How Healthy is Kombucha?

Dr. Jonny Bowden shares his take on the ubiquitous (and pricy) beverage du jour.
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Ask the Doc Kombucha inset

Q: How healthy is kombucha, really?

I first heard of kombucha long before it was a “thing.” I had a very sophisticated, health-conscious Israeli client who used to go to great lengths to acquire this weird-looking thing she called a “mother” from one of her friends. She’d place it in a big glass container and let it ferment, and it would turn into a drink she called “kombucha” that was supposed to have all kinds of mystical health properties.

Now, decades later, kombucha is sold in every health food store on the planet. That weird-looking brown glop my client referred to as the “mother” is actually known as a SCOBY, which stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast,” which, by the way, looks as revolting as it sounds. When fermented, the SCOBY turns slightly sweetened tea into a fermented tea known as kombucha, or kombucha tea.

Kombucha is claimed to help boost immunity, improve digestion and help with just about every disease state you can name, from AIDS on down. The problem is, there’s precious little evidence that it does any of these things.

It seems like it should be a great beverage – after all, fermented foods have probiotics and tea has all kinds of antioxidants and other good things, so it seems reasonable that kombucha would be a slam dunk in the health department. And many people do swear by it.

But I don’t recommend it because in most cases it’s impossible to know exactly what you’re getting. Allergic reactions to kombucha tea are not common, but they’re also not unheard of.

There are also some concerns about ethanol (alcohol) content in kombucha, which can range anywhere from 0.5 to 2.5% depending on the brew. I personally have tasted kombucha that was labeled alcohol-free but most definitely wasn’t. So, if any of these concerns resonate with you, then I recommend getting your fermented foods, probiotics and antioxidants from more-traditional sources (i.e., yogurt, kefir, sauerkrautand kimchi). Unless you simply really enjoy drinking kombucha and the enjoyment outweighs the small risks, there’s nothing in kombucha you can’t get from other foods.