There are many documented cultural and ancestral uses of teas, herbs, and yeasts to make elixirs and tonics throughout human history. These beverages are purported to be health tonics, supplying the body with good bacteria to maintain overall wellness. Kombucha is not a new kid on the block when it comes to fermented beverages. Though the creation of this drink dates back to around 220 B.C., Kombucha is fairly new in the mainstream marketplace and is grabbing the attention of many people from a broad demographic.

Kombucha is basically a fermented beverage made with green or black tea. A yeast and bacterial culture is added to the mix, referred to as “SCOBY” (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). The beverage solution includes cane sugar, which is the catalyst in the fermentation process. As the Kombucha brews, the yeast and bacteria begin to grow and form a mass resembling a mushroom cap. This gelatinous-like substance is referred to as the “mother” and supplies the beverage with probiotics; good strains of beneficial microorganisms.

Though some may find it unappealing, the “mother” is mixed into the beverage so its probiotic constituents are available to the consumer. The taste of raw Kombucha is one that is acquired; effervescent and slightly acidic with a faint hint of sweetness. Raw, unpasteurized Kombucha is reported to be the best. Because the beverage does not undergo pasteurization, the bacteria and yeast colony are not affected or degraded. This helps to maintain an abundant amount of beneficial microorganisms in each bottle, including its enzyme, mineral and vitamin content.

As Kombucha is brewing, the yeast breaks down sugars and converts them into usable energy. This is where fermentation of the beverage creates a slight effervescence. It is also during this process that alcohol is produced. Kombucha generally contains small amounts of alcohol which are created while brewing. Because the federal government has standards in place for alcohol content, non-alcoholic beverages, such Kombucha, must contain less than .5% (trace amount) alcohol.

Since Kombucha is fairly new in the marketplace, there is limited research that has been conducted in regards to its health benefits for the human body. For the most part, only animal tests have been conducted with few clinical studies. As the popularity of Kombucha beverages becomes mainstream, more research on its health benefits will become available. But, according to newest studies published in the Journal of Medicinal Food 2014, research scientists at the University of Latvia concluded the following about Kombucha’s health benefits: “It is shown that [Kombucha] can efficiently act in health preservation and recovery due to four main properties: detoxification, anti-oxidation, energizing potencies, and promotion of boosting immunity.”

There are some likely health benefits to consuming Kombucha in its raw or unpasteurized form. It is rich in probiotics, the good bacteria similar to those in yogurt, which have been shown to boost the immune system and help maintain overall health. Kombucha contains a concentration of acids which includes acetic, gluconic and lactic, as well as B- vitamins and enzymes. Improved digestion, an increase in energy, weight loss, immune support, cancer prevention, a reduction in joint pain and detoxifying properties have been purported by many individuals consuming Kombucha regularly, though hard scientific data is limited to substantially back some of these claims.

There are precautions that need to be addressed when it comes to consuming unpasteurized beverages. Infants, young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and those with weak immune systems should avoid consuming unpasteurized beverages. Even with best manufacturing practices, there could be an opportunity for undesirable microorganisms and spores to make their way into a batch, particularly in home-brewed versions. Pasteurization helps to remove harmful bacteria in products using heat. Though using pasteurization to remove foreign bacteria from the Kombucha is good, the downfall is that the heat process destroys naturally occurring vitamins, minerals, and most of the good microorganisms.

Only a few side effects have been reported from excessive consumption of Kombucha. They include stomach upset and acidosis — a condition in which there is excessive acid in bodily fluids.

Other conditions could include allergic reactions to molds that can develop during fermentation if the product becomes contaminated. It is recommended to drink Kombucha from reputable, commercially established vendors when purchasing the bottled version. It is always best to inquire about manufacturing practices if the Kombucha is prepared locally to assure consumption safety, freshness and quality.

Michael Lausterer is master essential oil therapist and owner of Basic Earth Essentials located in Lewisberry, Pennsylvania. He is also a professional chef and clinical nutritionist.