FYI Health Tip
Though some people try to brew their own kombucha tea at home, the health risks make this inadvisable.
On the label of a popular commercial Kombucha tea, you may read the following: “Kombucha supports: digestion, metabolism, immune system, appetite control, weight control, liver function, body alkalinity, anti-aging, cell integrity, and healthy skin & hair.” That’s a mouthful – literally. But, which of these claims has scientific merit and where do we draw the line on spending $3 or $4 for 16oz of tea? We’ll do our best to shed light on these topics and get to the bottom of a tradition dating back to ~200 BC in China.
What is kombucha?
Kombucha begins with tea (black, green, and white are most common) which is allowed to ferment for up to 30 days. During the fermentation process, yeast and bacteria grow symbiotically (together) and healthful nutrients develop, like antioxidants, probiotics, and B vitamins. Generally, people say kombucha has an acquired taste – acidic and dry – similar to wine, but also fizzy and refreshing.
What are the proven benefits?
What we do know is that antioxidants (in fruits, vegetables, and green tea) can boost our immune system and fend off chronic diseases, like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. Probiotics help keep out digestive tract flourishing with healthy bacteria, which also boosts our immune system and may help calm IBS. Having low levels of some B vitamins has been linked to depression, heart disease, and brain-aging. Therefore, keeping those levels up may help ward off these common inflictions.
Keep in mind that these claims about kombucha have not been studied in humans. Only animal studies exist to suggest these effects specifically from kombucha.
What are the potential dangers?
Where there are benefits, there are generally costs to weigh. In the case of kombucha, reports have been issued concerning deaths and serious illness in immunocompromised individuals. This includes women who are pregnant or nursing, children, the elderly, and those with chronic diseases that lower immune function, like HIV/AIDS, cancer (especially during medical treatment). These groups are more susceptible to serious yeast and bacterial infection, and should steer clear of kombucha, despite health claims (which are yet to be approved by FDA regulations). Also of note: kombucha may impact the manner in which medications are absorbed since it affects the pH (acid-base balance) of the stomach, possibly making them less effective.
Can you make kombucha safely at home?
The safest way to enjoy kombucha is from a reputable commercial brand and in moderation. But if you insist on “getting back to nature” by making your own be sure to sterilize the utensils and containers before starting. Use bottled water and never use honey to replace sugar since it contains natural bacteria which will grow perfectly in this environment and could make you very sick. And, lastly – if you see mold growing, throw the entire batch away. No questions.
The bottom line:
If you enjoy the taste and have a healthy immune system, there’s no reason to stop drinking your favorite kombucha blend. As with most “natural” fad, it’s better to be safe than sorry; if you’re pregnant or nursing, have a compromised immune system or are taking any medications, be sure to check with your doctor before drinking Kombucha.
1. Greenwalt CJ, et al. Kombucha, the fermented tea: Microbiology, composition, and claimed health effects. Journal of Food Protection. 2000;63:976.
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