Kombucha is a fizzy, fermented tea drink with a flavor that is just slightly sweet and at the same time, slightly acidic and sometimes a little bitter, not unlike sparkling apple cider or nonalcoholic beer. With its low-cal, low-sugar nutritional profile, sparkling kombucha is a great soda substitute for people with diabetes. And unlike artificially sweetened diet drinks, kombucha is a natural product with built-in health and nutrition benefits.
Those benefits start with kombucha’s probiotic effects, which come from the bacteria and yeast that form during the fermentation process. Like the live cultures in yogurt, kefir, aged cheese, fresh sauerkraut, kimchi and other fermented foods, the microorganisms in kombucha that are responsible for its tangy flavor also help keep the natural population of bacteria in your digestive tract balanced and healthy. And that, in turn, helps keep the rest of you healthy!
The bacterial culture in kombucha—known as a tea fungus or SCOBY (which stands for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast)—forms a slippery, mushroom-like organism that, when added to a slightly sweetened tea mixture and brewed properly at controlled temperatures, results in a sparkling beverage that’s more fun to drink than plain water or plain seltzer, but equally refreshing. You can buy kombucha in the refrigerated section of most supermarkets and health food stores or you can learn to brew your own at home which is a fairly easy process and a less expensive way to enjoy it. (A 16 oz. commercially-bottled tea can range between $4 and $6; it can be brewed at home for about $1 per gallon.)
The commercial kombucha brewing process is not unlike that of brewing craft beers, where different manufacturers tweak a traditional process and sometimes add additional ingredients to come up with their own, unique flavor variations. You’ll find kombucha simply flavored with subtle hints of cranberry, vanilla, or raspberry, or something a little more exotic, like matcha or lavender-melon. Some brewers spice things up with the addition of ginger or hot peppers, while others focus on reducing kombucha’s beer-like bitterness and tang. In other words, there’s a lot to choose from, so you’re bound to find a favorite flavor with enough taste testing.
To make your own kombucha, you need only basic, store-bought ingredients—tea and a bit of sugar (artificial sweeteners cannot be substituted) to feed the culture—plus a starter SCOBY which some people get from friends who brew their own. Cultures can also be purchased from local kombucha supply vendors and you can buy complete kombucha starter kits (around $50 on Amazon) that include everything you need to brew your first batch. Brewing kombucha at home is not quick. Expect the process to take 7-10 days.
If you want to try making your own kombucha, be sure to read up on safety issues and also, be sure you get your directions (and your SCOBY) from a reliable source. Although kombucha is a very safe beverage that people have been home-brewing and drinking for centuries, any food product that sits at warm room temperature over a period of days carries a risk of contamination if not handled properly. In addition, because of the acidity of the liquid, it should not be prepared or stored in containers made from materials such as ceramic or lead crystal which both contain toxic elements that can leach into the tea.
Since commercially-prepared kombucha is a relatively new product, human studies to test its actual effectiveness and safety for those with (or without) diabetes are few. But laboratory studies have found that, in addition to probiotic benefits, kombucha is rich in antioxidants that may protect pancreatic cells, help your body manage insulin and reduce blood fat levels. Kombucha may also reduce blood glucose levels, so be sure to monitor yourself until you know how drinking kombucha affects you personally.
There’s no established “dose” of kombucha that will ensure you get an effective amount of benefits with your drink and, as with any food or beverage, moderation is key. One cup of kombucha commonly contains 30 to 40 calories and 9 to 12 g carbs (5 to 8 g sugar). In stores, new kombucha products arrive on the shelves all the time, so be sure to check the Nutrition Facts label for variations among different flavors and different brands. And while negligible, keep in mind that a tiny amount of alcohol is formed in the process of making kombucha, so anyone with a sensitivity to ethanol, or any other reason to avoid alcohol, should take note.
Finally, in response to an unexplained, severe illness of two older women in 1995 that may have been related to an over-consumption of very acidic kombucha tea, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends limiting intake of the drink to 4 oz per day. In general, people who are immune compromised or elderly should avoid consumption of food with high numbers of bacteria.