Have you noticed the influx of fermented drinks on our supermarket shelves recently? If you haven’t, then you obviously don’t do the shopping… Although these drinks are thousands of years old, they are only now becoming truly popular in Australia. Early last year you would have been lucky to find a bottle of kombucha in an organic supermarket, or a carton of commercial kefir milk in specialty health stores. Now, there are whole shelves in most big supermarkets dedicated to fermented milks, and you can hardly walk into a servo without finding a fridge full of kombucha stubbies.
But what are these drinks? Are they actually good for us or are they just another expensive fad?
Gut health and the microbiome have been getting plenty of air time in the media, and for good reason! Finally, some real science is becoming trendy! Our gut microbiome is made up of trillions of organisms including bacteria, yeasts, fungi and viruses. Functions of the microbiome include the digestion of sugars, provision of nutrients to cells, prevention of harmful bacteria colonising in the gut and programming the immune system. The microbiome is incredibly complex and much more research needs to be conducted before we can make ground breaking conclusions. However, evidence is starting to emerge regarding the role our gut bacteria play in a whole range of health outcomes, including the ability to gain or lose fat, mental health, immune system function, inflammatory bowel disease, irritable bowel syndrome and much more.
Our daily diet seems to have a huge impact on our microbiome. Consuming a diet that contains adequate fruit, vegetables, fibre and fluid with limited processed food is the best way to keep our microbiome happy. In addition to a healthy diet, we can also add to our healthy gut bacteria by consuming fermented foods and drinks.
Kombucha is a fermented tea drink that is slightly effervescent (though the commercial varieties are quite fizzy). The flavour is very hard to describe so I’ll let you try some and see for yourself! It is made from black or green tea with a considerable amount of sugar added. A kombucha SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast – which is a kind of tea fungus) is placed into the sweet tea and is left for a couple of weeks to ferment. The yeasts in the SCOBY consume the sugar in the tea. The SCOBY is then removed from the tea and the resulting kombucha is sugar-free and contains beneficial probiotics.
Kefir milk is a fermented milk drink that is made by adding a kefir SCOBY to fresh milk. After 24-48 hours the natural lactose in the milk will have been consumed by the SCOBY. The SCOBY is removed from the milk and the resulting product is kefir milk – a rather sour tasting, slightly effervescent milk which has the consistency of drinking yoghurt. Kefir milk contains a much wider variety of bacteria strains than kombucha and is my personal favourite! You can add it to muesli or make it into delicious, probiotic packed smoothies.
And let’s not forget the less trendy, but no less beneficial, fermented foods like yoghurt, kimchi, miso and sauerkraut.
So, is it essential to consume these expensive, trendy fermented drinks? The answer is no, it’s not essential, but if you like the taste and are happy to buy them (or even better - ferment them yourself) then yes, I would encourage it as they are most likely improving the amount of beneficial in your gut which may contribute to a host of health outcomes as described above. Kombucha is also a great substitute for that afternoon soft drink or after work beer habit you are trying to kick. Kefir milk provides you with other nutrients like good quality protein, electrolytes, calcium, potassium and B vitamins.
Try to consume a wide variety of fermented foods (if you like them) in your diet to get a wide variety of beneficial bugs. If you don’t like any of these foods or beverages, all is not lost… You actually breathe in some healthy bacteria through dirt and dust particles in the air!