Kombucha, a fermented brewed tea beverage, has gained a lot of popularity in recent years, but what the hell is it? Here we explore where it came from, how it is made and see if it has any real health benefits.
Where does kombucha come from?
Kombucha's origins are somewhat mysterious. Where it was first developed is not really known.
But, despite this, many believe that its origin can be traced to China. If true, knowledge of it would have been spread along the silk road to the Middle East and eventually Europe.
"[Today] it is widely brewed in parts of eastern Europe, particularly in rural Russia, and is common in China, Japan, and Korea." - Encyclopedia Britannica.
Homebrewing of kombucha is common but many dieticians recommend only consuming commercially produced products for safety reasons.
How is a SCOBY made?
A SCOBY or Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast to give it its full name is a mixture of bacteria and yeast that coexist in a medium.
Gluconacetobacter kombuchae is usually the bacteria species of choice. This is an anaerobic, nitrogen-fixing bacterium that feeds on nitrogen and produces acetic acid and gluconic acid as waste products. The bacteria colony also forms the main part of the SCOBY body.
The yeast typically used is Zygosaccharomyces kombuchaensis that is also pretty unique to SCOBYs. The genus has long been known as a spoilage yeast within the food industry and has proven significantly resistant to many common food preservation techniques.
These symbiotic cultures are the starting mixture used to turn tea and sugar into sweet and sour low-alcohol drinks like kombucha.
The process of making kombucha begins with the use of sweet teas. Which tea type is used will depend on the kombucha brewer.
The selected tea is then brewed as normal ready for the main part of the process.
Next, a SCOBY is added into the brewed, cooled, tea and additional sugar can also be added. Just like brewing beer, or any other alcoholic beverage, the sugar in the tea, and any added sugar, feed the SCOBY allowing it to grow and release the waste products the brewer wants in return.
The tea-SCOBY concoction is then left to ferment for between a week and a month.
The end result of this process is a fizzy drink that can range in taste from sweet to vinegary depending on how long the substance is allowed to ferment for.
Fruits, herbs, and spices are often also added and fermented again to add additional flavors to the brewer's design.
You can often see the remnants of the bacteria used in the fermentation process at the bottom of most kombucha bottles. Often termed "the mother" it can also float on the surface of the liquid.
If they are floating on the surface it means the kombucha is unpasteurized, unprocessed and unfiltered. While this might not sound too appealing (after all pasteurization is essential for making things like milk safe to consume), the bacteria used are actually harmless (non-pathogenic) to humans.
While it might not sound like the most appealing beverage, kombucha has become very popular in places like Denver and elsewhere around the world.
"The popularity of kombucha in Denver is growing. Denver’s Happy Leaf Kombucha not only has its own taproom, but its product is also is showing up on tap in local breweries around town. And American Cultures Kombucha Taproom in the Highland neighborhood serves up flights of the drink brewed all over the state." - Denver Post.
In fact, it is one of the fastest-growing products in the functional beverage market. It is also growing in popularity for home brewers who like its unique flavor and taste.
Is kombucha really good for you?
Unfortunately, there is little scientific evidence that it provides any benefits to consumers. But most regular drinkers swear to its health benefits.
Many describe it as a kind of cure-all but there is little to support this beyond anecdotes. However, kombucha is packed full of probiotics which are known to improve your overall gut health.
The drink is also rich in vitamin B-12 which is essential for boosting the body's energy levels and helps regulate mood.
"Vitamin B12 is a nutrient that helps keep the body's nerve and blood cells healthy and helps make DNA, the genetic material in all cells. Vitamin B12 also helps prevent a type of anemia called megaloblastic anemia that makes people tired and weak." - National Institutes of Health.
Low levels of B-12 and other B vitamins (like B-6) have also been linked to depression.
B-12 and other vitamin B deficiencies are usually associated with eating a poor diet and regular consumption of alcohol that can inhibit your uptake of the vitamin. This can lead to a negative feedback loop with a lower mood potentially increasing someone's dependence on alcohol.
It is also supposed to be high in antioxidants. These substances help fight free radicals (highly reactive molecules) in your body. While controversial in scientific circles, antioxidants in food and drink are thought to be more beneficial for you than artificial supplements.
Some studies in rats have shown that kombucha appears to significantly reduce liver toxicity. Sometimes in the order of 70%.
Whether this is true in humans or not is yet to be scientifically studied.
The acetic acid (vinegar) in many kombucha drinks can also help fight harmful bacteria. This is the reason vinegar is used for pickling food.
Whatever the case, kombucha is very tasty and anything that helps you keep hydrated throughout the day cannot be a bad thing at all.
But it should be noted that any health benefits it may have are only the case for properly brewed kombucha. Like any brewing process, if the brewing vessel is not sterilized properly or not sealed properly during the brewing process, more harmful pathogenic bacteria can contaminate the final brew.
"In the United States kombucha initially gained popularity during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early ’90s, as it was hoped that the drink could increase T-cell counts and support compromised immune systems. However, it fell out of favor following a report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 1995 that linked the drink to two cases of severe metabolic acidosis, one of which was fatal." - Encyclopedia Britannica.
Can you drink kombucha every day?
In theory, yes, but remember the old adage "everything in moderation". According to the Centers for Disease Control around four ounces (113 ml) of kombucha can be consumed one to three times a day.
“That means you shouldn’t consume more than 12 ounces of kombucha a day,” Maxine Smith, RD, LD told Cleveland Clinic.
She notes that the average bottle of commercially prepared kombucha tends to exceed a daily, single-serving at 16 ounces.
“We just don’t have a lot of research identifying optimal quantities, or even benefits and risks of many probiotic foods,” she added.