In the world of wellness, sometimes it seems like one day a product or ingredient is being touted as the next big thing, and the next day you're being told to avoid it. But, often, the truth is somewhere in between these two extremes — and it's dependent upon a few factors. Such seems to be the case with one of the buzziest, supposedly healthy drinks around, kombucha. So how can you tell if the bottle you're buying is actually doing more harm than good? According to nutritionists, there are a few things to look for in kombucha that will let you know if it's truly beneficial.
In case you've yet to jump on the trend as of yet, it might be worth explaining exactly what kombucha is before exploring the good, the bad, and the ugly of it all. In essence, it's a fermented, and therefore slightly effervescent tea that became popular for both its fizzy and funky taste and its believed connection to gut health. "Kombucha is sweet and fizzy with a touch of caffeine, making it a really easy swap for people trying to address their diet soda addiction or look for alternatives to beer," says Caitlin Self, a nutritionist for Frugal Nutrition, to The Zoe Report. "Plus, it's packed with beneficial microflora, so you're also getting some additional gut support."
By definition, kombucha has a relatively short ingredient list. "The beverage is made from water, tea leaves, sugar, and a symbiotic culture of bacteria plus yeast (SCOBY) — that’s it," says Dr. Cassie Majestic, emergency medicine specialist, to The Zoe Report. That said, a good rule of thumb is to avoid any such beverages with ingredients that are above and beyond this. But according to many nutrition experts, added/excessive sugar is at the top of the list.
"Kombucha is made by feeding sugar to a SCOBY in a tannic environment," Self explains. "You want to [...] keep your serving of sugar to 4 grams. Many big brands now add extra sugar to the last fermentation stage, so if you're not careful, you'll get nearly a full day's worth of sugar in a single bottle." And in case you needed a reminder of why health experts believe limiting your daily sugar intake is important, it's been linked to higher levels of anxiety, as well as a potential contributor to heart disease and diabetes.
Additional sugar alternatives should also be avoided if possible, says Dr. Majestic. "Sweeteners (like Stevia) are sometimes added on the back end (after the fermentation process) and this can lead to a higher sugar content in the drink, thus decreasing its health benefits," she shares. And watch out for the mysterious "natural flavors" on the label, warns wellness chef and holistic nutritionist Shauna Faulisi to The Zoe Report. "When there's anything additional in there, it should be only for adding flavor, so look for whole-ingredient juice and not 'natural flavors'," she says.
As for the spiked kombuchas that are part of the healthy boozy beverages trend, all three experts believe it — given you're avoiding the aforementioned ingredients — can be a great low alcohol option for cocktail hour, as long as it's done so in moderation. "Alcohol is a treat no matter what so keep in mind if you're drinking kombucha that is fermented to have alcohol, it doesn't matter if you're drinking kombucha, wine, beer or hard liquor — you're still drinking alcohol," explains Faulisi. "Sure you'll get some of the prized probiotics from kombucha, but alcohol consumption isn't conducive to supporting gut health. The brewing of kombucha into an alcoholic beverage is a cool, artisanal concept with unique flavors. If that's what floats your boat when it comes to your choice in spirits, then go for it — but remember, you still need to hydrate and treat it as alcohol."
So what brands do the pros recommend if you're going to grab a bottle of booch? "I love Health-Ade Kombucha because of their vast array of flavors and minimal ingredients," says Dr. Majestic. "GT’s Organic Raw Kombucha is also a great option and has been on the market for years, offering prime health benefits." Faulisi also signs off on Health-Ade, as well as other similarly, small-batched brands, which she says have more carefully monitored fermentation practices which result in beneficial live cultures.
Leal, J. M., Suárez, L. V., Jayabalan, R., Oros, J. H., & Escalante-Aburto, A. (2018). A review on health benefits of kombucha nutritional compounds and metabolites. CyTA - Journal of Food, 16(1), 390–399. doi: 10.1080/19476337.2017.1410499