Kombucha is all the rage. You can buy it bottled or on tap at restaurants, cafes, and groceries or make it yourself at home. Considered an elixir for improved digestion, headaches, low energy, and whatever else ails you, this fizzy, fermented beverage is not just a passing fad. Dating back to ancient China, kombucha consists of black or green tea, sugar, and a starter of bacteria and yeast called a SCOBY. This tangy, effervescent beverage has joined the likes of kimchi, sauerkraut, and other fermented foods packed with beneficial bacteria called probiotics.
For a workshop primer in making kombucha at home, come to “Healthful Home Fermentation: Kombucha and More” on September 13 at Rodgers Ranch Heritage Center in Pleasant Hill. To register, go HERE.
Here are a few terms in the kombucha lexicon:
SCOBY is an acronym for Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast. It has been described as a living home, like a coral reef, for bacteria and yeast. This gelatinous, pancake-like blob is the mother culture necessary for making kombucha tea. You can grow one yourself, buy one, or get one from someone else, not unlike getting a mother starter to make bread. Here's a LINK to making kombucha.
Probiotics (from pro and biota, which mean “for life”) are live bacteria and yeast microorganisms found naturally in the digestive tract. You can add probiotics to your diet through supplements or certain foods. The two most common bacteria classified as probiotics are lactobacillus, which may be useful by people who can’t digest lactose (a sugar in milk) and bifidobacterium, which may help irritable bowel syndrome. Probiotics are even thought to help treat Crohn’s disease and other serious conditions. They keep the body in balance and are especially helpful in replacing healthy bacteria in your gut after taking antibiotics for an infection. This is why doctors sometimes recommend eating yogurt after a round of penicillin so your digestive tract can recover and get back to normal.
Northern Europeans are known for consuming probiotics on a daily basis, and drinks supplemented with probiotics are very popular in Japan. Americans have jumped on the bandwagon and are learning how probiotics aid in digestion, immune function, and nutrient absorption. Probiotics that contain helpful bacteria include yogurt with live cultures and fermented foods such as sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha tea, kefir (dairy and non-dairy) and fermented pickles/pickled veggies (non-pasteurized so as not to kill the good bacteria).
Kombucha is delicious and healthy but because bacteria are involved, making home brews requires a controlled environment to avoid contamination and explosive results. Also, avoid making kombucha in ceramic pots because tea acids can leech out lead from the glaze. By the way, some alcohol is a natural by-product of the fermentation process, so depending on the alcohol level, you may need to be over 21 to buy kombucha from the store.
While probiotics are beneficial bacteria, prebiotics are food FOR those bacteria. Probiotics eat prebiotics. Prebiotics come from certain types of carbohydrates, mostly fiber, that can’t be digested. Friendly gut flora (good bacteria) gorge upon this fiber. Good bacteria protect you from bad bacteria and send signals to your immune system. Some of this good bacteria forms fatty acids to feed the cells that line the colon, promoting a strong barrier that keeps out bad bacteria, viruses, and other harmful substances, thereby reducing inflammation and maybe even reducing the risk of cancer.
Your choice of foods greatly influences the balance of good and bad bacteria. A diet high in sugar and fat allows bad gut bacteria to grow, colonize, and flourish. To get prebiotics in your diet, you’ll want to eat certain fruits, veggies, and legumes that contain fiber that humans can’t digest but good gut bacteria can! Foods high in prebiotic fiber include legumes/beans/peas, oats, bananas, berries, asparagus, garlic/leeks/onions, dandelion greens, and, interestingly enough, Jerusalem (not regular) artichokes. All of these provide nutrients for probiotics to support healthy immune function as well as digestion.
Some researchers say supplements that contain probiotics may not survive passage through the gut due to stomach acid. Others say probiotics are well suited to an acidic environment and easily pass through the stomach quickly anyway. Adding prebiotics to a probiotic supplement is thought to help digestion-friendly microorganisms arrive alive and well. Fun trivia fact: a quintessential synbiotic food that contains both prebiotics and probiotics is sauerkraut.