Despite labels on bottles of Kombucha or Kumbucha drinks displaying that they are non-alcoholic beverages, independent laboratory analyses found samples of the purported ‘health’ drinks with alcoholic contents as high as 8.0 percent.
We collected three samples from three different manufacturers of Ginger Kumbucha or Kombucha by Central Region-based companies and Kombucha Divide imported from Zambia.
We took the samples to the Malawi University of Business and Applied Sciences (Mubas) laboratory in Blantyre for independent testing and analysis.
According to Mubas results of the tested samples, one Health Kumbucha showed a 7.35 percent alcoholic content while Kombucha Ginger had 5.09 percent alcoholic content instead of the 0.005 percent indicated on the stickers.
On the other hand, the results showed that Kombucha Divide imported from Zambia had 8.02 percent alcoholic content.
Our investigations, therefore, found that some of the Kombucha or Kumbucha health drinks on the market have higher alcoholic content than Castel Malawi Limited products such as Carlsberg Green, Castel and Kuchekuche beers.
With the Malawi Bureau of Standards (MBS) defining a non-alcoholic drink as having less than 0.5 percent alcoholic content, the findings expose some teetotalers to unknowingly taking more alcohol through the drinks.
Though manufacturers of the drinks were elusive on their products’ alcoholic content in view of the analysis, the Competition and Fair Trading Act, however, stipulates that any conduct likely to mislead the public on a product attracts a fine or even a prison sentence.
Responding to questionnaires, both MBS and Competition and Fair Trading Commission (CFTC) said false claims of the products’ contents are punishable by laws.
In her response, MBS director of quality assurance Praise Mereka said the bureau is aware of the likelihood that the alcoholic content of the products in question could be different from what is declared on the label.
She said currently there is no Malawi standard applicable to Kombucha or Kumbucha and the bureau’s assessments only focus on safety parameters such as “microbiology, contaminants and labelling, including the declaration of the alcohol content.”
Said Mereka: “Currently, development of a specific standard for this product [kumbucha/kombocha] was initiated which once ready for use, shall help address this gap.
“Introduction of products on the market is subject to certification by the MBS as provided by the MBS Act. Once a specific product standard is developed and ready for use, assessment of alcohol content shall form part of the criteria used for making certification decisions for this product.”
In an interview on Thursday, Ministry of Trade and Industrial Principal Secretary Christina Zakeyu said MBS is the right institution to comment on the matter.
Asked in an interview last Wednesday how the companies measure the products’ actual contents to ensure they match with what is declared on the label, one of the manufacturers’ general manager could not give details on the matter.
“Okay, I will call you tomorrow [Thursday]. I will talk to my team and I will tell you,” he said.
But efforts to speak to him on Thursday proved futile as the phone could not be reached on several attempts.
On the other hand, another Central Region-based manufacturer official refused to give details through mobile phone.
CFTC spokesperson Innocent Helema said the commission will institute independent investigations to substantiate the actual alcoholic content of the said health drinks.
He said the Competition and Fair Trading Act (CFTA) prohibits enterprises from engaging in conduct that is likely to mislead the public “as to the nature, price, availability, characteristics, suitability for a given purpose, quantity or quality of any products or services.
“Any person who violates this provision is liable to a fine and also the requisite products are not expected to continue being sold to consumers,” said Helema.
Section 51 of CFTA states that “A person guilty of an offence under this Act for which no specific penalty is provided shall be liable to a fine of K500 000 or of an amount equivalent to the financial gain generated by the offence, if such amount be greater and to imprisonment for five years.”
Among others, one of the ginger health drink claims to help those with stroke and kidney problems, prevents cancer and diabetes, improves eyesight and reduces high blood pressure.
In an interview Thursday, Kamuzu University of Health Sciences lecturer in the department of Pharmacy Dr. John Mponda said the products in question need to be vetted to substantiate their claims.
He noted that most of the herbals, including drinks claimed to be healthy, are not controlled and that some traders may add some conventional medicines which are harmful.
Said Mponda: “They can add viagra in there, but they can’t declare it on the label. So, people consuming products they are not sure of what they contain is harmful because you don’t know what it will do to the liver, kidney and even the brain.”
In a separate interview, Malawi University of Science and Technology senior lecturer in medicinal chemistry Dr. Andrew Mtewa noted that it is dangerous to consume alcohol unknowingly for both patients and healthy people.
He noted that a high amount of alcohol intake generally compromises people’s thinking capacity and causes anxiety.
Said Mtewa: “So, if a patient is consuming alcohol knowingly or unknowingly, the alcohol is capable of interacting with the medical drug that the patient is taking. Sometimes the alcohol enhances the activity of that particular drug.
“So that has a danger to a patient in a way that you are increasing the drug effect to the patient when the body is expected to have a lower effect. These can lead to situations that are similar to drug overdose.”
Consumers Association of Malawi executive director John Kapito expressed shock that some products provide misleading information to consumers.
He observed that the Kumbucha/Kombucha case can be a tip of the iceberg as there might be products that provide false information on the cover and he asked both MBS and CFTC to ensure that consumers are protected.
A lawyer, who spoke on condition of anonymity, claimed that he was once fined K50 000 by Traffic Police after a breathalyzer showed intake of more than recommended alcohol, yet he had drunk two bottles of Kombucha Ginger juice.