What is Kombucha? Kombucha Health Benefits
Kombucha and Kombucha health benefits
This article explores Kombucha and its many health benefits.
Known as the “Immortal Health Elixir” and “Tea of Immortality” by the Chinese, Kombucha (pronounced kom-BOO-cha) is a slightly acidic, fermented tea drink that originated in the Far East around 2,000 years ago.
Kombucha has a rich anecdotal history of health benefits because it’s allegedly healthy for your gut, heart, brain and joints and is believed to reduce inflammation, prevent cancer, enhance immunity, improve digestion and alleviate pain associated with degenerative diseases such as arthritis.
Before diving into Kombucha health benefits, let’s first learn what Kombucha is, its history and how it’s made.
What is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a carbonated fermented drink made with black tea, filtered water, and sugar (from various sources such as honey, cane sugar or fruit). It’s considered a functional beverage because it contains colonies of probiotic bacteria, vitamins, minerals and enzymes that are associated with health benefits.
Priced around $3-$5 a bottle, it’s a popular health drink found in many health food and grocery stores. It can also be brewed at home using various methods.
Kombucha’s fizziness, flavor and low calories make it a healthy substitute for sugary drinks (like soda) and alcoholic beverages (like wine).
Quick history of Kombucha
Kombucha’s exact origins are unknown, but it’s believed to have originated in Northeast China (historically referred to as Manchuria) around 220 B.C. and was celebrated during the Tsin Dynasty (“Ling Chi”) for its healing and energizing properties.
Origin’s of Kombucha’s name
Its name is reportedly derived from Dr. Kombu, a Korean physician who brought the fermented tea to Japan as a digestive curative for Emperor Inkyo. The name “Kombucha” was created by combining the words “Kombu” (after the doctor) and “cha” (the Chinese name for tea): “Kombu-cha.”
The international expansion of Kombucha
In the early 20th century, trade routes expanded and Kombucha tea was brought to Europe, most notably appearing in Russia (as “Kambucha”, “Cainiigrib” and “Jsakvasska”) and Germany (as “Heldenpilz” and “Kombuchaschwamm”).
Kombucha tea experienced a drop in widespread popularity during World War II due to the shortage of tea leaves and sugar. It then became popular in Italy (as “Funkochinese”) in the 1950s and regained international popularity in the 1960s when researchers in Switzerland compared Kombucha’s health benefits to those of yogurt.
Kombucha in the United States
Kombucha was initially distributed in the United States by grassroots efforts when Kombucha makers would home brew the tea themselves and share their SCOBYs (see below) with others.
In 1995, the formal start of the domestic Kombucha industry began when a 17-year-old name GT (George Thomas) Dave started the company, GT’s Kombucha (now GT’s Living Foods) out of his parents’ kitchen. It has since grown to be one of the most popular Kombucha brands on the market.
Whacky fact: GT Dave drinks one-and-a-half-to-two gallons of Kombucha tea every day! Damn. That’s A LOT of fermented tea!
The 2000s have experienced a boom in the growth of Kombucha brands, including Kombucha beer brands like Unity Vibration. Kombucha beer is often a marriage of fresh-brewed kombucha, hops and seasonal flavors and is marketed as a healthier alternative to traditional beers because it has gluten-free and low calorie properties.
Unlike Kombucha that has to adhere to a non-alcoholic guideline of 0.5% alcohol by volume (ABV), Kombucha beer has a higher alcohol content because its allowed to naturally ferment for longer periods of time through a second fermentation. Kombucha beer is often not pasteurized, which preserves much of its live bacteria and associated health benefits and properties.
How is Kombucha made?
The process of preparing Kombucha can vary. It’s usually brewed with black tea, but can be made with green or white teas as well.
Brewing Kombucha involves a fermentation process where a SCOBY (“Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast”) is placed in a mixture of tea, water and sugar and left in a covered jar to ferment, undisturbed, at room temperature for 7-30 days. The SCOBY is then removed and saved for another batch. The tea mixture is then bottled for 1-2 weeks to contain released carbon dioxide and encourage carbonation. After this phase, the bottled Kombucha is placed in a refrigerator to slow down the fermentation process.
Fun fact: I contacted the headquarters of one of my favorite Kombucha brands, Health-Ade, to learn more about their products. They shared with me that they brew all their Kombucha in glass jars (as opposed to only bottling in glass), a process which they believe prevents metal and plastic leaching, and is a unique practice in the industry. They also stated that their flavors are made with fresh, organic cold-pressed juices, as opposed to pasteurized juices and other flavorings.
- DIY Kombucha: 60 Nourishing Homemade Tonics for Health and Happiness by Rockridge Press
- Kombucha: The Best Recipes For Making Kombucha At Home! by Angela Ray
- Kombucha Revolution: 75 Recipes for Homemade Brews, Fixers, Elixirs, and Mixers by Stephen Lee
- The Big Book of Kombucha by Hannah Crum
- True Brews: How to Craft Fermented Cider, Beer, Wine, Sake, Soda, Mead, Kefir, and Kombucha at Home by Emma Christensen
What is SCOBY?
The SCOBY, or “Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast” looks like a gelatinous beige or white rubbery pancake and is the collection of beneficial living microbes that turn the sweet tea into a healthy, probiotic beverage.
During Kombucha’s fermentation process, SCOBY encourages yeast and good bacteria growth and acts as a protective cover to the surface of the liquid to ward off undesirable bacteria. It creates a seal over the tea mixture that blocks air exposure so that fermentation can happen in an anaerobic (air-free) environment.
Additional names for SCOBY
The SCOBY is often called a “Mushroom” and Kombucha is sometimes called “Mushroom Tea.” Despite this name, SCOBY is not a mushroom nor does Kombucha contain mushrooms.
SCOBY is also referred to as “The Mother,” as it’s the parent culture that creates the Kombucha tea. During the brewing process, the SCOBY often creates a “baby” or secondary culture on top of itself, which can then be used to brew other batches. If you take care of a SCOBY, it will make several babies and can last for many years.
Where do you buy SCOBY?
If you’re interested in home-brewing Kombucha, you can get a SCOBY from a friend, purchase an organic SCOBY by itself or buy an organic Kombucha tea brewing kit on Amazon that comes with everything you need to brew Kombucha including the brew jar, one SCOBY, black tea, sugar, pH strips, temperature gauge and instructions.
What does Kombucha taste like?
After Kombucha tea is fermented, the finished drink doesn’t taste like brewed tea anymore. Kombucha has a slightly sweet, tart and tangy flavor, reminiscent of an earthy, vinegar-based drink. It has a flavor profile similar to sparkling apple cider but with a more pronounced sour taste.
The flavor varies widely by brand and home-brew method, and is dependent on the brewer’s technique as well as the type of tea, water and recipe used. Finished Kombucha tea can be flavored in a process called secondary fermentation by adding juices, fruit, flowers, spices or herbs. Depending on the added ingredients, the Kombucha can adopt a fruity, floral, spicy or herbaceous flavor.
What is floating around in my Kombucha?
Most Kombucha contains a brown, sludge-like stringy substance floating around in it. This weird looking matter is a normal and healthy byproduct of the fermentation process and is made mostly of yeast.
This grouping of yeast is commonly referred to as yeast flocculation. In brewing, flocculation is desirable and acts as a natural clarifying agent. The yeast is edible and has a neutral flavor. If its texture is off-putting to you, strain your Kombucha through a fine-mesh sieve before you drink.
Does Kombucha contain alcohol?
Yes. Due to its natural fermentation process, Kombucha contains a trace amount of alcohol. During fermentation, yeast consumes and ferments sugar which produces carbon dioxide and ethanol. This trace amount of alcohol in Kombucha varies from brew to brew.
In order to be sold as a non-alcoholic beverage under the guidelines of the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, Kombucha varieties must contain less than .5% ABV of alcohol. For context, a can of Miller High Life contains 4.6% ABV.
Does Kombucha contain caffeine?
Yes. Most Kombucha brands contain caffeine because Kombucha is commonly brewed from black or green tea. The fermentation process reduces the tea’s natural caffeine content and leaves about ⅓ of the caffeine.
Caffeine levels vary depending on brand – for example, GT’s Kombucha contains anywhere from 8 mg to 14 mg of caffeine per 8 oz serving, and Health-Ade Kombucha has between 6 and 10 mg of caffeine per 8 oz serving. To see how this compares with other caffeinated drinks, please refer to the caffeine chart below:
During the fermentation process, the SCOBY consumes over 90% of the sugar, which results in a finished product with a low sugar content. After fermentation, Kombucha becomes a carbonated, nutrient-rich beverage that contains vinegar, B vitamins, amino acids, enzymes, probiotics and a high concentration of acid (acetic, gluconic and lactic). Studies suggest people who drink these nutrients experience many health benefits (see “Kombucha Health Benefits” below).
The following probiotics make up this health elixir:
- Gluconacetobacter (>85 percent in most samples)
- Acetobacter (<2 percent)
- Lactobacillus (up to 30 percent in some samples)
- Zygosaccharomyces (>95 percent)
Nutrition facts will differ between brands and homemade brews, but here are the nutrition facts for one, 16-ounce bottle of GT’s Organic “Original Flavor” Kombucha:
- 60 calories
- 20 milligrams sodium
- 14 grams carbohydrate
- 4 grams of sugar
- 100 micrograms folate (25% DV)
- .34 grams riboflavin/vitamin B2 (20% DV)
- .4 milligrams vitamin B6 (20% DV)
- .3 milligrams thiamine/Vitamin B1 (20% DV)
- 4 milligrams niacin/Vitamin B3 (20% DV)
- 1.2 micrograms vitamin B12 (20% DV)
Six Kombucha health benefits
Six alleged Kombucha health benefits include:*
1. Helps prevent illness and disease
Kombucha tea may prevent infections and diseases due to its detoxification, anti-oxidation, anti-microbial and immunity boosting abilities.
- Polyphenols, flavonoids and ascorbic acid are powerful antioxidants found in Kombucha (but not in unfermented tea) that help detoxify the body and protect against illness and disease. These antioxidants reduce oxidative stress that damages cells and causes chronic inflammation (the root of most diseases), thus halting the growth and spread of cancerous cells.
- Kombucha tea has anti-microbial properties such as acetic aside and live cultures of good bacteria which may prove effective against a variety of pathogens by destroying bad bacteria responsible for infections. Lab studies have shown that, even at neutral values of pH, these anti-microbial agents provide protection against a range of microorganisms such as Staphylococcus aureus, Staphylococcus epidermis, Escherichia Coli, Salmonella enteriditis, Pseudomonas aeruginosa, Listeria monocytogens, and Helicobacter pylori (the bacteria that causes 90 percent of stomach ulcers).
- The probiotics and enzymes in Kombucha strengthen your immune defense by helping to heal your gut lining. When you immunity is strong, you can ward off illness.
- Kombucha also contains isorhamnetin, a metabolite of quercetin. Quercetin slows down the aging process, promotes a long lifespan and contains massive anticancer properties.
- Studies have shown that glucaric acid present in Kombucha is effective in the prevention of various types of cancers including colon, breast and pancreatic cancer.
2. Supports a healthy gut and improves digestion
Also known as the “second brain” of your body, your gut is the second largest part of your neurological system (next to the brain) and houses 80 percent of your immune system. To achieve optimal health and performance, a healthy gut is essential. Kombucha may help strengthen your digestive system by promoting a happy gut environment.
- Due to its fermentation process, Kombucha contains high levels of healthy bacteria (probiotics), amino acids and enzymes that line your digestive tract and support your immune system. They absorb nutrients, fight illness, protect your gastric tissues and decrease the secretion of excess gastric acid within your stomach.
- This restoration of balance to the digestive system also helps to heal candida and stomach ulcers.
3. Improves mental health
Kombucha contains amino acids, methylxanthine alkaloids (caffeine, theophylline and theobromine), ascorbic acid (vitamin C), and B vitamins (including B1, B6, B9 and B12). These nutrients promote a healthy nervous system and encourage positive mental health.
- These properties work together and inhibit the release of the stress hormone cortisol, battle depression, balance mood, and enhance concentration.
- The B vitamins in Kombucha, particularly vitamin B12, increase energy levels and contribute to overall mental wellbeing.
- The gut-repairing properties of Kombucha (mentioned above) also plays a role in mental health. It’s believed that depression and anxiety may be major symptoms of leaky gut, specifically due to the way that bad gut permeability contributes to inflammation. A healthy gut may improve such symptoms.
4. Improves cardiovascular health and prevents heart disease
Studies suggest Kombucha improves cardiovascular health by improving cholesterol levels within the body.
- Studies in 2012 and 2015 found that the anti-lipidemic properties of Kombucha tea helps to naturally maintain healthy levels of cholesterol by lowering triglyceride levels in the blood. In both studies, Kombucha delayed the absorption of LDL cholesterol (the bad stuff) and increased that of HDL (the good stuff). This suggests that drinking Kombucha may help reduce your risk of heart disease.
5. Helps detoxify and maintain a healthy liver
Since the liver helps to filter harmful compounds from the body, it’s a vital component in digestion and overall health. Antioxidants (such as Glucaric acid) found in Kombucha may promote detoxification by protecting the liver from oxidative stress and healing damage induced by acetaminophen overdose.
6. Supports joint health
Kombucha is a natural source of joint strengthening compounds called glucosamines.
- Glucosamine naturally increases the production of hyaluronic acid in the body, which reduces free radical damage, lubricates joints and cartilage and improves their elasticity. This helps relieve pain associated with degenerative joint diseases such as arthritis.
*Note: While studies suggest that Kombucha possesses health benefits due to its anti-microbial, anti-oxidant, free radical scavenging and detoxification effects, many of the studies have been performed “in vitro” or “in vivo” in animal models.
Not everyone will benefit from the health benefits of Kombucha. Here are precautions associated with drinking this tea:
- According to the Mayo Clinic, some people may experience stomach upset, nausea, allergic reactions or infections after drinking Kombucha. Unsterile conditions (where the tea is made) or the tea itself may be responsible.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that adults who have pre-existing health conditions (weak immune systems) and women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should consult with their doctors before drinking Kombucha.
- Kombucha is not recommended for children under four-years-old.
- Anyone taking the medication, Disulfiram, should not drink Kombucha because the alcohol in Kombucha tea will interact with the drug.
- Due to its trace amounts of alcohol, those with alcohol-related conditions such as alcoholism should avoid Kombucha.
Thoughts on Kombucha and Kombucha’s health benefits?
Kombucha is flavorful drink with a rich history and potential health benefits. Some people love it, while others hate it. I want to know what you think about Kombucha. Are you a fan? Please share your thoughts in the comment section below this article!
- Do you love or hate Kombucha?
- Have you brewed Kombucha at home?
- What’s your favorite store brand (and flavor)?
- Have you experienced health benefits after drinking Kombucha tea?
- Some people are skeptical of Kombucha and its link to health benefits. What do you think of this?
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When she is not slaying fat and building muscle, Jennifer can be found trekking barefoot, traveling, cooking and refining her photography skills. She also enjoys reading and writing about food culture, history and the science of human movement.