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 KombuchaI 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 mskcc.org):
- Cancer treatment
- GI disorders
- Health maintenance
- HIV and AIDS
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 KombuchaApparently 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 HealthyI 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?