Recently, I stopped by a trendy LA health food restaurant – you know the type: tofu everything, freshly squeezed green juices, and vegan muffins. I was grabbing a quick salad and an iced green tea when I noticed several varieties of kombucha on tap.
Originating about 5,000 years ago in China and long popular among health-minded folks, kombucha recently established hipster-cool as a popular, pricey beverage with potential health benefits. But is it healthy?
Kombucha is usually made from sugar, black or green tea (sometimes both), and a live starter.
“While some refer to the kombucha starter as a ‘mushroom,’ it is NOT a mushroom, but a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (the acronym used for this combination is SCOBY),” says my friend Donna Gates on her website Body Ecology.
The more I researched kombucha, the less I liked it. Another blog on Body Ecology offers four more good reasons to pass up this “healthy” drink:
- It might contain Candida yeast.
- It contains alcohol.
- It might contain heavy metals and fluoride.
- It contains too much sugar.
For anyone doing my Sugar Impact Diet, that last one becomes particularly troublesome. Even after fermenting, many kombucha teas still have too much sugar, and commercial varieties oftentimes add more to make it more palatable.
But what if you’re in Cycle 3 of my Sugar Impact Diet and want a little sugar, so you opt for an occasional kombucha? I still say thumbs down, and here’s why.
Because they’re largely unregulated, contaminated kombucha starters — especially those make-at-home ones — can create numerous problems, including a fungus called aspergillus that can be problematic if you have compromised immunity.
Other potential adverse effects like muscle inflammation can occur from bacterial or fungal contamination during kombucha’s brewing process.
Studies reveal other issues. “Several case reports and case series raise doubts about the safety of kombucha,” notes one systematic review. “They include suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis, and cutaneous anthrax infections. One fatality is on record.” (Yikes.)
Researchers explain: “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.”
Alarming potential dangers aside, what irritates me is how kombucha became positioned as a cure-all for everything from boosting libido to healing cancer and diabetes. These claims are unsubstantiated, and I 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 argue in one review.
Based on those concerns and 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, and 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. My favorite is Microbiome Balance, a powerful prebiotic/probiotic supplement available only at my store that includes a powerful bacteriophage that attacks your gut’s “bad” microbes.