I first tried Kombucha three years ago while waiting to cross the Channel back to the UK. I was looking for a healthier alternative to soda – like many consumers of my generation – and I was very pleasantly surprised.
Mindful eating and healthy diets are trends driving the UK food and beverage industry in 2019. Already a huge success in the US and Australia, it’s no wonder that Kombucha is on the rise in Europe.
What is Kombucha tea?
Kombucha is a fermented drink made from a mixture of tea, sugar, water and a specific culture known as SCOBY. SCOBY is short for ‘Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeasts’ (sometimes called ‘mother’). It converts the sugar into ethanol and acetic acid resulting in a mildly fizzy, slightly alcoholic sour drink.
Similar to sourdough bread, you can brew kombucha at home with your own SCOBY (although you’ll need to be careful of contaminants), or with a shop-bought SCOBY.
You can also get creative with natural flavours by adding fruits, spices and other botanical delights.
What makes Kombucha a trendy drink?
When you look at it, it is the perfect drink right now. It is fermented and largely made from simple ingredients. Tea is already a drink known for its health benefits, low in calories (minus the milk and sugar) and high in antioxidants.
Here are a few factors I think help explain its success:
Less is more
As we discussed in my blog on sourdough, fermented food and drink appeals to consumer demand for traditional, simpler products. The fewer ingredients the better and the whole fermentation process screams authentic in consumers minds.
Fermentation involves the breakdown of sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. As a result, kombucha tea does contain small amounts of alcohol. Despite containing some traces of alcohol, traditional kombucha is sold as non-alcoholic if it contains less than 0.5% alcohol. Therefore, it is the perfect drink for the millennials looking to reduce their alcohol consumption but who still want to enjoy a fun drink when going out.
In fact, low/no-alcohol is another trend influencing the beverage industry. However, homebrewed kombucha teas tend to have significantly higher alcohol content. Some homebrews have as much as 3% alcohol or higher.
Beverage manufacturers also see an opportunity to satisfy consumer demand for healthier indulgent drinks. So, a new kind of kombucha with a higher ABV has emerged on the market under the name of ‘hard kombucha’, similarly to hard cider in the UK. To do that, manufacturers must add more sugar to the initial recipe and perform a second fermentation in a closed fermentation tank for 10-14 days.
This brings this fizzy drink up to 7% ABV!
Health benefits of kombucha: myth or reality?
A quick search on the internet will deliver a handful of blogs claiming the many benefits of kombucha, from improved gut health (probiotics), to better sleep and reduction of several diseases (1)(2)(3).
In reality, there is limited evidence to back these claims up (4). In the US, researcher Kapp, J. et al. published a review in February 2019 on the empirical evidence of human health benefits of kombucha (5). The conclusion is very clear: “The nonhuman subjects literature claims numerous health benefits of kombucha; it is critical that these assertions are tested in human clinical trials.”
In brief, there are no controlled clinical human trials showing the benefits of kombucha on human health. It is interesting to note this lack of evidence has already been mentioned by Greenwalt, C. J. et al. in their review published in 2000 (6). Hence, “the opportunities to examine the potential health benefits of kombucha in humans are vast” says Kapp et al.
Even though no systematic studies have been performed for now, some people have noticed side effects of this drink depending on ones sensitivity and health.
Here are a few things you might want to know before sipping the fizzy drink:
We often forget that tea contains caffeine. Therefore, kombucha made by fermenting green or black tea naturally contains caffeine. While caffeine has health benefits, some people choose to avoid it because of its side effects such as restlessness, anxiety, poor sleep and headaches.
As we can find unpasteurised milk or cheese, it is possible to find unpasteurised kombucha on sale. It is also especially true when homebrewed. The risk is that unpasteurised fermeted drinks can contain potentially harmful bacteria which can be a threat to people with weakened immune systems, older adults, children and pregnant women.
Homebrewed kombucha teas are considered to have a higher likelihood of contamination, which may cause serious health problems and even death. As mentioned before, it is also worth mentioning that homebrewed versions may contain 3% alcohol.
The road to success is still a long one for Kombucha. The large array of recipes and the simplicity of the formula make it an attractive drink. But it is also its weakness as a lack of standardisation may lead to inconsistent quality, undesirable side effects and “artificial” kombucha (using additives and artificial aromas for example). Finally, this variability creates added complexity when it comes to assessing health benefits with clinical trials.
As for every trendy new product, it is not all sunshine and roses for kombucha. Nevertheless, if carefully brewed with good quality tea, natural flavours like fruits or botanical extracts and a reasonable amount of sugar, it is a tasty, low calorie, unconventional drink that we can enjoy from time to time.
Curious about kombucha? You can find more information here:
- Have a look at Kombucha Brewers International (KBI), a non-profit [501 (C) (6)] trade association committed to promoting and protecting commercial Kombucha Brewers around the world: https://kombuchabrewers.org
- For all things technical and scientific, check Campden BRI, Gloucestershire, UK
- Some Kombucha producers around the world interviewed by the Kombucha Summit team: https://blog.kombuchasummit.com/