Kombucha (pronounced Kom-boo-cha) is a new drink you might have seen starting to fill the drinks refrigerator in your local supermarket. This fermented tea drink has been around for centuries, however recently it has been taken up as a hipster drink and has lots of claims around its health benefits. It used to only be available in health food stores and consumed by people concerned with holistic health, but just a quick look down the supermarket aisle will have you see over 3 different brands that produce different flavours and assortments of Kombucha. You can get ginger kombucha, strawberry, passionfruit, apple, orginal, sparkling…. right next to your juices and your softdrinks. Is it just a hipster drink, or is it actually good for your health? Should we all be drinking Kombucha?
Kombucha: A Fermented Tea Drink
Originally consumed in China more than 2,200 years ago, gradually kombucha has made it’s way around the world. It is also known around the world by different names such as as ‘Kombucha Mushroom tea’, ‘Manchurian tea’, ‘Russian tea’ or ‘Kargasok tea’. It is made by adding a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (aka SCOBY) to sweetened green or black tea and allowing it to ferment. As the fermentation process undergoes, the yeast converts the sugar in the tea to alcohol and the bacteria converts the alcohol to organic acids. The result is a drink that is slightly fizzy and slightly vinegary and sour. Some say it tastes a bit like apple cider, vinegar or wine.
A Health Drink
Many people consume it for its alleged health benefits. Our ancestors drank it as it was believed to detoxify and reenergise the body. In the 1960s, Swiss scientists claimed that it improved gut health in a similar way that yoghurt does. There are even more health claims, not backed by science, that claim that Kombucha can restore hair colour, thicken hair, dissolve gallstones, lower cholesterol, increase blood circulation, reverse the ageing process, relieve menopausal symptoms, improve your immune, system, improve digestion and your liver function. With all these health claims it seems that the drink has a lot going for it! However medical scientists aren’t ready to back all these health claims until more studies can back it up with some concrete evidence. The only studies that have been done so far on Kombucha have been tested on animals, so whilst they might be promising, they can’t be translated to human beings.
“While it is replete with B vitamins, probiotics and antioxidants, there is no official medical research on the health benefits of the drink, so be mindful of health claims,” said Rebecca Shenkman, director at the Villanova College of Nursing’s MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education (COPE). “Drink because you like the taste, not because you want to improve your liver function or enhance your immune system.”
A Gut Drink
The closest scientific evidence around that backs up some of the health claims of Kombucha is the improvement of gut health. Kombucha contains healthy bacteria because it is fermented and made from bacteria, similar to yoghurt. These health bacteria colonise our gut to have a healthy balance, which in turn will help you to feel better, and help your body to function better. This is the science behind probiotics which has some emerging studies to show its effectiveness for some gut problems like c. difficile infection. But you aren’t going to get a better gut just by drinking a bottle of Kombucha on a hot Saturday afternoon. It needs to be a part of a well rounded diet. You want the healthy bacteria to permanently live in your gut, and to encourage this you need to take them regularly. Additionally, one drink of Kombucha doesn’t contain as many microbes as a commercially available probiotic supplement – it is hard to determine how much healthy bacteria is in each drink as it depends on the fermentation time and process. So, while there is some benefit to drinking Kombucha, it’s not a miracle drink.
A Hipster Drink
The craze is definitely well and thriving in our culture today, and it’s easy to see why it might be popular as an alternative to softdrink consumption. However there are a few things to be aware of when you’re purchasing your Kombucha from the local shop. Most importantly you need to check the nutrition label and see how much sugar has been added to sweeten the drink. As we know, sugary drinks are a major cause of weight gain and obesity, leading to many health problems. Some Kombucha contains less than 0.1g, which is low in sugar, but some can contain up to 3.8g per 100mL, which isn’t so much. According to the Food Standards Code, a drink must have less than 2.5g of sugar per 100mL. Whilst 3.8g is a better choice than other drinks such as Coca-Cola (10.6g/100mL), The Daily Juice Company Orange Juice(8.3g), Gatorade (6g), Lipton Mango Ice Tea (5.5g), Cocobella Coconut Water (4.5g) and even Glaceau Vitamin Water (4.3g). So, maybe a switch to Kombucha from your daily Coke will be a huge health improvement for you!
A Risky Drink
There has been cases of people feeling worse after drinking Kombucha. This is because everybody’s gut make-up is different and people can react negatively to it. People have been known to have an upset tummy, contract an infection or have an allergic reaction. Home made Kombucha is more likely to be unsterile and be fermented for too long. There has been cases of an increased alcohol content due to a long fermentation period and some brands have had to recall batches due to this. To reduce the risks of taking Kombucha, you should limit your intake to 4 ounces (125mL) per day and consult your medical health professional if you have any pre-existing health conditions. Women who are pregnant or are breastfeeding are advised against drinking Kombucha.
So if you are looking for an alternative drink to softdrink, or you enjoy the vinegary Kombucha taste, the risks are low (particularly the marketed variety) and there isn’t any harm in drinking it. Just like all foods, don’t drink too much and be thoughtful about your health and food choices. Keep an eye on the sugar content and consider your entire diet that it is well balanced and gives your gut a chance to be healthy and work well. It’s unlikely to give you all the health benefits some marketing claims, but it won’t hurt to give it a try.