Drinks

Kombucha's Health Benefits: Which Claims Are True?

May 17, 2017

Of all the hot-right-now, old-as-the-hills fermented foods that are being touted as cure-alls for an array of specific medical problems, kombucha tops Sandor Katz's list.

The author of The Art of Fermentation told me that he's seen claims that kombucha will "prevent your hair from going gray, will prevent you from getting cancer, will cure everything."

Photo by James Ransom

And kombucha is also more popular in mainstream US grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants than ever before. In March 2016, the market research company Mintel released their prediction that 51% of US adults aged 25 to 34 already drink kombucha, and attributed some of its recent hype to a "buzz from lifestyle food bloggers [that's] creating awareness among consumers [who] don’t lean toward the extremes of a healthy lifestyle, but are open to something new."

(For a sense of kombucha's reach: I visited my 90-year-old grandparents in Michigan this past weekend and even they had a bottle of kombucha in their refrigerator. For full disclosure: I love to drink kombucha and am currently brewing my own.)

But just what role does kombucha play in a so-called "healthy lifestyle"? Back in 1997, the American Nutrition Association listed some of the wide-ranging health benefits attributed to "kombucha tea," from lengthening lifespan to aiding in the treatment of psoriasis and limb pain to AIDS to restoring hair color.

You will be amazed by how easy it is to make and how effective it is in optimizing your health.
Eric and Jessica Childs, Kombucha!

And, more recently, in the introduction to their book Kombucha! The Amazing Probiotic Tea That Cleanses, Heals, Energizes, and Detoxifies, Eric and Jessica Childs of Kombucha Brooklyn refer to kombucha as "an ancient elixir that is excellent for health and well-being in our modern world" that "detoxifies the liver and blood, [...] provides a crash-proof energy boost, [...] focuses the mind, [...] settles digestion, and [...] streamlines a variety of inefficiencies in the body." People drink kombucha, they say, "because it makes their lives better."

The elegantly beautiful keep a bottle nearby to help them stay young and gorgeous. Health experts laud kombucha’s natural detoxifying properties, including it in their prescription for optimum health. Whatever your reason for trying kombucha, you will be amazed by how easy it is to make and how effective it is in optimizing your health.

Kombucha dream scene. Photo by James Ransom

Can we believe it? "There's all sorts of unscrupulous marketing and people making unsubstantiated claims," Katz told me, and this makes it easy for us skeptics to dismiss the health assertions altogether. Yet "we have to be careful not to throw away the baby with the bath water," he warned. Probiotic foods can contribute to an overall restoration of diversity in the gut, Katz said, but "what benefit that has is very vague and general" even if we do know the bacteria in our intestines are integral to many different physiological processes.

As much as I love kombucha [...], it is not reasonable to expect any single food or beverage to cure specific diseases.
Sandor Katz, The Big Book of Kombucha

"As much as I love kombucha (and sauerkraut and kefir and many other ferments), it is not reasonable to expect any single food or beverage to cure specific diseases," he writes in the forward to The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“My husband and I have been brewing our own Kombucha since the fall, when a farmer from our CSA gave us one of his extra "mothers" (aka SCOBY). I prefer the flavor to the store bought stuff, especially an apple cider cranberry version my husband has come up with. I swear I got over a head cold more quickly this past winter because I doubled my usual 1x day consumption. And I think it does help in the digestive system. I will admit it took me some time to get used to the underlying flavor profile, but I especially like any brews with strawberries, apples, other berries. Not so much a pineapple fan. ”
— Lisa L.
Comment

So is kombucha the panacea many Americans have been missing for hundreds of years, or is the latest beverage to earn valuable grocery store real estate and marketing dollars? Turns out, kombucha is a little bit of both.

We're breaking down what we know to be true from what is less certain:

What we know:

  • The practice of drinking and brewing kombucha is ancient. Kombucha is thought to have originated in Manchuria circa 220 B.C.E—which means that people have been drinking it for quite some time (and that there is a lengthy anecdotal history of health benefits).
  • Kombucha is fermented tea. To make kombucha, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY) is introduced to sweetened black or green tea. The yeast breaks down the sugar into carbon dioxide and alcohol, and then the bacteria converts that alcohol into acetic acid, which provides the drink with its vinegary sharpness. Since the bacteria doesn't use all of the alcohol, kombucha will always contain trace amounts of it. (In 2010, Whole Foods pulled all kombucha products off their shelves when the Maine Department of Agriculture discovered their stock to contain more than five times the amount of alcohol legally permitted for non-alcoholic drinks.)
  • Raw, unpasteurized kombucha is full of probiotics (live bacteria and yeast that naturally occur in the body, or are very similar to those that do)—and probiotic supplements have been shown to bolster the immune system and aid in digestive health. “The only reason anybody would drink kombucha, outside of the fact that they enjoy the taste of it, is that it has good bacteria, which could potentially translate into a healthier microflora in our own intestines," Jennifer McDaniel of Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics told NBC News. What's more, the probiotic benefits are not unique to kombucha—eating yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, or kefir, for example, will also do service to your gut ecosystem.
  • Kombucha also contains sugar, B vitamins, and, by way of tea, antioxidants—though a 2014 study found the antioxidants in kombucha to be higher than in unfermented tea.
  • And, though rare, drinking—and, especially, brewing—kombucha comes with risks. Because the pasteurization of kombucha kills off the good bacteria along with the bad, only unpasteurized brews contain the live cultures lauded for their digestive, immunity-boosting benefits. But consuming unpasteurized kombucha, especially when it's produced in a non-sterile setting, like a home kitchen, rather than in the facilities of a reputable company, carries the risk of toxic encounters with harmful microorganisms.

    As an alternative, some nutritionists and health professionals recommend other probiotic-rich foods and beverages that can confer similar benefits at lower risk. And because kombucha falls into the category of "folk medicines, herbal remedies, and dietary supplements," it is not regularly evaluated by the USDA or FDA. Kombucha is not recommended to be consumed in excess (no surprise there), and it's also not advised for pregnant women, children, or those with compromised immune systems.
  • Kombucha has changed many peoples' lives. You don't have to look hard or far for case studies and anecdotes that attribute great changes in well-being to kombucha consumption. In the introduction to the The Big Book of Kombucha—the same book that publicizes Sandor Katz's message that kombucha cannot cure specific diseases—the owners of Kombucha Kamp tell the story of their love affair with kombucha, which, they say, changed "the demands" of their bodies:

We found ourselves craving less of the over-processed junk food we had been accustomed to eating and more of the nourishing, nutrient-dense food that better supported our individual well-being. Over time, we came to live by our simple mantra, 'trust your gut.'

To read these kombucha success stories is to not think of the beverage as a beverage, but as a way of eating—and even, of living.

I’ve seen thousands of posts claiming it cures everything from cancer to wrinkles. It is important to note that there are no confirmed studies about kombucha’s benefits and safety.
Katie Wells, "Wellness Mama"

What we don't know:

  • The exact composition of any one brew—because it changes between batches. Kombucha is a source of probiotics, but the exact composition varies: " The amount and diversity of these organisms present in the bottled beverage can vary widely, depending on brand and production method," reports the International Food Information Council Foundation.
  • Any scientifically-proven health benefits to humans (rather than lab models). A June 2014 review of the microbiology, composition, fermentation, beneficial effects, toxicity, and tea fungus of kombucha in the Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety concluded that "[t]here has been no evidence published to date on the biological activities of kombucha in human trials. All the biological activities have been investigated using animal experimental models." That none of the scientific studies cited in Authority Nutrition's article on 8 Evidence-Based Health Benefits of Kombucha Tea (that kombucha kills harmful bacteria, or reduces live toxicity, or improves LDL and HDL levels) were conducted on humans is not to say that randomized trials of humans subjects would not yield evidence to support this data, but that there is no way to declare it with certainty.

The konclusion*:

The probiotics in raw, unpasteurized kombucha, which you can also find in yogurt, kimchi, and other fermented foods and beverages, may confer some health benefits. Other claims—that kombucha cures cancer, or fights free radicals, or detoxifies the body—have not been proven in humans, though you yourself might find the anecdotal evidence of various individuals convincing.

So drink kombucha—in moderation, and prepared as safely as possible—if it makes you feel good and/or you enjoy its taste (sharp and fizzy, with a vinegary sweetness), but know that a doctor will not prescribe it as medicine.

"The bottom line," writes Patti Neighmond for NPR's The Salt, "is that we know very little about kombucha and how it may affect health.”

But it sure is pretty! Photo by James Ransom

*Please forgive me.

How do you feel about kombucha? And when did you first try it? Tell us in the comments below.

28 Comments

Caroline May 5, 2018
GT's ginger kombucha is my hangover remedy. I have several hypotheses on why it works for me: 1) ginger is helpful for nausea 2) contains alcohol so it could have a hair-of-the-dog effect 3) is a liquid, so it is hydrating 4) placebo effect.<br /><br />Yeah I definitely think a lot of the claims about kombucha are overgrown, hangovers aside.
 
Joycelyn June 23, 2017
I made Kombucha weekly for years for a disabled friend who was convinced it would stop her disabling disease from worsening. It did absolutely nothing to help my friend & she is now to the point she only has the use of one very weak arm and could easily choke to death when trying to swallow.<br />Anyone who actually thinks kombucha works or is a cure all is beyond foolish. <br />As for purchasing the mass produced kombucha of every flavor imaginable found on store shelf nowadays, you wasting your hard earned money on such garbage.
 
Jimmy J. June 23, 2017
Raw kombucha works.
 
Joycelyn June 23, 2017
Wrong.
 
zuzu447 May 20, 2017
I have been drinking a bottle of raw kombucha daily for about 6 months. I had surgery 6 months ago and they pumped me full of antibiotics. I needed to replenish the good bacteria in my digestive tract and started eating lots of yogurt and sauerkraut and drinking kombucha daily. I now have a happy digestive tract, and as soon as I stop traveling so much, will begin making my own. Have joined a fermenting meet-up and just learned how to make my own kefir and sauerkraut. Love all my good bacteria.
 
Lucyland May 20, 2017
I thought kombucha was *awful* the first time I tried it until I was at work one day with a nasty sinus infection and in desperation consumed a bottle during lunch. My mind change about an hour later when something seriously shifted and I was able to breathe through my nose again.
 
Matt H. May 20, 2017
Are you fucking kidding me? You seriously think that kombucha an treat HIV/AIDS? @Sarah Jampel, have you ever been a gay or black person who has been discriminated against or has known someone who has died from the HIV/AIDS epidemic? You shouldn't be posting garbage like this on a respectable website making bogus health claims with no empirical evidence to support you.<br /><br />Retroviral infections aren't something to be mocked or homepathicaly treated.
 
Cook I. May 20, 2017
She is not claiming that kombucha can cure HIV/AIDS. She is just stating that this is a claim, among others, that has been made about kombucha. The purpose of her article is basically to debunk this kind of claim. You'd do well to read more carefully before reacting so harshly.
 
HalfPint May 22, 2017
Way to blow things out of proportions. AIDS was mentioned ONCE in this article in a quote of a statement made in 1997 (!) by some nutrition organization.<br /><br />@matt hermaneau, looks like you missed (or skipped over) this final part of the article:<br /><br />"So drink kombucha—in moderation, and prepared as safely as possible—if it makes you feel good and/or you enjoy its taste (sharp and fizzy, with a vinegary sweetness), but know that a doctor will not prescribe it as medicine."<br /><br />#criticalreadingskills
 
photogirl320 May 19, 2017
I love kombucha. I was introduced to it by a friend's mother who has been making it since the 60s. My SCOBY is a descendent from her original one. I love the process of making it (I would never buy it - so overpriced!).<br />It's hard to say what the benefits are as I think most people combine it with other healthy lifestyle choices. For me, I have noticed a boost in my immune system. Colds and flu are a thing of the past and my psoriasis has cleared up. It certainly doesn't hurt to drink it and it's fun to experiment with different flavours. <br />
 
Joshua H. May 18, 2017
I think placebo affects are a good thing. They say mentally you can I don't see why some claims couldn't be true. If they truly believe it. A military man got brazed with a bullet non deadly but believed so much he was gonna die that he did. Don't sometimes false truths become real truths. The imagination is a strong thing. Sometimes it's nice to not always have reality be so right or wrong, works or doesn't, true or false. It helped my settle my stomach and has even helped give me energy.
 
Lisa L. May 18, 2017
My husband and I have been brewing our own Kombucha since the fall, when a farmer from our CSA gave us one of his extra "mothers" (aka SCOBY). I prefer the flavor to the store bought stuff, especially an apple cider cranberry version my husband has come up with. I swear I got over a head cold more quickly this past winter because I doubled my usual 1x day consumption. And I think it does help in the digestive system. I will admit it took me some time to get used to the underlying flavor profile, but I especially like any brews with strawberries, apples, other berries. Not so much a pineapple fan.
 
mountaingirl May 18, 2017
Would you please share your recipe for the Apple cider cranberry with me. I have been making and have not found a flavor I LOVE, I also understand raisins work well? Does anyone know. Email: <br />[email protected]<br />I happened on this few comments and have no idea how to get back here.<br />Thank you, Betty
 
Lisa L. May 21, 2017
2 cups cider per gallon; 1 cinnamon stick; 1/2 cup cranberries, frozen and thawed or fresh, smashed a bit - put in gallon jar, add kombucha tea base to it to fill jar.
 
Joey L. May 17, 2017
Been brewing my own for over a year and drink one bottle per day! I've thought people how to make it and they are a hooked. I do warn that no more than 16oz a day is recommended. Has definitely improved my quality of Life!<br />
 
Yolanda May 17, 2017
Have fallen for Kombucha, so expensive in stores though. Am saving, since I'm poor and older, to buy the kit and try and make it at home.
 
icharmeat May 18, 2017
yolanda,<br />you don't need a "kit". all you need is a "scoby" (the culture of bugs that work your sweetened tea into kombucha).. you can get this from an unpasteurized bottle of kombucha from the store (i'd look for a recent production date on the bottle to help assure viability of the various bugs in the culture). otherwise, you can adopt/borrow/buy a scoby from someone- a one-time cost that shouldn't be more than $5. bulk tea is relatively cheap, sugar is more expensive but you don't need that much. Water is essentially free at the amount we are using to make Kombucha.
 
Yolanda May 18, 2017
Thanks!
 
HalfPint May 18, 2017
@Yolanda, I got my SCOBY from a local Food52er who generously gave me one of hers for FREE (thanks linzerella!). In turn, I gave one the 'offsprings' of this mother to a friend of mine who made a truly delicious kombucha that is tangy and bright with a light fizzy.
 
Yolanda May 18, 2017
Lucky, used to live in SF, where you can find all kinds of things, now live in El paso, TX and good, cheaper finds are more difficult... thanks for info!
 
HalfPint May 18, 2017
You can find SCOBYs on eBay for ~$5-$7 (with free shipping!).
 
Yolanda May 18, 2017
Will try it - thanks!
 
Jennifer N. May 18, 2017
The kitchn website walks you thru starting your own SCOBY from sweet tea.
 
Yolanda May 18, 2017
The kitcn? Is it part of Food52? Think I saw it and saved it - can't think exactly where. Will look - thanks!
 
Yolanda May 18, 2017
Found it - KITCHN - instructions there - thks!!
 
Beverly D. May 17, 2017
I love Kombucha and have made my own, (So much Less expensive) I have a bunch of scoby's in jar for over 6 months, I need to see if they are still ok.
 
Azora Z. May 17, 2017
Sarah Jampel's Mythbusters: Kombucha Edition
 
Kenzi W. May 17, 2017
Praise!!!