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Cutting Through the Hype: Is Kombucha Actually an Elixir, or Just Another Fizzy Drink? - Verily
If the price per bottle is any indication, we hope there’s more to this beverage than bubbles and brouhaha.

Kombucha is a fizzy, sometimes fruity, and fun-to-say drink that is flying off store shelves. A fermented tea, its primary ingredients are bacteria and yeast mixed with sugar and black tea. Typically running from $3 to $6 a bottle, it has latte-level pricing because it tends to be brewed in small batches with live cultures. And yes—the fermentation means it has some alcohol content.

Kombucha may be popular, but it’s also the subject of federal investigation and conflicting health rumors. Here’s what you should know about kombucha before you get into the habit of buying (or making) this trendy health drink.

It has been around for 2,000 years.

It’s trending now, but kombucha dates back two thousand years to its origins in China, where it was used as a healing drink. It was dubbed “kombucha” after a Korean physician Dr. Kombu imported the drink to Japan as a medicinal for the emperor. The drink then spread to Russia, Germany, and other European countries.

The first promising research came about in the 1960s when Swiss researchers reported that it had similar health effects as eating yogurt. Then, more research in the 1990s started to hint at benefits for the immune and digestive systems, kicking off its rise to popularity in Western culture.

SCOBY is the not-so-secret ingredient.

Kombucha goes through a weeklong fermentation process that turns it from a sugary tea to a fizzy drink with a vinegary taste and odor. The fermentation happens using a Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast (SCOBY), a collection of microorganisms that resembles a mushroom—hence its nickname “mushroom tea.” The SCOBY seals the tea from air during the fermentation process as the sugar turns into acids and probiotics.

Rebecca Lewis, a registered dietitian at HelloFresh, tells Verily, “As the kombucha culture digests the sugar, it produces a range of beneficial organic acids like glucuronic acid, gluconic acid, lactic acid, acetic acid, butyric acid, malic acid, and usnic acid. Additionally, the fermentation process develops vitamins B and C, as well as amino acids and other enzymes.” This fermentation process means kombucha may have up to 0.5 percent alcohol content and is, therefore, regulated as an alcoholic beverage in the U.S.

It has gone through some safety scandals.

Kombucha has been the subject of controversy in recent years. In 2010, an inspection of kombucha samples from a Whole Foods in Maine found alcohol levels ranging from 0.5 percent to 2.5 percent (for context, beer usually has around 5 percent alcohol). Whole Foods stopped selling kombucha until the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB) enforced kombucha testing requirements for producers and distributors. The requirements state, “Regardless of the alcohol content of the finished beverage, when kombucha reaches 0.5 percent alcohol or more by volume at any time during the production process, it must be produced on a TTB-qualified premises and is subject to TTB regulation.”

Its nutrients affect your digestion.

The jury is still out on the health benefit claims of kombucha, but it does contain probiotics, enzymes, and acids known to help boost digestion and improve your immune system. Medicinal physician Dr. Bindiya Gandhi explains, “Kombucha is great for helping increase diversity of gut bacteria, which helps with your immune system, decreases inflammation, and aids in detoxification, digestion, and energy.” A Cornell University study investigating its antimicrobial qualities found that the tea itself is not associated with immunity improvement; rather, the health benefits are attributed to kombucha’s complex composition of acetic acids.

It may be healthy, but it doesn’t heal.

Despite its historical healing usage (it has been promoted to help treat illnesses such as cancer, heart disease, and diabetes), there is very limited research proving these health benefits of kombucha. There is proof of the positive effects of the elements that make up kombucha tea, but research reviews of studies show that we need additional proof of its properties’ ability to prevent heart disease and other ailments. Also, clinical evidence reviews of kombucha-related research uncovered risks such as liver and kidney damage when consumed consistently.

If you’ve got a ’booch habit, here’s what to look for on the bottle.

With kombucha brands sprouting up all over, it’s important to read the labels to find the purest and healthiest options. Lewis notes, “Some kombucha may have added fruit juice or flavors added during production.” Look for low sugar content, no additives, and a raw product. Avoid artificial flavors, high caffeine content, and pasteurized versions that kill the active probiotics, decreasing kombucha’s digestive benefits. Homemade kombucha may not be fermented properly due to over-fermentation or bacterial or fungal contamination, so brew it at your own risk. As long as you buy kombucha off the shelf, you can drink calmly knowing that your tastebuds are the only things that will get a buzz.

So, is kombucha worth the hype (and the price tag)? Well, yeah, it kind of is. Especially if you’re choosing it over drinks like diet sodas or plain juices, kombucha is definitely a health upgrade. Sip away, ’boochers!