What Is Hard Kombucha, and Is It Healthy? Here's What Nutritionists Say
Hard kombuchas have become the adult beverage of choice among health-conscious drinkers. Touted as all natural and rich with probiotics, hard kombuchas are thought to be a gut-friendly alternative to more mainstream alcoholic beverages like beer, wine, and hard seltzer. But does it actually offer up health benefits?
Below, nutritionists break down the basics of hard kombucha, including how it ranks nutritionally and whether it should be your new happy hour order.
What is hard kombucha?
You’re probably familiar with kombucha, the fermented drink that’s made from tea (typically green or black), sugar, and an active culture consisting of bacteria and yeast. The fermentation process that yields regular kombucha naturally produces some alcohol, but not enough for you to feel buzzed after drinking it.
Hard kombuchas differ from the “virgin” varieties in their proportions of tea, sugar, and starter culture. They’re also fermented for a longer period of time. The result? More sugar gets converted to alcohol, so the alcohol by volume, or ABV, content rises. FYI: it’s only once the ABV exceeds 0.5 percent that a kombucha product is considered to be an alcoholic beverage, per the US Tax and Trade Bureau.
Does hard kombucha contain probiotics?
One of the primary draws of regular kombucha is its probiotics. The drink contains strains of beneficial bacteria that are said to promote gut health and support digestion. The question, though, is how exactly does hard kombucha’s higher alcohol content affect its probiotics?
“At this time, it’s not guaranteed you’ll be getting a significant amount of alive and helpful probiotics in hard kombucha,” Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, RDN, author of The Better Period Food Solution, tells Health. “Some companies have tested their products and have found that the probiotics cannot withstand a high ABV (ranging from 5.6 to 7.6%), while other companies believe their probiotics can stay intact at lower alcohol percentages.”
Lisa Moskovitz, RDN, CEO of the private practice NY Nutrition Group, agrees. “While you are likely still getting some gut-friendly probiotics from kombucha beverages, the amount that ends up in your lower GI tract where they truly work their magic is questionable,” she tells Health.
While the jury is still out on whether the probiotics in hard kombucha are actually effective, alcohol can have its own negative effect on gut health, says Anna Brown, RDN, founder of Nutrition Squeezed. “Alcohol can contribute to gut dysbiosis and decreased biodiversity [of the gut microbiome], regardless of the form consumed, so that's always something to keep in mind when choosing to consume an alcoholic drink,” she tells Health.
Is hard kombucha healthy?
Ok, so its probiotics might not be potent, but hard kombucha may still bring more to the table than a shot of vodka. “We do know that kombucha is brewed with natural ingredients like black or green tea and bacteria and yeast, which can provide a bevy of vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants that our body appreciates,” explains Beckerman.
Kombucha also contains good-for-you acids. “With alcoholic kombucha, you do still reap the benefits of the polyphenols and acids found in regular kombucha, including lactic, acetic, glucuronic, and butyric acids,” says Brown. The health benefits of these acids range from increasing the nutritional value of food, enhancing digestion, and increasing the activity of antioxidants, she says.
Of course, hard ‘booch is still booze. “Hard kombucha cannot be categorized as a healthy choice because it is still considered alcohol, aka discretionary calories which do not supply the body with vital nutrients,” adds Beckerman.
How does hard kombucha compare nutritionally to other drinks?
When it comes to alcohol content, hard kombuchas fall somewhere between beer and wine. Beer typically contains around 5% ABV, while wine serves up around 12% ABV. Most hard kombuchas run somewhere from 4.5 to 7% ABV.
Though it’s lower in sugar than the cranberry juice you might mix with your vodka, most hard kombuchas aren’t free from the sweet stuff. “Hard kombucha creates alcohol by using sugar, so it makes sense that it has more sugar than some other alcoholic beverages, clocking in between two and 10 grams of sugar or more, depending on the brand,” says Beckerman. Some hard kombucha varieties are virtually free from sugar, though, so just check the label if you’re in search of a lower-sugar product.
When it comes to calories, hard kombuchas are a better bet than your classic frozen margarita (which can be upwards of 300 calories), but fairly comparable to your standard glass of rosé. Most hard kombuchas range from about 85 to 150 calories per can.
Also nice: Hard kombuchas are typically free from wheat and barley. “If you have celiac disease and need a gluten-free option, hard kombucha is a good alternative to beer since it has a similar look and bubbly feel in the mouth,” adds Brown.
Bottom line on hard kombucha
“In my opinion, hard kombuchas are a comparable alternative to beer, wine, or mixed drinks, especially if a client prefers the taste of kombucha to these drinks,” says Brown. “I would recommend it as an alcoholic option over a sugary mixed drink like a pina colada.”
That said, no adult beverage will ever be a superfood (sorry), and hard kombucha is no exception. “As with any alcoholic beverage, understand the risks involved with drinking,” says Moskovitz. “The American Heart Association recommends no more than one drink per day for women and two for men.”
Basically, if you’re going to drink hard kombucha, do so responsibly and because you enjoy the taste—not because you expect it to bring health benefits. Some of the most popular brands include Flying Embers, which offers kombuchas in unique flavors like pineapple chili and black cherry. There's also June Shine, which comes in tea-like varieties like honey ginger lemon and blood orange mint, and Boochcraft, an organic brand with a 7% ABV (so you may feel buzzed after just a can or two).
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