While the word sounds like a fancy kung fu move, kombucha is actually a defensive drink that can help ward off health problems. Some devotees have gone as far as calling it the “elixir of life” for its role in curing a range of health issues from digestive disorders to arthritis.
The buzz has also made kombucha a very popular drink. Though its use has been documented for centuries, first originating in Asia, the fermented tea surpassed sales of $400 million in 2014. That’s quadruple the same 2009 figures, according to Euromonitor International.
With less sugar and calories than fruit drinks and soda, and an inherent colony of healthful probiotics, could the mainstream be onto something—or is it just another fad?
Kombucha is an ancient recipe for fermented tea that dates back thousands of years, believed to have been born in China during the Tsin Dynasty somewhere around 212 B.C. It was originally brewed as a “remedy for immortality” and reserved for nobility. In fact, historians attribute the name kombucha to a Korean physician named Kombu, who healed the Japanese Emperor Inyko with the magical tonic. (The added word “cha” means “tea.”)
However, as trade routes began to expand throughout Asia, kombucha became a more regular phenomenon, enjoyed by everyone from Japanese samurai to Russian peasants. It also had a heydey across Europe during WWII due to the rationing of sugar and tea, which are main components. Though its popularity stalled around the 1900s, this decade’s craze has been driven by an increased focus on probiotics, of which kombucha is a rich source.
In addition to the main ingredients of tea, sugar, and water, kombucha is defined by a starter culture. It’s often referred to as SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), which is a dehydrated mat of bacteria and yeast growth—it looks kind of like a slimy pancake. When combined with either black or green tea and sugar, the starter will digest the sweet stuff and, in turn, produce a potent mix of organic acids, amino acids, and probiotic microorganisms. This is where all the health claims begin to take shape.
Although the benefits are still scientifically unproven, regular kombucha drinkers have been adamant about a number of positive effects, including:
And though there continues to be little collective scientific backing regarding kombucha, some independent researchers, scientists, and nutritionists have studied the chemicals and compounds that make up the fermented tea, which begins to hint at is powers.
Probiotics: By definition, kombucha is a probiotic beverage, since probiotics are all natural byproducts of the fermentation process. The resulting acids, enzymes, and probiotics in kombucha (such as gluconacetobacter, acetobacter, zygosaccharomyces, and lactobacillus) have been linked to a healthier gut and improved digestion, including heartburn and ulcer relief.
Glucaric acid: Kombucha is high in glucaric acid, which has been linked to liver health, and in turn, provides the opportunity for a healthier detoxification process for the body (it’s been said that kombucha can reduce overall liver toxicity by 70 percent!). According to some studies, glucaric acid has also been shown to reduce cancer risk. President Ronald Reagan famously used the beverage to aide in his own cancer battle, beginning in 1987. He lived until 2004, and when he passed, it was simply due to old age.
Antioxidants: Green and black tea naturally contain polyphenols, plant compounds that are packed with antioxidant qualities. Antioxidants are the body’s first line of defense against harmful free radicals and cellular stress, which has been linked to heart disease, stroke, arthritis, cognitive decline, cancer, aging, and some other serious illnesses.
Glucosamine: Glucosamine is also found in kombucha and is known to be a strong combatant against arthritis. Glucosamine is key to increasing the synovial hyaluronic acid production in the body; this acid enables tissue to better bind to moisture and also increases lubrication, which can make cartilage and joints more flexible.
One of the not so positive aspects of kombucha remains its high ticket price. The fermented drink can cost almost as much as a full meal at some retailers, which has led many to try and brew their own at home. However, because it involves live, active bacteria, it requires the utmost care when handling. Here is the detailed rundown on how to appropriately make the drink. But first you’ll need to purchase your own SCOBY, like this one.
When your SCOBY arrives, it will be dehydrated. So, the first step is to bring it back to life. To do so, gather a large quart-sized mason jar with an opening of at least three inches in diameter, as well as a spatula, coffee filter (or piece of cloth damped with vinegar), a rubber band, and the following essential ingredients:
Then, follow these steps:
To brew the kombucha tea, it requires carrying out the same steps in Phase 1 but using fresh ingredients. This time, instead of using the dehydrated SCOBY, soak the “baby SCOBY” in the new tea solution. Do so for at least five to seven days, and then it will be ready to drink. You can go for even longer, which will produce a higher nutritional content, but also result in a less favorable taste.
The finished product will have some froth, and a beer-like smell with a slightly bittersweet taste. You should also expect to see some bits and pieces of the bacteria floating in the liquid, which is a common part of most fermented drinks. Simply strain your homemade Kombucha tea before drinking.
While you can very well drink kombucha by itself, if you require a sweeter taste, simply add one to two parts apple, coconut, or pineapple juice to every eight or nine parts of tea. Or, try one of these tasty recipes to make it even more flavorful and exciting.
In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control issued a report about their findings regarding an unexplained illness that claimed the life of an Iowa resident. The report concluded that the cause of death was a home-brewed kombucha made with a contaminated SCOBY. Apparently, this has been the only CDC report linking an improperly brewed kombucha to a fatality. Nonetheless, it serves as an example of the potential dangers posed by brewing kombucha tea if care is not taken—so, always be sure to look for mold!
Another concern regarding kombucha cropped up in 2010 when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration alerted kombucha manufacturers that the sale of the beverage would be under the same regulations as alcohol. The fermenting process naturally produces alcoholic content, though to legally be sold, it has to be under the legal 0.5 percent limit. This is still a concern for home-brewed varieties that don’t follow the same protocol as mass-produced options.
Regardless of these unique situations, home-brewed kombucha continues to draw attention. Practitioners should be educated on the process and be knowledgeable of the potentially toxic and alcoholic content before drinking the solution. Another safe option is to use a pasteurization process. The tradeoff, however, is that the good bacteria or probiotics to which the health benefits of kombucha tea are attributed also die along with the harmful ones when pasteurized.
Fortunately, the health benefits of kombucha have not been lost over time. It can present a range of effects for each individual drinker, depending on the ingredients, fermentation time, and other personal touches, which has made it difficult for science to test one exact recipe. But while we wait for the experts to catch up, there’s no stopping this thousand-year-old tradition.
Photo credit: Paul Delmont
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