What the hell is kombucha?

My sister:  Try this kombucha.

Me: Isn’t it, like, fermented mushrooms and sourdough starter or something like that?

My sister: No, it’s really yummy!  And really good for you!

Me: (tasting it)  Can we open the wine now?


One week later I text my sister:  I’m addicted to kombucha now!  Have you tried the blueberry maple flavoured one?

Kombucha is a probiotic drink that’s having a bit of a moment — in shops within walking distance of my condo, I can choose from about a dozen different brands and flavours, all of which have that artisinal quality that whispers “you are SOOOOOO taking care of yourself… you are special.”

But What the hell is kombucha, exactly?

Kombucha is essentially a fermented drink, originally asian,  made by adding a culture of bacteria and yeast to a mixture of tea and sugar.  The “mother” lump of fermenting yeast is called a SCOBY — “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast” — and it’s sometimes called “mushroom” tea because when it’s brewing, the fermenting mixture takes on a mushroom shape.  There are no actual mushrooms involved (or sourdough starter, although the SCOBY serves the same purpose), and the commercial versions are often flavoured with fruity blends, or green tea, lemongrass and similar flavours.  The bottles on the shelves today are the essence of hipster aesthetic, many with the kind of minimalist spareness that vaguely imply “old fashioned medicinal.”

My first tendency was to be super-skeptical about kombucha, finding any elixir that claims to Solve! Every! Problem! highly problematic.  This link  and this one and this one make the kind of over-the-top claims that seem to promise cures for arthritis, diabetes, sadness and gut problems, along with perfect skin, eternal youth, endless vitality and all the orgasms you could handle.

We live in an era where there is a steady flow of claims about “superfoods,” like kale, goji berries, acai berries, chia seeds, teff and even maple syrup as well as for the benefits of cleansing interventions like juice fasts. Generally these claims are  pretty overblown, and tend to make vague, unscientific promises about “detoxification.”  There’s a huge divide on the question of detoxification between evidence-based science, which says the body cleanses itself through liver and other organ function and that supplements have no value, and many alternative practitioners, who say our systems are overly taxed by the stressful lives we lead, processed food we eat and the chemicals in our environment, and our organs need help to function well.  The combination of vague evidence and most people’s experience means that the super supplements or foods tend to have their moment of glory and then swirl off into the land of oat bran and lo-fat diets.

Despite my skepticism, though, I have taken a bit of a moderate shine to kombucha.  It’s a fizzy, upbeat drink in the middle of the day and when I’m stuck at my desk, it adds a momentary burst of festivity to my usual coffee/water regime.  So what are the actual benefits or drawbacks, if any?

Through all of the hype, the evidence does point strongly to the fact that kombucha has strong probiotic properties, which definitely has benefits for gut health.  (There is tons of evidence that probiotics are good for your guts, and kombucha definitely is a probiotic; there are no studies I could find that specifically examine the effects of kombucha alone). Two people close to me who have managed their own chronic illnesses of Crohn’s and an auto-immune disease called scleroderma through nutrition, alternative therapy and exercise, swear by probiotics, including kombucha.  (I know that’s not evidence, but one of them is a holistic nutritionist ;-)).  Nutritionally, kombucha is definitely a better pick-me-up drink than fruit juice or pop, both of which are basically just simple sugars.  (Although apparently, if you drink too much of it, it can make you a bit tipsy — it IS a fermented drink, after all).

The biggest downsides to kombucha seem to be either assuming it’s more of an elixir than it is — it’s a gut-healthy drink, not a cure-all– or the contamination that can happen with homemade kombucha that isn’t processed properly (like bad home canning).  It may not lead to eternal youth, but it can give you a lift and improve your digestive health (i.e,. help you poo better).  And it IS yummy.

I’m never going to be my sister, who gets a case delivered every week and smuggled a dozen bottles into a pile of things we had to tote on a boat and up a hill to her off grid cottage.  But I do pick up a couple of bottles a week, and have a moment of thinking “I’m making a sensible choice in this mid-day beverage.”













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