Sometimes healthy foods and drinks can be odd or not very tasty, but most of the time they’re simple and delicious. Kombucha, a drink many people enjoy and use for its purported health benefits, seems to fall somewhere in between these two spectrums. In my opinion, kombucha, though acidic and somewhat sour, is still tasty and refreshing. The health benefits are debatable, though lean towards positive. My suggestion is that if you enjoy kombucha and feel it energizes you, keep drinking it, but don’t expect it to be some type of miracle elixir and don’t overdo it.
If you’re a little lost at this point, let me catch you up: kombucha is a drink that’s fermented by a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (referred to as a scoby). It was first used for its health promoting properties in China (likely beginning several hundred years ago) and remains a folk remedy for colds and other ailments around the world. Several years ago, my wife and I traveled to Ukraine to volunteer with an organization that helps orphans (the organization is called Operation Lazarus – check it out!). While there, one of our new Ukrainian friends invited us to visit her grandmother in the countryside. You can imagine our surprise when this Ukrainian babushka offered us home-brewed kombucha that she had sitting on top of her refrigerator! At the time, we thought that kombucha was a new American health trend. When we asked her about it, she said that she and many of her neighbors had been drinking this “mushroom” tea for its health benefits for many years!
Kombucha is usually brewed using black or green tea sweetened with sugar. The sugar serves as food for the bacteria/yeast colony. The fermentation process reduces the end amount of sugar and produces a number of different acids in its place; among these are acetic, butyric, and gluconic acids. The acids give the drink a slightly vinegary taste and are also credited for kombucha’s suspected health properties. The longer the drink is fermented, the more acid is produced. Most kombuchas are fermented for less than a month.
The research regarding kombucha’s health benefits is limited. I couldn’t find any human studies, only a hand full of studies that have been performed on rats. The studies that used rats, however, are promising and indicate that kombucha may support liver and kidney health, as well as improve metabolic function. The drink’s health-promoting properties are likely a result of the various functions of the acids. Some of the acids kombucha contains are used by the body as energy, to increase stomach acid production, kill harmful bacteria, and decrease gut permeability.
While there are several recorded incidences of people getting sick from kombucha, these sickness resulted from drinking too much of it, not properly fermenting it, or fermenting it in toxic containers. I’m of the opinion that drinking kombucha is generally safe, as it has a long history of use and when properly fermented, the acids kill any harmful bacteria that may try to develop during fermentation. If you’re not so sure about getting a scoby and brewing kombucha yourself but still want to give it a try, there are several companies that manufacturer kombucha in controlled environments. You can find it for sale at health food stores and grocery stores like Whole Foods. For the healthiest option, look for kombuchas with the least amount of sugar.
The take away: As with many other folk remedies, there’s likely some accuracy in the health claims surrounding kombucha, but enjoy it in moderation.
Originally posted 2013-02-10 19:37:00.