Kombucha is touted as a cure-all elixir, but untangling its many health claims can be confusing. Here's what you need to know, including kombucha nutrition, benefits and potential side effects.

Elizabeth Laseter

Kombucha has officially taken the health world by storm. Whether it's news headlines, grocery store shelves, or even cocktail bars, this fizzy, fermented tea drink is seemingly everywhere.

But is kombucha healthy for you? Potentially, yes. Fermented foods like kombucha, kefir, sauerkraut and kimchi have attracted attention because of their link to gut health. Kombucha's been credited with some pretty serious health benefits-it supposedly can aid in digestion, boost immunity, help you lose weight and even prevent cancer. So, let's find out the truth behind this buzzy beverage.

Here's what you need to know about kombucha, including nutrition information, health benefits and potential side effects.

What Is Kombucha?

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Kombucha is a lightly effervescent, fermented tea drink that has a tart, slightly sweet taste. The basic ingredients in kombucha are green or black tea, sugar, water and a scoby. If you've ever noticed an alien-like, rubbery disc floating around inside your bottle of kombucha, that's the scoby. Short for symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast, the scoby is sometimes called the "mother" or "mushroom" (or "starter") and houses the live bacteria that give each batch of kombucha a unique identity.

To make kombucha, add the scoby to brewed, sweetened tea, then let the mixture ferment for 7 to 10 days. Kombucha's level of tartness depends on the length of the fermentation period. The longer the kombucha ferments, the less sugar remains and the more vinegary it will taste.

You can buy bottled kombucha at major grocery stores, but you can also brew it at home. (Get a detailed step-by-step guide for making your own kombucha here.) Kombucha is a delicious beverage as is, but you can also incorporate it into smoothies, cocktails and even salad dressing.

Kombucha Nutrition

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The nutrition facts of kombucha vary slightly from one brand to another, and also depend on whether you're buying plain or flavored varieties. (Flavored kombucha tends to have a bit more sugar.) Here is the full nutrition information for a standard 8-ounce serving of GT's Original Enlightened kombucha (1 serving is half of the 16-oz. bottle):

Calories: 25
Fat: 0g
Cholesterol: 0mg
Sodium: 10mg
Carbohydrates: 6g
Sugars: 6g
Protein: 0g

Probiotic Content & Organic Acids (per 16-oz. bottle, at time of bottling)
Bacillus coagulans
GBI-30 6086: 1 billion
S. boulardii: 1 billion
Polyphenols: 10mg
Glucuronic acid: 10mg
L(+) Lactic acid: 25mg
Acetic acid: 30mg

Source: GT's Living Foods

Apart from basic nutrition facts, labeling isn't consistent across kombucha brands, and you won't always be able to find information as detailed as that for GT's kombucha. For example, Health-Ade Kombucha doesn't list specific probiotics on its label. Another brand, Buchi Kombucha, lists the bacteria strains, but not the amounts. For these reasons, it's often tough to know exactly what benefits you're getting from your kombucha.

Analyzing a detailed label like GT's can help explain kombucha's potential health benefits. To dig a little deeper, Betsy Ginn, a registered dietitian based in Brooklyn, New York, helps us break down the details.

Kombucha Probiotics

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Kombucha contains probiotics, the "good" gut bacteria found in fermented foods like yogurt, kefir, pickles and sauerkraut. Probiotics are directly linked to gut health, which plays an important role in your overall health. Probiotics are also good for your digestive system and they promote a strong immune system.

Read More: Can Probiotics Really Help Your Health?

GT's Original Enlightened kombucha contains the probiotics Bacillus coagulans GBI-30 6086 and Saccharomyces boulardii. "Bacillus is beneficial in relieving abdominal pain, bloating and constipation, and S. boulardii helps prevent diarrhea caused by antibiotic use," explains Ginn.

Ginn points out that GT's probiotic count is actually lower than you'd expect. "In one 16-oz. bottle, there are only 2 billion CFUs of the probiotics," she says. "In contrast, Lifeway Plain Kefir contains 25-30 billion CFUs per 8-oz. bottle." However, a higher probiotic count isn't necessarily meaningful, as there is currently no established recommendation or guideline for the amount that's healthful to consume.

While plenty of promising research exists, the FDA has not officially approved any probiotics for preventing or treating a medical condition. In fact, the National Institutes of Health cautions that "the rapid growth in marketing and use of probiotics may have outpaced scientific research for many of their proposed uses and benefits."

Antioxidants

The antioxidant properties of kombucha come from tea, which packs impressive health benefits on its own. Tea is rich in polyphenols, powerful phytonutrients that help protect your cells from free-radical damage. While GT's lists the amount of polyphenols per bottle (10mg), you shouldn't worry too much about this number. There are currently no established Dietary Reference Intakes for phytonutrients-and research around them is still developing. Instead, focus on filling your diet with foods rich in phytonutrients, including vegetables, fruits, whole grains, nuts, seeds and legumes (try these 10 everyday superfoods to get your fill of nutrients).

Organic Acids

"Glucuronic acid, lactic acid and acetic acid in kombucha are organic acids that are a by-product of the fermentation process," explains Ginn. These organic acids also give kombucha its signature tart taste. Due to their high acidity, organic acids are believed to have antimicrobial properties that help detoxify the body and ward off harmful bacteria.

Kombucha and Weight Loss

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Kombucha is naturally low in calories, but shouldn't be viewed as a magical weight-loss drink. However, consuming it in place of soda or alcoholic beverages can help you cut back on calories and added sugar, and thus aid in weight loss. Luckily, finding kombucha is fairly easy, since many restaurants, bars and breweries now offer it on tap-and it's also available at many supermarkets and natural-foods stores.

Read More: 6 Swaps to Slash Added Sugars from Your Diet

Kombucha delivers the same refreshing, fizzy fix as soda, but for far fewer calories and less sugar. A 12-oz. can of Coca-Cola contains 140 calories and 39 grams of added sugar, while a 16-oz. bottle of GT's kombucha has 50 calories and 12 g of sugar. Kombucha is also a lower-calorie alternative to craft beer, which can pack more than 300 calories per pint.

Kombucha Side Effects

Kombucha isn't for everyone. Here are several reasons why you might want to avoid drinking it.

Alcohol Content

Kombucha is typically about 0.5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV), so you'd have to drink a pretty hefty amount to actually feel a buzz. Kombucha is treated as a nonalcoholic drink if it contains less than 0.5 percent ABV. If it contains more than that, kombucha is regulated as an alcoholic beverage. Regardless of the ABV, you may want to stay away from kombucha if you are avoiding alcohol for religious reasons, if you have allergies or if you are pregnant.

Caffeine Content

Kombucha has significantly less caffeine than coffee, but you should still be wary of it if you have a caffeine sensitivity. An 8-oz. serving of GT's kombucha contains 8 mg to 14 mg of caffeine, while an 8-oz. cup of coffee has around 100 mg. Depending on the type of tea used and how the kombucha is brewed, different types may have different amounts. Given that the USDA Dietary Guidelines define moderate caffeine consumption as up to 400 mg per day, drinking one bottle of kombucha is unlikely to make you jittery.

Weakened Immune System

While kombucha is associated with a healthy immune system, it may have the opposite effect on certain individuals. Because kombucha is unpasteurized and contains live bacteria, those with a weakened or suppressed immune system should avoid it.

The Verdict on Kombucha

Featured Recipe: Homemade Kombucha

Yes, kombucha is healthy, but it's no magic elixir and more research is strongly needed to prove its full range of health benefits. The probiotics in kombucha are reason enough to pick up a bottle (or make your own at home). Plus, it's a significantly healthier choice than soda or alcohol.

"Overall, kombucha is a healthy and delicious drink that is low in sugar compared to many other beverages, plus it has the added bonus of good bacteria in the probiotics," says Ginn. Drink kombucha in moderation-and be sure that you're also eating a nutritious, balanced diet full of vegetables, fruits, legumes, whole grains, healthy fats and lean proteins.

WATCH: 7 Must-Eat Fermented Foods for a Healthy Gut

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