Kombucha: What to Know Before You Sip

Kombucha is nicknamed the elixir of immortality.

What’s the Buzz About Kombucha?

Nicknamed "the elixir of immortality," this tart fermented drink is bubbling with health claims. It's made of black or green tea, sugar, and a blob-like culture of "good" bacteria and yeast called a scoby. These live microorganisms give it its slightly acidic taste -- and a bit of natural alcohol.

People have been drinking kombucha for 2,000 years in China.

How Long Has It Been Around?

People reportedly started to brew it in China more than 2,000 years ago. But it wasn't until the late 1980s that it began to get attention in the U.S. Some people hoped it could boost the immune systems of people with HIV or AIDS -- a theory we now know to be a myth.

There is no scientific evidence that kombucha can help fight diseases.

Can It Help Fight Diseases?

Some tout kombucha as a remedy that can help treat conditions from diabetes to hardening of the arteries to cancer. There are also claims that it can lower blood pressure and cholesterol and detox your body. There's not enough evidence to back up these claims, though. Most of the health hype stems from word-of-mouth reports or animal studies. It doesn't come from high-quality research into its effects on people.

Kombucha contains beneficial probiotics.

Is It Full of Probiotics?

Like other fermented products, kombucha contains tiny living organisms called microbes. Some types of microbes called probiotics boost the "good" bacteria in your gut. This boosts your immune system and helps you fight off bad bacteria. This might help you digest food and absorb nutrients, too. But it's not clear whether the microbes in kombucha can deliver these benefits. We need more research to say for sure.

Antioxidant-rich polyphenols in kombucha may help reduce inflammation.

Does It Pack an Antioxidant Punch?

The tea in the recipe has good-for-you antioxidants called polyphenols. They may curb inflammation in your body and lower the odds that you'll get certain diseases. They might also might be good for gut health.

Kombucha supplies B vitamins that help turn food into energy.

Bountiful Vitamin B?

Kombucha also has B vitamins. They help your body turn food into energy, among other jobs. But you don't have to drink fermented tea to get your B. They're in a variety of foods. If you're healthy, chances are you get enough already.

Kombucha has minimal alcohol due to the fermentation process used to make it.

How Boozy Is ‘Booch?

All kombucha has a bit of alcohol in it due to the sugar fermenting with the yeast. Commercial brands that have less than 0.5% by volume in it can be sold as "non-alcoholic." Any more than that and the government considers it to be booze. Fermentation time, temperature, and the way the drink is stored all play roles in how strong it becomes. Some kombucha continues to ferment even in the bottle.

People who have certain medical conditions or who are pregnant should avoid drinking kombucha.

Who Can Safely Sip It?

Stay away from this drink if you have a weakened immune system or a long-term health condition -- especially liver, kidney, or lung disease. Don't drink it if you're pregnant. It's not for young children either. But if you're a healthy adult, the store-bought kind that's pasteurized is fine in moderation -- but not more than 12 ounces per day. Read the nutrition label, though, because the sugar and calories can vary quite a bit by brand.

Homemade kombucha may be associated with side effects.

Could It Cause Side Effects?

Some reports link the homemade variety to stomachaches, dizziness, nausea, infections, and allergic reactions. The risk is high when people brew it in unclean conditions. That makes it easy to taint during fermentation. Brewing or storing it in glazed ceramic pots has a link to lead poisoning, too.

Keep kombucha chilled to slow the fermentation and avoid a build up of carbonation.

Can a Bottle of Kombucha ‘Explode’?

It's important to always keep kombucha in the refrigerator, even before you drink it. If you leave a capped bottle at room temperature for a while, the carbonation in it could build up -- and you might get a surprise splash when you open the bottle. The cold of the fridge also slows the fermentation.

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REFERENCES:

  • Annals of Epidemiology: "Kombucha: a systematic review of the empirical evidence of human health benefit."
  • Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety:"A Review on Kombucha Tea -- Microbiology, Composition, Fermentation, Beneficial Effects, Toxicity, and Tea Fungus."
  • Food Science and Nutrition: "Evaluation of physicochemical properties and antioxidant activities of kombucha 'Tea Fungus' during extended periods of fermentation."
  • Neural Regeneration Research: "Polyphenols-gut microbiota interplay and brain neuromodulation."
  • Nutrients: "The Reciprocal Interactions between Polyphenols and Gut Microbiota and Effects on Bioaccessibility."
  • National Institutes of Health: "Probiotics."
  • U.S. Department of Agriculture: "Food Search: Kombucha."
  • Kombucha Brewers: "Kombucha FAQ."
  • Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "What Are B-Vitamins?"
  • American Cancer Society: "Common questions about diet and cancer."
  • Harvard: "Health benefits of taking probiotics," "Playing with the fire of inflammation," "Tea," "Vitamin B."
  • Penn State: "The Medical Minute: Kombucha offers a natural way to restore body's microbiome."
  • Michigan State University: "Kombucha tea: origin, ingredients and precautions."
  • NC State University: "Safe Plates for Home Food Preservation Fermentation."
  • UC San Diego Health: "Healing Foods for Healing Bodies."
  • Cleveland Clinic: "What Are Kombucha's Health Benefits (and How Much Can You Safely Drink)?"
  • Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Kombucha."
  • CDC: "Unexplained Severe Illness Possibly Associated with Consumption of Kombucha Tea -- Iowa, 1995."
  • Mayo Clinic: "What is kombucha tea? Does it have any health benefits?"
  • The University of Maine: "Microbial Diversity of the Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY) and its Impact on the Organoleptic Properties of Kombucha."
  • The Baltimore Sun: "Kombucha is steeped in controversy."
  • NPR: "Kombucha: Magical Health Elixir Or Just Funky Tea?"
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