5 Fun Facts About Kombucha Tea

The Facts About Kombucha Tea

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If you read - and believe - what's published on the internet, you'd think that kombucha tea, a fermented drink with ancient roots, is a complete cure-all, fountain of youth, and energy elixir all rolled into one. This beverage has been purported to prevent cancer, relieve arthritis pain, enhance immunity, detox your liver (more on detox claims here), improve digestion, clear up acne, slow hair loss, and fight everyday fatigue.

Yet, not one of these claims is backed up by actual research in people. A 2003 review couldn't identify a single clinical study (that is, a trial performed in human subjects) on kombucha's benefits, and I wasn't able to find any published since that time. A handful of animal and laboratory cell studies have hinted at some potentially favorable findings, but that's the extent of it - and these types of studies don't satisfy the scientific burden of proof. And homemade versions of the drink may even have the potential to cause harm (more on that below).

Kombucha is made by adding a mix of bacteria and yeast cultures (in the form of a mass known as the kombucha "mushroom", mother, or SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) to sweetened tea. When left to ferment, the yeast break down the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas, which gives the drink its natural fizz. The bacteria then go to work on the alcohol, converting most of it into acids that are responsible for the drink's slightly sour or vinegary taste. However, kombucha does contain some residual alcohol (). Some people compare the drink's complex flavor to apple cider. Until recently, kombucha was primarily produced as a home-brew, but you can now find commercially bottled versions in health food stores and even some mainstream supermarkets.

Even if you aren't swayed by the more ridiculous health claims listed above, you may be wondering if kombucha's fermentation process makes it a good source of probiotics. Probiotics are often broadly described in the lay press as beneficial microbes that reside in your gut, but that's misleading. Not all so-called "good bugs" are established probiotics.

The International Scientific Association for Probiotics and Prebiotics (ISAPP) recognizes only a handful of specific strains that have demonstrated health effects in clinical studies as legitimate probiotics. Therefore, unless a kombucha drink (or any other food or beverage, for that matter) is formulated with these particular strains in the amounts required to achieve a benefit, and the bacteria have been shown to survive in sufficient quantities through the end of the product's shelf life, it doesn't qualify as a probiotic, no matter what the company website says. If you're looking to use probiotics as part of a comprehensive treatment plan for a digestive disorder or another condition, I recommend working with your physician to identify specific strains that have been proven to help. While fermented foods such as kombucha, yogurt, and kefir contain cultures that may promote overall digestive wellness, it's important to not overstate their health merits.

As for the widespread claim that kombucha increases energy, I'm skeptical - for those who report a difference, keep in mind that it could very well be a placebo effect (although if it works for you, there's no reason to give it up). Kombucha is also an alleged hangover cure, but if it does help, that's likely because it supplies fluids and a small dose of carbohydrates to combat the dehydration and low blood sugar caused by heavy alcohol consumption.

While there is little evidence to support the sweeping health claims popularly attributed to kombucha, there are some potential risks to consuming home-brewed versions. Ingestion of homemade kombucha has been linked to liver inflammation, jaundice, severe metabolic acidosis (acid build-up in the body), and other adverse health effects in a few cases, although the tea wasn't definitively identified as the cause of these issues and some of the individuals had compromised immune systems. The FDA and CDC warn that home-brewed kombucha produced under poorly regulated conditions can be contaminated with harmful microorganisms, particularly toxic molds. However, store-bought bottles are not considered risky because they are produced in a sterile, carefully controlled environment.

Maybe you don't care if kombucha has any special curative powers - maybe you just enjoy it and all of its unique funkiness. If you want to try kombucha, or you're already drinking and loving it, my advice is two-fold. First, stick to commercially produced bottles for safety purposes (in my opinion, there's just no reason to take a risk, no matter how small). Second, watch the sugar, especially if you're drinking kombucha on the regular. While traditional varieties can be fairly low in sugar, I've spotted brands that contain up to 24 grams per bottle in the form of cane juice, fruit juice, or fruit purees, likely to make the drink's taste acceptable to a broader audience. Be prepared to shell out about per drink...and don't expect any health miracles.

Last Updated:6/24/2014
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