Most labels describe kombucha as a tea, but that’s actually only true in the loosest sense. Kombucha is a fermented drink, very similar to raw apple cider vinegar.
How is kombucha made? Well, you make some black, green or oolong tea and add some sugar. (Some people use herbal teas too- rooibos is especially popular.) When the tea is sufficiently cooled off, you dump in some starter kombucha and a SCOBY. (SCOBY stands for Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast. Basically, a big blob of good bacteria and yeast. Sometimes called the “mother”.) Over a period of approximately 2-4 weeks (maybe less depending on how warm your kitchen is), the SCOBY eats the tea and sugar from the liquid and excretes out probiotics which soon permeate the liquid. The result is what we call kombucha.
Calling kombucha a tea is popular way of positioning it for businesses that sell it. Calling it a tea vinegar or bacteria and yeast juice does not sound appealing to most Americans.
How Healthy Is It?
This depends a lot on the particular brand of kombucha and how it’s made. A traditionally brewed kombucha will have trace amounts of caffeine and alcohol. However, the alcohol and caffeine content can be controlled with the right fermentation conditions.
Kombucha that has been fermented between two and four weeks (ish) will have a relatively low alcohol and caffeine content because at this point the SCOBY will have eaten up most of the tea and sugar, but won’t start fermenting to the point of high alcohol content yet. This is usually considered the ideal for kombucha. If you want to flavor kombucha, you put it in bottles with flavoring like juice or herbs and let it sit for a few days, a week at the most. After about a week, it will start developing higher alcohol content because the sugars from the additional flavoring (especially fruit juice) will quickly be converted to alcohol.
Federal law requires that all beverages that are marketed as non-alcoholic have 0.5% or less alcohol content, so the kombuchas that you find in the store have to meet this standard. In 2010, a public health official in Portland, Maine noticed some bottles of kombucha leaking and thought that the beverages might have high alcohol content. Four brands were taken from the store and tested at the University of Maine and found to have alcohol content ranging from slightly over 0.5% to 2.5%. In the United States, a drink with over 0.5% alchol content has to be regulated by the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax Trade Bureau. So many kombucha brands did a voluntary recall while they reformulated to strictly comply with the 0.5% standard.
Reformulation has meant different things for different brands, and herein lies the central issue with the kombucha vs. soda question. Most brands of commercial kombucha now use a short fermenation process, so the SCOBY doesn’t eat up much of the sugar and tea. This makes the kombucha sweeter. It also makes it much easier for manufacturers to get under .5% because the kombucha isn’t as active. Long brew kombucha can meet the 0.5% standard, but it requires more care. You have to make sure that your fermentation time and conditions are balanced to get to that happy medium.
Because short brewing doesn’t give as much time for the fermentation process, this kind of kombucha ends up being on the flat side. Most short brew brands use forced carbon dioxide to make their kombucha effervescent, just like a soda. The downside to forced CO2 is that it can make the kombucha more acidic.
So long story short, most commercial kombuchas are short brewed with forced CO2 making them more like a sweet tea soda with a little bit of probiotics. There are a few traditionally brewed brands that do a long brew and have very probiotic rich kombucha. Of course whether you do a long brew or short brew, the probiotic benefits will be negligible if the kombucha has been pasteurized.
Most brands of kombucha that use forced CO2 don’t list it on their label, so it is hard to tell from the label alone. Reed’s Culture Club uses forced CO2 as does Kosmic Kombucha. Nationally distributed Kombucha Wonder Drink is pasteurized as well.
From an article in the journal Comprehensive Review of Food Science and Food Safety, the following benefits have been found from kombucha:
- High levels of probiotics
- Antimicrobial effects against both Gram positive and Gram negative pathogens
- Inhibits the growth of some types of cancer cells
- hepatoprotective against various environmental pollutants (i.e. protects the liver from nasty pollutants)
- High antioxidant content
- B vitamins- including vitamin 12
What about alcohol and caffeine content (especially for pregnant and breastfeeding women)?
An average kombucha is usually listed as having approximately 24 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. GT’s brand kombucha says that theirs has about 8-14 mg of caffeine per 8 oz. serving. For a point of reference:
- Starbucks 16 oz. coffee has 330 mg of caffeine
- 2 Tbsp of Maxwell House ground coffee has about 100-160 mg of caffeine
- 8 oz. of black tea brewed for 3 minutes has 30-80 mg of caffeine
- 8 oz. of Lipton black or green decaf tea has 5 mg of caffeine
- 16 oz. Starbucks decaf coffee has around 15-25 mg of caffeine
- 2 Tbsp. of Maxwell House ground decaf coffee has 2-10 mg
- 12 oz. diet Coke has 47 mg of caffeine
- 12 oz. Sunkist soft drink has 41 mg of caffeine
- 12 oz. of Barq’s regular root beer has 23 mg of caffeine
- A Rockstar Citrus Punched energy drink has 240 mg of caffeine
- A 1 oz. package of Jelly Belly Extreme Sport Beans has 50 mg.
- 16 oz. Starbuck’s hot chocolate has 25 mg. of caffeine
- 1 Tbsp. of Hershey’s cocoa has 8 mg of caffeine
- A 1.5 oz serving of Hershey’s Special Dark chocolate has 20 mg of caffeine.
So a store-bought kombucha will have about as much caffeine in it as a soft drink like Barq’s root beer or Sunkist or 3 oz. of dark chocolate.
Alcohol has been a much publicized issue with kombucha. However, seeing as how any kombucha being sold as a non-alcoholic beverage has .5% or less alcohol the alcohol content is very low. A regular beer is 5% alcohol, so you would have to drink 10 kombuchas to even start approaching the alcohol content of one can of beer. Wines usually have 12% alcohol content in a 5 oz. serving and hard drinks like whiskey and gin are at around 40% alcohol content for a 1.5 oz serving. How does it compare to other non-alcoholic foods/beverages?
The Washington State Toxicology Lab conducted a study on the alcohol content of foods and drinks that are considered non-alcoholic and found that many breads actually have alcohol content greater than 0.5%. The apples in a Great Harvest Apple Walnut Roll actually have an alcohol content of 1.066% and the roll itself has a total alcohol content 0.956%. Rosemary onion bread has an alcohol content of 0.98%. Home Pride brand wheat bread has 0.48% alcohol content.
Fruit juices also have naturally occurring alcohol in them. In fact, the United Arab Emirates has pulled juices from stores for exceeding 0.03% alcohol content (their legal limit for non-alcoholic beverages). In August 2013, Snapple’s fruit punch drink and peach flavored tea were pulled from the UAE because they were found to have alcohol contents of .48% and .05% respectively. So a carefully long-brewed non-alcoholic kombucha has about the same alcohol content as a fruit juice drink.
The article fromComprehensive Review of Food Science and Food Safety also noted that some cases of toxicity had been reported, such as dizziness and nausea after consuming certain kombucha products. Lead poisoning has been known to occur in home brewed kombucha that is brewed in containers with lead content. According to this article, kombucha is contraindicated in pregnant and lactating women. I do know several women who have drunk kombucha through pregnancy and breastfeeding and seen no ill effects. Of course, you should always consult your doctor before consuming a substance when you are pregnant or breastfeeding.