If somebody put down a glass in front of you and said, “Here, drink this combo of bacteria, yeast and sugar, and don’t mind the cloudy, bobbing, alien-looking strands floating in it,” would you drink it?
Probably not. But because of the increasingly-popular kombucha health trend, many people are doing exactly just that.
Not sure what kombucha is? It’s basically fermented tea, and it’s sold at farmer’s markets and stores everywhere, including convenience stores, big-chain grocery stores and of course health food markets. And like the home-brewing beer craze of years ago, the practice of making your own “BOOCH” has taken off.
Does that mean you, too, should make kombucha a regular part of your diet in order to achieve optimal health?
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of kombucha…
What Is Kombucha?
It’s a traditional drink from Asia, dating back at least 2,000 years. Made from fermented black or green tea, modern varieties of the beverage also include fruit juice, herbal ingredients, as well as other varieties of tea.
Because of the fermentation process, kombucha contains trace amounts of alcohol. But if you want a stronger buzz, kombucha can be fermented for longer, producing a more alcoholic kick. Alcoholic kombucha, or “high-alcohol kombucha,” contains more alcohol than beer, per volume, and is a far more recent trend than the low-alcohol variety.
How is It Made?
First, a sweet tea is brewed, containing up to 10% sucrose (table sugar) weight by volume. The table sugar is dissolved in the tea, and then a small amount of starter culture is added.
This culture is the blob-like combination of bacteria and yeast known as SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast. The culture contains up to 20% liquid and a small amount of filmy SCOBY from a previously fermented batch. (That’s right, most kombucha uses recycled bacteria. Yum!)
If you’re making your own kombucha at home, the final step, before drinking it, is to leave the mix in your fridge for 7-10 days. This is the appropriate length of time it takes for the tea to ferment, and for your spouse to scream in horror at the mysterious blob floating at the top of the jar.
What Does It Taste Like?
Because of how popular the drink has caught on in the West, there are many commercial brands, so taste greatly varies. In general, the slightly carbonated drink has a sour and tart taste. In order to mask the bitterness, sugar is added to the brew. Depending on the recipe, sugar can constitute up to nearly 10% of the drink’s calories.
On a hot day, kombucha can quench your thirst. But is it as healthy as people think?
Benefits of Kombucha
From a health standpoint, the biggest selling point of the drink is that it contains probiotics. However, not all kombucha is alive with friendly bacteria. That’s because large-scale commercial kombucha producers pasteurize the drink. This kills not only any potential pathogens but also the good stuff.
But even with raw, organic kombucha, which is unpasteurized and hence still has the good microorganisms intact, the amount of residual sugar may offset any benefits.
If you’re drinking kombucha for the probiotics contained within, you can also get the benefits of probiotics from other foods without the added sugars. Raw milk, plain yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi (fermented cabbage) and other fermented foods are excellent sources of probiotics. A high-quality, soil-based probiotic supplement can also contribute to your gut health without the typical 6 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving.
Besides bacteria, there are other benefits of kombucha. It contains antioxidants and other phytochemicals. One such phytochemical is epicatetchin, which has shown numerous health benefits in studies, such as anti-cancer potential. But you can get all the benefits of catechins just by drinking green tea, hold the blob of SCOBY and sugar.
What does research say about kombucha?
Not much, says an epidemiology journal, which reviewed over 300 articles on the drink. Out of the 310 articles the researchers reviewed, only one article reported on the health benefits associated with the drink in human subjects.
The researchers thus concluded, “The nonhuman subjects literature claims numerous health benefits of kombucha; it is critical that these assertions are tested in human clinical trials. Research opportunities are discussed.”
Is Kombucha Healthy? Conclusion
Even the strongest selling point for kombucha—that it’s good for your gut—is up for debate. No scientific studies have confirmed that the bacteria in kombucha, a drink that’s acidic to begin with, can survive the harsh acidic environment of the gut.
But if you’re drinking kombucha because you just plain like the taste of it, and, the rest of your diet is low in added sugars, then by all means, stay on the booch bandwagon.