With so many "functional" beverages out there today, one should wonder if they provide actual health benefits or are just good tasting and look cool. When it comes to fermented beverages like kombucha and kefirs, the good news is that many of them actually live up to their popularity and hype.
These popular beverages today may have New Age-sounding names but in reality both kombucha and kefirs, and similarly fermentation - the process used to make them all - have long, strong histories of consumption around the world. What's new: these bottled beverages come in numerous flavors, are made from different bases, and have different health benefits (kombucha is even "on tap" at some Whole Foods stores).
What Is Fermentation?
Unlike processes designed to kill microbes such as bacteria and yeast (like pasteurization and irradiation), fermentation actually uses live bacteria and yeast, as well as a sugar source, to create its end products.
What Is Kombucha?
A fermented tea, kombucha is made by allowing a mixture of yeast, bacteria, sugar and tea to ferment. The fermentation of the tea, in most instances black tea, creates a minimal amount of alcohol, and provides organic acids, enzymes, beneficial microflora and B vitamins. The resulting product provides health benefits beyond those of a cup of tea. The organic acids include those that help the digestive system readily remove toxins from the liver and digestive tract.
The enzymes aid in the digestive process as well - likely in concert with the acids - by optimizing acid-alkaline balance in the digestive tract which enables nutrient absorption, waste removal, and also immune system support. B vitamins provide support for the body's metabolic functions including overall energy, use of carbohydrates, heart health, as well as healthy hair, skin, and nails. Additional health benefits may be generated from herbs and spices added (which also provide flavor diversity). For example, ginger provides anti-inflammatory properties as well as being a digestive aid.
Kombucha often has a carbonated and slightly sour taste; these are products of the fermentation which impart the 'sour' flavor (from alcohol produced) and may create bubbles. However, lack of these does not mean the product is tainted or ineffective. You may also see 'floaters' in the bottle; these are the product of fermentation as well and can be consumed.
Is Kombucha Safe For All To Consume Daily?
While there is minimal research on this product, the following provides my professional precautions (including anecdotal evidence from my patients' reports). For the health benefits noted above, I believe kombucha can be consumed with benefit for the healthy individual. The minimal amount of alcohol produced poses an insignificant risk to the healthy individual as does the sugar content. Keep in mind though, that as with any beverage containing sugar, portion control should be observed. Each serving (typically half a bottle or eight ounces) of kombucha contains about eight grams of sugar; this means it's not a good choice for a diabetic and likely not for those who are insulin-sensitive.
Despite the digestive benefits, kombucha may offer those with a healthy digestive tract, for those dealing with digestive issues related to yeast (Candida) or bacteria overgrowth, I recommend against kombucha consumption, especially with acute irritation and during treatment. Additionally, I don't recommend kombucha for pregnant women at all, and recommend that individuals being treated for immune-compromised conditions should obtain the consent of their healthcare practitioner.