Over the past few years, the health food industry has experienced a surge in popularity. Among kale chips, chia seed puddings, and free-range eggs, kombucha is also attracting increasing interest, with sales predicted to reach $500 million in 2015. Kombucha begins as a sugary tea that is fermented with a “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” (SCOBY). The SCOBY feeds off of the sugar—like bread yeast that’s proofing—and grows into a mass that resembles a mushroom cap (hence kombucha’s alternative name of “mushroom tea”). The tea is then transformed into a fizzy, fermented drink that is low in calories and sugar. While kombucha is fermented like alcoholic beverages, its alcohol content is typically lower than 1%. Its growing popularity lies not only in its taste, but also in the sensationalization of its health benefits. Here’s what you need to know about kombucha’s influence on your body.
Firstly, kombucha is renowned for its powers of detoxification. It contains glucuronic acid, a well-known detoxicant that combines with toxins (e.g. pollutants and pharmaceuticals) and converts them into soluble compounds that the body can excrete.
Teas in general contain polyphenols and carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants. However, the fermentation process makes kombucha superior to plain teas. Its antioxidant levels are around 100 times and 25 times higher than the levels in vitamins C and E (respectively). As a result, kombucha is said to help cure chronic illnesses caused by oxidative stress.
Kombucha is high in iron. This iron content boosts your hemoglobin levels, increasing oxygen supply to tissues and helping the body to create more ATP (the basic currency of energy). Consequently, regular kombucha drinkers may feel more energized and alert than the average person. Due to kombucha’s ability to increase absorption of plant-based iron, it may also prevent iron deficiency (anemia).
With an abundance of antioxidants, kombucha helps to protect against cell damage, inflammatory diseases, suppressed immunity, and tumors. Fermented food specialist Sandor Ellix Katz resorts to kombucha as a supplement to help maintain his white blood cell count. President Reagan reportedly drank kombucha daily to battle stomach cancer, and Cancer Letters recently published a study reporting that the glucaric acid in kombucha reduces the risk of cancer in humans. At the same time, however, it’s worth noting that there are specialists and professionals who disagree with using kombucha for therapy.
5. Gastric Illness and Digestion
Kombucha’s antioxidants also protect the lining of the gut and the mucin content of the stomach. For this reason, kombucha is comparable to prescriptions drugs like omeprazole when it comes to healing ulcers. With its high levels of beneficial acids, probiotics, and enzymes, kombucha has the potential to prevent or heal leaky gut syndrome and prevent candida yeast from overpopulating the gut (restoring balance in the digestive system).
6. Obesity and Diabetes
Animal studies have demonstrated that kombucha encourages calorie restriction, helping to balance metabolism and promote weight loss. Studies on diabetic rats also suggest that kombucha may significantly reduce blood sugar levels and should be considered as a potential way to treat or prevent diabetes.
7. Kidney Toxicity
Due to its detoxification properties, kombucha has been used to prevent calcification in the kidney. This further prevents the formation of kidney stones, which are typically caused by environmental pollutants.
8. Antibiotic Resistant Infections
Kombucha’s antibacterial properties and natural acidity gives it the potential to combat infectious diseases like influenza, salmonella, and Staphylococcus aureus. These diseases are difficult to treat with synthetic antibiotics due to their high mutation rate, and kombucha may be an effective, natural alternative to the increasingly ineffective antibiotics.
Is kombucha a cure-all?
The above health benefits sound very promising, but consumer caution is necessary. The amount of research behind the curative claims is limited, as only a few animal studies have been conducted. Further, while kombucha can potentially heal ulcers, individuals with sensitivities to acidic foods should consult a professional before drinking it.
Store-bought kombucha is also quite costly, but those who attempt to brew it raw at home must be aware of potential contamination. Cornell microbiologist Ramon Mira de Orduna warns that certain cancer-causing molds on the SCOBY can proliferate, while the CDC reported an outbreak of an unexplained illness in Iowa in 1995 that was attributed to homemade kombucha brewed from a contaminated SCOBY. On the other hand, store-bought kombucha is pasteurized, so it will have limited probiotics and antioxidants compared to the raw versions (limiting its health benefits).
All in all, kombucha is a great alternative to sodas and alcoholic beverages packed full of empty calories. However, don’t get too caught up in the pop culture hype about its health benefits, and proceed with caution when brewing it at home.