On a recent trip to the South, my family enjoyed the availability of sweet tea at every turn. It made me think about the health benefits of tea - a common hot beverage in our house - and possible cold alternatives to the sticky syrupiness of sweet tea. Observing the popularity of Kombucha tea, I wondered if this could be the healthful alternative I was looking for.
Kombucha is a tart, bubbly beverage produced when tea is brewed, steeped with sugar, and then fermented by a group of bacteria and yeasts. Fermentation forms a “Kombucha mushroom" which is not really a mushroom, but is actually a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast). The yeast produces alcohol from the sugar, then bacteria acts on the alcohol to produce the fizzy beverage.
The taste has been described as tangy, flavorful, or acidic. There is no arguing that you can smell and see the “mushroom”, which may or may not be appealing to you. There are a myriad of drink variations, including black, green, white or oolong tea; caffeinated or caffeine-free tea; and the addition of fruit, juice, herbs and spices.
Are there health benefits? Kombucha was first believed to boost immunity thousands of years ago in eastern Asia. Other health claims include its ability to rid the body of toxins, improve digestion, enhance skin and hair appearance, improve liver function, reduce headaches, and prevent or treat cancer. Unfortunately, there are no clinical studies and no scientific evidence that any of these claims are true. However, Kombucha does contain probiotics, or beneficial bacteria which may improve the immune system. There are risks, however, including foodborne illness. This is a significant concern for homemade tea because it is fermented at room temperature for 7 to 12 days and is a favorable environment for the growth of harmful bacteria. Another risk is the possibility of using contaminated yeast and bacteria which produce molds and fungi that can cause illness. Reported side effects of drinking homemade Kombucha include stomach aches, allergic reactions, and even death in a case where contaminated SCOBY was used. Contamination is less of a concern in commercial teas.
Another problem is alcohol content. The FDA has found some commercial teas with higher alcohol content (as high as 3%) than what is allowed, and there are reports of higher alcohol than expected in home brewed Kombucha as well.
It may be fine to consume a beverage if you like it and feel it is helping you, as long as you experience no negative side effects. For my family, I have decided to stick with brewed iced green tea, since there is ample evidence of green tea health benefits. Frankly, I don’t have the patience to wait a week to quench my thirst. For the rest of you, weigh the pros and cons, and proceed with caution.
As seen in the Fort Collins Coloradoan
Melissa Wdowik, PhD, RDN, LDN, FAND
is a nutrition educator with over 20 years experience as a college professor, nutrition coach, presenter and writer, as well as a nutrition consultant and founding director of the Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center.