If you've so much as set foot inside a health food store, you're familiar with kombucha. As far as drinks that have transcended hipster status go, it's right up there with green juice and coconut water. Restaurants and bars are putting it on tap next to their craft brews. In other words, kombucha has officially arrived. And in the process, it has gained a rep as a health tonic for everything from gut trouble and diabetes to depression, high cholesterol, and even cancer.
But is the slightly sour-tasting drink really a magic health potion, or just another health fad?
A quick refresher: Kombucha is a mixture of black or green tea and sugar that's fermented with the help of a SCOBY (that's short for symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). The SCOBY is a blob of live bacteria that sits on top of the tea mixture and turns it into the carbonated beverage you know and (maybe) love.
What are the kombucha health benefits I should know about?
Honestly, it would be pretty much impossible for kombucha to live up to every single health claim associated with it. (If it did, you'd be shelling out way more than $4 per bottle.) And so far, research on the drink is scant. One study found the bubbly brew may help lower both cholesterol and blood sugar levels in mice, but researchers haven't replicated these findings in humans yet.
Still, if you break down all the components in the drink, you're still looking at some pretty promising health benefits, says WH advisor Samantha Nazareth, MD, a gastroenterologist who practices in New York City. Some of the goodies you're getting:
1. Probiotics for your gut
Like other fermented foods such as kimchi and sauerkraut, kombucha contains probiotics, the beneficial bacteria that have been linked to gut health, says Nazareth. Having the right balance of microbes in your gut helps with immunity, digestion and balancing blood sugar, and the probiotics in the drink can help identify bad bacteria—the foreign invaders we want to get rid of.
The probiotics in kombucha come from the sugar and yeast from the SCOBY, so they're a different strain than what's found in fermented cabbage, but the benefit is likely similar, notes Nazareth.
2. Polyphenols to fight disease
Kombucha like green and black tea, is rich in polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that fight free radicals and repair damaged cells, says Nazareth. Tea polyphenols may even protect against some forms of cancer and cardiovascular disease, according to recent research in CyTA - Journal of Food. Tea also contains flavonoids, which have been associated with a lower risk of cancer, notes Keri Gans, RD, author of The Small Change Diet.
3. Acetic acid to kill off bad bacteria
Kombucha also contains acetic acid, an anti-microbial agent that's found in vinegar, including apple cider vinegar (a.k.a. ACV). The acid can kill off bad bugs that enter our systems when you eat, says Nazareth.
So I should grab a bottle right now?
With so many nutritional hard-hitters, it's tempting to have a daily 'booch, but experts say that might not be the best idea.
When people first started drinking kombucha thousands of years ago, they took it as a shot, multiple times a day, says Nazareth. That was probably a good idea. The Centers for Disease Control recommends sticking to less than 350mls a day. (FYI: most bottles contain 475mls.) How come? According to the Mayo Clinic, kombucha may lead to stomach upset, infections and allergic reactions.
Another reason not to overdo it: Kombucha is made with sugar, so you're getting a hefty dose of the sweet stuff. Popular brands have around six or seven grams of sugar per serving. And don't forget, there's two servings in a bottle. That's 14 grams out of the 25 grams you're supposed to per day, points out Nazareth."Compared to soda, it's a better choice, but know you're still getting some sugar."
"Look for brands that have less than four grams of sugar per serving, and drink them in small amounts," says WH advisor and integrative physician Frank Lipman, MD, founder of the Eleven Eleven Wellness Center in New York City. He recommends mixing kombucha with a seltzer water to dial down the sugar content.
Also good to know: Because kombucha is fermented it does contain traces of alcohol, some brands more than others, says Gans. It also it has caffeine, which, as any coffee drinker knows, can make you anxious or unable to sleep when you quaff too much.