The Kombucha Enigma
Dec 13, 2018 12:00AM
● By Brian Saucedo
By Kelsey Casselbury
Slightly sweet, a little fizzy and, yes, a tiny bit alcoholic, kombucha has exploded in popularity as a “super-drink,” touted to do everything from help you lose weight to cure cancer. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though—this fermented tea probably isn’t the end-all, be-all of health beverages, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have benefits.
The history of kombucha is shrouded in a bit of mystery (which, let’s face it, makes it a little more appealing, doesn’t it?). It likely originated in China and parts of Russia, but other Asian countries such as Korea have their own kombucha origin stories, too. This history goes back thousands of years—a vague dating process, but that’s about all gastro-historians know.
The Making of Kombucha
The secret of kombucha, which is made of either black or green tea, rests in its SCOBY: Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. Essentially, it’s a puck-like blob of bacteria and yeast that eats up the sugar in the tea, producing vinegar and other acidic compounds, as well as a trace amount of alcohol and gas to carbonate the beverage. Yes, that means kombucha contains about one percent alcohol—not a lot if you drink just a glass or so a day, but could get you a little tipsy if you’re chugging pitcher after pitcher (for reference, beer commonly contains four to six percent alcohol). If you buy a bottle of kombucha, you probably won’t actually see the SCOBY, but it’s certainly alive and well in homemade versions.
A note about that, though: Some experts warn against making kombucha, though it’s certainly widespread in practice. It’s possible to contaminate or over-ferment homebrewed kombucha, which could result in serious health risks. If you’re at all concerned about this possibility, stick to store-bought kombucha (but look for brands low in added sugar, such as Health-Ade or GT).
Possible Health Benefits
There’s something to be said for the benefits of making kombucha with green tea (versus black), which has a good amount of polyphenols, an antioxidant that protects against the damaging effects of free radicals. However, the biggest benefit a kombucha drinker will reap is that from the significant probiotic content of the beverage.
A 2014 study published in Food Microbiology found that kombucha simply teams with a number of strains of healthful bacteria that supports a healthy gut. This can go a long way in easing gastrointestinal distress, such as in those who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). There’s some discussion around the idea that kombucha has protective benefits against heart disease and infection-causing bacteria, but it’s best not to make it your sole defense—the research is scant.