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Kombucha: Health Friend Or Foe?

Here in the Northwest, you can’t go to any coffee shop or natural foods store without seeing the option to purchase the beverage kombucha. You would think that by now I’d know what it is. But the truth is, I’ve tasted it, but I have no idea what it is and why I should drink it. What I’ve heard about it consists of the following: it’s fermented, it makes you healthier, and it helps with digestion.

I wanted to take a good hard look at kombucha (and perhaps a take big drink of it) to understand why it has become such a popular supplement for those who choose a healthy lifestyle. Do trusted health sources back up claims of its health benefits? Have any people found that rather than making them healthier, it actually made them feel bad? Is it something that I would want to add to my diet?

But first, what is it?

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Kombucha is simply fermented black or green tea. Like any fermented beverage, it requires some liquid (tea), sugar, and some fermenting agent. In this case, the fermenting agent is the kombucha culture, a symbiotic mix of yeast and other microorganisms. A typical batch of kombucha is acidic and contains vitamin B, antioxidants, sugar, other chemical compounds, and a tiny amount of alcohol due to the fermentation process.

Some people, including me, describe it as having a vinegary taste with a little effervescence. But it’s also sweet. For me, it’s not an entirely pleasing taste, but perhaps I just haven’t given it a chance—it may be one of those acquired tastes.

An interesting side note: I always assumed that the drink originated in Japan, given the name. Interestingly, the origins of the drink and name appear unknown, though it seems likely the name, though not the drink,comes from the Japanese drink, Konbucha, a drink made from dried, powdered kelp.

Is all kombucha the same?

Kombucha comes in a seemingly limitless variety of flavors. On one site that asked kombucha drinker’s for their favorite flavors, comments ranged from pumpkin pie spice to ginger and lemon to a combination of nettles, reshi and hibiscus.

Many people make their own, finding it more cost-effective to do so. Here’s a step-by-step primer on making kombucha. Although the site is a bit rough, the author gives a thorough description of the process, pictures included. One thing to consider when making it at home—some bacteria strains in your kombucha may be probiotics, but if conditions are not sterile when making it, you may accidentally create a drink filled with harmful bacteria.

Does it really offer health benefits?

Various sources claim that as any probiotic, it aids digestion. That seems reasonable. However, many also believe that it detoxifies, boosts the immune system, and prevents cancer, diabetes, and hair loss. Those I wasn’t too sure about, so I did some looking around on the Internet for reliable sources. I wanted to see if any studies supported those claims.

Sadly, there aren’t too many studies. Here’s what I did find, though:

Currently no evidence really backs up health claims of kombucha. In fact, in 2003, physician and researcher Edzard Ernst systematically reviewed all available medical studies to determine if kombucha offered health benefits and was safe to consume. His study found that no evidence to support the health claims. Instead, his study uncovered potential adverse effects, such as metabolic acidosis (a build up of too much acid in the body) or toxic reactions from contaminated kombucha. Based on that, he does not recommend it as a dietary health supplement.

recent Mayo Clinic article and one on WebMD provide the same cautions as Ernst, though the WebMD article quotes Chicago nutritionist Janet Helm, MS, RD as saying that if you still want to drink it, get one that is prepared commercially and that has been pasteurized.

In this age of information, I have to say that I was surprised that I couldn’t find more recent controlled studies of kombucha. Ernst’s study was done in 2003—that’s quite a while back. I’d love to see a more recent study done.

My Take on Kombucha (for Now)

Based on what I’ve learned, I won’t drink kombucha expecting tons of health benefits. I might just drink it because I like it (assuming that now I’ve acquire a taste for it) and because it might aid in digestion.

If you have any experience with kombucha—good or bad—I’d love to hear about it. And if you know of any more recent studies about it, please share!

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