Kombucha—it’s the uber-trendy beverage that’s taking over specialty stores and supermarkets due to its purported health benefits, unique flavors, and bright effervescence. Kombucha may seem like a member of the soda family, but at its core, all kombucha is just sweetened, fermented black or green tea. During fermentation, healthy bacteria is formed, as well as acid and a small amount of alcohol that gives this beverage its sweet-and-sour taste.
Although it may seem like a recent trend, kombucha has been around since 220 B.C., originating in China, where it was revered for its “detoxifying and energizing properties,” according to a review published in Food Science and Food Safety. It later gained traction in Japan and Russia, then Europe around the 20th century. Its popularity has skyrocketed in the U.S., due to its growing reputation as a natural energy drink.
Of course, if you fire up Google, “kombucha” will yield a limitless array of health benefits: sky-high energy, pain relief, weight loss, and more. However, there isn’t strong evidence with human research that any of that is actually true. Drinking kombucha certainly isn’t going to cure cancer, but there are some benefits we do know about.
- Kombucha is a healthier alternative to super-sugary beverages: The main source of added sugar in the American diet comes from beverages. Replacing one of those sports drinks, juices, energy drinks, and/or sweet teas with kombucha can help you dial back the added sugar in your diet. Just make sure to look at the label to see how much added sugar is in your brand of choice. Ideally you want 12 g or less per bottle (or 6 g or less per serving).
- Kombucha contains antioxidants: Free radicals (they sound cool, but really aren’t) are substances in your body that can cause damage to cells. Antioxidants can combat these and science shows that antioxidants from foods and beverages are better than what you get from supplements. In short, kombucha contains antioxidants that can help fight these free radicals and protect your cells.
- Kombucha can help you hydrate: Let’s be honest, drinking water all the time gets boring. Kombucha is a good alternative—just be sure to read the label and check the amount of added sugar each serving contains.
There are a couple things you need to be aware of with kombucha, though. It does contain trace amounts of alcohol due to the fermentation process. The amount varies depending on the brand and manufacturer. However, in order to be sold in grocery stores as a non-alcoholic drink, the government requires it to contain 0.5% alcohol or less. So if you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, check with your doctor before consuming. Also, make sure the brand you’re consuming is pasteurized, so it’s free of harmful bacteria and toxins.
To help you navigate the influx of brands that’ve hit the market, here are some of our favorite low-sugar varieties.
Jordan Mazur, M.S., R.D., is the coordinator of nutrition and team sports dietitian for the San Francisco 49ers.
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