What is kombucha?
Kombucha is a drink made from fermented black or green tea. It originated in China over 2,000 years ago but has only recently become popular as a commercial product due to its perceived health benefits (more on that later).
Making kombucha involves adding a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast to sugary tea. This creates a sort of fungus that can be used as a starter for future batches. It also gives kombucha the (inaccurate) nickname “mushroom tea”.
Fermentation usually takes a week or two. This process creates organic compounds in the tea that increase its acidity. That acidity is not only responsible for kombucha’s unique, slightly vinegary taste, but also increases its shelf-life considerably. This is also the case with other fermented products, from sauerkraut and kimchi to alcoholic drinks and even yoghurt.
Is kombucha good for you?
The health benefits of kombucha tea are as widely touted as they are disputed. At the very least, kombucha benefits from being rich in antioxidants and probiotics (so-called “healthy bacteria”). The extent to which simply drinking these things can improve your health, however, is disputed.
It’s worth noting that scientific research on kombucha’s effects on the human body is very limited, although there is some evidence to suggest it might help with certain gut disorders. (Although some gut disorders can also make consuming fermented foods a problem.) For most people, however, you would likely need to drink kombucha all the time to gain any possible health benefits. But as well as potentially upsetting the body’s pH balance, this would mean consuming an unhealthy amount of sugar.
There are other good reasons to be cautious. More extreme claims that kombucha can help treat everything from poor blood pressure to cancer are unfounded. While some research suggests it could play a role in preventing such ailments, the jury is still out.
Also, there is potential in the fermentation process for contamination, which can potentially lead to hepatic and renal toxicity. While this is unlikely in commercially available products, which are pasteurized, making your own homemade kombucha requires a lot of care. Make sure you’re properly informed on sterilization methods and the right equipment to use before making kombucha at home.
Is kombucha good for digestion?
The idea that fermented products, including kombucha, might be good for digestion is based on two things.
The first is their high probiotic content. But while probiotic microbes play an important part in digestion, it isn’t quite that simple. This is because most of these microbes will not survive the journey from your mouth to your gut. Therefore the extent to which they can assist the digestion of other foods is disputable.
The second reason why fermented products are thought to be good for digestion is that fermentation is effectively a form of pre-digestion. That means they are often easier to digest themselves. This does not support the claim that kombucha can improve your digestive health as a whole, but it may mean that drinking it may be easier on your body than other, non-fermented drinks.
A healthy and varied diet will be more beneficial to your digestive health overall, but drinking kombucha could very well play a part in that. Not everybody reacts equally to fermented products, however. If you sometimes suffer an upset stomach after eating, say, sauerkraut or kimchi, kombucha may not be for you.
Does kombucha have caffeine?
Both green and black teas contain caffeine. As kombucha is based on one of the two, it’s reasonable to assume it also does. And you’d be right.
But it’s unlikely to replace your morning cup of joe. The fermentation process reduces the tea’s caffeine content considerably. Typically, only about ⅓ of the caffeine from the original tea remains in kombucha. While you might be uncomfortable with your kids downing a bottle of the stuff, most coffee-harded adults are unlikely to notice much of an effect.
If you’re strictly off the caffeine though, there are kombucha-like, vinegar-based tonics you might prefer as an alternative, such as shrubs, switchels and oxymels.
Is there alcohol in kombucha?
Like most fermented products, kombucha does contain alcohol. Don’t expect to get wasted on it though!
Kombucha typically contains only trace amounts of alcohol. Commercial kombucha teas often won’t advertise the alcohol content as it usually comes in at under 0.5%. In many places, that isn’t enough to legally require publishing its volume.
The amount of alcohol is less predictable in homemade kombucha though, where it can sometimes be roughly equivalent to a light beer (3%).
There are a few reasons for this difference. The type of yeast used can have an effect, as can the amount of time the kombucha is left to ferment (the longer it ferments, the more alcohol that’s created). However, commercial kombucha producers are also able to remove excess alcohol during distillation – a process that very few home-brewers have the capacity for.