The Truth About Kombucha (and its Health Benefits)
Lately, when scrolling my Instagram feed, I have been seeing a lot of posts by celebrities and my more health-conscious friends talking about the health benefits of a beverage known as kombucha.
I have even come across the beverage on supermarket shelves two or three times.
Still, I haven’t been paying much attention to this seemingly “magical drink.”
When I went out to a café last week with one of my friends and he ordered this strange drink, however, I felt I had to know what it really is. I couldn’t really trust the friend to give me a good explanation of what kombucha is since all he did was sing its praises.
There is a high chance that you have also come across this drink that is all the rage and you might also be wondering what exactly it is and whether it is really as good as claimed to be.
After much research, I am now ready to tell you the truth about kombucha.
WHAT IS IT?
Kombucha is a fermented sweet-and-sour tea beverage.
Those who have tried the drink will tell you that it has a peculiar taste.
The taste depends a lot on the flavors that may have been added to the drink.
Kombucha is not something new. It has been around for over 2000 years and is said to have originated in northeast China.
It then found its way to Japan, where a doctor named Kombu used it to treat Emperor Inkyo’s digestive problems.
The drink gets its name from this doctor. The term Kombucha can be translated to mean Kombu’s tea.
There are claims that the name comes from a Japanese sea weed known as Konbu, though these are just mere claims, since Kombucha is not made from sea weed.
Kombucha then spread to neighboring Russia, before finding its way to Europe where it became wildly popular in the early 20th century.
The drink first started appearing in the United States in the 1960s, though it has recently gained a lot of growth in popularity, thanks in part to the growing health consciousness by Americans and the claims that kombucha can prevent and cure numerous health problems, from hair loss and digestive problems to AIDs and cancer.
It has even been nicknamed as the “tea of immortality.”
Today, you will find kombucha being sold in most grocery stores, supermarkets, and cafes.
If you want to, you can even brew your own kombucha at home.
The recent increase in the popularity of kombucha has led to the growth of a new industry that was valued at $0.97 billion in 2018 and is predicted to reach $3.8 billion by 2023.
HOW KOMBUCHA IS MADE
Kombucha is essentially tea that has been allowed to ferment. Fermentation is the process by which bacteria and yeast chemically break down a substance.
In order for the tea to ferment and form kombucha, it needs some extra ingredients, such as sugar and yeast.
The first step in making kombucha is to brew either black or green tea. It’s good to note that kombucha cannot be made from herbal tea.
The tea must be from the tea plant.
Once the tea has been brewed, sugar is added while the water is boiling.
Sugar is important since it provides the yeast with something to feed on during the fermentation process.
It’s also good to note that kombucha has to be made using regular sugar. If fake sugars are used, the tea will not ferment.
After adding sugar, the tea is left to cool for a while before some vinegar is added to the mixture.
Cooling prevents the fermentation culture, which is alive, from dying due to high temperatures, while the vinegar also aids in fermentation.
Finally, the fermentation culture, also known as the mother, mushroom, or SCOBY is added to the mixture. SCOBY stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.
The bacteria and yeast feed on the sugar during the fermentation process, resulting in the sweet-sour drink we know as kombucha.
For kombucha to form, the mixture is left to ferment over a period of one or two weeks.
After the fermentation is complete, the final brew contains a number of components, including:
- Ethanol: The fermentation process produces ethanol (alcohol). However, the amount of ethanol in the just brewed kombucha makes up only about 0.5% of the drink. Ethanol and acetic acid (from the vinegar that went into the brew) have antimicrobial effects and prevent the kombucha brew from being contaminated. It is good to note that sometimes, after the kombucha brew is bottled, the alcohol content can increase to between 2 and 5%.
- Carbonic acid: During the fermentation process, the yeast produce carbon dioxide as they digest the sugars. This is what makes kombucha fizzy.
- Sugar: While the yeast and bacteria feed on the sugar during the fermentation process, they don’t use up all of it, and some of it remains in the drink.
- Vitamins: The breakdown of sugars by yeast releases some vitamins, especially B and C vitamins.
- Acetic acid: This comes from the vinegar that is added to the brew to aid in the fermentation process. Some acetic acid is also produced during the fermentation process. While acetic acid is considered to be healthy, sometimes it can react with the alcohol in the kombucha to form acetates, which can be harmful to your health. If you notice an acetone-like smell coming from your kombucha, don’t drink it.
- Lactic acid: This is also produced during the fermentation process, and contributes to the laxative effect some people experience after drinking kombucha.
- Lactase and invertase: These are enzymes that the yeast and bacteria produce to help in the breakdown of sugar.
- Acids: Kombucha contains a number of acids, including gluconic, usnic, amino, glucuronic, and other acids.
- Caffeine: Kombucha contains small amounts of caffeine, which come from the tea that was used in the brewing process.
- Cellulose: Kombucha may also contains some bits of cellulose, which appear as little particles in the kombucha brew.
- Additives: Sometimes, some brands of kombucha will have some additives to give the drink a unique flavor.
DOES KOMBUCHA HAVE ANY HEALTH BENEFITS?
Like I mentioned earlier, the growing popularity of kombucha can be largely attributed to the claims that kombucha can cure or prevent all kinds of illnesses.
Advocates of kombucha say that it is good for warding off high blood pressure, detoxifying the body, preventing cancer and heart diseases, improving digestion, restoring your hairline, the list is endless.
But are all these claims true?
Considering that this drink has been around for over two thousand years, we can’t just write it off.
It must have something to offer.
However, many of the claims about the numerous diseases it can cure and prevent are just that – claims.
Many of them have not been substantiated scientifically. Still, that is not to say that kombucha has no benefits.
Below are some reasons why kombucha might be good for you.
It Contains Antioxidants
The normal processes inside the body result in the release of free radicals.
The accumulation of these free radicals in the body can result in oxidative damage and health problems.
The key to preventing the accumulation of free radicals in the body is to have a diet rich in antioxidants.
Fortunately, kombucha, especially the type that is brewed from green tea, contains a type of antioxidants known as polyphenols.
Some research has also shown that the fermentation process can increase the antioxidant properties of kombucha.
Therefore, kombucha can be good for your health since its antioxidant properties help combat free radicals.
It is Rich in Probiotics
One of the greatest health benefits of kombucha is that it is rich in probiotics.
The process of fermentation during the making of kombucha leads to the production of a large amount of probiotic bacteria.
Inside our guts, we have an ecosystem that is made up of both good and bad bacteria.
The probiotic bacteria produced during the kombucha fermentation process belong to the category of good gut bacteria.
Drinking kombucha provides your gut with more of the good bacteria.
Considering the age-old truth that majority of diseases begin in the gut, drinking Kombucha can lead to a lot of health benefits by ensuring that there is a good balance of gut flora.
It Might Be Good For Your Immunity
Aside from the benefits in the gut, the healthy bacteria you get from drinking kombucha are also said to make other bodily processes more efficient.
One of the bodily functions that is said to gain a lot of benefits from these healthy bacteria is the immune system.
However, it is good to note that the effect of the probiotics gotten from kombucha on the immune system has not been scientifically proven.
It Might Help With Weight Loss
Kombucha is also believed to be good for people trying to lose some weight.
One study found that the good bacteria in the gut play an important role in maintaining a healthy weight.
Kombucha provides you with these healthy bacteria and can therefore contribute to weight loss.
In addition, kombucha contains a very low amount of calories compared to other fizzy beverages like soda.
Therefore, it can be a good alternative for people trying to lose weight. Still, you should keep in mind that kombucha is not a magic bullet.
If you don’t accompany it with other interventions like regular exercise and a balanced diet, no amount of kombucha will help you lose weight.
Aside from the aforementioned benefits, some studies conducted on animals have shown that drinking kombucha can help lower levels of blood sugar and cholesterol.
However, no research has been conducted to find out whether it has the same effects on human beings.
ARE THERE ANY RISKS ASSOCIATED WITH KOMBUCHA?
While kombucha certainly does have its benefits, it is not without risks either.
Remember, the process of making kombucha involves allowing bacteria to grow inside something you are going to drink.
Many of these bacteria are considered to be healthy and beneficial to the body.
Sometimes, however, especially when the fermentation process has not been properly regulated, molds and harmful bacteria can grow inside the drink, leading to contamination.
There have been several reports of people falling ill after drinking kombucha.
Some of the illnesses that have been reported include stomach upsets, nausea, accumulation of lactic acid in the body, kidney problems, allergic reactions, liver toxicity and other liver problems, metabolic acidosis, and skin diseases.
At least one death has also been associated with drinking kombucha.
Owing to the risk of contamination, the product research group Consumer Reports does not recommend drinking of kombucha.
However, according to the FDA, kombucha is safe to drink provided it has been brewed properly under sanitary conditions.
Some of the reasons why you might want to reconsider drinking kombucha include:
It May Contain Harmful Yeast
There are no approved standards for brewing kombucha.
The culture used by one kombucha brand might be very different from the culture used by another brand, which might also be different to the culture you use to brew your own kombucha at home.
In addition, since the kombucha culture is usually recycled, as the microbes work together, it is possible that they can trigger the growth of another type of microbe, which might turn out to be harmful to your health.
The environment in which the kombucha is brewed also affects the composition of the kombucha culture.
The point here is that kombucha is essentially a wild ferment. You can never be a hundred percent sure what is in the culture that was used to brew the kombucha you are drinking.
Therefore, there is always the possibility that kombucha might be contaminated with molds, fungi, and other harmful bacteria and yeast that might cause illness.
For instance, one study found traces of candida albicans – an opportunistic yeast that causes various illnesses – in some samples of homebrewed kombucha.
It Contains Alcohol
During the brewing of kombucha, many of the yeast strains used to induce fermentation are the same ones used in the production of beer and wine.
One of these is a strain of yeast known as Z. bailii.
During the fermentation process, the yeast feed on the sugar inside the mixture and produce alcohol and carbon dioxide.
Sometimes, the amount of alcohol in kombucha can be as high as 5%.
If the Z. bailii strain of yeast was used, it also produces a compound known as acetaldehyde.
Acetaldehyde is a carcinogen and an irritant that can also be found in car exhaust and cigarette smoke.
Acetaldehyde is what causes you to feel a hangover after a night of heavy drinking.
High levels of acetaldehyde in the body can lead to nausea, vomiting, skin flushing, sweating and a rapid pulse.
It May Contain Fluoride and Heavy Metals
The SCOBY that is used in the brewing of kombucha is biosorbent.
This means that it has certain metal-sequestering properties that allow it to accumulate and bind heavy metal contaminants onto its cellular structure.
Yeasts, algae and bacteria with biosorbent properties are used to reduce the concentration of heavy metals from wastewater and the environment.
Studies have shown that SCOBY used in the brewing of kombucha is very effective in cleaning up heavy metals such as arsenic, chromium, and copper from wastewater.
Owing to the biosorbent properties of the kombucha tea fungus (SCOBY), it is possible for kombucha to be contaminated with some of these heavy metals. Indeed, some studies have found traces of lead and chromium in kombucha.
There have even been reports of people suffering from lead poisoning after drinking kombucha. Another study published in Food Chemistry also found fluoride in kombucha in significantly higher amounts than is found in unfermented black tea.
The point here is that during the brewing process, the tea fungus can absorb pollutants.
Therefore, the quality of the water used in brewing kombucha as well as the air in the environment is very important.
If the water or air contains heavy metal pollutants, it can result in the contamination of the kombucha brew and lead to health problems.
It Contains Sugar
Sometimes, those singing the praises of kombucha will claim that it has no sugar.
They claim that the sugar that goes into the drink early during the brewing process is used up by the yeast and bacteria during the fermentation process.
While the bacteria and yeast do consume the sugar during the fermentation process, a significant amount of sugar still remains in the brew after fermentation.
According to researchers from Bucharest University, only about 66% of the sugar gets used up after the brew has been left to ferment for seven days.
This is why kombucha still has a sweet taste, despite being fermented.
If left to ferment for 21 days, the amount of sugar used up may rise up to 81%.
Therefore, if you are looking for a sugar-free beverage, kombucha might not be for you.
If you are conscious about the amount of sugar you consume, you should check the nutritional label to find out the sugar content before buying kombucha.
However, this might also not be very effective since another study also found that many Kombucha brands contain more sugar than is stated on the label.
It is Possible to Drink Too Much Kombucha
We saw earlier that lactic acid is one of the components found in kombucha.
Drinking too much kombucha might lead to a buildup of too much lactic acid in the bloodstream resulting in a condition known as lactic acidosis, which can be life-threatening.
However, you would have to drink several bottles at once before suffering from lactic acidosis.
Avoid Kombucha if You Don’t Know Where it’s From
We have already seen that the environment in which kombucha was brewed, as well as the culture used and the brewing process has a huge effect on the final brew.
If the kombucha was brewed a poorly sanitized environment or put through an improper fermentation process, there is a possibility that it could be contaminated and dangerous.
Therefore, you should avoid drinking the kombucha if you are not sure where it was made and the quality of their brewing process.
If you prefer brewing kombucha at home, you should also be very careful. If you don’t follow the right procedures, your kombucha brew could potentially get contaminated by harmful yeasts and bacteria.
You should only use a culture and brewing process if you trust the source.
The kind of containers you use during the preparation process can also lead to contamination.
It is always advisable to use glass containers during the brewing process.
Avoid using plastic and ceramic containers since they might leach undesirable elements such as lead into your brew.
Plastic containers might also get damaged without your knowledge and harbor harmful bacteria that end up contaminating your brew.
So, should you take up kombucha or should you totally avoid it?
I’d say that is up to you. From the evidence, the claims by kombucha advocates that the drink is a miracle elixir that cures all sorts of malady are just claims. There is no evidence to back these claims.
At the same time, the drink has some potential health benefits owing to its high content of antioxidants and probiotics. Its benefits can be compared to those of other fermented foods.
Therefore, if you wanted to take up kombucha because it will cure assorted illnesses, you will be disappointed.
On the other hand, if you find it enjoyable, there is nothing wrong with drinking it. As with any other food, it is always to enjoy it in moderation.
Finally, I want to close by emphasizing that you should avoid drinking kombucha unless you are sure that it was made under sanitary conditions and following the right procedures.
If you are buying bottled kombucha, always go for reputable brands which give you the assurance that their brew has been put through safety tests.