British Columbia·Video

Kombucha: 6 questions about the popular drink and how it affects your health

Kombucha tea has become big business in recent years and some of the health claims about the drink have become pretty large as well. We asked a kombucha maker and a dietician to provide some clear answers about the cloudy drink.

Studies suggest bacteria and yeast in kombucha could be good for your health — especially the gut

Kombucha is an ancient drink but is finding newfound popularity in North America. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Kombucha tea has become big business in recent years and some of the health claims about the drink have become pretty large as well.

Global sales of the fermented tea beverage hit almost $1 billion US in 2018, according to analytics company Adroit Market Research.

In Vancouver, kombucha fans said they embrace its apparent health benefits.

"I find it helps most with digestion, and just overall health," said Ben Gebauer, 21, sitting on a Kitsilano patio.

"I love kombucha," Dante Luciani, 33, added. "I drink it probably four days a week, five days a week. I drink quite a bit."

Kombucha is made from fermented tea — plus a few well-cultured ingredients. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

Gut health is a big reason people try kombucha but some have claimed it can protect against cancer or reduce the risk for Alzheimer's and Crohn's disease.

We asked a kombucha maker and a dietician to provide some clear answers about the cloudy-looking drink.

What is kombucha?

Kombucha tea is a fermented beverage made from sweetened tea (usually black tea) containing bacterial and yeast cultures that form a symbiotic relationship yielding a fungus called kombucha.

It has a distinctive taste — slightly acidic, slightly sweet — that some liken to apple cider.

SCOBY, an acronym for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, is used to create kombucha. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

How is it made?

There are countless recipes for kombucha, according to Kara Sam, founder of Delta-based Bucha Brew, but all require a multi-step process.

Watch a video of kombucha being made:

It's a trendy drink surrounded by health claims. But what does the research say about kombucha? 4:06

First, tea is made, steeped for about a half hour. Sugar is added and stirred until it dissolves.

Then the tea is mixed with some kombucha from a previous batch. Cold water is added immediately to lower the temperature.

Then the tea is strained out of the mixture and a SCOBY — symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast — is added. The remaining mix is then covered and ferments for days or sometimes weeks.

Where did kombucha come from?

As early as 220 BC, members of the Qin Dynasty in northeast China believed kombucha could detoxify and energize them.

By the early 20th Century, the drink was popular in Europe until the Second World War, when the conflict led to ingredient shortages.

By the 1960s, Swiss researchers became convinced of kombucha's health benefits.

A SCOBY floats in a mixture of starter, tea and sugar during the kombucha brewing process. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

What does science say about its health benefits?

Studies suggest the bacteria and yeast in kombucha could be good for your health — especially gut health.

Tanya Choy, a registered dietitian at Vancouver's St. Paul's Hospital, said there is emerging research that fermented foods could fight for space in the gut and crowd out bad bacteria. That may increase the absorption of vitamins and minerals.

"It might make foods more easily digestible," Choy said.

Kara Sam, Founder of Bucha Brew, carries cans of her product out of a walk-in fridge. Kombucha is a growing trend and the drink is becoming more common on store shelves. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

What can't it do?

Evidence of other possible benefits remains limited.

Some studies suggest it could combat cancer, aid in digestion and promote liver health, but Choy stressed those outcomes have only been seen in animals and in lab settings.

A SCOBY floats in a mixture of starter, tea and sugar during the kombucha brewing process at Bucha Brew in Delta, B.C. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

"When it comes to animal studies versus human studies, we can't exactly extrapolate those benefits to humans," Choy said.

"There's not one single miracle food that is the reason for health."

Can it be bad for you?

Generally speaking, kombucha is considered safe for just about anyone.

The drink does contain small amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation process — usually about half a per cent — though it can get as high as three per cent if left to ferment long enough.

People with compromised immune systems, children, pregnant women and the elderly may want to avoid it.

Some reports of poor health outcomes associated with kombucha — acidosis, for example — appear to stem from months of over consumption. 

The B.C. Centre for Disease Control recommends no more than half a cup of kombucha per day.

With files from Ethan Sawyer

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