Kombucha: What is it and what are its health benefits?

What is kombucha?

Kombucha is an ancient food that dates back to 220 BC. Some people say it can help prevent and control serious diseases, from high blood pressure to cancer. Unfortunately, these claims are not yet supported by scientific evidence. Valid medical studies of kombucha are limited. Some studies suggest that it may offer similar benefits to other probiotic foods such as yogurt. These probiotic benefits include promoting a healthy immune system and relieving stomach and intestinal problems such as diarrhea and constipation.

Kombucha is a fermented drink made from tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. The resulting liquid contains vinegar, B vitamins and a number of other chemical compounds. It is a fizzy, low-calorie drink that comes in a variety of flavors. Kombucha can be found in the refrigerated section of most grocery stores.

“I describe it as a fruit salad salad flavor. It’s fizzy, like soda, but also has a slight vinegary taste,” explains Nebraska Medicine nutritional therapist Meghan McLarney, RD, LMNT, CDE. “If you don’t like the taste but still want to enjoy the probiotic benefits of kombucha, try adding a splash to anything you like to drink or using it as a salad dressing.”

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Is kombucha healthy?

“Drinking kombucha is an easy, low-calorie way to add probiotics to your diet,” says McLarney. “It’s also a good alternative for those who may be vegetarian or can’t eat dairy, meaning they wouldn’t eat other probiotic foods like yogurt or kefir.”

Kombucha contains small amounts of sugar and caffeine. As a fermented drink, it also contains some alcohol. It’s important to always read labels, because the amounts of sugar, caffeine, and alcohol in kombucha can vary. According to the Alcohol Trade and Tax Office, most store-bought kombucha will be around 0.5% alcohol by volume. In comparison, a typical beer will be around 5% ABV. That means you’d have to drink at least 10 servings of kombucha to match the alcohol content of a single beer.

Is it safe to drink kombucha?

If you’re drinking kombucha that someone else made, keep in mind that the alcohol content can vary greatly in homebrews. There is also a risk of food poisoning, even with store-bought kombucha, because it contains live and active bacterial cultures. This is why proper handling and storage are important.

“In general, it’s probably safer to drink kombucha that you get from a trusted source, rather than trying to make your own,” says McLarney. “If you want to try homebrewing, learn from an experienced brewer. Don’t just follow any recipe you find on social media.”

Anyone at high risk for foodborne illness should stay away from foods that contain raw forms of the bacteria, including kombucha. This would include young children and pregnant or lactating women. If you have a weakened immune system or have had a serious infection or surgery on your intestines, there is a greater risk that bacteria can pass through the intestine and cause an infection of the blood or the whole body.

“For this reason, I also don’t favor probiotic foods like kombucha if you have a ‘leaky gut,’ colitis or celiac disease,” says McLarney. “Also, someone who has not managed HIV or has had a transplant involving their gut should be very careful. In these cases, the safest way to get probiotics is from cooked sources like sauerkraut.”

What’s the best way to add kombucha to my diet?

If you have specific health or dietary concerns, work with your doctor and a dietitian to determine the best way to add probiotics to your diet. “If you’ve never tried kombucha, start with a small amount and see how you feel after drinking it for a few days,” says McLaren. “If you like it, you’ll get plenty of probiotics by drinking 8 to 16 ounces a day.”

When it comes to probiotics, I don’t necessarily recommend one type of food over others,” says McLaren. “Eating a variety is important to avoid overdosing on just one type of bacteria, which could create an imbalance.”

If you find you don’t like kombucha, there are many other probiotic foods to try, including: yogurt, kefir, cured cheeses, kimchi, pickles, tempeh, and sauerkraut, to name a few. And if you’re concerned about adding new foods to your diet, the best place to start is to talk to your doctor or dietitian.