This has to be one of the most controversial elements in lacto-fermenting – and one with the MOST misinformation. There is a ton of information out there which simply is not true, or is skewed, taken out of content, or badly misunderstood. It is my goal to clarify some of the points regarding alcohol in lacto-fermented foods.
First, there is a difference between foods that CONTAIN undetectible amounts of alcohol, and those that are ALCOHOLIC. The difference is simple… Alcoholic foods are those which can potentially produce INTOXICATION. This difference is vital in understanding alcohol in lacto-fermented foods.
We are not concerned with foods that “contain alcohol”. All ferments do. But the amount in many kinds is so low that it is no more than contained in a ripe apple (yeah, a lot of natural foods contain similar minute amounts of alcohol, and they are not of any concern). The goal is not, and never was, the elimination of alcohol. It is the avoidance of intoxication and damage from alcoholic beverages and foods for those who need or wish to avoid it.
This is NOT simply a matter of choice. There are strong reasons why you NEED to know whether your lacto-fermented foods contain significant amounts of alcohol.
1. Children. I put this first, because if you give your children alcoholic foods, you just invited the state to remove them from your home. I am constantly both shocked, and outraged at the number of people who give their children alcoholic lacto-fermented beverages casually, telling themselves it is “healthy”, and either KNOWING they contain significant alcohol and disregarding it, or who do it out of sheer ignorance. There are accounts online of people who have had bad experiences with this – a child testing positive for high blood alcohol at the emergency room, for example, after drinking several glasses of water kefir over the course of a day. You NEED to know. And you NEED to take it seriously if you care about your children and want to keep the privilege of parenting them yourself! It’s like seatbelts in the car, folks. You do it because you love your kids!
2. Medication. Many medications react poorly with alcohol. It may either increase, or decrease the effectiveness of medications, and either reaction may be deadly.
3. Alcoholism. If you have friends or family who struggle with this issue, you do NOT want to accidentally make it harder for them to stay sober. If you have alcoholism in your family line and avoid alcohol for that reason, you need to know how to keep from triggering negative affects in yourself.
4. Religious Beliefs. Many religions have restrictions regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages and foods. Your friends or family who espouse one of these religious beliefs will be grateful if you are considerate and do not gift them with, or serve foods with significant alcohol content without warning them of the content.
5. Intoxication. Yeah, you really CAN get drunk on some of this stuff! You may find it difficult to defend yourself in court on a DUI or public intoxication charge. Frankly, they just are not going to believe that you did not know that those fizzy bubbles in your kombucha meant it had alcohol in it!
6. Pregnancy. The affects of alcohol on the developing brain and body range from invisible (difficulty with complex problem solving, difficulty making choices, difficulty with moral choices, difficulty understanding cause and effect, poor emotional control, behavioral and mood disorders, etc), to the catastrophic (anancephaly, microcephaly, hydranencephaly, and other disorders caused by failure of large portions of the brain to develop in utero, as well as various physical anomalies). Fetal Alcohol Effect or Syndrome are not just problems of binge drinkers and alcoholics – damage may result from the TIMING of the ingestion of alcohol as much as from the AMOUNT or FREQUENCY. There are some times during the development of a fetus when the baby is just more vulnerable to environmental insult than at other times, and at those times, it may take only a small amount to do great damage. Many of these effects ARE genetically inheritable, so it can take many generations for them to fade in a family line. Most women want better than that for their babies. If you are pregnant, or offering fermented foods to someone who is, PLEASE take this seriously. That baby has no choice in this, and deserves the best possible care before and after birth.
I’ll state right off the bat that I do not have alcohol percentages on various lacto-fermented foods (other than rootbeer and ginger ale given later) – and anyone who does know has not been disposed to publishing any reliable numbers. What I do have is a body of experience, facts, and some guidelines to help you to determine what lacto-fermented foods may be alcoholic, and which are not.
For the record… I’m a Mormon. It is against our beliefs to consume any kind of alcoholic substances (the wording of our health guidelines actually state that we should avoid “strong drink”, interpreted as ALCOHOLIC – there is no prohibition of alcohol in minute, non-alcoholic amounts). All my life I’ve been trained to recognize and avoid anything with significant amounts of alcohol. Whereas many people who drink alcohol and enjoy doing so will miss the signs of alcohol content in a food or drink, I do not. Since it is an anomaly in my life, I am very sensitive to it.
The first thing we need to understand is Sugar. And an ABSOLUTE RULE concerning it!
IF YOUR FERMENT HAS SUGAR, OR A HIGH CONTENT OF CARBOHYDRATES THAT EASILY CONVERT TO SUGAR, IT WILL PRODUCE SIGNIFICANT AMOUNTS OF ALCOHOL!
This means, the following items will ALWAYS produce significant amounts of alcohol, and have a high probability of producing an alcoholic food or beverage:
- Fruit, including tomatoes and sour fruits. (This includes any ferment with fruit, or fruit juices, and salsa with tomatoes.)
- ANY liquid with added sugar, honey, molasses, fructose, agave, or other carbohydrate based sugars. (Kombucha, fermented sodas, water kefir, etc.)
- Starchy vegetables (including squash and potatoes, and others).
- Milk (though not all fermented milk products are alcoholic).
NON STARCHY VEGETABLES DO NOT PRODUCE SIGNIFICANT ALCOHOL – pickles are non-alcoholic, unless you add sugar to the brine (NOT recommended anyway!).
Now, at about this point, about half of the people reading this are going to get very angry with me, and discount everything here, simply because they do not wish to believe what I am saying. They will resort to Kelly the Kitchen Kop and quote her infamous experiment where she heated the liquids before measuring the content… the problem being that heat causes alcohol to evaporate, completely nullifying the validity of her results! Scientific fact, people!
To those people, I say this: If your life possesses so little value to you that you do not wish to know whether your homemade foods may affect your life in unpredictable ways, if your children mean so little to you that you are willing to risk their removal from your home, and if your friends and family who need to avoid alcohol (there ARE some, there always are!) count for so little in your esteem, then go your merry way. Life will catch up with you, and I wish you all the best with it.
For those who want to know, read on. There are two more rules that can help you to know, and some information about fermenting milk and avoiding alcoholic content, as well as some info on alcohol and fermenting methods.
So how do you know if you have something with an excess of alcohol?
1. Trust your nose. If you have the ability to smell alcohol, trust it! Now, it is important to point out that many people have LOST this ability, typically through frequent consumption of alcohol, but sometimes for other reasons. But if you make something that smells boozy, it IS. Many alcoholic fermented foods will have a yeasty smell also.
2. Watch for fizzies. We are very conditioned in our society to think of fizzy bubbles as the result of “carbonation”, and to think it a harmless thing. NON ALCOHOLIC BEVERAGES DO NOT HOLD CARBONATION! You do realize that soda pops only retain carbonation when the cap is on, and the liquid is under pressure. As soon as the top is opened, the bubbles start rising, and will quickly result in a flat soda. Now, fermenting causes the release of carbon dioxide, so it is correctly named here, but when there is no significant alcohol in the ferment, the bubbles will do EXACTLY what they do in soda pop – they will rise to the surface and escape (evidence – your pickles are not bubbly, and they are not alcoholic). A higher alcohol content causes tiny bubbles of carbon dioxide to remain suspended in the liquid. The carbonation associated with soda pop is a coarse large bubble feel on the tongue. The carbonation associated with alcoholic beverages is a finer tinier bubble feel on the tongue. If your fermented foods taste tingly, they are potentially intoxicating. Sorry, but that is the fact behind that fizzy feel – it is the evidence of significant amounts of alcohol. More fizz, more alcohol.
So what about yogurt and kefir? Does this necessarily mean that they are alcoholic? Sometimes. Milk DOES have sufficient sugars to produce alcohol, but it usually takes some time to produce enough to be potentially intoxicating.
Yogurt that is fermented just until it sets, and which DOES NOT TASTE FIZZY, is not alcoholic! If it gets to the fizzy point, then YES, it IS alcoholic.
The same is true of Kefir – if you ferment it for a short period of time, and it is not fizzy, then it is not alcoholic. If it is fizzy, then it is! If you produce a fizzy batch, take heart though! There is no need to toss it. Just strain out the grains, take the fizzy kefir and dilute it with more milk, and let it set out for another 8-24 hours until it is thickened but NOT fizzy.
Old fashioned sodas used to be called “beer”. The original Rootbeer and Ginger Ale were EXACTLY that! They were called “beer” and “ale” because they were made in a similar fashion to other beers. Today, we have forgotten that fact, because those two drinks are now made using pressurized carbonation instead of fermentation. While it is true that the alcohol content of these beverages is LOWER than of a true beer, if you make your own fermented Rootbeer, Ginger Ale, or “Soda”, you will be making something that is equivalent to a “light” beer, or a wine spritzer.
US law defines a “non-alcoholic beverage” as one having LESS than .5% alcohol content. According to the majority of sources, fermented rootbeer GENERALLY contains an alcohol content between .5 and 2%, depending on the length of fermentation, but may contain an alcohol content as high as 10% if it is fermented longer (longer ferment, higher alcohol). Fermented Ginger Ale contains a similar amount of alcohol – and it is logical to conclude that other sodas and drinks with similar amounts of sugar (water kefir, kombucha, lemonade, “fruit” soda, and homemade sodas, etc), put to ferment for similar amounts of time, will produce an equivalent alcohol content.
Given that information (which you can easily verify in a 2 minute Google search), there is NO WAY that the risk of alcohol in home fermented sugared beverages can be dismissed lightly. It might be hard for an adult to get drunk on it, but not for a child to do so, and it is still enough to conflict with medications, or get you in trouble over religious restrictions – and it is certainly enough to cause some potentially traumatic harm to a developing fetus if consumed by a pregnant woman.
These drinks USED to be given to children, not because they were alcohol free, but because they had LOWER AMOUNTS of alcohol – but at that time in history people were less educated about the harmful effects of alcohol on the developing brain and body. We know better now.
One other area of confusion on this issue is in regard to fermentation method. There are two statements that you hear regarding this:
1. Open ferments create more alcohol.
2. Closed ferments result in more alcohol.
Actually, in a way, both are true, but in different ways.
1. Open ferments create alcohol more quickly, but they also disperse and convert it to vinegars more quickly.
2. Closed ferments create alcohol a SLIGHT bit slower, but they CONCENTRATE the alcohol, and keep it in the ferment. It does not disperse, and it does not convert to vinegars. Many processes for making alcoholic beverages BEGIN with an open ferment, but an airlock is installed within a few days, to concentrate the alcohol, and this is why.
So… if you are making a food that has some sugar, and needs to pass through an alcoholic stage before finishing as a vinegar, use an open ferment. This is also an option for making tinctures and other items which normally do contain high amounts of alcohol, but which also work well when vinegarized.
You may also begin with a closed ferment, to establish the ferment well, and then change to an open ferment after about 2 weeks. This gives you the best of both for keeping the alcohol content down and converting it to vinegar. I use a closed ferment for my kefir, and it does not go bubbly on me.
Many people will take exception to this information, and even some who know it to be true will be very disappointed that I had to go and point it out. Heck, I’m disappointed myself! I’d LOVE to use water kefir, I’d LOVE to be able to make my own “healthy” soda, and I’d LOVE to be able to make herbal kombucha. But I don’t. Because avoiding intoxicating beverages is important to me, so I follow the rules to keep safely on the non-alcoholic side of fermenting.
The ORIGINAL one-way valve fermenting airlock! Imitation IS the sincerest form of flattery, and we have noticed that our product has been copied by other sellers of fermenting products. Remember, if you see someone else selling a one-way valve airlock for fermenting, THEY copied US, not the other way around! Fermenta Lock is still the only original invention, handmade in the US. If it isn't orange, it isn't the original!
We invented Fermenta Lock, Fermenta Free, and the valve used for Fermenta Fido and other Fermenta Airlock products. We invented Fermenta Dunk Extender. Patents are prohibitively expensive, and designed by the government not to protect the rights of individuals, but to provide another source of revenue and control for the government and lawyers. We are good at what we do. We have endless ideas and endless creativity, and competition does not scare us. Impatient thieves do not scare us - they are too busy taking shortcuts to make a success of it anyway, and they won't want to take the effort to actually MAKE a product and fill orders.
So if you want to copy our idea, go right ahead. If you want to market and sell a competing product, you are welcome to do so, as long as you do not patent our idea - we had it first, and our posts on FaceBook announcing the invention and launch of it will prove that. This idea is officially in the public domain, placed there by us. We will NOT release supply sources, or part names unless you want to buy them - we'll be happy to sell you an instruction kit. If you buy our product, or look at the images and figure it out for yourself, good on you. Compete with us if you like, just don't screw us, and we'll get along just fine. Big companies who might want to screw us may have more money, and more lawyers than we do, but we have more to gain by suing the pants off a big company, and believe me, we will be well motivated to do so if anyone patents our idea and claims it as their own - this is a free idea. Everybody now owns it.
Published June 23, 2012
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