It’s almost impossible to shop in a health food store or even your neighborhood grocery store and not notice kombucha. It’s the strange-sounding drink that is popping up everywhere. While it may seem like a fad, kombucha indeed appears to be having more than 15 minutes of fame, and for good reason!
The favorite tea-based drink is one of those love it or leave it elixirs. Fans brag about the impressive health benefits, including the most notable—it’s a natural probiotic, providing gut health-loving “good bacteria.” Those who are in the “leave it” category have strong reactions to kombucha’s acidic, often sour or vinegary taste (although there are tons of flavored fruity versions to try), and have a hard time getting past it.
What Is Kombucha?
Kombucha tea is made from bacteria and yeast, green or black tea, and sugar. It has a distinct vinegar smell and has been described as tasting like rotten apple cider or fizzy tart apples. A starter “mother culture” of the yeast and bacteria is combined with black or green tea and allowed to ferment for 10 to 14 days at room temperature (70-75 °F).
This symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast is commonly known as a SCOBY, which other sources call symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. You may have heard it referred to as tea fungus because it resembles a mushroom. Rest assured, it is entirely unrelated to fungi in nearly every way.
During fermentation, a thin layer of bacteria forms on top. After fermentation is complete, this layer of bacteria is scooped out and used to start another brew. What’s left below is a fermented tea known as kombucha.
A Brief History of Kombucha
Kombucha brewing dates back 2,000 years to China, where kombucha was consumed as a common remedy to ward off every health malady from cancer to arthritis. It was believed to promote healing as a home remedy for conditions such as acne, fatigue, constipation, headaches, and even high blood sugar levels and high blood pressure.
Kombucha Health Benefits
Modern-day fermented foods such as kefir, sauerkraut, kimchi, and kombucha are believed to provide much needed healthy gut bacteria. Kombucha probiotics contain good bacteria that can help enhance immune function and fight the common cold, lower cholesterol, and alleviate symptoms from digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome and diarrhea.
Kombucha also contains health-promoting enzymes, amino acids, polyphenols and organic acids.
Kombucha benefits are impressive, but when looking for definitive proof, we’re limited to animal studies. These studies show promising results, and anecdotal evidence supports similar effects in humans.
A study conducted in the early 2000s and published in Food Research International showed that kombucha can stimulate the immune system in a way that can improve resistance to certain cancers, reduce inflammation, promote digestive health, and prevent various types of heart disease.
Furthermore, in a study published in the journal Biomedicine and Preventive Nutrition, scientists found that kombucha had a direct effect on downregulating prostate cancer cells, leading researchers to believe that kombucha could be a potent preventative and complementary treatment for prostate cancer.
Kombucha also contains antimicrobial and antioxidant-rich phytochemicals and phytonutrients that have been shown to promote healthy liver and kidney function, as found in this study featured in the US National Library of Medicine. Another study featured in the same organization found that kombucha can reduce complications from diabetes in diabetic laboratory rats.
Kombucha is also rich in folic acid and B vitamins, which are essential for helping the body produce and maintain new healthy cells.
DIY Kombucha is relatively easy to make, although it comes with some food safety warnings if you dare. Homemade kombucha requires tea, sugar, and an active starter of yeast and bacteria.
Cautionary warnings of brewing kombucha at home stem from fermenting it in uncontrolled and unsanitary environments. Without being able to control the air surrounding the bacteria that’s growing (and which needs to have access to fresh air) the drink can quickly become contaminated and lead to many unpleasant side effects including an upset stomach or other allergic reactions, and in one documented case, even death.
Making kombucha tea in a ceramic pot is never advised, as the acids draw the lead out of the glaze and can contaminate the tea with dangerous toxins.
If you’re curious about kombucha, stick to the store-bought brands and consider avoiding home brewing, especially at first and mainly if you cannot guarantee a sound environment free of potentially harmful ingredients seeping into your brew.
If you’re determined to make kombucha at home, then check out this awesome video from Brothers Green Eats that shows how to make kombucha.
Additional Caution for Kombucha
Kombucha is naturally alcoholic due to the fermentation process (which is similar to how wine and beer are made). The alcohol content is and continues to be a concern. In fact, in 2010 Whole Foods reportedly pulled some brands of kombucha from their shelves, concerned that the alcohol content listed in the ingredients was much higher than claimed.
It’s common for most store brews to contain less than 0.5% alcohol by volume (or ABV). Kombucha that contains up to 3% alcohol is considered an alcoholic beverage and only sold to those legally able to purchase alcohol. While getting buzzed off of kombucha is certainly possible it’s extremely rare (and not recommended).
It’s also worth noting that while the original batch of kombucha is often made with a significant amount of sugar, this sugar is almost entirely burned off during the fermentation process, leaving kombucha naturally low in sugar with a nice pop of carbonation—a great alternative to soda and other bottled teas and lemonades.
Kombucha manufacturers typically disguise the taste of kombucha with fruit juices, but be wary of kombucha that lists more than 5 grams of sugar, or any additional added ingredients, particularly those you may not recognize or that may be difficult to pronounce. These are likely added after the fermentation process and can dilute the real health benefits of the kombucha.
You Can Drink Too Much Kombucha
Kombucha is rich in lactic acid believed to cause lactic acidosis in some people. Lactic acidosis is a result of excess lactic acid in the bloodstream that can be life-threatening. However, if you’re not drinking multiple bottles of kombucha a day, then you should be okay. It is always recommended to consult with your health care provider before consuming any new products intended to promote positive health benefits.
Kombucha Is Not a Caffeine Replacement
Kombucha tea does not contain a significant amount of caffeine; in fact, it’s pretty low. Most store-bought kombucha contains anywhere from 2 to 25 mg of caffeine, which is far less than the amount of caffeine found in a cup of coffee (95 mg). However, if you do have caffeine sensitivities, consider other drink alternatives as there is indeed enough to affect you.
It’s no question that the health benefits of kombucha are worth exploring. Start by trying out a few different brands or asking your grocer for recommendations. You can also sometimes find fresh brewed kombucha of different flavorings at your local health food stores, restaurants, and cafes.
If, however, the taste is still displeasing, or if you’re interested in switching up your kombucha delivery method, check out this delicious Kombucha Smoothie Bowl as an alternative kombucha recipe. It contains bananas, berries, and heart-healthy coconut oil, making it a sweeter and, in some ways, an easier kombucha to swallow.