What the Heck Is Kombucha, Anyway?

And more importantly, is it as ~healthy~ as everyone says?

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In case you haven’t noticed, the beverage aisle at the grocery store has been taken over by a trendy, mysterious drink with a funny name: kombucha. While it may seem hot and new, this fizzy tea is actually older than you are. Centuries older.

The exact origin isn’t perfectly clear, but kombucha—pronounced like /kahm ● BOO ● chah/—is typically attributed to the Manchurian region (which is today’s northeastern China), but kombucha also has ties to Japan, Korea, and Russia. Documents from the Qin Dynasty in China (which ran from 221 to 206 BCE) refer to something called “Immortality Tea” and “Long Life Elixir.” It’s suspected that these documents were referencing kombucha.

How Kombucha Is Made

Kombucha starts as any other sweet tea. Black or green tea is brewed and sugar is stirred in. Sounds normal, right?

That’s where things start to get a bit weird. Once cooled down, the tea is combined with a SCOBY, an acronym for the fungus that helps ferment the tea: Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast. The SCOBY is a circular biofilm that is pale in color, has a fleshy texture, and is creepily squishy. It’s similar to the “mother” that’s used to make vinegar (and in fact, kombucha tastes similar to a good-quality vinegar).

But the most important thing about the SCOBY is that it contains active cultures, which helps the tea ferment and gives kombucha its alleged probiotic content. (More on this later.)

Here’s how it works: The yeast in the SCOBY love the sugar in the brewed tea. They use this sugar to produce ethanol, which the SCOBY bacteria eat up to produce acetic acid (i.e. vinegar). Because of this process, much of the sugar added during the brewing process gets “eaten up,” and the final drink ends up being more sour than sweet. And yes, some kombucha has trace amounts of alcohol (but probably not enough to get you tipsy).

This fermentation process takes about one week, but the longer it ferments, the less sweet and more vinegary it gets. Then, it’s bottled. Because the bacteria and yeast burp up carbon dioxide, it naturally carbonates within a couple days, resulting in a slightly fizzy, effervescent drink.

You can drink kombucha straight, or you can add additional flavors during the bottling process. Anything goes, but common add-ins include citrus, ginger, apple, and berries. Spices like cayenne and turmeric are also popular, and floral flavors like rose and lavender are becoming more common.

Is Kombucha Actually Healthy?

Kombucha may have its reputation as an ancient elixir, but its health benefits are hotly contested. It’s true that kombucha contains active cultures (AKA “good” bacteria), similar to yogurt. For example, you can find one billion organisms of both Lactobacillus Bacterium and Saccharomyces Boulardii in one bottle of kombucha by GT’s Living Foods, a popular brand.

However, the controversy continues about whether consuming probiotics (whether in the form of kombucha, yogurt, or other probiotic-rich foods) actually helps the gut. The human gut naturally contains live microorganisms that aid in digestion, and some claim consuming probiotic-rich foods can help replenish that bacteria community, which could help keep digestion smooth.

Science has yet to prove that this actually works, at least for the general population. There’s one notable exception: Consuming probiotics *does* appear to reduce symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome, according to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. (Here are more things a gastroenterologist wants you to know about probiotics and gut health.)

Plus, there’s the sugar. To make kombucha more palatable to the modern consumer, many commercial brands tend to be high in sugar to mask the traditional, vinegar flavor. While some bottles contain as little as 5 grams of sugar, others can soar to over 20 grams. In other words, it’s basically juice. Keep in mind that the American Heart Association recommends keeping added sugar to under 25 grams per day (for women) or 36 grams (for men).

Like most beverages with health claims (lookin’ at you, maple water), there’s nothing in kombucha that you can’t get from other food sources. If you like it, drink it in moderation. If you don’t like it, don’t worry: It’s probably not the “Immortality Tea” that it was hyped up to be.