Best Fermented Drinks for Gut Health

EITHEROn a mission to boost your gut microbiome? If so, there’s a good chance you’re already diversifying your plant intake, prioritizing prebiotics and probiotics in your diet, and stocking up on fermented foods. Maybe you even drink fermented beverages like kombucha and kefir in hopes of improving your gut while staying hydrated. But with a wider variety of these on-the-go fizzy drinks filling supermarket shelves than ever before, does anyone reign supreme when it comes to nutrition and gut benefits?

To find out, we asked Brooklyn-based dietitian Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN, for her expert opinion on how some of the most popular fermented, gut-boosting beverages compare.

What a dietitian *really* thinks about popular fermented beverages

1. Kombucha

Love it or hate it, kombucha is possibly the most ubiquitous fermented beverage on this list. But what exactly is it and how does it compare from a nutritional standpoint?

“Kombucha is made by fermenting tea and sugar with a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast (SCOBY),” says Feller. “The byproducts of the fermentation process result in a beverage that contains antioxidants, bioactive compounds, and probiotics.” Sounds like a nutrient powerhouse, so kombucha must be a proven star for your gut and better health, right?

Well… not so fast. “While the science is still inconclusive about the direct health benefits of kombucha, there is evidence to support the importance of prebiotics and probiotics in the eating pattern and their impact on the microbiome,” says Feller. However, more studies among human participants are needed to confirm that kombucha lives up to all the hype.

Additionally, Feller says that commercially manufactured kombuchas are produced through various methods, resulting in different amounts of bacterial strains. “Some brands add carbonation instead of letting the fermentation process produce natural carbonation, which reduces the probiotic content,” he adds. For this reason, it’s important to look for the probiotic legends on the label and do some research to find kombucha options that not only make you frown, but also have the probiotic strains and count necessary to produce a given benefit.

Then there is the consideration of added sugar, which works against your microbiome, which you will have to deal with. “While all kombuchas will contain sugars on the Nutrition Facts label, since it’s a primary ingredient in production, look for kombuchas with less than 10 grams of sugar,” says Feller. He also suggests drinking no more than 16 ounces a day, and even skipping it if you’re prone to digestive issues.

2. Water kefir

You may have heard of or tried dairy-based kefir before, but did you know that water kefir exists too? If not, here’s what’s worth knowing about this refreshing fruity alternative.

“Water kefir is made by fermenting sucrose with water kefir grains, a culture of bacteria and yeast that includes lactic acid bacteria and acetic acid bacteria,” says Feller. The result? A carbonated drink rich in probiotics. “Some studies have shown that kefir grains contain more than 50 strains of beneficial bacteria and yeast. Many health-promoting effects have been attributed to kefir, including tumor suppression, improved gastrointestinal health, improved wound healing, and antimicrobial properties.” On this last point, Feller adds that some animal studies found that kefir intake is associated with an increase in beneficial microbes and a decrease in harmful microbes, although more studies are needed to confirm these benefits in humans.

All things considered, water kefir can be a good option for those who don’t enjoy kombucha and/or want to experiment with different forms of probiotics. “It’s also a great alternative to dairy-based kefirs for those following a vegan eating pattern or who are dairy intolerant,” adds Feller.

3. Drink vinegars

While you may have experimented with ACV shots in the past or made your own tart tonic, canned and bottled drinking vinegars are convenient options for getting your mouth-puckering fermented fix on the go. But how do we get vinegar to begin with?

“Vinegar is a combination of acetic acid and water produced by a two-step fermentation process,” Feller begins. “In the first place, the yeasts feed on the sugars and starches of any liquid from carbohydrates such as fruits, rice or potatoes, producing alcohol. Second, when the alcohol is exposed to oxygen and acetic acid bacteria, the liquid is further fermented and forms vinegar.” So is this end product as good for your health as we’re led to believe?

“Certain types of vinegar, such as apple cider vinegar, have been touted as a solution to many complex health problems, but their purported benefits have yet to be proven in research,” explains Feller. Also, although vinegars are produced by fermentation, they are not actually probiotics. That said, it doesn’t mean your DIY concoctions or on-the-go drinking vinegars deserve a hard pass. “Some vinegars can act as prebiotics, like the pectin found in apple cider vinegar,” she explains. Since prebiotics feed your good gut bacteria, drinking vinegars *may* be good for your gut. Plus, she adds that vinegar “has the ability to break down the chemical structure of proteins, which can improve digestion.”

In short, ACV drinks have the potential to promote a healthy gut, but you’ll need to get your probiotics elsewhere and still take care to support your microbiome in other ways. (Note: Feller says that people taking diuretics should be mindful of their vinegar intake, as it can alter potassium levels.)

So is one fermented beverage better for the gut than the rest?

Bottom line: not really. “There is no single beverage that provides a boost to the microbiome. Instead, I recommend individualizing what a person eats or drinks while taking their [own] health and life into consideration,” says Feller. It’s also worth noting that consuming these beverages in excess can cause discomfort if you have a sensitive stomach. “For example, a high intake of carbonated beverages and/or too many probiotics can lead to digestive problems like gas and bloating,” says Feller. Therefore, moderation is key.

At the end of the day, while these may be included in your gut health regimen, other dietary and lifestyle habits will have a much greater impact on how balanced and resilient your gut will be. Especially if his goal is to boost your microbiome, Feller says you’ll need to swap pro-inflammatory foods and drinks that increase pathogenic bacteria (think sugar, alcohol, saturated fat, etc.) for healthier foods.

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