No, we aren’t talking about the benefits of exercise—although it sure sounds that way—these are just a few of the rumored benefits of kombucha, a fizzy drink made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast that’s all the rage among the health nuts. Kombucha carries a vinegar-like smell and a tangy taste with herbal notes that’s often described as rotten apple cider. With such an off-putting flavor profile, it’s safe to say that most people aren’t scooping up bottles of kombucha for its delicious taste—which begs the question: Are consumers choking kombucha down for naught or does it really improve health?
“There have been claims about kombucha tea helping with many different ailments—ranging from cancer to hair growth, however, we currently know very little about kombucha and how it affects human health. No current or conclusive research has been done,” says Isabel Smith, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and founder of Isabel Smith Nutrition. There are two things we do know for certain though: Raw kombucha drinks contain the same kind of yeast and bacteria that’s in yogurt or kefir and nearly all bottled varieties are made with black tea.
That means, if nothing else, you can reap the benefits of these ingredients by sipping the brew. Researchers have found that black tea increases the rate at which the body is able to reduce levels of cortisol—a stress hormone that causes fat storage and weight gain—after a stressful event, so sipping it can help keep you slim. As for the bacteria? “Bacteria in the form of probiotics may support gut health, boost immunity and play a role in regulating blood sugar,” explains Smith. It’s possible that it plays a role in keeping the appetite-regulating hormone, leptin, pumping out properly, too.
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But despite the benefits of the tea, yeast and bacteria, there are some potential health risks of kombucha. Unpasteurized kombucha drinks have been linked to bacterial infections, allergic reactions and liver damage. (The bacteria in the safer, pasteurized varieties gets killed off during the pasteurization process, so sipping that instead won’t be beneficial for gut health.) For that reason, women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should take caution when it comes to consuming kombucha—especially those that are home-brewed or unpasteurized. The same suggestion holds true for those with weakened immune systems, warns Smith.
The bottom line: Only sip kombucha because you genuinely like the taste and haven’t been told by a health professional to avoid unpasteurized foods and beverages. And remember, you can always reap the same health benefits by noshing on a healthy yogurt or sipping a tea that’s been shown to relieve stress.