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Large jar and small bottles of kombucha tea

Sip or Skip? Kombucha

Kombucha (kom-boo-cha) is one of the hottest new trends in drink and health, with good-for-you claims leading to a bevy of brands lining store shelves. OhioHealth dietitian Jessica VanCleave, MPH, RD, LD, weighs in on the new drink and whether kombucha should be one of your go-tos.

Kombucha Tea

What is Kombucha?

Kombucha is a fermented drink made with tea, sugar and bacteria and yeast. Although it seems like it’s new to the beverage scene, it actually first appeared in China in 220 BC. The fermentation produces a bubbly, tart, vinegary-tasting drink. Some varieties include fruit juice for different flavors.

What are the Benefits of Kombucha?

The mix of sugar and bacteria and yeast in kombucha ferments, producing probiotics, another new health rage. Probiotics — “good” bacteria — are found in fermented foods like yogurt, sauerkraut and kefir. Research suggests that fermented foods help promote a healthy gut, keeping you regular, improving digestion and boosting immunity.

VanCleave says that kombucha is a good alternative for someone who’s trying to break a soda habit.

“It’s a great substitution for sugary beverages,” she says. “It still has calories, but far fewer than soda.”

She recommends choosing varieties with less than 5 grams of sugar.

Are There Downsides to Kombucha?

Most health trends have a flip side to all the benefits being touted. Kombucha’s no different.

It’s questionable that kombucha is the probiotic wonder drink it’s promoted to be.

“There hasn’t been enough research done to produce scientific evidence that kombucha does what it’s supposed to do,” says VanCleave.

If choosing probiotics to improve gut health and enhance your immune system is what you’re after, she recommends turning to other fermented foods like kefir and plain yogurt.

A kombucha habit isn’t cheap, with single bottles averaging $3.00. That’s why many people choose to make it at home. But that comes with other concerns due to the drink’s live bacteria. Pasteurization prevents contamination but kills the good bacteria. Raw, unpasteurized versions can be contaminated with bad bacteria. VanCleave says that’s why people with weaker immune systems, such as kids, pregnant women, seniors or someone in treatment for conditions like cancer, should steer clear of kombucha.

VanCleave says the drink can cause gastrointestinal distress in some people, so it’s best to start with small servings and build up. Since it’s made with tea, kombucha does have a small amount of caffeine, so if you’re trying to kick a caffeine habit, it’s not the drink for you.

The Bottom Line on Kombucha

VanCleave says kombucha is no different than other foods when it comes to eating a nutritionally balanced diet.

“There’s nothing wrong with it,” she says. “It can definitely be part of a healthy diet. But kombucha isn’t a cure-all; it doesn’t offset eating McDonald’s every day. Probiotics are a really good thing, but I think there are better options for getting them than kombucha.”

Curious about trendy drinks and brews? Check out our Sip or Skip series


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