Kombucha, a fermented tea, originated in China as a medicinal cocktail for immortality over 2000 years ago. It has been on the shelves of health food stores such as Whole Foods and Wegman’s for years touting countless health claims. The beverage has steadily gained popularity as detox and probiotic crazes sweep the country. Today many consumers reach for kombucha as a means of increasing energy, combating aging, improving digestion and immunity, decreasing cholesterol, reversing hair loss, and even fighting cancer. How valid are these purported benefits? And is it worth the hefty price tag of $3-5 per bottle?
Made of live bacteria and yeast, kombucha has a tangy odor and taste. ‘Mother’ starter cultures are steeped in tea and sugar at room temperature for about one week, producing more cultures called ‘kombucha babies’. Cultures are visible in the drink as globs of mushroom-like microorganisms floating throughout the liquid. These mushrooms are known as a SCOBY, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.
People consume fermented products such as kombucha, yogurt, kefir, and sauerkraut because they provide probiotics. Probiotics are healthy bacteria, such as lactobacillus and bifidobacterium, that are important for proper function of the intestinal tract. A poor diet, stress, or antibiotics may lead to an imbalance between the good bacteria and harmful bacteria in the digestive tract, which is why consuming probiotics is important. Bacterial imbalance has mainly been associated with conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome (resulting in constipation or diarrhea) and yeast infections. Prebiotics, found in fruits, vegetables, and legumes, are a source of carbohydrate fibers called oligosaccharides. Probiotic bacteria in the gut feeds off these oligosaccharides as a source of fuel for growth.
Different brews contain unique species of yeast and bacteria, but may include saccharomycodes ludwigii, schizosaccharomyces pombe, brettanomyces bruxellensis, bacterium xylinum, bacterium gluconicum, bacterium xylinoides, bacterium katogenum, pichia fermentans, candida stellata, or torula specias.
Each bottle of GT’s Kombucha has 60 calories, 4 grams of sugar, 14 grams of carbohydrate, 20 mg of sodium and 20-25% daily value of folate, vitamins B1, B2, B3, B6, and B12. Unfortunately, to date there is no evidence that kombucha actually provides any of it’s reported health benefits. In fact, moderate consumption of 4 oz per day or less is recommended due to reports of liver damage, bacterial toxicity, and metabolic acidosis (due to kombucha’s high levels of acid in the form of acetic acid, lactic acid, ethyl acetate, and alcohol). In 1995, the CDC reported two deaths related to severe metabolic acidosis in two women who drank kombucha daily. Doctors caution pregnant women, children, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system from consuming the drink. Kombucha can be brewed at home and it is these home brews that appear to be riskiest.
Kombucha is a natural, fizzy, and flavorful alternative to soda or other artificial drinks. Drink it if you like it, but not for its debatable health merits. As much as people would like to believe a quick health fix exists, a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, and regular exercise is the only path to long term wellness and vitality.