With so many "functional" beverages out there today, one should wonder if they provide actual health benefits or are just good tasting and look cool. When it comes to fermented beverages like kombucha and kefirs, the good news is that many of them actually live up to their popularity and hype.
These popular beverages today may have New Age-sounding names but in reality both kombucha and kefirs, and similarly fermentation -- the process used to make them all -- have long, strong histories of consumption around the world. What's new: these bottled beverages come in numerous flavors, are made from different bases, and have different health benefits (kombucha is even "on tap" at some Whole Foods stores).
What Is Fermentation?
Unlike processes designed to kill microbes such as bacteria and yeast (like pasteurization and irradiation), fermentation actually uses live bacteria and yeast, as well as a sugar source, to create its end products.
What Is Kombucha?
A fermented tea, kombucha is made by allowing a mixture of yeast, bacteria, sugar and tea to ferment. The fermentation of the tea, in most instances black tea, creates a minimal amount of alcohol, and provides organic acids, enzymes, beneficial microflora and B vitamins. The resulting product provides health benefits beyond those of a cup of tea. The organic acids include those that help the digestive system readily remove toxins from the liver and digestive tract.
The enzymes aid in the digestive process as well - likely in concert with the acids - by optimizing acid-alkaline balance in the digestive tract which enables nutrient absorption, waste removal, and also immune system support. B vitamins provide support for the body's metabolic functions including overall energy, use of carbohydrates, heart health, as well as healthy hair, skin, and nails. Additional health benefits may be generated from herbs and spices added (which also provide flavor diversity). For example, ginger provides anti-inflammatory properties as well as being a digestive aid.
Kombucha often has a carbonated and slightly sour taste; these are products of the fermentation which impart the 'sour' flavor (from alcohol produced) and may create bubbles. However, lack of these does not mean the product is tainted or ineffective. You may also see 'floaters' in the bottle; these are the product of fermentation as well and can be consumed.
Is Kombucha Safe For All To Consume Daily?
While there is minimal research on this product, the following provides my professional precautions (including anecdotal evidence from my patients' reports). For the health benefits noted above, I believe kombucha can be consumed with benefit for the healthy individual. The minimal amount of alcohol produced poses an insignificant risk to the healthy individual as does the sugar content. Keep in mind though, that as with any beverage containing sugar, portion control should be observed. Each serving (typically half a bottle or eight ounces) of kombucha contains about eight grams of sugar; this means it's not a good choice for a diabetic and likely not for those who are insulin-sensitive.
Despite the digestive benefits, kombucha may offer those with a healthy digestive tract, for those dealing with digestive issues related to yeast (Candida) or bacteria overgrowth, I recommend against kombucha consumption, especially with acute irritation and during treatment. Additionally, I don't recommend kombucha for pregnant women at all, and recommend that individuals being treated for immune-compromised conditions should obtain the consent of their healthcare practitioner.
Making Your Own Kombucha
Liking what you've read but scared off by the price point ($3 or more per bottle)? Think that it might be cheaper and could be fun to make your own? Home fermentation can be simple and interesting to watch. However, two potential concerns arise with do-it-yourself kombucha: sanitation and viability of microbes. Kombucha uses a "wild" fermentation process meaning that the starter contains "airborne yeast"; efforts to handle this starter safely need to be made when making kombucha oneself. Similarly, the ability to ferment depends on bacteria and yeast being alive or "viable." If your product does not ferment then the starter quality could be to blame.
While tea-drinking cultures of the world have made their fermented teas for years, other cultures have fermented different forms of dairy and more recently, non-dairy sources, to make kefir. Kefir "grains" (the bacteria and yeast) can ferment dairy (cow, goat, sheep's milks) or non-dairy (coconut water, soymilk, etc) in virtually the same way as kombucha. Health benefits include those noted for kombucha as well as an array of nutrient benefits specific to the base of the kefir. For example, dairy sources will offer protein, minerals like calcium and phosphorous, enzymes to improve the ability to digest lactose and, in organic products, higher amounts of CLA (conjugated linoleic acid), a fatty acid that our body doesn't make but that can support the immune system and help optimize body composition. Non-dairy sources may provide vegetarian protein and omega 3 fatty acids (like soymilk), or electrolyte minerals, such as potassium, for hydration (like coconut water).
Are Kefirs Safe For Everyone To Consume Daily?
To answer this question, I'm going to address each type of kefir separately. Cow's milk kefir is most nutritious and safe if certified organic, plain and lowfat or nonfat (the nonfat will not contain the CLA mentioned above). The addition of sugar, organic agave nectar, and fruit flavorings detract from the health benefits of the kefir, as would hormones, antibiotics, and pesticide residues found in non-organic sources. Goat's and sheep's milk are the same but they may be even better tolerated for those with digestive issues including lactose intolerance and irritable bowel syndrome.
Potential benefits of soymilk kefir are mentioned above but consideration should be made to use an organic, unsweetened product to avoid the use of GMO soybeans and so that the sugar does not detract from the health benefits (more on that below). However, soy is a common allergen or irritant especially for those with digestive issues so I am not that excited by soy-based kefirs. Conversely, rice and coconut water offer low allergenic bases and both are commonly used to address digestive issues making them more ideal kefirs for those seeking therapeutic benefits.
Coconut water kefir is a relatively new kefir form, due largely to the popularity and education about coconut water's health benefits in recent years in the United States. I find it to be the best source for patients seeking to address the spectrum of digestive issues - flatulence, bloating, bacterial overgrowth, Candida, insufficient beneficial bacteria -- as well as skin problems and the challenges of sweet cravings that often accompany the digestive issues noted. Why? Coconut water provides nature's perfect hydration cocktail - water, electrolytes - including one of the richest sources of potassium which provides intracellular hydration (takes water "into" the cells) and supports muscle and nerve cells. And as a non-dairy source, coconut water does not create mucus (which can trap bad bacteria) and is virtually non-allergenic (because it contains no protein). Coconut water kefir should come in a glass bottle and be consumed within four to five days of opening as exposure to oxygen can ruin the beverage.
I spoke with Santa Monica, CA-based nurse, colleague and maker of coconut water kefir to learn why she decided to make the product for her patients, "I first learned of Young Coconut Kefir after reading The Body Ecology Diet by Donna Gates. I began making it for myself in an effort to heal an overgrowth of Candida, which presented some very unpleasant digestive symptoms. The results blew me away. My bowel movements improved, I had less gas and bloating, and I started to crave sweets less and less. As a Colon Hydrotherapist I felt it was essential to be able to offer it to my clients." Carly Balsz R.N., Colon Hydrotherapist (www.healingmovement.net).
So net, kombucha, dairy-based kefirs, and non-dairy based kefirs may seem like a fad but they are actually fabulous if one chooses the right product for your health goals and taste preferences. Here are some brands that get the AKA (www.ashleykoffapproved.com) seal of approval meaning that I've investigated their manufacturing and ingredients so you can be assured they meet the aforementioned health standards: Organic Valley plain kefir, Nancy's plain kefir, GT Dave's Kombucha, Healing Movement, Body Ecology Coconut Water Kefir, Redwood Hill Farm raw goat's milk plain kefir.