Nowadays, kombucha is one of those mainstream health food buzzwords that dieticians, wellness coaches, and fitness advocates are touting. But does this fermented beverage really live up to the hype? We know that fermented foods offer plenty of health benefits. But let’s take a closer look at kombucha, in particular, and decide whether it’s worth adding to your nutritional toolbox.
Kombucha is at the forefront of the trend towards more holistic options versus traditional Western medicine and “big pharma.” It’s a vegan alternative to another probiotic-infused beverage, cow milk-based kefir (although some markets now carry dairy-free brands). Its restorative properties may actually be more related to its main ingredient though. Green, black, and oolong teas contain antioxidants that help alleviate or prevent gastrointestinal disorders.
SCOBY and the Origins of Kombucha
Kombucha may remind you of a science experiment; its development is similar to that of sourdough. The symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, aka “SCOBY,” is blends with brewed green, black, or oolong tea, and sugar. Notice there are no mushrooms in the formula? The SCOBY’s fungus-like appearance gives the drink the misnomer “mushroom tea.” The mixture ferments for approximately two weeks, resulting in a vinegary, slightly sour-tasting drink. Variables like water quality and temperature affect batches, thus each brew is unique, even when re-using the same SCOBY.
References to kombucha date back to 200 BC Korea, with growing popularity as European trade routes expanded. By the mid-1900s, it had sparked interest in the United States, and became a suggested remedy for many ailments.
Purported Claims of Kombucha and Gut Health
Naturopath Louise Buckley told the South China Morning Post, “Personally, I can now eat wheat and dairy – my digestive issues, bacterial issues, energy and hormone issues has [sic] turned itself around and I credit a large part of that with changing my gut bacteria, which is contributed by drinking kombucha.”
So will drinking it clear up your digestive issues? Reviews are mixed, so you may have to find out for yourself.
A 2014 study published in Food Microbiology confirms that kombucha is rich in probiotics. The study found an especially high presence of organisms of the genus Gluconacetobacter. These organisms tend to get credit more for anti-cancer properties than gut restoration. The researchers also found Lactobacillus and small amounts of Acetobacter. Both of these are associated with gut health. Keep in mind, however, that the type and ratio of organisms varies between batches and brands.
Another way kombucha might help your gut is that its acidity kills “bad” bacteria and Candida. As you may know, symptoms of Candida overgrowth include leaky gut syndrome, diarrhea, and constipation, as well as vaginal yeast infections. Research published in the Journal of Food Chemistry tested these effects for kombucha made with green and black teas. They found the green variety most effective.
Potential Drawbacks of Kombucha
When evaluating the veracity of any food, beverage, or supplement, it’s important to get the full picture. A 2016 KeVita lab study found that some kombucha brands contain upwards of 450% greater levels of sugar than labelled. And there are many good reasons to watch your sugar intake!
Remember, too, that the fermentation process gives kombucha a small amount of alcohol. As long as a product contains less than .5%, it can be labelled “non-alcoholic.” And, with home brews it can be difficult to gauge the amount. If you are pregnant or nursing, or avoid alcohol for any reason, you should find out what you’re getting. There is also the contradiction about the safety of drinking unpasteurized kombucha; beneficial probiotics die from the sterilization process.
Maintain Realistic Expectations
It’s true, kombucha is popular. You might love it and find that you feel much better by drinking it. However, don’t choose it just because your best friend or yoga teacher swears by it. As we previously discussed with alkaline water, it’s always good to question the marketing behind a “health food” product.
Consult a medical professional about kombucha and gut health, knowing that the drink may help, but not be a cure-all. It’s part of a multi-faceted approach to wellness that your practitioner may or may not advise. People who regularly partake of healthier drinks are also likelier to make other beneficial changes. Your improved health may actually be more attributable to the cumulative effect of exercise and a better diet than kombucha.