The Tea on Kombucha
Wood and drink fads come and go, but one beverage that’s shown a lot of staying power is kombucha. Over the last 30 years, the pungent, tangy drink has climbed the ladder from farmer’s markets to health food stores to supermarket chains. Today, you can get it in the refrigerated section in almost any grocery store. But what’s it’s deal? Why does it smell weird? Why does your friend who’s really into crystals drink so much of it?
What Is It?
Kombucha shares a shelf with lemonade, juice and iced tea, but it’s different from all of these drinks—it’s fermented and full of live bacteria. That might sound gross, but it’s totally normal. Kombucha is fermented in the same way as beer, yogurt, kimchi and kefir, all things that people consume every day. It’s usually made by brewing tea and adding a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY), then leaving the SCOBY to consume the sugar in the tea and ferment the beverage for about 1 to 3 weeks. Then, it’s often bottled and left for a couple more weeks to let released CO2 build up and carbonate the drink, then refrigerated to slow the fermentation process and control the alcohol content. By nature, all kombucha technically has alcohol in it, but the stuff you can get for cheap at the store is legally required to contain less than .05% alcohol by volume, although hard kombucha is itself a fast-growing market.
Where’s It From?
Kombucha has actually been around for over two thousand years. It dates back to ancient China, where as early as the 2nd century BCE, it was popular as a medicinal beverage. It got its name (literally, Kombu tea) from the Korean physician Dr. Kombu, who reportedly brought the drink to Japan as medicine for the ailing Emperor Ingyo sometime in the mid-400s. Once it had spread across East Asia, trade routes expanded worldwide in the 20th century and it made its way to Europe and the Americas. Kombucha’s popularity chugged along from there until it really spiked in the 1990s, when a man known as GT Dave founded GT Kombucha, the first domestic kombucha brand in the United States. GT Kombucha was picked up by health stores, consumers took notice, and the industry expanded through the 00s and 10s until today, blossoming into a business worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
What’s It Do?
Kombucha has a reputation for its medicinal properties. Its popularity surged in Europe in the 60s when a study from Switzerland suggested the drink has the same health benefits as cultured yogurt. GT Kombucha was founded because GT Dave credited kombucha for his mother’s recovery from breast cancer. Kombucha was originally used as a medicine back in ancient China, and it seems not much has changed since then, except for a better understanding of the science behind the drink.
Kombucha’s claim to fame is the ‘probiotic’ bacteria living in it. The human digestive system is full of bacteria that work to aid digestion, and eating foods with probiotic bacteria, like yogurt, is supposedly good for maintaining your bacterial biome. But the thing is, there’s no evidence to suggest kombucha is actually good for the gut. According to microbiome expert Franck Carbonero, scientists really don’t know if the bacteria found in kombucha is probiotic at all. It certainly doesn’t seem to hurt anything, but people’s claims of it being a digestive cure-all are not well-substantiated.
The data on kombucha’s other benefits are spotty as well. Only one study has investigated kombucha’s effect on blood sugar levels in diabetic adults, and while its results were promising, the study itself was not very scientifically valid. All the reports of kombucha treating everything from rheumatism to AIDS are strictly anecdotal and haven’t been verified by any medical professionals. There is something to be said for the drink’s abundance of vitamins and antioxidants, but you could probably get the same thing from a regular cup of tea.
All of this is not to say that kombucha makers have brewed up a bunch of lies. Not many human studies have been done on kombucha, so currently, its benefits are uncertain. But it’s definitely lower in sugar than most other store-bought drinks, and some beer brewers have started making hard kombucha as a lower-alcohol, lower-calorie alternative to regular beer. People looking to drink healthier might find kombucha to be a more fun beverage than water or juice.
Basically, if you think kombucha tastes weird, there’s no real reason to choke it down. But if you like the tangy fizz and aren’t trying to cure all your illnesses, keep on drinking the ‘booch—it might not heal, but it doesn’t hurt, and it kind of makes you look cool.
Rowan Thompson - May 17, 2021
Mackeen, Dawn. “Are There Benefits to Drinking Kombucha?” The New York Times, The New York Times, 16 Oct. 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/16/style/self-care/kombucha-benefits.html.
Troitino, Christina. “Kombucha 101: Demystifying the Past, Present and Future of the Fermented Tea Drink.” Forbes, 17 Feb. 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinatroitino/2017/02/01/kombucha-101-demystifying-the-past-present-and-future-of-the-fermented-tea-drink/?sh=299a86704ae2.
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