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Kombucha 101: Health benefits, best brands and more

Kombucha is a booming health drink that sells in the $480 million range per year -- but is it good for you?

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Kombucha, a wildly popular drink with roots in East Asia, has become a staple beverage for many health enthusiasts, and the biggest kombucha aficionados even brew their own at home. Fans say it can help treat or prevent a stunning range of issues, from indigestion to diabetes.

But is kombucha really all that good for you, or is it just another hyped-up health craze? Let's take a look at the history and science of this so-called miracle fungus, plus where to shop for the most high-quality brands. 

Read more: Probiotics explained: What to know before you buy

What is kombucha?

Kombucha, a fizzy and tangy fermented tea, is believed to have originated in China around 200 BC Legend goes that the name comes from a Korean physician, Dr. Kombu, who used the tea to cure an ill Emperor Ingyo of Japan in 414 BCE. Once healed, the emperor was so amazed at the drink that he named it kombucha, or "Kombu's tea." Over time, the tea spread throughout Europe and Russia, where it was used medicinally for centuries, and earned the nickname "tea of immortality." Kombucha can now be found in most grocery stores and health food stores in the US in a range of flavors.

What does the science say?

While fans claim there are numerous health benefits to drinking kombucha, the science is slim on the issue. Kombucha is rich in probiotics, which are "good" bacteria produced during the fermentation process -- just like the living microorganisms found in other fermented foods like yogurt, kimchi and sauerkraut. At certain concentrations, probiotics may be able to help improve gut health, because they're similar to the friendly gut bacteria already present in our bodies. What hasn't yet been proven is whether kombucha reaches those concentrations, making it truly effective as a probiotic. 

Studies on the health benefits of kombucha have been done on lab animals, but there's scant research on the efficacy of kombucha in humans. One study on rats revealed that kombucha may help reduce cholesterol levels linked to heart disease. Another animal study in 2014 showed that drinking kombucha may be helpful in promoting liver health and reducing inflammation of the liver caused by drugs. In 2012, a study indicated that kombucha helps regulate blood sugar levels in rats with type II diabetes. 

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Overall, while there is some evidence to suggest kombucha has benefits, more studies on humans, not just animals, are needed to truly understand its effects. Julie Kapp, an epidemiologist at the University of Missouri, co-authored a 2019 review of kombucha studies in the Annals of Epidemiology. According to Kapp, there has only been only one published study that explored kombucha's effects on humans. In the study, centered on people with type 2 diabetes, participants drank kombucha for three months. 

Results revealed that participant blood sugar levels normalized. However, Kapp noted the study was limited by the lack of a control group and by the fact that it was a small study of only 24 people. In order to truly confirm health claims on kombucha, Kapp called for randomized, clinical trials on humans. She told Discover Magazine: "If kombucha has health benefits, important subsequent studies will need to address the following [questions]: At what dosage, frequency and duration? In what populations and subpopulations?"

Read more: How the FODMAP diet can fix your digestive issues

Where to get the best kombucha

Regardless of the science, kombucha drinkers continue to enjoy the fizzy beverage for its purported health benefits as well as for the taste. Depending upon your preferences, you can choose from top brands that you can easily get your hands on, go out of your way to find smaller batches of lesser known brands, or just make your own. We've got some guidance on each. 

Favorite store-bought brands

After consulting some of my kombucha-loving associates and contacting the local health food stores, I jotted down a list of the best-selling kombucha brands. Health-minded folks advised to look for the brands lowest in sugar as a rule of thumb, regardless of how popular they are. 

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GT's Kombucha: Available at stores ranging from Aldi to Walmart to the health food store, GT's Kombucha is considered the OG kombucha and has been around for over 20 years. With flavors including watermelon wonder, tantric turmeric and lavender love, the highest recommendations go to the multi-green option, full of nutritious goodies.

Brew Dr.: If the quality of probiotics in kombucha are important to you, look for dark glass bottles, recipes made with just a few organic ingredients (and very little sugar) and smaller batches whenever possible. Brew Dr. makes some like this, especially their organic raw kombucha.

Health Ade: Another brand with darker bottles and a minimal list of antioxidant-rich ingredients, Health-Ade kombucha comes in plenty of flavors including best-sellers Ginger-Lemon and Pink Lady Apple, as well as in fun variety packs. 

Local brands: For something unique, find a local brand, like mid-Michigan's Reputation. A few miles away from my home, Reputation kombucha makes eight flavors and also offers a variety-pack you can hand-select yourself. Favorites include cran-orange, grapefruit and Pango pride, made with cold-pressed pineapple and mango juice.

Hard kombucha: For a unique hard (or alcoholic) kombucha, try Unity Vibration kombucha beer. This multi-award winning brand uses organic and fair trade ingredients and recyclable cans, and their beers and teas are all certified vegan. It also has the same probiotics and other nutritional aspects as regular kombucha. A favorite flavor, among the many the company offers, is funky ginger, made with freshly sliced ginger.

Low on funds? Make your own homemade kombucha

While not yet proven to be quite the cure-all some claim it is, kombucha is definitely tasty and good for you. Since store-bought kombucha can cost up to $5 or more per bottle, making it at home can save a pretty penny. To make the drink yourself, you'll need loose tea (usually green or black, or a personal blend), sugar, one SCOBY per gallon of beverage, filtered pure water and a bit of starter tea from someone's previous batch. The SCOBY is the starter culture that will get the fermentation process going -- it stands for "symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast."

There are a range of different kombucha recipes out there, and they all yield different results. However, the basic process is the same: make and cool the tea, add the SCOBY and starter tea and cover the jar, then set it in a sufficiently warm area to ferment (this can take up to a few weeks). And voila! You'll have your own homemade batch of kombucha to savor.

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.