What Even Is Kombucha, Anyway


1.
If you’ve paid any attention to health trends over
the past few years, then chances are you’ve heard of
kombucha.

If you've paid any attention to health trends over the past few years, then chances are you've heard of kombucha.

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Maybe you’ve even seen bottles on bottles of it at
the grocery store and thought that looks
interesting/potentially scary!

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3.
But, if you’re like me, then you’ve heard all of this
and still have no clue what kombucha actually
is.

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So I spoke to two registered dietitians to get a
better idea, and to figure out if there’s any science
behind those claims. Here’s what I found out.

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4.
Kombucha starts with a bologna-looking gelatinous
thing called a
SCOBY, which stands for Symbiotic Culture of
Bacteria and Yeast.

Kombucha starts with a bologna-looking gelatinous thing called a SCOBY, which stands for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast.

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Yum. It’s basically a collection of bacteria and
yeast living in harmony, and while there are several
strains of yeast that can be in a SCOBY, the main
type of bacteria tends to be
acetic acid bacteria.

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5.
The SCOBY is then thrown into a jar of black or green
tea and sugar, where it’s given time to infuse and
ferment.

The SCOBY is then thrown into a jar of black or green tea and sugar, where it's given time to infuse and ferment.

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This can take anywhere from 7-14 days, depending on
the temperature of the environment, registered
dietitian nutritionist Angie Murad, of the Mayo
Clinic Healthy Living Program, tells BuzzFeed Health.
During that time, the yeast and bacteria feed off the
sugar — and typically grow into a “daughter” SCOBY —
making the tea carbonated and slightly alcoholic
(store-bought kombucha should have
less than 0.5% unless otherwise noted).

At the end of it all, the SCOBY is removed (and
possibly reused) and the remaining drink is filtered
and stored in the fridge.

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6.
The finished product might still contain live
bacteria and yeast.

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But this isn’t going to harm you, especially if
you’re drinking store-bought kombucha, registered
dietitian Despina Ghandi, of NYU Medical Center,
tells BuzzFeed Health. Acetic acid bacteria
have probiotic qualities, so they can aid in
gastrointestinal (GI) health. And since “so much of
our immune system is influenced by our GI tract, by
honing in on it, we can technically boost immunity as
well,” says Ghandi.

“It’s not to say, though, that if you drink kombucha
every day you’re not going to get a cold,” adds
Murad. “It can just help you — it’s not something
that’s necessarily harmful to your intestines.”

Just make sure the kombucha you’re drinking isn’t
pasteurized, because that would effectively kill
most, if not all, of the good bacteria in the drink,
she says. So check the label for that.

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7.
Aside from potentially boosting GI health and your
immune system, most of the health claims about
kombucha aren’t proven.

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Though that’s not to say some of them aren’t
possible.

For example, kombucha was shown to reduce certain
cancer cells’ ability to spread (though this was done
outside of the body), according to a
2014 review. That same review said the basis for
some of the other claims, like detoxifying the liver
and boosting immunity, could be from the antioxidant
properties of the tea. Meanwhile, another
study saw a drop in diabetic rats’ blood sugar
levels after drinking kombucha.

And while we could not find any studies specifically
testing the effects of kombucha on skin or hair, it’s
possible that the antioxidants in green tea kombucha
reduce
the damaging effects of UV rays on the skin. With
regard to AIDS, one article
suggests that the bacteria in kombucha can actually
overstimulate the immune systems of HIV-positive
people, who already have overstimulated immune
systems, leading to complications.

“The important thing to remember is there are no
clinical trials that prove kombucha can do these
things, so they’re really just claims and anecdotal
evidence,” Ghandi says.

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8.
Heads up: Drinking homemade kombucha could actually
put your health at risk if you’re not careful.

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This is especially true if you or the person who gave
you the kombucha are inexperienced at making it, says
Ghandi.

“If you’re doing it at home, you can introduce bad
bacteria into the system, and people have become very
ill,” Murad says. “So you have to be careful and have
clean food practices when you’re fermenting the
kombucha.”

Likewise, fermenting the drink for too long can make
it overly acidic, and drinking it like that can lead
to metabolic acidosis, a condition where there’s too
much acid in the body.

For these reasons, both dietitians recommended
drinking only store-bought kombucha.

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9.
So, should you drink kombucha?

So, should you drink kombucha?

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Tbh, it’s probably not gonna hurt if you drink it.
Both experts agree that if you’re healthy, you’re not
pregnant (because it does have some alcohol), and you
don’t have a compromised immune system, then you’ll
be fine drinking it. That said, you should also keep
an eye on the label for sugar content (since some
companies will add juice for taste) and how many
servings are in a bottle, Murad says.

On the other hand, if you’ve been thinking about
drinking it for its ~health benefits~, then there are
a number of other (cheaper) fermented options you can
try — like yogurt, kefir, sauerkraut, pickles,
kimchi, and tempe, say Murad and Ghandi.

“The bottom line is that it’s not necessary to be
part of a balanced diet,” says Ghandi. “It doesn’t
contain lots of vitamins, minerals, or anything like
that.” But, of course, if you love it and your doctor
says it’s fine to drink it — have at it!

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