The truth about kombucha

The truth about kombucha

Healthy? Or Harmful?

Kombucha has become a wildly popular health drink, with sales surging around the world. Once found only in health food stores, it’s now starting to make an appearance in supermarkets and convenience stores around the globe.

But what exactly is kombucha?

And though people claim it’s great for gut health and beneficial for a variety of health challenges… is it really?

What does science say about the health effects of kombucha? And are there any risks or concerns you should know about?

A lot of people have asked me about this popular beverage, so our team looked into it.

The information found in this article from The Food Revolution Network may surprise you.

Once considered a relatively obscure health beverage, kombucha has gone mainstream.

Supermarkets and convenience stores around the world carry this type of tea. In 2017, salesreached more than $500 million in the U.S. alone. Food industry leaders predict global kombucha sales will be close to $2 billion by 2020.

Proponents have called it “the ultimate health drink” and the “tea of immortality.” Skeptics remain unconvinced.
But what do we know?

Is kombucha a delicious and health-giving beverage? Or is
it an overpriced and even potentially dangerous new spin on a soft drink?

What Is Kombucha Tea?

Kombucha is a sweetened, fermented tea.

The fermentation process creates, among other things, carbon
dioxide (which gives the tea its fizz), alcohol. It also creates a variety of
acids including acetic acid, lactic acid, propionic acid, glucuronic acid, and
gluconic acid.

The taste of kombucha varies. But it typically has a slightly
sweet, slightly sour, vinegary flavor
and a light, effervescent feel.
Some people say it resembles the taste of sparkling cider.

Flavored kombuchas are made by adding fruit purees
or fruit juice concentrates, herbs, spices, and other ingredients.

How Is Kombucha Made?

Traditionally green, black, or white tea (which
all come from the Camellia sinensis plant) is used to make
kombucha. Most herbal teas don’t have the nutrients needed to make the process

A sweetener is then added — usually white sugar. Other
sweeteners have been used, as well, such as honey, maple syrup, and Jerusalem
artichoke tuber extract.

Then, the mixture of tea and sweetener ferments with
the help of a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (also known as a SCOBY,
or a “mother”).

A SCOBY is a thick, round, floating microbial colony
that resembles a mushroom
. Even though kombucha is sometimes called
“mushroom tea,” it doesn’t contain any mushrooms.

The SCOBY is a self-perpetuating culture. This means it
multiplies itself through the process of creating kombucha tea. (New starter
colonies are sometimes called “daughters” or “babies.”)

After a period of time — anywhere between three and 30 days — the kombucha is ready to

What About the Alcohol Content of Kombucha?

During the fermentation process, the culture turns sugar
into ethanol, which is a type of alcohol. So the resulting beverage
contains alcohol.

But how much alcohol is actually in kombucha?

Compared to a standard alcoholic beverage like a 12-oz beer
(5% alcohol) or a 5-oz glass of wine (12% alcohol), not much. Kombucha
typically contains about 0.5 to (rarely) as much as 2% alcohol.

The bottled kombuchas you see in stores have to follow the
U.S. government requirements for non-alcoholic beverages. This means
unless their labels say, “21 and over,” they must contain less than 0.5%

While the alcohol content is low, it can cause problems for
some people, particularly recovering alcoholics. But for most people, it’s
not much of an issue because it’s less than 1/10 the amount typically found in

Are There Benefits to Drinking Kombucha?

Tea is a remarkably
healthy beverage. Its proven benefits range
from helping fight cancer and improving bone strength to burning fat and
protecting against cardiovascular disease.

Kombucha comes from
tea. So how does it stack up?

Studies on kombucha
have found polyphenols, acids, and vitamins, which are in
regular green and black tea. In fact, in one studykombucha tea had more antioxidants than
unfermented tea.

Polyphenols in tea
have shown great potential in protecting against
some types of cancer.
 The most potent benefit of tea — both fermented and unfermented
— may be its catechin content. Catechins act as potent antioxidants and
protect against the development of disease
. And many of them are abundant in kombucha.

In addition to the
beneficial components found in tea, new compounds form when you make
kombucha, which may also have favorable effects
. One compound is DSL
(D-Saccharic acid-1,4-lactone). DSL has the potential to inhibit
an important enzyme that may be linked to cancer growth
. More study is
needed to determine if this will also provide benefits to humans.

According to a 2008
study published in Food Chemistry, DSL is one
of many new compounds created during the fermentation process.

So kombucha likely
has many of the same stunning health benefits of
drinking tea
. And it may also have some additional benefits stemming from
the DSL and other new compounds in kombucha that aren’t in unfermented tea.

What Does Science Say About the Health Claims of
Kombucha, In Particular?

If you look at the
research around kombucha and its benefits, one thing is clear: We need
more research.

There are a lot of
health claims made about kombucha, but there aren’t enough studies for us to
know if they are true or not.

We have animal
studies and some decently valid sounding theories. (I’m not a fan of animal
studies because they are often cruel, but I think they can sometimes be
useful.) But we lack scientific evidence to back up many of the health
claims about kombucha.
 It seems plausible that it brings some positive
health benefits. But so far, there are no published studies
on the biological effects of kombucha on humans

While we lack
certainty, an impressive body of studies do suggest that kombucha tea could
have antimicrobial, energizing, and detoxification effects. And
it may even help prevent disease, including cancer, heart disease, and
type 2 diabetes.

For example:

  • Kombucha could potentially help prevent a broad
    range of diseases
    . A 2014
    review of animal studies published in
    the Journal of Medicinal Food found that kombucha tea
    contains properties that could help prevent many diseases, particularly
    “broad-spectrum metabolic and infective disorders.” They concluded that it
    may be able to help with detoxificationantioxidation,
    and healthy immune function.

  • Kombucha could slow or kill harmful microorganisms. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Food
     reported that kombucha made from both black and green
    tea had antimicrobial potential. Researchers also found that the green
    fermented tea had the most antimicrobial potential
    . Other studies
    have shown that kombucha could kill bacteria that
    commonly cause food poisoning.

  • Kombucha may have cancer-fighting power. A 2013 study published in Biomedicine & Preventive
     showed that kombucha had remarkable potential to
    inhibit angiogenesis. (Angiogenesis is the process by
    which cancers lock in a steady supply of blood and become dangerous.)

  • Kombucha may help protect the liver. A 2009 study on some very unfortunate
    rats publishedin the Journal of Microbiology and
     revealed that kombucha tea was effective in improving
    liver function and lowering the side effects of toxins.

  • Kombucha may reduce heart disease risk. In other studies also done on
    rats, kombucha improved two markers of heart disease in as few as 30 days.
    A 2015 study published in Pharmaceutical Biology found
    that kombucha lowered “bad” LDL. It also led to higher levels of “good”
    HDL cholesterol.

  • Kombucha may help manage diabetes. A 2012 study published in BMC Complementary
    and Alternative Medicine
     on diabetic rats found that
    kombucha slowed down the digestion of carbohydratesreducing
    blood sugar levels
    . Kombucha also improved liver and kidney function.

  • Kombucha is a rich source of probiotics. Kombucha is a fermented food and carries
    a large number of probiotic bacteria that may be beneficial to your
    digestive health. A 2014 study published in Food
     identified a prominent Lactobacillus population
    and numerous beneficial yeast species that were abundant in kombucha.

Kombucha Side Effects, Risks, and Concerns

So what are the
potential downsides of kombucha?

Here are some things
to consider:

Kombucha Contains a High Amount of Sugar

In a 2001 paper
called Sucrose and Inulin Balance During Tea Fungus Fermentation,
researchers found that almost 35% of the sugar remains
after seven days of fermentation
. After 21 days, this percentage dropped to
19%. This is why kombucha tastes sweet when you drink it — even though it’s

Also, some of the
kombuchas on the market have fruit juice or sugar added after the
fermentation process.
 This means those batches will have more sugar.

I’m sure you don’t
need another lecture on the negative health effects of excess sugar
consumption. But some of the kombuchas at my local health store contain 14
grams of sugar in a 16-oz bottle. That’s almost as much as you’ll find in a
6-oz can of coke!

So if you’re
buying kombucha, I recommend reading the nutrition facts
. And remember: If
it tastes sweet, it’s probably because it is. Aim for the lower sugar options.

Negative Effects for Some People

No two kombuchas are
exactly alike. The type of SCOBY used, length of fermentation, temperature,
humidity, containers, and ingredients can lead to wildly different outcomes.

At this point,
hundreds of millions of people have at least tasted kombucha. We know that
obvious adverse reactions, at least in the short term, are rare. But there’s a
lot we don’t know about it. Without any long-term studies on humans, it’s
difficult to know with certainty if there could be any problems that might show
up over the course of time.

We do know that
drinking kombucha has led to adverse
including liver damage and
even, in at least one case, death.
Longer fermentation produces high levels of acids that may posepotential
risks when consumed by vulnerable populations, such as people with compromised
immune systems or those with HIV.

We also know that
some people have reported experiencing nausea and dizziness,
as well as allergic reactions and headaches.

Does this mean
kombucha is dangerous for you? Not necessarily.
 It means that we don’t know with certainty
because modern production methods (and scale) are relatively unprecedented. So
as with many things in life, it’s important to listen to your own body and see
what you notice.

And if you’re
pregnant or lactating, you should probably steer clear of it altogether. A 2018
report published in the Journal of Primary Health
 recommends that pregnant and lactating women should avoid

Should You Try Making Kombucha At Home?

Buying store-bought
kombucha — at $3 to $5 per bottle — can quickly get very expensive. Making
your own kombucha is cheaper. But you must do it right

Commercially sold
kombucha goes through a regulation
, but homebrewed kombucha doesn’t. If you don’t store it or make it
properly, molds and fungi can easily contaminate homebrewed kombucha and cause illness.

And never
brew kombucha in clay or ceramic containers possibly treated with lead.
have shown that
lead can leach into the beverage.

If you plan to
homebrew kombucha, use sterile equipment. This typically means stainless-steel
(while metal is not an appropriate material to brew kombucha tea, stainless
steel may be because it is non-corrosive) or glass containers, a clean area,
and a healthy SCOBY without black spots or signs of mold. (You may be able to
buy one at natural foods stores or online, or get one from a friend who makes

You can find other tips to help you create safe kombucha
tea here.

My Take on Kombucha

Kombucha can be a
fun and tasty drink. For many people, it’s more enjoyable than water.
And it’s often a better choice than bottled juices and a much better choice
than soda.

It’s made in part
from one of the healthiest plants in the world — tea. Kombucha also brings a
healthy dose of antioxidants plus some health-boosting probiotics.

But it also contains
sugar, some of which remains in the final product. And the health impacts of
kombucha on humans are uncertain because we don’t have published studies to
guide us.

Personally, I drink
it from time to time. I enjoy the bubbly effervescence, and the unique taste
profiles of different flavors. But I know it’s pricey and that it contains
sugar. So I don’t think of kombucha so much as being a “health
beverage,” as being a potentially beneficial treat.

And other beverages
have been more thoroughly studied. For our article on five of the healthiest
beverages in the world, click here.

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