Health claims abound for fermented kombucha drinks

The beverage’s live bacteria are similar to those in yogurt and other probiotic dairy products.

By Kim Larson

Kombucha (pronounced Kom-BOO-cha) is a tart, fizzy bottled drink that now graces many shelves of the refrigerated section of local grocery stores. Its popularity has grown exponentially in the past few years, going from the alternative drink world to a mainstream America choice.

What exactly is it? Should you be drinking this unusual fermented beverage? Or is all the conjecture about its power to strengthen your immune system, improve digestion, fight cancer, lower cholesterol and boost energy more hype than help?

The origins of kombucha date from Chinese medicine 2,000 years ago when it was revered as a magic elixir promoting immortality. Kombucha is officially known as a functional beverage because it is touted to have health benefits from live and active bacterial cultures. These live bacteria are similar to the ones found in yogurt, kefir and other probiotic dairy drinks that are thought to promote a healthy gut microbiome.

Kombucha can be made from either green or black tea to which sugar and a bacterial “start,” called SCOBY, is added. SCOBY stands for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast.” This jump starts the fermentation process that creates the probiotic cultures kombucha is known for. The sugar is converted to vinegar — hence the bitter-sour bite you smell and taste immediately when you sip the concoction.

Latest research shows the numbers and types of bacterial strains in commercially made kombucha vary widely. This makes it difficult for consumers to really know what it is they are getting, in terms of the actual probiotic potency when they choose their favorite brand.

It is possible to make kombucha at home, but be sure you know what you are doing and keep the process extremely sanitized so that the tea doesn’t become contaminated with harmful bacteria rather than the beneficial stuff.

There are many flavors of kombucha on the market, and some of them have added sugars to make the flavor more appealing. It’s best to check the nutrition label to find out how many calories and grams of added sugar your Kombucha will add to your day — it could be more than you bargained for!

I have to admit, it took me a couple of years to learn to like kombucha’s sour bite — it’s an acquired taste for sure. Some people may not tolerate it because of its high levels of acids, so moderation in consumption is advised.

We have little proof regarding the publicized health benefits of Kombucha. There is absolutely no research that directly shows any links to health benefits. It may have the same effects of other probiotics, but more research is needed before this can be confirmed.

Is it worth the price tag of three to five dollars a bottle? You decide.

Kim Larson is a registered dietitian nutritionist, founder of Total Health, www.totalhealthrd.com, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition & Dietetics.

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