Is Kombucha a Cure-all?

Kombucha is a fermented tea beverage that has its roots in ancient China. What once was a folksy 1970s home remedy gained “health food” status in the 1990s and is now available at specialty stores nationwide, via online retailers, at larger supermarkets and even at some convenience stores. This bubbly beverage has drawn a lot of health hype. Is its reputation justified?

multi-green kombucha
Multi-Green Kombucha / Davetoaster / CC BY 2.0

What is kombucha?

Kombucha tea is usually made from black tea, sugar and starter cultures of bacteria and yeast, which ferment and form a less-than-attractive pancake-like mass that floats at the top of the brew. The resulting slightly fizzy beverage tastes sweet and slightly acidic, and when commercially produced it is often mixed with juices or other nutrition- and flavor-enhancing ingredients.

What’s so healthy about it?

Kombucha tea marketers (and some devotees) have touted it as something of a cure-all, citing its regular consumption as beneficial for everything from the serious (cancer, diabetes, anorexia and HIV) to the vague (fatigue and vitality) and many ailments and conditions in-between (hair loss, PMS, acne). Some of the more outlandish claims—like those for cancer and HIV—have been refuted by scientific authorities. However, anecdotal reports of other purported health-giving effects are easy to find online. Certainly, given such a well-rounded list of benefits, there must be some actual scientific proof on kombucha’s side? Yes, there are studies that indicate benefits. However, there is a distinct lack of human trials published in major medical journals, and health authorities like the Mayo Clinic and the American Cancer Society are reluctant to tie any distinct and direct health benefits to kombucha tea consumption.

The major kombucha pros and cons

Ok, so it’s not a cure-all, but there are some things about kombucha that may get you to give it a try.

  • It’s another way to get gut-friendly bacteria into your body

Like other fermented beverages and products, the microorganisms involved in fermenting are healthy for your digestive system and can provide other probiotic benefits. (Click here for my primer on probiotics). If you’re tired of yogurt and are not a fan of kimchi or sauerkraut, kombucha tea may be your ticket to plentiful probiotics.

  • Kombucha products can be lower in sugar than other bottled beverages (including tea-based ones), so if you’re looking to lower your sugar intake and still want a sweetened drink, these may be an option. Be sure to read labels and compare products—and note the serving sizes (many bottles contain 2 servings).

There are a few things that might be considered drawbacks to kombucha consumption:

  • Home-brewed versions, which are produced under non-sterile conditions, have been linked to contamination and some cases of illness (stomach upset, allergic reactions, infections). Make sure you know what you’re doing before brewing your own kombucha, and use good sanitation practices during its preparation.
  • Unpasteurized kombucha may carry molds, fungus or other bad “bugs.” Home-brewed kombucha as well as and some commercial kombucha drinks are unpasteurized (aka “raw”), which preserves the livelihood of the microorganisms in it. Of course, that also means that other things can grow in it, too.  According to the Centers for Disease Control, up to 4 oz. of kombucha tea per day is safe for healthy adults. However, if you are pregnant or have a compromised immune system, consult your physician before consuming kombucha.
  • Kombucha tea contains varying amounts of alcohol. Due to continued fermentation of kombucha beverages after they are manufactured and shipped, alcohol is produced. Some brands and batches of kombucha may contain more than the legal limit for a non-alcoholic beverage (0.5% alcohol),  and there is no way for a consumer to know how much is present in the drinks.