Thursday, March 19, 2015

What is kombucha? Should I drink it?

According to the website,

kombucha is fermented tea, an ancient elixir consumed for thousands of years by civilizations all over the planet.  The most commonly attributed kombucha benefits are better digestion, increased energy, and a clearer mind. 

Hmm, my digestion is fine, but I could sure use more energy and a clearer mind!  

You can see my favorite co-op, PCC Markets, recommends kombucha.  

Browsing around the internet, I found many, many websites praising kombucha and lots of instructions and videos for how to make it at home.  I also found a few articles pointing out bad or dangerous side effects and calling it more of a fad than a real health tonic.  The website I think is best is  It mentions a long list of benefits that people have claimed from kombucha, but it also says “kombucha tea is JUST A FOOD...  It is NOT a panacea.  It doesn’t cure anything...  It is really just a delicious and healthy beverage.”

As usual, I consulted the book I’ve chosen to be my main guide through this year of health, The Wahls Protocol, by Terry Wahls, MD.  My reasons for choosing her are explained in my post What Should I Eat?  Dr. Wahls recommends eating some fermented foods every day, and includes kombucha in her list.  Here’s why, summarized from her book:

 Each of us has 1 trillion body cells and 100 trillion yeasts, bacterias and, in some cases, parasites living on and in us.  They drive trillions of chemical reactions, the by-products of which will eventually get into our bloodstreams and facilitate either health or disease.  We have evolved to have a health-promoting mix of these critters in our ecosystems – which Dr. Wahls calls “our old friends”.  However, what we eat affects the makeup of that population.  She asks, “Are you creating an unruly mob in there, or a well-behaved, health-promoting population of good bacteria citizens?”

Our ancestors learned how to use fermentation to store foods that were plentiful during the growing season, and to ferment honey to make mead, and eventually beer and wine.  They ate the original “paleo” diet we are now trying to emulate.  As we have added more carbohydrate-rich foods like grains and sugars to our diets and introduced antibiotics, our “old friends” are dying off and different species are taking their place, which can cause digestive issues and disease.  Eating more fermented foods with live cultures will bring more of the friendly species to your gut for better health.

Kombucha is made by adding a kombucha “mother”, or SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast) to sweetened tea and letting it sit to ferment, similar to using a sourdough starter.  I found some warnings about molds growing on it and it sounds as though you have to be careful with the home brew.  I think I’ll probably stick to buying prepared brands.  However, I will buy brands that are labeled raw, since a pasteurized kombucha wouldn’t have the live cultures.

The bad press I read about kombucha were mostly warnings that it is not the miracle tonic it is sometimes advertised as, and will not cure diseases like cancer and AIDS.  There is a documented case of two women becoming ill in 1995 from drinking kombucha, and one of them died.  They were from a rural town in Iowa and apparently the kombucha they each had drunk came from the same SCOBY.  It sounds like they had too much acid in their systems.  Warnings also mention that it contains alcohol (a very small amount) and caffeine (from the tea).  It is recommended to start drinking it in small quantities at a time and pay attention to how you feel.  

For myself, I like the taste and I’m finding it helpful as a substitute for the wine I would like to be having around 5 PM.  I only have half a bottle, 8 ounces, and sip it slowly to feel like I’m having a treat.  You’ll notice I also put it in a fancy wine glass (from Kalaloch Lodge on the Washington coast – a nice place to stay while exploring the Olympic Peninsula.)  Anything I can do to make my healthy food look appealing causes me to feel happier about my new way of eating.  I noticed the berry flavor has 4 grams of sugars, while the original and citrus have only 2 grams.  I think the less sweet flavors actually taste better (more like beer), so I'll stick to those.

Other fermented foods Dr. Wahls recommends are unsweetened almond and coconut milk yogurt, sauerkraut, kimchi, pickles, nutritional yeast and (some of you will be happy to hear) non-grain-based spirits like wine, rum and gluten-free beer.  (She does warn to have only one glass of spirits a day for women and two for men.  Shouldn’t this be determined by height and weight rather than by gender?  I still wouldn’t qualify for the second glass, but it would sound more fair.)

At PCC I found unsweetened coconut milk yogurt with live cultures, but I only found almond milk yogurt in a sweetened vanilla flavor.  Oh gee, for the sake of science, I tried it  : )   Since I've been avoiding sugar for a few months, it tasted really sweet - very tasty actually, like vanilla custard, but I'll get the unsweetened kind from now on.  The unsweetened coconut milk yogurt was quite tasty, although not as fluffy and light as dairy Greek-style yogurt,  and I enjoyed it for breakfast with raspberries and blueberries.  This would be a handy item to have in the fridge for mornings when I'm in a hurry.

I also bought some sauerkraut with live cultures.  I love sauerkraut (especially on a nice juicy hot dog!) but I didn't know it had live cultures.  Since Stan doesn't eat it I usually freeze it in small quantities after I open the jar, but now I wonder if that kills the good bacteria.  I didn't find any website that said absolutely that freezing sauerkraut doesn't kill the cultures.  However, I did find the information below about yogurt, and it seems it would be the same for anything with live cultures.  I also found the advice from that when sauerkraut is refrigerated, once you open the jar, you should eat it within 30 days.
The freezing process does not kill any significant amount of the cultures—in fact, during the freezing process the cultures go into a dormant state, but when eaten and returned to a warm temperature within the body, they again become active and are capable of providing all the benefits of cultures that haven't been frozen.
Bottom line:  I'm going to enjoy kombucha and other foods with live cultures, but moderately.  I won't be having second helpings and will remember that they contain an active ingredient.


  1. Hi Pam! I LOVE Bubbies sauerkraut and also Britt's pickles (made locally and fermented without vinegar). Kim chi is also supposed to be good for our gut culture. I drink kombucha as well. We should have some happy bugs living I our bodies! Love the info on your blog.

    1. I am having the craziest breakfasts - stir fry with sausage, sauerkraut, apple chunks, green onion and chard leaves cut up small. Delicious! Will try the pickles.