It wasn’t that long ago that you couldn’t enjoy a cup of kombucha unless you made it yourself. In recent years, however, the fermented beverage has become extremely popular in the health and wellness industry. The New York Times noted in 2019 that it had evolved in a $475 million industry in the U.S., nearly quadrupling over the previous four years.
You’ve probably heard of kombucha, but may not be sure exactly what it is. Read on to discover more.
What is Kombucha?
Let’s start with a simple definition: kombucha is fermented tea. Like other fermented foods, including yogurt and kefir, it’s made with bacteria to create a probiotic-rich beverage that is purported to have health benefits.
The ingredients used to make kombucha typically include:
- Green or black tea (or other types of tea)
To create kombucha, you add a colony of live bacteria and yeast—known as the “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY)”—to sweetened tea, then leave it to ferment for a few weeks. Sometimes the yeast/bacteria culture is referred to as the “mother” or “mushroom.”
The fermentation process turns the tea into a slightly sweet, slightly tart beverage that you then separate from the SCOBY and store or bottle.
Where Did Kombucha Come From?
It may seem like kombucha is a new beverage, but it has a long history. It is said to have originated in Northeast China (Manchuria) around 200 B.C. As trade routes extended beyond the Far East, kombucha traveled to Russia and Eastern Europe, where it became very popular and was often consumed to treat various health conditions.
According to Forbes, the name “kombucha” came from Dr. Kombu, a Korean physician who brought the fermented teat to Japan as a remedy for Emperor Inkyo. It was also called “Kambucha” in Russia and “Kombuchaschwamm” in Germany.
The beverage first started gaining a foothold in the U.S. during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Patients hoped that it could help support the immune system. In 1995, however, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported on two cases of severe metabolic acidosis and linked them to the intake of kombucha, which caused the drink to fall out of favor.
Metabolic acidosis occurs when there is too much acid in the blood. It can be caused by several factors, and there was no proof the tea was to blame, but the CDC noted that the kombucha was homemade and may have been left to become too acidic. The two patients were also known to have consumed a lot of the beverage—about 4-12 ounces a day.
Then in the early 2000s, we began to learn more about probiotics and their health benefits. Since kombucha is a good source of probiotics, it became popular again, and soon home-brewing kits and commercial brews became widely available.
How is Kombucha Made?
As noted above, kombucha is made by mixing black or green tea with sugar, then adding the SCOBY and fermenting at room temperature for 7-30 days. The longer the mixture ferments, the more vinegary it will taste.
But what exactly is the SCOBY?
Consumers can purchase SCOBY from suppliers, or make it from a previous batch of kombucha. The components of this yeast-bacteria combination may vary, but in general, it includes:
- Strains of Saccharomyces cerevisiae and other yeasts
- Several bacterial strains, typically including Gluconacetobacter xylinus
During the fermentation process, the bacteria and yeast feed on the sugar, releasing carbon dioxide, which creates a fizziness that fans of kombucha enjoy. Because most of the sugar is consumed this way, the final sugar content of the tea is relatively low compared to fruit juices and sodas.
The bacteria and yeast also break down the sugars into alcohol and acids, though the alcohol levels are typically low. The fermentation process increases the concentration of probiotics, those friendly bacteria that help balance the microbiome in the gut and provide health benefits.
The final product contains the following nutrients, though the content will vary depending on how it’s prepared:
- B vitamins
- Organic acids
- Trace minerals
- Some caffeine (less than coffee, tea, and soda)
- Some sugar (2-3 grams per eight ounces)
- A small amount of alcohol (kombucha sold commercially in the U.S. must contain less than 0.5 percent of alcohol by volume)
Can Kombucha Be Dangerous?
Though kombucha tea is generally safe, there are some occasions when it may present some health risks.
When making kombucha at home, it’s important to keep “cleanliness” in mind. The SCOBY contains yeast and bacteria, which can lead to infections unless certain precautions are taken. To avoid problems, it’s always best to use only sterilized jars, lids, and other tools, and to make sure to keep everything else that comes into contact with the tea completely free of germs.
There is also some concern when the kombucha is home-brewed and left to become too acidic. This is thought to be the possible cause behind the two cases of metabolic acidosis that the CDC reported. Investigators also found that the two individuals had severe preexisting conditions that made them susceptible to acidosis. Others who have similar preexisting conditions should be careful to drink no more than four ounces of kombucha per day.
By purchasing kombucha from a reputable company that follows best practices for manufacturing, you can reap the potential benefits of this unique beverage with confidence that it’s been produced with safety in mind.