September 2017

Kombucha: Strange Brew, Passing Fad, or Magic Elixir? Your handy dandy guide to fizzy fun and good health

Author: Linda S. Hopkins

Go ahead. Ask Siri, Alexa, your hip teenager or one of your health-focused friends. Or, simply go to your favorite search engine and look up kombucha. You will find over 30 million references to the fizzy, fermented tea (pronounced kômˈbo͞oCHə) that is on the tips of tongues today. For some of us, kombucha is a new discovery, but it turns out the recent surge in popularity hasn’t been all that sudden. The trendy drink has been around for over 2,000 years and is the fastest growing “functional beverage” currently on the market. Once relegated to specialty health food stores and known mostly to people interested in alternative and preventive medicine, kombucha has gradually made its way to the mainstream and into the hands of consumers who simply enjoy the drink and/or hope to reap some of its purported benefits.

What the heck is it, and is it good for me?
Originating in the Far East and known as the “Immortal Health Elixir” by the Chinese, kombucha is a beverage boasting a slew of health benefits. It has been touted to cure, or at least improve, conditions ranging from digestive problems to arthritis and even cancer. But it has also been maligned as a potentially toxic beverage. As with most products, the truth lies somewhere in between.

“I would be wary of calling kombucha a remedy or a magic food,” said Maggie Neola, RD, a dietitian at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a non-profit research and advocacy organization that promotes preventive medicine. After all, glorifying one food over another isn’t the way nutrition works. A healthy diet is all about variety.”

That said, Neola noted benefits to the drink, including healthy antioxidants and polyphenols inherent to all teas.

“But because it’s fermented, you see more of that probiotic push in kombucha.”

Sounds good so far, right? But kombucha’s probiotics can also come with a downside. That’s because unpasteurized versions of the drink can pose a risk of stomach upset or a serious case of food poisoning. Pasteurization reduces that risk, but at the same time, kills off both harmful and helpful bacteria. The good news is, while pasteurization results in the absence of a live culture, the beneficial organic acids resulting from the fermentation process remain.

Fermented foods like kombucha may improve the health of your intestinal cells, boost your immune function, and cut your risk of allergy and chronic disease, but these benefits aren’t unique to kombucha—but rather probiotic-rich or fermented foods in general, Neola explained.

Kombucha is highly acidic and contains some alcohol resulting from the fermentation process. To be sold legally as a non-alcoholic drink, the alcohol content cannot exceed 0.5 percent. (More requires a permit from the federal government.) Kombucha has about 30 calories per eight ounces (mainly from the sugar), which is considerably less than other soft drinks or fruit juices. Just like other teas, kombucha contains caffeine.

The drink has a slight effervescence and sweet-tart flavor, sometimes described as vinegary. It often has small remnants of the bacteria mix floating in it, which sounds unappealing but is not much different from finding a bit of sediment in your wine. You can gently roll or turn the bottle to mix the sediment in, but do not shake it. Like any carbonated drink, it can fizz over the top when opened.

How is it made?
Making kombucha requires a starter culture, similar to a sourdough starter or yogurt culture. Kombucha is produced by adding the culture of bacteria and yeast to a solution of tea, sugar and sometimes fruit juice and other flavorings. It’s often referred to as “mushroom-tea” because during the brewing process the bacteria and yeast grow into a mass that resembles a mushroom cap. The bacteria created in the SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) contains probiotics much like the “good bacteria” naturally found in our digestive system.

If you wish to brew your own, you can find starters (called mothers) for kombucha on the Internet and via social networking. In this case, a patty of already-fermented tea is passed on. This patty will grow and split into smaller pieces (babies) during the next round of fermentation and can, again, be passed on. Here’s a good place to get started:

One important thing to note about kombucha, though, is that home-brewing can be dangerous if you don’t know what you are doing. The greatest risks arise when the brew becomes contaminated because of improper preparation and/or when kombucha interacts with alcohol or prescription drugs.

Only drink homemade kombucha if you are certain it has been properly brewed, and opt for a reputable, commercial brand when buying it bottled. To be on the safe side, children, pregnant women and people with compromised immune systems should drink only the pasteurized version.

Where can I buy it?
You can buy bottled kombucha, both pasteurized and unpasteurized, in various flavors everywhere from health food stores to supermarkets to restaurants, juice bars, and breweries. Kombucha tea has a long and safe track record when basic sanitary and hygiene standards are met and care is used in brewing and maintaining the cultures.

Blake Wearren, owner of Delishee Yo, a Hilton Head Island restaurant specializing in vegetarian and vegan fare, has been making kombucha for over seven years, perfecting the process and experimenting with flavors based on raw foods available to him locally and from his own garden. It takes about two weeks to harvest a new batch and he typically has several flavors on hand. The secret to their deliciousness, he said, is in the second round of fermentation, when fruits and other fresh ingredients are added. You can buy a shot for $2. Small, medium, and large portions are available, or you can purchase a liter for $20.

Other local sources of freshly brewed kombucha include Smooth on Hilton Head Island, offering daily shots and FARM in Bluffton, currently featuring a Watermelon Shrub Martini made with Tito’s vodka, house brewed kombucha, and basil.

A few popular brands of commercially available kombucha include GT’s, Health Ade, Lenny Boy, KeVita, Synergy, Kombucha Wonder Drink, Reed’s Culture Club, and many more. Find them in the refrigerated section of your favorite grocery store. Look for flavor combinations that appeal to you and try different brands to discover the ones you like best. But a word of caution: Because kombucha affects gut flora, it’s recommended to start with a small portion (5 ounces or less) until you know how your body responds. If you try kombucha and feel digestive discomfort or experience any other new symptoms, discontinue use and check with your doctor.

Bottom line
Kombucha is a perfect drink any time of the day. It’s a healthy alternative to alcohol, coffee, or soda and will complement any meal. Kombucha is rich in probiotics and contains far fewer calories than most soft drinks and juices. It is not a magic potion, but it is a potentially healthful drink. As with any food or drink, it is wise to enjoy in moderation.

Potential Health Benefits of Kombucha Tea
• Strengthens immune system
• Boosts energy and increases metabolism
• Detoxifies the gut and liver
• Improves digestion and relieves constipation
• Improves circulation
• Balances pH levels
• Relieves arthritis pain and decreases inflammation
• Reduces blood pressure
• Improves eyesight

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