Your yoga teacher drinks it and you’ve seen every color and flavor of it under the sun at Whole Foods — yep, we’re talking about kombucha. If you’ve ever picked up a bottle of the stuff, you might be mystified by its appearance. What is this cloudy, mystical beverage all the health nuts can’t stop raving about? Is it glorified sparkling water with a $5 price tag? Luckily, we’re here to guide you through fact and fiction so you can decide whether to add some booch to your diet.
First, here’s what’s in it
Kombucha is a type of fermented tea — not exactly what you’ll be drinking from a bottle of Lipton. WebMD explains it’s made by adding bacteria to green or black tea. From here, the concoction ferments into a tart and vinegary mixture, and juice is then added in for flavor. This process makes the beverage highly acidic, but the additional flavorings and sugar can actually make it quite delicious. Many are divided on the taste, though — it has a very love-it-or-hate-it quality that’s has been as highly debated as the flavor of IPAs and cilantro.
So, now that you know what everyone’s putting into their bodies, it’s time to figure out if it’s actually worth the hype. Here’s what we know so far.
1. The probiotics might not do much
We all could use more probiotics in our diet. These good bacteria, Mayo Clinic explains, are similar to what’s already in your body, and you’re probably not getting enough of them naturally. By taking a supplement or eating probiotic-rich foods like kefir, kimchi, or yogurt, you can repopulate your gut with the good bacteria necessary for proper digestion and a healthy immune system.
Many types of commercially-available kombucha claim they’re chock-full of probiotics. But here’s the thing — not all probiotics are the same, and only some really provide any benefits. Everyday Health explains, for this beverage to have probiotics that actually help you, they need to be of a particular strain and able to survive past a certain shelf life. Otherwise, despite what the kombucha company may say, the drink doesn’t offer any benefits from the bacteria.
2. You can make it at home — but that doesn’t mean you should
Here’s the thing about brewing your own kombucha — many people do it safely and successfully, but there is a chance your homemade concoction can make you seriously ill. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reminds us of two women in who were drinking kombucha they made from the same base for two months straight in 1995. One of these women fell seriously ill, and the other died. Though it’s not totally clear if the tea was completely to blame here, let this serve as a cautionary tale.
Lifehacker explains the fermentation process used in making kombucha that allows the good bacteria to grow can also be a haven for nasty microbes. The good news is your highly acidic end product makes it hard for the bad bacteria to live. Still, there have been multiple reports of illnesses, so you might want to stick to the store-bought stuff.
3. Some brands have lots of added sugar
If you’re a soda drinker looking for a healthy alternative to your everyday indulgence, kombucha may have caught your attention. There’s even a company that offers root beer- and cola-flavored products to make you feel like you’re not missing out on your favorite fizzy drink. But you might not realize some brands contain quite a few grams of sugar. Most flavors of Kombucha Wonder Drink, for example, contain up to 24 grams of sugar per bottle thanks to the addition of cane and fruit juices. That’s a little less than the amount of sugar found in six Oreos.
There are a lot of brands that do contain 5 grams of sugar or less per bottle, like GT’s Organic Kombucha drinks. Just make sure you read the labels before buying.
4. You can overdo it
You probably have that one friend who guzzles kombucha like water — but you don’t want to follow in their footsteps. While drinking the fermented tea from time to time isn’t likely to give you any issues, WebMD warns you can experience an upset stomach if you drink too much of it thanks to its high acidity.
It’s also worth noting there are traces of alcohol in kombucha. While it won’t give you any type of buzz, you should certainly avoid the drink if you’re sensitive or allergic to alcohol.
5. It’s probably not the miracle worker you’ve been told it is
It’s true — a lot of people report feeling amazing after their glass of kombucha. Reporter Allison Young from Rodale’s Organic Life drank it every day for a week and said her cravings for Diet Coke were gone and her digestion improved. And the drink was particularly popular in the ’90s among HIV-positive folks looking for an immune system boost. Most of it’s just hype, though. Andrea Giancoli, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, told NPR, “There’s really very little evidence to support any kind of claims about kombucha tea.”
Here’s the upshot: Even if it’s not a magical elixir, it is a pretty tasty and refreshing low-calorie beverage that could possibly have benefits we just don’t know about yet. And that’s worth something.
6. If you have certain health conditions, you should avoid it completely
Many people can drink kombucha without an issue, but there are certain circumstances that warrant opting for another beverage. WebMD suggests those who are breastfeeding or pregnant should stay away from it due to the bacterial content. And diabetics might also want to be careful, as kombucha can affect blood sugar levels.
While a lot of people drink kombucha in hopes for better digestion, you should also be careful with this idea. Those with IBS may experience discomfort due to the tea’s caffeine content, and drinking it when you have any kind of upset stomach certainly won’t make you feel any better.