You can’t walk into most grocery stores these days without running smack dab into a case packed with kombucha bottles of every size, shape, and flavor. But what is kombucha? And should you be drinking it? You’ve heard it’s good for you, but is that true, and if so, why?! I’ve been digging this week to get some answers, so let’s get to it!
What exactly is kombucha?!
Kombucha is a fermented tea drink, naturally bubbly/slightly carbonated. You may feel trendy drinking it, but it actually originated in the early 200s BC in China! These days, it’s really exploded in popularity and you can find it in your favorite color and shape and flavor and label design any time you want.
How is it made?
You can either buy kombucha bottled and ready to go, or you can make your own at home (which is a no for me, but if you are interested there are tons of resources online!). Either way, it starts with water, tea (typically black, but green and others like oolong can be used as well), sugar, and a SCOBY. The scoby is a ridiculously nasty looking blob, but absolutely essential for making kombucha happen so you’ve gotta come to peace with it if you’re going to jump on this bandwagon! It stands for Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast, and if you google for an image, it may haunt you forever unless you are more mature than me. Fair warning.
Anyway, the sugar is the food for the hungry little scoby, which will eat it up during the fermentation process. It takes about 6 days for the first fermentation to complete, although that can vary depending on the desired balance between sweet and vinegary. (Random fun fact: the “mother” scoby will create a baby scoby during these first few days. They generally stick together at first and can be separated after a few additional brews. When the baby develops into its own healthy scoby, it can be used for another batch or given away for someone else’s kombucha brewing benefit.)
During the second fermentation, the scoby is removed and flavoring added (i.e. ginger, lemon, optional additional sweetener, fruits, etc.) Then it ferments for another 2 – 3 days, gets strained, and is left to finish fermenting/naturally carbonate for a final few days. Whew.
What are the health benefits?
You can and will hear about all sorts of alleged health benefits of kombucha, but I tend to be skeptical when I hear too many potential claims around a certain product. However, the primary benefit of kombucha, and the one that makes the most sense, is in regards to probiotics and gut health.
You may have heard the term “microbiome”, which is very sexy and refers to the composition of microorganisms and bacteria that literally live ON and IN us. Scientists are learning more and more about the microbiome all the time, and it’s actually really fascinating to read about if you’re into that stuff (hand raised!) But basically, research is showing that the make-up of bacteria, yeasts, etc. that compose the microbiome (many of which reside in our gut/digestive tract) can affect many other aspects of our health.
Fermented foods are living probiotics (good bacteria) that help to restore a positive balance to the gut bacteria. They also contain enzymes that help boost digestion and absorption of nutrients, in theory helping to “heal the gut”, increase immunity, and prevent intolerances. Kombucha is a fermented food (in case you somehow missed all that talk about fermentation above), thus drinking it should theoretically help to repopulate your inner ecosystem with healthy bacteria/probiotics.
As with any tea, another health pro is that you’ll be getting polyphenols and antioxidants, which help reduce inflammation in the body. (This is the reason that you may hear that kombucha can help prevent certain types of cancers, but I have yet to see any solid research on this.)
Pasteurized or non?
There is some disagreement about this in the general community. Unfortunately, the pasteurization process kills off bacteria, and part of the benefit of drinking kombucha is for the healthy bacteria – so we don’t want them killed off. Therefore, in order to get the benefits of the drink, raw and unpasteurized is best. But know that raw or unpasteurized kombucha comes with a small risk that harmful microorganisms could take over and cause serious problems such as food poisoning.
It’s a trade off you can consider for yourself, and talk to your doctor if you have concerns! When I do buy kombucha, I choose raw/unpasteurized and organic, and pick well known brands. If I were pregnant, I would steer away from raw just to be cautious, but again you can discuss with your physician. (Also if you are pregnant, know there is a small amount of naturally occurring alcohol in kombucha.)
What to consider when buying
- As discussed above, look for raw if you choose to go that way or pasteurized if that’s your choice. Talk to your doctor beforehand if you are pregnant, elderly, or have a compromised immune system.
- Your skills from Soda Opening 101 will also apply here. Remember that kombucha is carbonated….so don’t shake the bottle before opening! You can gently swirl it around, but shaking will cause it to bubble over when you unscrew the lid. Do it once and you won’t forget next time!
- You may notice some small sediment on the bottom of your bottle, which is the active cultures and is fine to drink but not necessary. They form after bottling and indicate that the product is still living and alive. You may also encounter small pieces of scoby, which are harmless but unfortunately have a snot-like consistency. Just keeping it real and honest here people.
- There is a small amount of caffeine, anywhere from 2 – 25mg (compared to coffee with ~95mg). FYI if you are strictly avoiding it.
- If it’s your first time trying it, start with a small serving and work your way up (especially if you’re brewing it at home). This is because, depending on the brand and type, the probiotics can be intense if you’re not used to them, and can speed up your digestion if you know what I mean.
- And – this one is key – check the label for sugar content and serving size! It’s not unusual to see 12-18g+ of sugar per bottle, which is okay if you don’t mind, but if you’re watching sugar intake, don’t swig it mindlessly and pat yourself on the back for meeting your probiotic quota. The amount of sugar can vary based on brew time and other factors. Take a look and try to find one with 2 -3g of sugar per serving. One of my favorites is this Health-Ade Lemon Ginger flavor:
If you’re a healthy adult, drink it if you like it! I drink it now and then myself, but not daily or even weekly because those bottles are expensive! I don’t rely on it solely for gut health or antioxidants, because in order to really reap those benefits from kombucha I would have to be drinking it more consistently…but it’s nice to consider it giving me a little boost.
Finally, unless you eat a lot of yogurt, kefir, kimchi, natto, tempeh, and/or sauerkraut, kombucha can be an easy way to incorporate fermented foods into your diet. If you buy one with a smaller amount of sugar per serving, you can know that you are getting gut friendly bacteria and antioxidants, and there’s no question it’s a great alternative to soda or other sugary drinks.
Kombucha can be a positive addition to a healthy diet, as long as you don’t rely on it for a miracle health cure. Make sure you still aim to get lots of antioxidants from fruits, vegetables, and a varied diet!