Today's Q & A is one of my own questions. I've had it since I began making Kombucha.
“Since honey has anti-microbial properties, can one use it in fermented beverages and fermented foods? Or will it kill the mother culture?”
The Story Behind The Question
When I first started making Kombucha, I experimented with different sweeteners. I combined different amounts of honey, molasses and agave. (I no longer use agave — read Agave Syrup: Good or Bad?) The experimenting was fun and we enjoyed trying the different flavors. My scobys survived it all.
Then someone commented saying that I should not use honey because of its anti-microbial properties; it would kill the scoby (recommended source) over time. Oh. I searched the internet and found some other references to this, so I edited my recipe to say that I didn't recommend using honey for that reason. And I no longer used honey.
Then canyonwren chimed in with:
“Hi, I just found your place, looking for a recipe for kombucha, make with honey.
I saw that you were doing that then quit because someone thought it might kill the scoby. I note that it did not kill it when you were using it, and I used to make it with honey, but lost my starter and recipe, hence my search on the web.
What I wanted to mention to you is that perhaps honey is not “antimicrobial” in its own right. It is a very thick sugar solution, and the concentration of sugars may be what gives honey its antimicrobial and humectant properties. Once diluted, it is not likely to be antimicrobial…
Think for a moment of fruit leather, or dried fruit. It does not mold or rot, and that is because the natural sugars are at a high enough concentration to make it a hostile environment for microorganisms.
I think you should feel safe in using honey, and if you were to keep one or two of your jars going with honey kombucha, you would not be risking all…”
I really liked canyonwren's logic. I've been thinking about it ever since, though still not changing my overall recommendation.
Yesterday, I was reading in Sandor Katz's Wild Fermentation. I don't know why this passage didn't catch my eye before; perhaps I wasn't ready to hear it.
“When by chance honey is mixed with water, fermentation happens. Yeasts surfing through the air aboard particles of dust find their way to that sweet, nutritive honey-water. When the honey is pure, it acts as a preservative and inhibits microscopic life. But honey diluted with water becomes a stimulating medium for airborne yeast to land in, feast upon, and reproduce exponentially, bubbling and vividly alive.”
So, you be the judge. For me, I'm going back to using honey now and then without fearing an ill effect on the mother culture. I will always dilute it, not using it straight and pure.
What About White Sugar?
This is a side issue, but a question you might likely have. You might wonder why I don't use white sugar for making Kombucha, as Sally Fallon Morell recommends in Nourishing Traditions. She wrote that when consuming white sugar, the scoby produces more glucuronic acid (a powerful cleanser). Rapadura and honey work as well, but the glucoronic acid produced is less. Whether or not white sugar produces more beneficial compounds, I prefer traditional sweeteners. If Kombucha is a traditional fermented beverage, then my choice is to use a traditional sweetener – white sugar is not that.
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