What is Kombucha: All the main aspects

With various possible health benefits, this natural drink is usually considered a unique and nutritious flavor remedy that can be part of many people’s daily diets. Therefore, it is highly recommended by many, including me, although in others, it generates some controversy due to some side effects.

And today, we are going to talk in detail about kombucha, analyzing all the key aspects to get a clear idea of what kombucha is.

What is kombucha – the classic definition

Kombucha is a slightly acidic beverage known to have various health benefits. It is made through a traditional fermentation using black tea, table sugar, and a symbiotic culture of microorganisms called SCOBY.

The ingredients are used as fuel for fermentation. However, you can vary the type of tea or sugar you want to use, leading to different kombucha drinks that adapt to the taste of the consumer, in addition to being able to place additives that generate a variety of flavors.

Even so, it will not be possible to obtain kombucha if you do not add the SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast), a culture of bacteria and yeasts that are responsible for fermenting the drink by transforming the sugar content into alcohol (ethanol), acetic acid and other components that give that special touch to kombucha.

It can be prepared easily at home (see how to craft kombucha). Still, the climate and geographical location will affect fermentation. This process is fascinating and deep to analyze, so I have a specific article on kombucha fermentation.

This drink is believed to prevent several digestive diseases, cardiovascular and inflammatory problems, among other benefits. It could also stimulate the immune system and support the control of specific infectious or degenerative diseases[1] [2 [3]

Origin of kombucha

No exact data indicates when it originated, but it is estimated by historical records from before 220 BC. The first kombucha recipes emerged in northern China during the beginning of the Qin Dynasty.

After a while, it was distributed by trade routes to Korea and later to Japan, being called «divine che» which meant remedy or tea of immortality[4] [5 [6]

The name kombucha may derive from the Japanese language, with the words kombu (seaweed)  and che (tea) referring to it as seaweed tea. However, it is also believed that it comes from the name of a Korean doctor named Kombu, who was successful in treating the digestive problems of Emperor Lynko in Japan. [7]

Kombucha began to be known thanks to its healing properties, improving even with the combination of Chinese herbs, being used as a remedy for rheumatism, hemorrhoids, metabolic diseases, and intestinal problems, also contributing to this popularity that it is easy to make and its delicious flavor.

Kombucha was talked about by word of mouth, claiming its health benefits, even as a concoction that could cure everything despite the lack of foundations about it.

Expansion of kombucha

Kombucha was distributed by sharing part of the culture of microorganisms with other people or sold as a healthy drink, so trade routes took it to different parts of the Asian continent and then spread to the rest of the world.

Initially, it was distributed from East Asia to Russia, Ukraine, Germany, and Switzerland, reaching great popularity during World War II, where it was believed to decrease the risk of cancer compared to other regions that did not drink it.

It was also thought to decrease the development of diseases in the military caused by toxins present on the battlefield. After the war in Western Europe, it was noted as one of the best remedies in the Far East.

Evolution of kombucha in recent years

Its popularity expanded to national markets in the 1990s because it was promoted as a powerful health remedy recommended for common to severe diseases, with the benefits described by consumers being very varied.

In 1995 it began to be discussed how safe the drink was. There was a concern about contamination during its elaboration, which led to the development of proper hygiene and handling practices (based on several studies) to make a healthy and safe kombucha.

A manual was published in 2013 to educate kombucha producers about its preparation, focusing on risk analysis, food safety, and good manufacturing practices.

Since the 90s, kombucha has acquired massive popularity that increased its diffusion and sales due to the company GT’s kombucha, one of the largest producers in its country of origin.

This popularity was joined by more companies and small producers, as well as people who preferred to make their kombucha from home, being currently a common practice and regular consumption in some parts of the world.

Some features that highlight its popularity

Kombucha is becoming one of the most acclaimed beverages due to a growing interest in functional foods that can provide the necessary nutrients to strengthen the body by improving physical well-being and mental health.

An aspect that attracts much attention in kombucha is its flavor between acid and sweet, with a vinegary touch being very attractive to most consumers and being one of the most popular drinks with the lowest alcohol content (0.5%) and significant contribution of probiotics.

In several parts of the world, kombucha is part of the daily life of many people. For example, in the United States, a demand exceeds 500 million in sales, being very popular among young people over 20 years.

While many may be attracted to the famous health benefits, some have yet to be fully proven. However, after taking it, several people have expressed some sense of well-being or relief. [8 [9]

Main components of kombucha

It is a drink that can be highly nutritious depending on the fermentation time and temperature, presenting a variety of compounds that give its properties to health, highlighting organic acids, vitamins, minerals, sugars, and amino acids.

It contains bacteria producing acetic acid and lactic acid, which, together with a variety of yeasts, degrade to a greater or lesser extent the sugar in the drink, forming acetic acid, gluconic acid, glucuronic acid, and other simpler sugars such as glucose or fructose, which determine kombucha sweetness or acidity.

It may also contain amino acids, proteins, enzymes, carbon dioxide, polyphenols, B vitamins, and minerals such as manganese, iron, nickel, copper, zinc, lead, cobalt, chromium, and cadmium.

These compounds define the quality of kombucha, its possible health effects, and qualities in aroma, flavor, or effervescence. They also generate turbidity in the drink along with pigments that define the characteristic brownish color of this. [10 [11]

You must bear in mind that not all kombuchas are the same. I do not say this because it may be sweeter or more acidic, but SCOBY plays an essential value in the composition of kombucha, and SCOBY can be different in turn.

How acidic is kombucha, and what does it taste like?

Kombucha is considered an acidic drink with a pleasantly sour and fruity taste due to the components formed during fermentation. The low pH it presents significantly influences its sensory characteristics, only being more acceptable with gluconic acid production. [12 [13]

The drink can be acidic but somewhat sweet, depending on its sugar content. At the same time, carbon dioxide (CO2), polyphenols, and ethanol generate that characteristic sensation in the mouth related to a pleasant effervescence.

Remember that although kombucha is considered acidic, its effect on the body is not to cause heartburn, but quite the opposite, as we discussed in the following article: Kombucha – Acidic or Alkaline?

Even adding different fruit extracts can create different combinations of flavors, resulting in a much more pleasant palate.

The pH of kombucha is recommended up to a minimum of 3 since, at 

pH of 2.6 can impair the sensory quality of the drink, generating a more bitter and unpleasant taste. However, this will only happen if you leave the kombucha fermenting long. [14]

In addition, the pH of kombucha can vary quite a bit with fermentation, but that is a separate topic as it is pretty fascinating, so I invite you to see the guide on the pH of kombucha.

Different types of tea for kombucha

You can use different types of tea to make kombucha or add additional ingredients. You can even opt for other raw materials that serve as fuel for fermentation, allowing a greater variety between drinks that is very attractive to consumers.

Tea is used as a base to make kombucha. The most used is black tea, although, on other occasions, green tea is a popular alternative (as in Japan and China). [15 [16]

Each tea inherits different properties from kombucha. As green and black tea is one of the most popular for its preparation, I compared the properties of both trials that you can see in the link about green tea kombucha vs black tea kombucha.

While these two are the most popular options, others offer similar finishes in preparing kombucha.

One of these is Oolong tea which can generate more varied flavors such as sweet, light, fruity, and smoky.

Another well-known is white tea which maintains a delicate flavor with a significant contribution of antioxidants generating a softer kombucha and with a high content of catechins.

What are its health benefits?

Most of the kombucha benefits people claim have yet to be studied in humans. Still, they are based on analyses performed on animals, whether rodents, birds, or pigs.

I prefer to avoid repeating the content, as it is tiresome for the reader, so if you want to check the health benefits of kombucha, I have a super long article talking about that.

Additionally, I have a series of articles where I’ve done as thorough research as possible to determine how kombucha can help or worsen some ailments, and you can review them below.

Some insecurities about kombucha

There is some distrust towards kombucha due to the appearance of side effects after consumption, but this has only been described in certain circumstances related to poor product processing, the medical condition of the consumer, or the overproduction of specific components after storage.

It is essential to mention that any food in excess will cause damage, and kombucha is no exception, so it is crucial to follow the recommended dose of kombucha.

Who can’t take it?

In general, kombucha does not adversely affect consumers. However, when consumed in large quantities daily and with high acidity, it can become dangerous, mainly in susceptible people due to certain health conditions, age, or physical conditions.

This is not a drink for everyone due to its acidic nature and alcohol content. An extremely acidic kombucha (pH 2) can be a health risk if taken in excess, mainly affecting people predisposed to acidosis.

In addition, containers sensitive to corrosion can release components that contaminate the beverage, causing poisoning in consumers if it is prepared in unsanitary conditions due to contamination by toxin-producing fungi. (See kombucha containers)

Those affected have dizziness, nausea, headache, allergies, gastric ulcers, and intestinal or gastric perforations. However, they develop after consuming high amounts (more than 400ml) of kombucha for an extended period.

Its consumption is contraindicated in children and pregnant women. This is because kombucha may contain heparin that is harmful during the third trimester of pregnancy, and although its presence in the drink has not yet been proven, it has been shown that drinking it can increase its production in the body.

Kombucha substitutes

If you don’t have access to kombucha or can’t consume it for medical reasons, you still have several options on the market that can give you similar health benefits to this drink, such as kefir, sauerkrauttempehnattomiso, and kimchi. (See kombucha alternatives)

These foods, like kombucha, can relieve gastrointestinal problems by presenting a particular probiotic effect and showing health benefits thanks to producing bioactive components, vitamins, and minerals during fermentation.

These foods can be fermented in two ways, sauerkraut, kimchi, and some soy products naturally present microorganisms leading to spontaneous fermentation, unlike kombucha, kefir, and natto, which need a starter culture to ferment.

In both processes, antinutrients are decreased while an increase in metabolites beneficial to health occurs, positively affecting the consumer’s immune, cardiovascular, and metabolic systems.

Another alternative could be sourdough bread with a low FODMAP content (fermentable carbohydrates) compared to kombucha, which can produce these carbohydrates to a greater or lesser extent depending on fermentation.

Sourdough bread gives greater tolerance to these products in patients with irritable bowel syndrome who are sensitive to these carbohydrates, achieving better digestion. [18]

You may find interesting some comparisons I have made with other fermented products. 

[1]  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0168160504001072

[2]  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0963996900000673

[3]  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/323136183_A_review_on_health_benefits_of_kombucha_nutritional_compounds_and_metabolites

[4]  https://www.vox.com/ad/22254499/history-kombucha-gt-dave

[5]  https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinatroitino/2017/02/01/kombucha-101-demystifying-the-past-present-and-future-of-the-fermented-tea-drink/?sh=a5a1cdd4ae24

[6]  https://www.mdpi.com/2306-5710/6/1/15/htm

[7]  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2772753X22000144

[8]  https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1047279718307385

[9]  https://isappscience.org/kombucha-trend-new-staple/

[10]  https://ift.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1541-4337.12574

[11]  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19476337.2017.1410499

[12]  https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13197-019-04217-3

[13]  https://ifst.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/ijfs.14596

[14]  https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/19476337.2017.1321588

[15]  https://www.mdpi.com/2306-5710/8/3/45/htm

[16]  https://www.researchgate.net/publication/361287712_Production_process_and_characteristics_of_kombucha_fermented_from_alternative_raw_materials

[17]  https://www.hindawi.com/journals/jchem/2015/591869/

[18]  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6723656/