The Health Benefits of Kombucha — and How to Pick the Right Bottle

Your first sip of kombucha might make your nose tingle a bit. A sour, almost vinegary taste with the slightest hint of sweetness packs a big punch of flavor. While you may like the way kombucha tastes, many folks sip it for its purported health benefits.

Kombucha is packed with probiotics and vitamins, acting as a delicious and healthy alternative to soda. (Image: ThitareeSarmkasat/iStock/GettyImages)

Kombucha is gaining popularity in the United States, although, it's not a new beverage around the world. A Reuters report estimates that the kombucha market will more than triple to over 3 billion by 2023, so this kombucha trend is definitely catching on. Find out everything you need to know — from how the trendy drink is made to tips on picking the best brand at the store — below.

What Is Kombucha?

Kombucha is a bubbly drink made of fermented tea. Kombucha is widely available in grocery stores, but some people choose to make their own and control the brewing. A quick lesson on the process will help you understand what you're drinking when you grab that bottle.

So how is the effervescent drink made? "First, a small amount of previously brewed kombucha is added to sweetened tea," Willow Jarosh, RD with Health-Ade Kombucha, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "Then, the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast) is placed into the mixture and covered with a porous material and it sits at room temperature for seven to 10 days. At that time, it's bottled with organic fruit or veggie juices for flavoring," she says. "Sealing the mixture traps the gas released during fermentation and creates the delicious fizz."

Health Benefits of Kombucha

Kombucha is often referred to as a functional food, which is defined as a food that has a benefit to health when eaten regularly, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. That encompasses a lot of foods and might seem a little vague. You see, there is no FDA-regulated definition of the term "functional food."

Unfortunately, most of the hype surrounding kombucha is conjecture. The majority of the studies on kombucha have been done on animals, with only one quality study on humans published in 2002, according to a recent review published in February 2019 in Annals of Epidemiology. This is a case of science not keeping up with popularity.

Read on to find out what we do know about kombucha and its health benefits.

It May Help Your Gut

The main health benefit reported from drinking kombucha is its possible role as a probiotic and digestive aid. This has yet to be proven for kombucha specifically, but fermented foods are the go-to food for probiotics in the diet. Since kombucha is, in fact, a fermented beverage, many conclude that it must hold the same benefits as other fermented foods, such as kimchi, sauerkraut and yogurt.

Harvard Medical School indicates that probiotics help boost that good bacteria in the gut, which helps your immune system and lower inflammation. Some dietitians are skeptical of kombucha's probiotic benefits since strong human studies are lacking. "I am definitely not drinking it for the probiotics as I know that I would need a supplement for a clinical dose," Abbey Sharp, RD tells LIVESTRONG.com.

It Contains Vital Nutrients

In addition to the bacteria and yeasts that are found in kombucha, most kombucha teas contain a variety of B vitamins and possibly vitamin C. A February 2018 review published in CyTA Journal of Food found vitamins B1, B2, B6, and B12, along with vitamin C, which increased as the fermentation process continued. The researchers also noted the presence of sodium, potassium, magnesium and other trace minerals.

How to Choose The Right Kombucha

If you're not an experienced kombucha brewer, read up on the kombucha-making process thoroughly to be safe. Better yet, many cities are offering kombucha-making classes to help you in your endeavor.

If you're just grabbing a bottle of kombucha from the store, there are some things to look for:

  1. Make sure it's in the refrigerated aisle. If kombucha isn't refrigerated, it will continue to ferment and taste vinegary and unpalatable.
  2. Compare bottles to see which has the least added sugar. Most bottles of kombucha are labeled for two servings, so do your math. Try and stay around 4 to 10 grams of sugar per serving. Sugar is essential for fermentation, so you can't escape it. If you find a kombucha with more than 10 grams of sugar per serving, leave it on the shelf.
  3. Check the ingredient list for additives. Flavors added only through pure fruit or veggie juices or herbs and spices are best, Jarosh tells us. Avoid kombuchas with added flavors or colors.

Warning

Store-bought kombucha is safe to drink, but if you're thinking of trying your neighbor's homebrew, be warned. This is live bacteria we're talking about and if that batch of kombucha gets contaminated, or the SCOBY is moldy, it needs to be thrown out.

Kombucha as a Low-Sugar Soda Substitute

The bubbles in kombucha make it an enjoyable beverage if you love soda but don't want all of that extra sugar or artificial sweeteners. One 12-ounce can of Cola packs in 140 calories and nearly 40 grams, or 10 teaspoons' worth, of added sugar. That'll put a dent in anyone's healthy-eating plan.

The sugar content in kombucha can vary. Some kombuchas have added juice, which adds sugar, but most brands pack in around 8 grams (two teaspoons' worth) and 35 calories per 8 ounces. Nicole Chenard, RD and owner of Major League Nutrition, loves kombucha as a substitute for soda. "You're getting the fun bubbles and flavor of a soda without the calories and sugar, and you get the health benefits of green and black tea."

A Good Alcohol Alternative

Through the process of fermentation, kombucha may have trace amounts of alcohol. In order for it to be sold as a non-alcoholic drink, it must have less than 0.5 percent alcohol by volume, according to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. However, an FDA investigation found samples to be higher, around 0.7 to 1.3 percent alcohol. For reference, a light beer is roughly 4 to 5 percent alcohol by volume.

Angie Dye, RD and owner of Carpe Diem Nutrition, loves kombucha in place of alcohol. "Since moving to more intense triathlon training, I've eliminated alcohol almost entirely, and kombucha is my fun, fizzy pick-me-up that I look forward to around happy hour each day."

Who Shouldn't Drink Kombucha?

If you're pregnant, you shouldn't drink kombucha because of the risk of contamination and the alcohol content. Children also should not be drinking kombucha for the same reasons.

Lastly, anyone with a compromised immune system should stay away from homemade kombucha, since the potential probiotic benefit does not outweigh the risk. There are other ways to improve the health of your gut such as adding more fiber to your diet.

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