Lifestyle

All the real health benefits of kombucha, according to the experts


Whether you call it ‘booch, fizzy tea, or mushroom tea, you’re not alone if you’re crushing on kombucha. Not only is this fermented beverage pleasingly tangy with bubbles galore, but regular drinking it may have health-boosting benefits.

With its tangy taste, refreshing fizz, and purported health perks, kombucha —  ‘booch, fizzy tea, mushroom tea, whatever you call it — has skyrocketed to supermarket fame over the past few years. While there’s no denying the drink can be downright delicious, you might be wondering if it really deserves all the hype and whether it’s really as healthy as everyone seems to believe. Here’s the lowdown on the bubbly beverage, including an answer to the ever-pressing question, “is kombucha actually good for you?”

What exactly is Kombucha?

Despite becoming increasingly more popular in the US over the past years, you still might not know what kombucha is exactly. So, let’s fix that: Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage that’s typically sweetened with fruit juice.

It’s made from just a handful of ingredients: water, tea leaves, fruit juice or another sweetener, and a little something called SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast), according to the Penn State Extension.

Also known as the “mother,” SCOBY is a yeast-and-bacteria mixture (which, TBH, looks like a flesh-toned jellyfish) that gets added to the sweetened brewed tea, where it ferments the beverage for up to a month. This process not only introduces gut-friendly probiotics into kombucha, but it also eats up a good portion of the sugar, leaving a naturally carbonated, moderately sweet drink — that is, however, unless you opt for, say, a flavoured variety of the fermented beverage. And on that note…

Kombucha Nutrition

Kombucha’s nutrition content varies across different varieties. Unflavoured teas sans-sweeteners, for example, typically have less sugar than those with additions, such as berries or citrus juice. (FWIW, the unflavoured kind also tends to be free of fat and cholesterol and low in sodium and protein, according to Colorado State University’s Food Source Information.)

Nutrition specifics can also differ depending on how the drink is prepared. While some sugar is required for the fermentation process, certain brands add sugar to the drink afterwards, thereby impacting things such as, say, the number of calories in kombucha.

And if you’re ‘booch has booze? That’ll affect the nutrition, too. While the fermentation process naturally creates some alcohol, the ABV can be boosted either by adding more alcohol (such as in the case of hard kombucha) or extending the fermentation process. In general, however, most consumer varieties contain less than .5 percent ABV (and thus are sold as nonalcoholic beverages), according to CSU’s Food Source Information.

Here’s the nutrition profile of 16 ounces (473 millilitres) of an unflavoured, unsweetened, nonalcoholic kombucha, according to the United States Department of Agriculture:

  • 52 calories
  • 0 grams protein
  • 0 grams fat
  • 12 grams carbohydrates
  • 12 grams sugars
  • 0 grams added sugars

There’s another piece of nutrient info you won’t always see listed on a label: caffeine. Because kombucha is usually made with black or green tea, it does contain caffeine — though not a whole lot of it. It can provide anywhere from about 10 to 75 milligrams (a cup of coffee contains about 80-100 mg of caffeine, according to the Food and Drug Administration).

Kombucha Health Benefits

kombucha benefits
(Image credit: Shannon Nickerson/Unsplash)

Despite its celeb status on store shelves, kombucha’s health benefits aren’t as clear-cut as you might expect. “There’s no denying that many people consider kombucha to be a healthful beverage — Googling gets you thousands of articles hyping its alleged health benefits,” says Ali Webster, PhD, RD, director of Research and Nutrition Communications at the International Food Information Council.

But while there’s been some research on the potential perks of kombucha, valid medical studies of the drink’s role in human health are very limited (if not nonexistent), according to both Webster and the Mayo Clinic.

TL;DR: Take the following potential benefits of kombucha with a grain of salt (or perhaps a smidge of SCOBY) since more in-depth research on humans is still needed.

May Promote Gut Health

By now you likely know that probiotics can do wonders for your gut and — good news! — kombucha is believed to be bubbling over with ’em. (“Believed” being the keyword here, as, again, more research is needed to confirm whether the buggers in ‘booch truly are beneficial probiotics.)

When you consume fermented foods and drinks (see: kombucha), you’re essentially giving probiotics a FastPass to your gut, where they can maintain or improve the growth of good bacteria, which, in turn, can enhance your digestion. That said, better bathroom habits aren’t the only benefit of a balanced microbiome.

It has been linked to all sorts of bonuses for health, from improved mental well-being to reduced risk of developing type 2 diabetes. “Probiotic bacteria are important for maintaining a healthy gut and immune system,” says Webster. “However, the amount and diversity of these organisms in kombucha can vary widely, depending on brand and production method.”

May Ward Off Disease

Underneath its effervescent exterior, kombucha is essentially black or green tea — both of which are known for being A+ “sources of antioxidants, which may help to reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases,” says Webster. Quick refresher: Antioxidants destroy free radicals (unstable molecules), which, in excess, can lead to oxidative stress, ultimately resulting in cell damage and increasing the risk of chronic conditions, such as cancer.

Amping up your antioxidant intake (via, say, kombucha), however, can help control free radicals, protect cells from oxidative stress, and thus prevent illness, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

In fact, research suggests that long-term consumption of catechins (the antioxidants in green tea) can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and coronary disease. Not to be outdone, black tea also contains its fair share of disease-fighting antioxidants, which have been shown to help lower blood sugar and levels of uric acid (a waste product in your blood that, if not kept in check, can lead to issues such as kidney stones, according to the Cleveland Clinic.)

That said, “despite a lot of observational evidence showing health benefits of drinking tea, it’s been harder to pin down a beneficial effect of tea in randomised controlled trials,” says Webster.

May Reduce Risk of Heart Disease

While the effects in animals do not necessarily reflect those in humans, it’s possible that kombucha benefits may include improving not one but two key markers of heart disease. A 2011 study on ducks found that kombucha reduced levels of LDL “bad” cholesterol while increasing the levels of HDL “good” cholesterol. A 2015 study on rats had similar findings, leading the researchers to reason that these results are likely due in part to kombucha’s antioxidant content.

It’s also possible that the green tea in kombucha can play a role in the beverage’s potential ability to keep your ticker, well, ticking. When free radicals interact with LDL cholesterol, they change the “bad” stuff’s physical and chemical properties — a process known as LDL oxidation.

This can lead to the development of heart conditions such as atherosclerosis (aka plaque buildup in the arteries). But research shows that certain antioxidants — namely the catechins found in green tea (and, thus, kombucha) — can prevent LDL oxidation, which, in turn, protects the heart.

All that being said it’s important to emphasise that more research on humans is very much needed to truly determine whether these potential perks are legit.

Potential Risks of Kombucha

Although possible, adverse effects of drinking kombucha are “rare,” according to CSU’s Food Source Information. But that’s not an excuse to start chugging bottles upon bottles of ‘booch, especially because drinking too much of the beverage in one sitting can lead to a condition called lactic acidosis.

Essentially a build-up of too much lactic acid (which is in kombucha) in the bloodstream, lactic acidosis can lead to muscle cramps, nausea, fatigue, among other symptoms, according to the US Department of Health and Human Services. “Even though lactic acidosis isn’t likely to be an issue for healthy people, it’s recommended to keep kombucha consumption to about a half-cup per day,” says Webster.

Oftentimes, kombucha is unpasteurised. Meaning, it is not treated with heat to kill potentially harmful bacteria and, thus, runs the risk of containing pathogens. For this reason, pregnant people, young children, and those with compromised immune systems should avoid kombucha, especially if it’s unpasteurised, according to the Cleveland Clinic. (Those who are pregnant should also be wary of the drink given its slight alcoholic content.)

Otherwise, sipping on a store-bought bottle of raw ‘booch should be no big deal. “There’s no need to worry about the popular bottled kombucha brands found in stores,” says Webster. “They’re produced, handled, and stored in safe and sanitary conditions.”

DIY batches, on the other hand, are a slightly different story. “Food safety issues with homemade kombucha are not common, but they are a concern,” says Webster. “It’s crucial to have clean hands, clean surfaces, and sterilised equipment to reduce the risk of introducing harmful pathogens into the process. The SCOBY should be regularly checked for mould or fungi. If they’re found, the SCOBY should be thrown away.”

How to Buy and Use Kombucha

kombucha benefits
(Image credit: Klara Avsenik/Unsplash)

Craving something gingery and lemony? Minty and melon-y? Spicy and peppery? There’s a ‘booch for that. Just about any fruity, spicy, or even savoury addition can make a kombucha unique — and given the bounty of brands filling up shelves, you’re sure to find a variety to your liking.

In general, however, it’s a good idea to read each bottle’s label before buying all of the ‘booch. “I recommend taking a look at the nutrition facts label and choosing an option that’s lowest in sugars,” says Webster.

As for using kombucha, simply drinking it as a refreshing mid-day sip or evening cocktail alternative are great ways to imbibe. But you can, of course, get more creative by whipping up a kombucha smoothie, freezing it in popsicle moulds, or even adding a scoop of ice cream for a kombucha float.

Types of Kombucha

Raw

Think all drinks must be pasteurised to pass food safety exams? Surprise! Most commercially available kombuchas are not pasteurised. This is because the heat from pasteurisation actually kills the beneficial bacteria in kombucha, defeating the possible purpose of consuming it in the first place. If gut-friendly microorganisms are what you seek from kombucha, you’ll likely want to reach for a raw variety.

Pasteurised

While most popular kombucha brands serve up their products raw, pasteurised kombucha does exist, making it a particularly good option for those who are pregnant or have a compromised immune system. (ICYMI above, drinking unpasteurised beverages can be dangerous for people in these health categories, as they can contain potentially-harmful pathogens.)

If you do opt for a pasteurised product, fear not: All of the potential health benefits of kombucha are not necessarily lost, as pasteurisation doesn’t typically destroy a significant amount of nutrients, according to the FDA. And while there might not be as many probiotics, if any, as the raw variety, treated kombucha can still have some antioxidants.

Alcoholic

(Image credit: Edward Howell/Unsplash)

Most hard kombuchas have an alcohol content comparable to beer but can go as high as a glass of wine at about 5 to 11 percent. Despite its “hard” name, this hard tea goes down quite easily. So if you’re not a fan of the usual bubbly adult beverages, hard ‘booch, might be up your alley.

Homemade

So you wanna set up a kombucha brewing station in your basement? More power to you! Crafting your own fermented tea can be a fun hobby that yields totally customisable results. Just be aware that food safety is a serious matter when brewing your own kombucha, as Webster mentions above. Simply put: Always follow a recipe’s directions exactly.

Depending on the size of your batches, you might also shell out more cash by DIY-ing than purchasing it pre-made. But if you don’t mind spending a bit of time and money (with some trial and error along the way), you’re going to want to snag a kombucha brewing kit to get started.

Whether you’re looking for another reason to try kombucha, or want to swap out a soda or cocktail for the fizzy probiotic-rich drink, kombucha can be a surprisingly satisfying alternative.

Sarah Garone is a nutrition and dietetic technician (NDTR), licensed nutritionist, and freelance writer based in Mesa, Arizona.

This story first appeared on www.shape.com.

(Man and Feature Image Credit: Katherine Sousa/Unsplash)

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