Is Kombucha Actually Good for You?

updated May 30, 2019
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(Image credit: Emma Christensen)

I was one of a dozen people who were undoubtedly screaming in their own heads as we waited for her to stop scrolling through Instagram long enough to pay for her groceries. She finally noticed that the cashier was waving his hands at her and pulled out a credit card. “Sorry,” she said loudly, “But don’t even talk to me until I’ve had my ‘booch.”

First, yes, she is the worst, and I sincerely hoped that she’d shatter her iPhone in the parking lot. Next, the booch she referred to is kombucha, the fermented tea that three of your friends have been drinking while you read this paragraph.

The Rising Trend of Booch Drinkers

A decade ago, kombucha was a fringe obsession for the yoga set (Slate, half-kidding, called it “the most liberal product in America”) but now it’s in the refrigerated sections of the most massive mass-market retailers. Last year, sales of kombucha increased by a whopping 37% in the United States, as everyone from your retirement-age in-laws to your lamest coworkers threw a bottle or two in their shopping carts.

Why? Probably because they’ve been sucked in by kombucha’s reputation for being Good for You, and for the assortment of health claims that frequent booch-drinkers make about the sweet-and-sour tea.

But is it really good for you? It depends on who you ask — and what you’re willing to believe. Kombucha has been touted as the key to gut health, an immune system booster, and a cancer treatment option, in addition to dozens of other claims. (Even kombucha brand GT’s Living Foods credits the beverage with helping its founder’s mother “miraculously” recover from breast cancer).

So, Is Kombucha Good for You?

“While there are a lot of very exciting-sounding health claims made about kombucha, the fact is that there’s really no compelling evidence that kombucha is beneficial — at least in humans, since most if not all of the studies done on it were done with rodents,” dietitian Abby Langer told The Kitchn. “Kombucha may contain antioxidants and probiotics, but we don’t really know if the kombucha contains antioxidants and probiotics in large enough amounts, or in the right types, to really make any difference in your health.”

If it does have any real health benefits, it could be related to those probiotics. Previous research has suggested that these good bacteria can play a role in overall gut health, provide digestive benefits, and potentially improve immune function. But — and this is a big but — most of those probiotics are found in raw or unpasteurized kombucha, because those good-but-delicate bacteria can’t live through the pasteurization process. And raw or home-brewed kombucha has its own risks from bad bacteria and mold that can grow during the fermentation process.

Our guts already contain up to 500 different species of bacteria, adding up to more than 300 trillion-with-a-T microorganisms living rent-free in our intestines; dedicated probiotic supplements contain five bacterial species and 50 million microorganisms, and kombucha contains even fewer than that. And microbiologists told Tonic what Langer told us: that it’s difficult to know which probiotics you’re getting from any supplement and, with kombucha, the variety depends on the tea itself, on the fermentation process, and even how much time has elapsed since it was brewed.

The Final Verdict

So if you want the benefits of probiotics, it might be just as effective to eat some yogurt or take a concentrated probiotic supplement — but it’s OK if you want to wash it down with kombucha too. “I would say that it’s probably not going to change your life for the better if you drink it,” Langer said. “I mean, if you like it, then continue to consume it. Just make sure you choose a low-sugar type, and be realistic with your expectations about how it’s going to affect your health.”

And maybe don’t blame kombucha when you slow down an entire grocery store checkout line.

More on Kombucha from Kitchn