When it comes to managing gut health, kombucha has risen in popularity. Once only available in health stores, it is now readily available in most supermarkets both in the chilled and soft drink sections. The sparkly, fermented tea now known as a ‘superfood’ originated in China thousands of years ago and has been shown to improve gut health, which plays a vital role in our overall health by reducing the risk of obesity, heart disease and diabetes.
Interestingly, Kombucha has become one of the fastest-growing drink categories in Australia as people look for healthier alternatives to soft drinks, alcohol and fruit juices.
“If you’re going to pick kombucha over either of those other drinks, you’re definitely going to get health benefits,” Dr Joanna McMillan, nutrition scientist and dietitian, tells Starts at 60.
Made from tea and sugar, the fermentation process of kombucha creates live bacteria and other microorganisms which feed on the sugar. Like other fermented foods, this creates a potent combination of organic acids, which are good for gut health because they improve nutrient digestibility and encourage gut enzyme activity.
Tea is the key ingredient here as it contains polyphenols – compounds found in natural plant food sources that have antioxidant properties to improve digestion issues, help cardiovascular diseases and assist with diabetes, weight management and neurodegenerative disease.
“Those polyphenols and potentially the live bacteria that are present in a properly made kombucha can actually help us to support a healthy microbiome [all of the genetic material within the collection of microorganisms in the gut],” McMillan says.
Unlike alcoholic beverages which cannot be mixed with medication, kombucha is generally safe and doens’t require people to seek medical advice before consumption. However, kombucha does contain small amounts of alcohol as a result of the fermentation process – but this amount isn’t enough for kombucha to be classified as alcohol.
“You wouldn’t want to be having too much of any kind of drink or food, but certainly having a serve a day is perfectly safe and there’s really no risk to anybody from having a drink like this,” McMillan says.
Refrigeration stops fermentation from continuing and prevents the kombucha from tasting like vinegar. It also allows the good, live bacteria that benefit gut health to remain dormant. Kombucha that is sold at room temperature or on a shelf isn’t likely to be effective because the continuing fermentation process affects the live bacteria in the drink.
Before spending your hard-earned money on kombucha, check the label to see if you’re getting the real deal. Kombucha that uses live bacteria with low sugar levels of less than 5 grams per 100 millilitres and no artificial sweeteners is usually a sign of a traditional kombucha.
“Look for the ones that have got the lowest sugar, no added sweeteners and if it labels something about the particular strain of bacteria that are being used, then that’s a good sign you’ve got a proper, traditional kombucha,” McMillan explains. “If you’re taking a proper kombucha that has a real probiotic in it, certainly there would benefit to having a glass a day.”
You may also notice that refrigerated kombucha bottles have some ‘residue’ or ‘floaties’ at the bottom of every bottle. This is nothing to be alarmed about. In fact, the sediment found in kombucha is similar to “the mother” in raw apple cider vinegar, a culture of beneficial bacteria involved in the formation and fermentation of vinegar. It’s a sign that the live cultures in the kombucha are still living – which is what makes the drink so special.
While there are plenty of different flavours of kombucha on the market, traditional kombucha has a tart and vinegary taste to it.
“In just a pure kombucha that is just fermented tea, a lot of the flavour is coming from the by-product of that fermentation in the drink,” McMillan says. “There’s a very fine line between getting the right point of fermentation because if you ferment away all of the sugar, you end up with quite a vinegary drink that’s not pleasant to drink.”
Too much sugar in the end product will essentially create a soft drink without health benefits and many drinks labelled as kombuchas aren’t actually the real deal because of added sweeteners and sugars to make the drink tastier and more appealing.
“That’s not what proper, traditional kombucha is. There’s potentially ill-effects on our health from those things. It’s really important to look for a proper one,” McMillan says.
Originally published 23 April 2019, information updated on 10 Apr 2023
IMPORTANT LEGAL INFO This article is of a general nature and FYI only, because it doesn’t take into account your personal health requirements or existing medical conditions. That means it’s not personalised health advice and shouldn’t be relied upon as if it is. Before making a health-related decision, you should work out if the info is appropriate for your situation and get professional medical advice.