Kombucha is everywhere. The Goldman office has kombucha on tap, and so do many Whole Foods stores. The kombucha drink market is already worth $747.5 billion—making it one of the fastest, if not the fastest, product in the beverage industry. But despite its growing ubiquity, the trendy fermented tea tends to raise more questions than certainties for consumers.
What exactly is kombucha, and is it worth working into your daily health routine? Here’s a quick primer on this popular drink.
What is kombucha?
Kombucha is sometimes referred to as “mushroom tea.” However, that name is misleading, because there aren’t actually any mushrooms to be found in kombucha. So, what is in kombucha? It’s essentially a concoction of black or green tea, sugar and a colony of bacteria used for fermentation.
Though this fermentation might sound off-putting to you, most people describe kombucha as tasting and smelling a bit like apple. But that all depends on the brew. Kombucha drinkers have devoted much discussion to this topic, saying in online forums that the drink can taste like anything from sour apples with a vinegar aftertaste to fizzy apples or even rotten apples. Because kombucha is a fermented drink, variations in taste are inevitable. But the one thing that we can all agree on is that it should be labeled as “pungent.”
The word “fermentation” also brings to mind alcohol, and you might be wondering whether you can safely drink kombucha at the office or before a workout. The jury is still out on this one. Kombucha is generally considered non-alcoholic, which means its alcohol content is below 0.5% (the FDA cutoff for what has to be labeled as an “alcoholic beverage”). But because the yeast inside is a living, growing colony, some brands sold commercially have been found to have as high as 2.5% alcohol content. Those levels are in the minority, though, so it’s unlikely that drinking kombucha at night will leave you feeling hungover the next day.
A Brief History of Kombucha
Kombucha might seem like a new phenomenon, but it’s actually been around for quite some time—almost 2,000 years, if you can believe it. The tea drink has roots in China, but it was a Korean doctor who popularized it. As the story goes, around 220 B.C., Dr. Kombu came up with the drink, which he felt would be beneficial for curing a host of ailments. He was so sure of it, in fact, that he brought the drink to Japan and presented it to the Emperor as a medicinal tea. The drink’s name combines the doctor’s own name with “cha,” the Chinese word for tea.
It took quite a bit of time for kombucha to reach the Western world. It wasn’t until the early part of the 20th Century that it began cropping up in Russia and Germany. Its surge in popularity died down a bit during World War II, as there was a shortage of ingredients to make it. But the drink made a marked comeback in the 1960s after a Swiss study reported that kombucha had the same health benefits as yogurt. A grassroots movement quickly started to take shape in the U.S. By the 1990s, kombucha had become popular among health-focused consumers.
What are the health benefits of kombucha?
Initially, kombucha was rumored to be a miracle cure for everything from AIDS to advanced-stage cancers. Research shows that those claims are false. However, recent studies show that kombucha could have potential health benefits.
Along with other fermented food like kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi, kombucha contains “good bacteria” beneficial for your gut. You can think of it a little like drinkable probiotics. Gut-healthy bacteria can improve your immune system’s ability to ward off colds and other ailments it battles every day. This gut-soothing benefit can also help with stomach issues like IBS, diarrhea, constipation and food allergies.
Kombucha also been shown in some studies to remedy acne and headaches, and lower high blood pressure and bad cholesterol levels. Kombucha is also a source of energy-boosting Vitamin B, which not only helps fight fatigue but also promotes a healthy heart, skin and nails.
Should you make kombucha at home?
It might sound fun to have a kombucha brewing party with your health-minded friends, but the general consensus among experts is that this isn’t a good idea. There are many factors and variables involved in fermentation, and the same environment that nurtures and grows good bacteria can easily provide the perfect environment for bad bacteria. You might have read reports of people falling seriously ill after drinking their DIY homebrews. It’s important to take these reports seriously. If you do feel compelled to brew your own kombucha, make sure to take the appropriate precautions.
The jury is still out on many of the health claims that you hear in kombucha ads. But if you don’t mind the pungent taste and are sold on its body benefits, save yourself the risk by buying a bottle from your local market rather than brewing it yourself.