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Fermented tea may aid digestive process

by Doris Penner

Fermented foods have assumed a place in a wholesome diet because of the health benefits they offer. Traditional cultures used fermentation of fruits and vegetables to preserve foods, perhaps not realizing it was the production of “healthy” bacteria or probiotics in the process that not only helped keep foods from spoiling but also imparted important benefits especially in maintaining the health of the digestive system. While most Canadians are familiar with so-called fermented foods such as sauerkraut and pickles, another fermented food which has recently entered the mainstream—appearing on supermarket shelves side by side with pop and energy drinks—is kombucha, a fizzy naturally carbonated beverage based on sweetened tea. While kombucha has enjoyed a surge of popularity due to reports of it being not only a zesty but also a nutritious drink, is there evidence to back up the claims? Does it deliver something unique that other fermented foods lack?

First of all, it should be noted that foods that were traditionally preserved by the process of lacto-fermentation—natural bacteria feeding on sugar and starch in food to create lactic acid which preserves food. In addition, the process creates beneficial enzymes, B vitamins and various strains of probiotics, as well as making food more digestible. There are literally hundreds of foods produced in this way in various cultures around the world—soy sauce in China, sauerkraut in Germany and kimichi in Korea to name a few.

Preserve foods

It is important to point out that the modern North American food processing companies rarely use authentic fermentation anymore to preserve or add flavour to foods. Vinegar-based pickles and sauerkraut have replaced traditional lacto-fermented versions, for example, and the soy sauce, shrimp paste and skyr we purchase is usually not the authentic product produced in more traditional societies. This means the amount of probiotics and enzymes available in the average diet has declined sharply over the last few years (even yogurt—thought of as an excellent source of probiotics—often does not contain live cultures today).

Then along comes kombucha tea, which originated in China—some sources say thousands of years ago—later spreading to Europe and North America. In some cultures, the tea was produced by using a mushroom known as kombucha—hence the name. Today most commercially produced kombucha uses black tea, with some variations achieved by using flavoured teas.

The drink is made by adding a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (sometimes referred to as the acronym SCOBY) to sweetened tea and allowing it to ferment for several weeks. A minimum amount of alcohol is produced, which mostly turns into acetic acid because of the presence of certain strains of bacteria. Like many food dishes and drinks, kombucha likely first came on the scene as abit of an accident—tea left out too long with someone daring to drink the brew. In North America it was initially embraced by the hippie culture, a naturally sparkling organic alternative to soft drinks. Someone felt energized after drinking it—and perhaps found it aided digestion—and before long health food proponents were singing its praises.

Small amount of vitamin C

While there is no scientific evidence to support many of the purported health claims, it is almost certain it has several positive benefits because of the fermentation process. Several studies have shown kombucha contains small amounts of vitamin C and B vitamins, as well as appreciable amounts of antioxidants which strengthen immunity.

Its main health benefits spring from the presence of probiotics which balance the bacteria in the stomach and intestines, helping break down food to aid digestion, increasing absorption of nutrients and overall improving bowel health.

Some consumers may simply purchase kombucha because they enjoy the tangy cider-like flavour of the drink which is lower in sugar and calories than most sweet drinks. If you want to gain the health benefits probiotics offer, look for “raw” kombucha—in other words buy a product that has not been pasteurized since that process kills live cultures.