaks to the consumer drive for healthier, functional products,” she told this publication. Rather, word of mouth has been the ‘number one advertisement’ for the kombucha industry.
“Many people with first-hand experiences of how it makes them feel better are eager to tell their friends and flock to social media to gush about their newest discovery.”
In fact, Crum said the most compelling reason behind new kombucha producers’ entry into the sector is because the product had ‘such a meaningful impact’ on their health and lives. “People have found themselves free of serious digestive issues for the first time, or they have had some other health issue unexpectedly resolved.”
One reason health benefits associated with kombucha is travelling by word of mouth, at least in the US where KBI is headquartered, could be associated with label restrictions on health claims.
“In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not allow claims on food products unless they can be substantiated. Moreover, those laws carryover to social media and websites - anywhere that the producer discusses the food item. Testimonials are typically banned as they are not considered evidence,” she explained.
“And food is never permitted to be considered a ‘cure’ or it would need to be classified as a supplement or drug. It's one of the many ways in which our government panders to Big Pharma and prevents consumer awareness of nature’s medicine chest. Even the word ‘probiotics’ is being ‘pharmaceuticalized’ and weaponized via predatory lawsuits so that only certain strains with specific behaviours, usually patented and only generated in a lab, are acceptable completely ignoring the thousands of years humans have relied on fermented foods for living nutrients and microbes.”
Elsewhere, in Europe and Canada, space on the label is ‘even more limited’, we were told, due to laws requiring translation into multiple languages.
However, the KBI chief is encouraged there are ‘many ways’ producers can promote the benefits of kombucha in a way consumers understanding, such as via taglines and descriptions on the label. Baltimore-based kombucha producers HEX Ferments, for example, uses the slogan ‘Go with your gut!’. “I think [this] is a great example of how to speak to its effects in an accessible way,” said Crum.
“We see QR codes as a great tool in the near-future as consumers become more comfortable using them.”
Crum suggested taste testing in retail is another way brands can help spread the word about kombucha and its health benefits.
“Producers can easily speak to the general nature of kombucha without claiming to cure anything. Many brewers speak about supporting gut health and immunity on their labels, but more important is building the reputation of their brand within the community, tabling at grocery stores to let people try it and decide for themselves. Nothing beats customer experience.”
Building consumer awareness
To increase consumer awareness and education surrounding the health benefits of kombucha, KBI is ‘spearheading’ a number of initiatives.
“One of our most crucial initiatives is our ‘Protect Raw Kombucha’ campaign in the US,” Crum revealed. The campaign aims to strength the message to US government representatives that access to raw, living kombucha is a vital priority to the health and wellbeing of their constituents. “It updates outdated laws that don’t reflect the laws of nature and harmonize with our cultural counterparts across the globe.”
And in 2022, KBI will launch the Kombucha Seal Program. Built on the Kombucha Code of Practice, the seal aims to create transparency for consumers to help them make informed decisions about which kombucha products are best for them.
“Like an organic or kosher seal, symbols of integrity are sought out by consumers and retailers alike as it eases the communication burden about which products adhere to specific quality standards. As consumers have positive experiences drinking or learning about kombucha, they’re likely to spread that information through word of mouth and social media,” the KBI chief explained.
In the UK, Biotiful Dairy is working on building brand awareness. Specifically, the company is campaigning for consumers to ‘upgrade their breakfast’ with kefir.
“Breakfast is the perfect meal to support gut health, naturally and with no added sugar…” Bowes told this publication.
“In addition, Biotiful has been working with a range of credible brand ambassadors and healthy influences to create digital content around the importance of breakfast, and the benefits of incorporating kefir for a healthy gut.”
Improved consumer awareness is much needed, the founder suggested. That same OnePoll study revealed concern about gut health is soaring, with over 80% of UK consumers admitting to suffering from gut health related issues.
“In fact, nearly one in five of us say our life is negatively affected by gut health related issues, with nearly a third of Brits suffering in silence.”
‘Kombucha industry shows no signs of slowing down’
So where to next? Today’s ‘thriving’ kombucha industry, according to Crum, is showing no signs of slowing down.
“It continues to grow at a rate of nearly 20% CAGR, estimated to hit $8.5bn by 2028, and we are still seeing more demand than most producers have the capacity to accommodate.”
Even so, there is plenty of room for growth and innovation, the KBI president suggested. Novel product offerings in the form of ‘exciting ingredients’ such as adaptogens and premium teas - as well as ‘healthy’ alcoholic offerings like hard kombucha – are just a few ways brewers are adapting their product for new markets, she continued.
“The pandemic also created the need to connect directly with the consumer and we anticipate that subscription models, kegerator rentals and other innovative outlets will continue to proliferate.”
Concerning regional growth, KBI has observed the strongest growth in the US – specifically in the southern states, where kombucha is bridging ‘tradition with messaging and branding’ for Gen Y and Z consumers.
In Europe and the UK, kombucha is entering the restaurant and pub scene, and in South America, growth is steady. “Dealing with local governments [in South America] to help them understand the safety aspects of the raw product has been challenging, and some countries require pasteurisation,” she elaborated.
Another challenge has presented itself in Australia, where the largest producers are ‘churning out shelf-stable products without transparent labelling’, Crum revealed. As a result, there’s been ‘a bit of a challenge’ helping consumers understand how kombucha differs from soda.
And finally, Asia and Africa have been slower to adopt the beverage – at least outside of the largest cities. “Yet, we hear of more and more brands popping up in those regions all the time.
“Customising kombucha to match local flavour preferences and dealing with the lack of cold supply chain continue to be the most difficult hurdles to surmount.”