March 09, 2015

Does Kombucha Have Health Benefits?

You've seen the cute little bottles, haven't you, in the "Fancy Beverage" endcap at your local health food or upscale grocery store? Kombucha is a fermented beverage, generally made from black tea and sugar and other flavors, plus a scary-looking (yet apparently friendly) culture of yeast and bacteria.

Have you been tempted? Have you succumbed?

I have.  But with much hand-wringing and angst and ambivalence because that's how I approach any complicated consumer decision. (Btw, it is hell to go grocery shopping with me unless you have all the time in the world or are perhaps heavily medicated).

Anyway, here's my dilemma with Kombucha:

If you don't make it yourself, which looks to be a bit of a hassle, it's really damn expensive. And the taste... well, at first it may seem foul but then it can kind of grow on you. Tangy, just a little sweet, though not quite sweet enough for me for it to feel like a splurge, or at least not a $3-$5 per bottle splurge.  It's fairly low cal for a naturally sweetened beverage, about 20-40 calories for 8 ounces, depending on brand, but again, did I mention it was expensive?  So I've been on the fence about whether I should keep buying it.

The key question for me: Is it actually healthy?

Conflicting Views on Kombucha

I first got tempted after hearing about all these incredible kombucha health benefits.  Kombucha contains probiotics, organic acids, antioxidants and B vitamins, so it seemed credible that it would be good for you. That helped me swallow both the sour taste and the price.

Then I read a more skeptical take on kombucha, arguing that the purported health benefits were all total hooey. That no research backed up any health claims. And that if I wanted to go the DIY route and make my own, it could be really dangerous, as there is a high risk of contamination--people have died from drinking this "health" beverage. The Mayo Clinic Kombucha advice was similarly grouchy, saying in essence: stay the hell away, gullible fool.

But by then, I'd acquired a taste for it, damn it! It's kinda refreshing, and also weirdly filling and a small glass seems to ward off snacky-hunger in some semi-magical way.

And these mixed messages even affect my enjoyment of it.  For me, "healthy-sour" is a way more satisfying taste than plain old sour. That's probably the reason I've come to appreciate flavors like kefir and apple cider vinegar. (Though I still cheat and sweeten with stevia or monkfruit).  So if you tell me it's not healthy, suddenly kombucha doesn't seem quite as tasty and refreshing as say, a lovely margarita on the rocks with a nice rim full of salt.

So, what's the deal? Does kombucha have enough health benefits to be worth the price or pain in the ass of making it?

Long History of Kombucha Health Claims

Kombucha has been brewed for thousands of years, and purported health benefits have included helping with the following conditions (in alphabetical order, courtesy of

  • Acne
  • Atherosclerosis
  • Cancer treatment
  • Constipation
  • Diabetes
  • Fatigue
  • GI disorders
  • Headaches
  • Health maintenance
  • Hemorrhoids
  • HIV and AIDS
  • Hypertension
  • Immunostimulation
  • Osteoarthritis
  • Stress

Or you can google and find all sorts of claims; the most popular seem to be that it helps the liver remove harmful stuff from your body, aids your digestive system, gives you extra energy, boosts your mood and supports your immune system.

Modern Research on Kombucha

Apparently there's not a lot, or at least not enough to convince most mainstream medical sources that there's any reason to drink it. Most of what there is involves animals rather than humans.

However, I found a kombucha research round-up at the Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center website that offered a few encouraging words (and study citations) along with the usual warnings and caveats.  Check it out:
In vitro and animal studies show potent antioxidant, immunostimulating, hypolipidemic, and hepatoprotective effects with limited toxicity; however, clinical studies in humans are lacking.
Let's unpack the medicalese, shall we?

We know what antioxidants are, that's easy, and they're usually a good thing.

"Immunostimulating":  well, sure seems like stimulating the immune system could be helpful. (Though one wonders then if it's a bad idea for people with overactive immune systems?)

"Hepatoprotective" means something that prevents damage to the liver. I'm thinking liver damage is something we all want to avoid?

And "hypolipidemic" is something that lowers serum lipid levels, i.e., those blood panel numbers your doctor has perhaps been nagging you about.

But again, these are not human clinical trials, which is too bad, since it is humans who drink the stuff and I can't imagine most lab rats or cell cultures give a crap whether it's good for you or not.

What About Alcohol in Kombucha?

Yes, there is some alcohol in kombucha. It varies apparently, and I couldn't find a typical amount, but kept getting reassurance that it is "quite small."

However because warnings are required by law if a product hits .5 percent, and some additional fermentation can happen after it's bottled, many kombucha brands had to re-engineer their brewing process in order to stay under the warning amount.  (Others just said "f--ck it," and dutifully put warnings on their bottles).

If you are in recovery or have other reason to avoid alcohol entirely, you may want to keep this in mind.

However, a kombucha home brew experimenter over at Mother Jones put it into perspective:

If mine registered in at 0.6 percent alcohol, I would have to drink five 16-ounce bottles of kombucha before reaching the effects of one can of Coors Light—which contains 4.2 percent alcohol.
And I also read in some random article that kefir can contain 1% alcohol, though I've never seen any prominent warning labels in my dairy case!

My Take on Whether Kombucha is Healthy

I suspect some amount of wishful thinking is playing into my analysis, but what the hell. Here's what I think:

"Unproven" doesn't mean "untrue." The fact that no one has funded massive clinical studies in humans to determine what ways kombucha might be helpful (or not) does not convince me that it is useless.

The fact that it contains probiotics, antioxidants, and other healthy ingredients, yet does not contain much sugar or any artificial sweeteners, makes me feel like it's a better choice than many beverages.

Plus there are at least some non-human studies that point to potential health benefits, as well as thousands of years of anecdotal evidence.

And what the heck, there's always the placebo effect!

Brewing Your Own Kombucha?

With my weird bicoastal life, the prospect of trying to transport a live kombucha culture cross-country without incurring the wrath of grumpy TSA agents is a little daunting.  But perhaps this summer I might give it a try if I find I'm still spending a fortune on those little bottles.

Because what's expensive in the stores is apparently really cheap to make at home!

The recipes are at first scary, not because they are complicated, but because the ratio of sugar to tea is shockingly high.   But it turns out the sugar is just food for the SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast), and most of it doesn't survive the fermentation process.

Also, it's important to be mindful of safety--stodgy mainstream medical sources seem to be way more alarmed about potential dangers than cheerful bloggers, but kombucha home brewing could be a potentially hazardous enterprise if you get too half-assed about it.

You can search the web for tons more info, but here are some kombucha brewing instructions, some safety tips, some kombucha recipes, more kombucha tips, and a company that simplifies thing a bit by selling kombucha kits.

Do any of you drink Kombucha?  Are there other fermented or probiotic elixirs in your fridge?


  1. I...can't.

    I know people who drink it, but other than seeing pricey bottles at places like Whole Foods, most of my knowledge/sightings of kombucha have been online (in blogs, on pinterest) where they have photos of it with the SCOBY.


    If someone I knew had a bottle of it and offered me a sip, I would so I could try it. But I am so skeeved out by the thought of it. I don't want to spend the money on it. Just thinking about that photo up there...shudders.

    1. I am actually cracking myself up because I just scrolled up to look at it again and my reaction is just too much. Ha! Thanks for the chuckle, I needed it today.

  2. I've never tried it and frankly, it sounds off-putting. That said, if someone gave a bottle to try I'd drink it.
    I have sauerkraut in my fridge that often goes in my smoothies. Does that count as an elixir?

  3. No thank you!
    I have zero desire to try it no matter what the benefits might be:)

  4. Nope. Never tried it, and the unknown part of it, plus the random alcohol, is enough to dissuade me from really wanting to. That said, I appreciate your explanation of kombucha - and I think it would be really interesting to go grocery shopping with you, just to see what catches your eye and why.

  5. Death Ride GrandmaMarch 9, 2015 at 5:43 PM

    Me neither. I am way too picky - in fact, I dream of actually bringing myself to swallow yogurt or kefir (or sauerkraut), but I sort of doubt it'll happen in this lifetime. Also, I am not inclined to buy stuff that's relatively new and unfamiliar and is supposed to be healthy beyond anything else out there (pomegranate juice, anyone?) because so far, almost none of it has been more than a fad. So, hey, if it's made up of decent stuff, and you sort of like it, and it affects your eating habits in ways you like, great. I'll pass on this one.

    By the way, I thought I'd seen it as an ingredient in the latest super-healthy soups at my local soup restaurant, but no, they were promoting kale and kimchee. So I thought, hmm, maybe there's something particularly healthy about the letter K? I googled, and there's actually a t-shirt called "Kale Kefir Kimchi Kombucha."

  6. Fermentation does not make my allergies happy. Also allergic to tea, even green unfermented tea. No way will I ever taste this stuff, which sounds beyond disgusting. I can't wait until someone discovers the health properties of cat barf.

    Mary Anne in Kentucky

    1. Mary Anne, "the health properties of cat barf" made me laugh out loud at my desk. Thank you! And I think you're right. At the rate we're going, that will make the news within the next five years. :-D

    2. Possibly not, since it comes free with the cat….

      Mary Anne in Kentucky

  7. I'm thinking, drink sauerkraut juice. I think you will get the same whatever without any dangers and at little cost.

    I'm being mostly serious here. Google it. I remember reading many years ago about some professional boxing champion that recommenced it.

    1. My grandmother used to drink pickle juice, but I don't recall whether there was any health related reason for it.

    2. Was it from homemade pickles? I have nice memories of the homemade pickles my grandparents made.

    3. Oh yes, homemade pickles. There were always homemade pickles and home canned fruits & veggies. My grandfather tapped the maple trees that surrounded our house, and my grandmother boiled it down to make maple syrup. They were farm folk.

    4. The other 3 members of my family are avid pickle juice drinkers. Homemade or store bought. Pickle juice has many benefits, not the least of which is as a hangover elixir. (Me? I don't care for pickles, so the juice holds no sway over me. I'll just gladly make the pickles for them to consume.)

  8. I tend to like sour, tangy flavors (love pickles and sauerkraut), but I have never been able to bring myself to try Kombucha. As some others have commented, I probably would try it if someone offered me a taste, but not likely to buy it.

    I do, however, make a kick ass margarita, which can feel like a magic elixir at times. :)

  9. I've never tried kombucha. As far as fermented foods go, one I really like that's quite healthful is organic miso.

    Interesting, all the comments about sauerkraut. I developed a taste for it, at least the homemade stuff. We made our own, and it was great, but a bit more hassle than we like to do.

    I suppose we all would like a panacea - I know I would. :) The closest thing to that i've run into is apple cider vinegar. In my case, that helped eliminate the last bit of cat allergy that I had, for instance.

    I want JavaChick's margarita. ;)


  10. I have tried it and I think it taste okay! Of course it does depend on the flavor...this is my favorite brand and flavor:
    I also eat lots of raw sauerkraut and drink gut bacteria must be rockin! I spend that much on a coffee at is this really that different?

  11. I splurge** on Synergy's Green Chia Kombucha @ $2.59/16 oz bottle... I split this into 4, 4-oz servings & drink it about twice a wk for the virtuous feelz... I've actually come to enjoy the texture! This is the only fermented product I consume on regular basis, but one day I vow to make homemade sauerkraut.
    **No way would I have the time/patience/energy to brew my own!

  12. I haven't tried it and now that I know it contains alcohol, I won't. I do love to drink water mixed with apple cider vinegar though…I find it quite tasty.

  13. Well it looks like a bottle of castor oil and as a child who grew up on TV commercials I need a lot more marketing raz-mi-taz than that. I found that out when I was in France and the pharmacist tried to sell me cold medicine with a pastel box covered in flowers. I had to explain I was looking for something with lightning bolts or at least racing stripes.

  14. I LOOOOVE IT and yet? Ive still not motivated to make my own.
    I need to get me a scuby.
    which ever it is I need me one ;-)

  15. What is really fun about a post on kombucha is how many times sauerkraut and pickles showed up in the comments. That is awesome. Your audience has spoken. Hahahahaha. Never tried kombucha. Seems expense and suspect, especially with all the sauerkraut and pickles in the world. :) Sam

  16. Dang, I missed this post the other day. I feel like a comment slacker. Never tried kombucha. I haven't even seen it at the stores here! People have mentioned it enough online that my initial reaction was "nope" and "blech." I'm not a big fan of fermented stuff. Thank you for the breakdown, Crabby! Now that I know what it is, my reaction is still "nope" and "blech," but it's nice to be more informed. :-D

  17. I love it. Not because it's healthy, but because I love the tartish tang. It's trivial to make. We've made it for years. same witih other fermented stuff like kimchi and kraut.

    No one has died yet. Even with your bicoastal lifestyle: you can keep a scoby on each coast in the fridge. Lasts forever. Making a batch takes a few days of fermentation... so you'll need at least a few days in one spot. it's fun to experiment with too. you can swap out some of that sugar with fresh crushed berries or honey or other naturally sugary things. my advice: don't overthink it jsut give it a shot.

  18. I’m a little late to the party here… I really like Kombucha, enough to buy it, but not enough to make it myself. However, my husband makes it for me – probably because he doesn't want me spending all that money! It seems pretty easy. After getting the SCOBY and the first batch going he just does one batch after another with the same SCOBY. Last weekend something looked funky in the SCOBY so he looked it up online and showed me pictures to prove it wasn’t harmful. It hasn’t hurt me yet! And the health claims? I know tea is good for you, as is fermented food, but I doubt that it’s really that amazing for you. And it hasn’t helped my acne or given me more energy. But I still like it:)!

  19. I am with you; I have developed a taste for it but hate to pay for it. I am also afraid of making my own. It is refreshing and weirdly . . . relaxing with none of the negatives of actual alcohol. It feels good and indulgent. For a while Costco carried the 'bucha' brand which helped a little with the cost but they stopped due to lack of interest.

  20. Oh Gah no. I bought a bottle once. I drank less than a quarter of it. That stuff is Disgusting. I believe I compared it to drinking carbonated cat piss. After hearing of my foray, a friend sent me this:

    In the mean time...I make a whole lot of homemade pickles. Regular (cuke) pickles, dilly beans, pickled beets, pickled asparagus, pickled carrots, zucchini relish, dill relish, pickled green tomatoes, and even, yep, sauerkraut. Anything else fermented in my fridge is a result of my having been away on travel and the rest of the family leaving things to rot.

  21. I spend $70 on Kombucha every two weeks. It's worth it to me. My digestion is happy. The B vitamins it contains is awesome. And yes, it makes the hunger factor go away. But Master Brew is nasssty (very nice glass bottles, though). GTS is the best brand of Kombucha but their bottle caps suck. I use Kombucha as my daily "dessert", which is helping to keep my fitness in check. I'm thinking of starting to brew my own. As for top rating medical outlets that want to voice their opinions, they will NEVER fully support a natural product that aids in wellness. They will always have something negative to say because there's no real money in it for them to say otherwise. I could go on and on about this.


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