Health

We Asked Experts If Kombucha Is Actually A Magical Health Drink

Mmm, tea with a side of bacteria and yeast.

Posted on

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

@kiwikatkween / Via instagram.com

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

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

Paramount / Via gifrific.com

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.

Kombucha starts with a bologna-looking gelatinous thing called a SCOBY, which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.

Greenartphotography / Via gettyimages.com

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.

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

http://@paleo.debbs / Via instagram.com

This can take anywhere from 7 to 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.

The finished product might still contain live bacteria and yeast.

New Line Cinema / Via giphy.com

But this isn't going to harm you, especially if you're drinking store-bought kombucha, registered dietitian Despina Gandhi, 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 Gandhi.

"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.

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

20th Century Fox / Via giphy.com

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 they drank 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," Gandhi says.

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

Lucasfilm / Via tenor.co

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

"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.

So, should you drink kombucha?

@kombuchahunter / Via instagram.com

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 tempeh, say Murad and Gandhi.

"The bottom line is that it's not necessary to be part of a balanced diet," says Gandhi. "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!

CORRECTION

Despina Gandhi is a registered dietitian. An earlier version of this post misspelled her name.