Gut health is a topic that has gained a lot of attention lately and for good reason. A happy gut means a healthier immune system, better digestion and even improved mental health. Kombucha and kefir are two probiotic-packed drinks that are supposedly perfect for promoting gut health. To find out more, Equilibrio spoke to two registered dieticians: Bridgitte Stegen (@thebalancedlife_blog) who has her masters in dietetics, and Nicqui Grant who owns The Health & Lifestyle Consultancy in Bryanston.
(RELATED POST: Probiotics, your gut and a good mood)
What is it?
After water, tea is said to be the world’s most popular drink. But what about fermented tea? Although kombucha originates from China, where it has been consumed for several thousand years, the fermented tea has only recently gained popularity in Western parts of the world. It is uniquely bitter-sweet, slightly effervescent and comes in a variety of brands and flavours. The taste is somewhat comparable to fruity beer and it even has an alcohol content of 0.5% (aka just not enough alcohol to make it a party). The drink’s alcohol content, as well as its health benefits, are thanks to its fermentation process. During fermentation, black tea brew is mixed with sugar and “tea fungus”. Though the name is misleading, “tea fungus” is not actually a fungus. Rather, it is a symbiotic culture of acetic acid, bacteria and yeasts, also known as SCOBY. SCOBY alters the compounds of the tea under the fermentation process, yielding new organic compounds that are not found in regular tea.
Kombucha is a probiotic punch to the gut. Stegen says that “First and foremost kombucha is rich in probiotics which play an important role in protecting and growing our natural, healthy bacteria and microorganisms.” Grant adds that kombucha may help with the treatment and management of infections caused by H.Pylori (a bacteria which attacks stomach lining), Candida Albicans (thrush) and e-coli. While health benefits related to kombucha’s high probiotic content are unequivocal, the drink is sometimes marketed as having additional health benefits which are only supported by in vitro or animal studies. However, promising studies show that kombucha is a powerful antioxidant and is therefore anticarcinogenic, has anti-inflammatory properties and that the drink may lower cholesterol levels. Stegen describes kombucha as hosting “all the benefits of regular tea just with the added probiotic kick”.
What is it?
The word kefir is derived from the Turkish word keyif which means “feeling good”. And, with a host of health benefits, it is no wonder that this is what the mystic grain from the Caucasus Mountains has been dubbed. Kefir grains are actually a combination of colonies of yeast and lactic acid bacteria, similar to SCOBY. The fermented beverage is traditionally made by adding kefir grains to cow’s milk. Once the grains have sat in the milk for about a day, the fermentation process is complete. After this, the drink is ready, and the kefir grains can be reused. The kefir grains’ lactic acid bacteria are responsible for converting the milk’s lactose into lactic acid. Although this gives the milk a sour taste, it also reduces the lactose content which makes it more suitable for those who are lactose sensitive. Kefir can also be added to other types of milk and water kefir can be made by adding special water kefir grains to juice. While it is easy to brew your own kefir, bottled kefir is available at most health stores.
Like kombucha, the primary health benefit of kefir is its high probiotic content. Kefir’s probiotic profile even trumps that of yoghurt. Over and above this, Stegen says that kefir is “known to help fight infections due to its antibacterial properties”. Stegen continues that to say that it is also “a source of micronutrients that greatly contribute to the prevention of osteoporosis and improvement in bone health, [and] it may help fight against cancer through the stimulation of the immune system”. Grant adds that kefir consumption can provide benefits in cardiometabolic processes. This includes reducing insulin resistance which means that kefir could be beneficial in the management of diabetes. Grant also says that kefir improves fatigue and exercise performance.
Should you use kombucha/kefir to maintain gut health?
Both Grant and Stegen recommend kombucha and kefir as part of a gut health maintenance regime. Stegen says that when she consumes kombucha, she personally notices a reduction in IBS related symptoms. Stegen emphasises the importance of gut health, saying that “our gut is an incredible organ that hosts between 70-80% of our immune system”. She says that incorporating a fermented drink like kombucha or kefir to your daily gut-maintenance routine is simple but effective. When asked how kefir and kombucha compare to a regular probiotic, both dieticians said that this is a tricky question to answer. Grant says that “many articles of a naturopathic nature say that they are just as good”. However, she wonders what quantity of kombucha or kefir one needs to consume in order for the drink to have the same efficiency as a live culture probiotic capsule. Stegen says while some probiotics cannot survive the harsh environment of our stomach acids, probiotics in fermented drinks are mostly acid-resistant. While Stegen says that it is important to note that “not all probiotics
are created equal”, she does feel that that fermented drinks can offer benefits that are not necessarily found in probiotic capsules. Fermented drinks such as Kombucha or Kefir “provide us with active and live bacteria and yeast, [and] they also provide nutrients like B vitamins, minerals and enzymes,” says Stegen.
(RELATED POST: The importance of gut health for general wellbeing)
The verdict: which drink wins?
Many online sources hail kefir as the winner of this fermented beverage battle, partly because it is easier to brew at home and partly because its milk-base makes it richer in nutrients. In terms of their probiotic effectiveness, Stegen notes that it is “much of a muchness”. Ultimately, says Stegen, it comes down to personal preference as they are both equally rich in probiotics.
These health trends are growing steadily, and large drinks companies are taking note. Be sure to buy original, fermented products over mass produced products where the probiotics are added subsequently to the drink.