“It helps detoxify, works as a powerful antioxidant, energizes the body, and boosts immunity,” the announcer began. I was recently driving from Palm Desert to Los Angeles when I became riveted about this new, potential cure-all functional food.
The more I listened, the more irritated I became. This wasn’t some magical superfood at all. It only became hip a few decades ago, yet kombucha originated about 5,000 years ago in China.
Manufacturers create kombucha from sugar, black and/ or green tea, and a live starter. “While some refer to the kombucha starter as a “mushroom,” it is NOT a mushroom, but a symbiotic combination of bacteria and yeast (the acronym used for this combination is SCOBY),” says my friend Donna Gates at her website Body Ecology.
That bacteria and yeast give kombucha its probiotics, but “they are also highly unregulated,” says Body Ecology, “not always native to the human intestines, and can change from batch to batch.”
Inconsistency aside, in another blog Body Ecology offers four more reasons to pass up kombucha:
- It might contain Candida yeast
- It contains alcohol
- It might contain heavy metals and fluoride
- It contains too much sugar
All of these are concerning, but that last one becomes particularly problematic when you go low sugar impact. Even after fermenting, many kombucha teas still have too much sugar.
But OK, you're in cycle 3 of my Sugar Impact Diet, you can have a little sugar, so the occasional kombucha won't cause any harm, right?
Here’s where it really gets scary. Because they are largely unregulated, contaminated starters - especially those make-at-home ones - can create numerous problems including a fungus called aspergillus that can become problematic if you have compromised immunity. Other potential adverse affects like muscle inflammation can occur from bacterial or fungal contamination during the brewing process.
A systematic review of kombucha discusses other issues. “Several case reports and case series raise doubts about the safety of kombucha. They include suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis and cutaneous anthrax infections. One fatality is on record,” researchers write in the journal Research in Complementary Medicine. “On the basis of these data it was concluded that the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks of kombucha. It can therefore not be recommended for therapeutic use.”
What particularly irks me is how kombucha becomes positioned as a cure-all, healing everything from cancer and diabetes to boosting libido. These claims are unsubstantiated, and I’ve found no human trials showing kombucha’s benefits.
“Many personal experiences and testimonials of kombucha tea [KT] drinkers are available throughout the world on the ability of KT to protect against a vast number of metabolic and infectious diseases, but very little scientific evidence is available that validates the beneficial effects of KT,” researchers say in one review published in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
Based on those concerns, coupled with its high-sugar impact, I vote to skip kombucha. You're mostly drinking it for probiotics, but fermented foods like kimchi are far better options without kombucha’s potential problems and sugar impact.
If you’re not a fan of fermented foods or have trouble fitting them into your diet, you can also take a probiotic supplement. You'll want to find one that combines billions (not millions) of microorganisms with prebiotics to support the proliferation of beneficial bacteria in your gut, which promotes healthy gastrointestinal (GI) and immune function. Hint: Most commercial brands don't meet those criteria.
If you're a kombucha drinker, do you share any of these potential health concerns or do you believe this popular fermented drink can offer health benefits?