Kefir, Kombucha, and Sauerkraut…Oh My!

three bottles of kefir with red straws

“Hey D2D, I am a Kefir drinker but just read your article on Kombucha and was wondering if I should switch to this probiotic source? Which one is better for me? “

More than just giving a simple recommendation based on these two products, this question opened a new door for us. How can we help our readers make smart food purchases?

Incorporating diverse, nutrient-dense foods is the best way to keep your digestive system healthy. But, foods containing probiotics might not find their way into your diet naturally.

“When you look at populations that eat real food that’s high in fiber, and more plant-based foods, you’re going to see they have a more robust microbiota, with more genetic diversity, healthier species and fewer pathogenic bacteria living in the gut.” —Meghan Jardine (Registered Dietitian)

Probiotics are not just limited to Kefir or Kombucha— although the companies that make these products do a great job at marketing themselves as the best option to maintain a healthy gut. In reality, there is a laundry list of products and foods that contain probiotics, some of which are sauerkraut, yogurt, miso soup, and vinegar. But how often are you reaching for the sauerkraut when there isn’t a hot dog attached? If the answer is “not very,” then clearly that isn’t the right probiotic for you!

We know that you want to incorporate a probiotic into your diet and we know where you can get them—but, is there a food/product that is the “best” for you? The answer is simple…No! D2D (and the microbiota industry) cannot recommend which probiotic source your body will respond best to. But, we can give you a few tips and tricks when selecting probiotic supplements for your diet.

So many choices!  The labels we see every day can be overly complicated. 

While probiotic foods can be quite different, there should be a probiotic-rich food or supplement that is right for you…you might just have to experiment a bit. And there may not be one solution!

We have talked a lot about the importance of good bacteria. If you happen to have read an earlier post on the microbiota in your gut, you know that your gut is actually your second brain! New research shows that your gut health may have the ability to influence your mood, energy levels, immune system, sleep, weight, and even your mental clarity. It is even being said that your gut bacteria are responsible for 70% of your immune health.

The biggest challenge with promoting gut health is emphasizing how unique every single individuals’ microbiome is! Thus, its hard to give supplement recommendations because what might work for you might not help another.

So, back to Kefir vs. Kombucha— there are a few advantages and disadvantages that you should be aware of.

Kefir is typically made from a fermented milk base and for that reason, it is a strong source of calcium. It also contains vitamin B12, magnesium, folate, enzymes, and (of course) probiotics! Kefir products, like Lifeway, can contain over 15 billion viable bacteria cells per cup! You can also buy water based Kefir products, like Kevita, however, these beverages contain roughly 4 billion colony forming units.

One thing you definitely want to be aware of when buying Kefir and other similar probiotic foods is sugar! Excess sugar consumption is believed to cause inflammation and inflammation has been associated with a whole host of health issues. Unfortunately, the average American consumes 3x more sugar than is recommended on any given day. (The FDA recommendation for sugar is 24 grams a day for women and 36 grams per day for men).

Sugar is often used to feed the live bacteria cultures that are present in probiotic supplements. And while most of this is utilized by the bacteria and not ingested by the consumer, some products can sneak extra sugar into their foods to make them tastier. Kefir, for example, typically contains about 12 grams of sugar per serving. If you are a woman, that is half your daily amount. Similarly, yogurt is another probiotic source that has a higher sugar content.

If your stomach feels great, and you are mindful of your remaining sugar intake, then Kefir might be the right probiotic for you. But, if the roughly 12 grams of sugar that is coming from Kefir is not accounted for in your diet— then you might want to look elsewhere. Kevita and Kombucha, on the other hand, usually contain roughly 3-5 grams of sugar per serving.

Recommended Articles: 

New York Times: A Gut Makeover for the New Year

Cell Host & Microbe Study: Prior Dietart Practices and Connections to a Human Gut Microbial Metacommunity Alter Responses to Diet Interventions

WebMD: Leaky Gut Syndrome

WebMD: What Are Probiotics?

Harvard Health Publications: The Benefits of Probiotics Bacteria 

Water, Water…Everywhere?

Irrigation equipment on farm field

Our water supply is stressed!

Water is essential to all living things. Humans, animals, and crops rely on a steady water supply in order to survive. But, with a growing population and a finite water supply on earth, we are finding ourselves in a bit of trouble! While about 80% of the Earth’s surface is covered with water, it is the fresh water supply that we are most concerned about. Freshwater assumes only 2.5% of all water on Earth – and 90% of this fresh water is located in Antarctica. To put that into perspective, if you were to take all the world’s water and fit it into a one-gallon jug – fresh water would only account for roughly one tablespoon.

Based on current projections, our population is expected to grow .89% per year through 2050. At this rate, that is approximately 66 million more mouths to feed each year! Thus, our farmers are expected to not only produce more food but to use less water throughout the growing process. So, as shifting rainfall patterns, frequent droughts, and population growth put added stress on our water supply, farmers are looking to technology for new ways to reduce, manage, and reuse fresh water.

Water on Earth is a closed system.

There is the same amount of water on our Earth today as there was two billion years ago, but it may be in a different form. Water on earth is recycled daily through evaporation, condensation (clouds), precipitation (rain, snow, or hail), filtration down through the earth, and surface run-off. Consider this: When you drink a glass of water you could be drinking the same H20 molecule that your Grandmother met when she got caught in the rain 50 years ago! That same H20 molecule may have also met the dinosaurs 200 million years ago or, more recently, George Washington in 1789!

Farming requires a lot of water

Growing crops and raising animals requires a lot of water. Worldwide farming activities account for approximately 70% of freshwater withdrawals. Farming in the mid-west, for example, requires millions of gallons of water to keep crops and livestock healthy and happy. These farms utilize rainwater as well as underground aquifers. After this water gets used on the farm, it can take a lifetime to make its way back into an aquifer. In addition to recharging groundwater, water can also run off into streams and/or rivers and end up in the ocean. It may also be evaporated! Water is rarely used in the same way more than once.

The areal and vertical location of the major aquifers is fundamental to the determination of groundwater availability for the Nation. An aquifer is a geologic formation, a group of formations, or a part of a formation that contains sufficient saturated permeable material to yield significant quantities of water to wells and springs. Source: USGS Aquifer Map

Farmers want to conserve water

Technology experts have been working for decades to create innovative technology to help farms save water. Most farmers are very motivated to use water efficiently, and many rely on water-saving techniques in their conservation efforts. (Additionally, as we discussed in our previous post, they must also address soil health to ensure optimal water and nutrient retention.)

There are various ways that technology can be used to conserve water – let’s explore some of the available approaches…

  1. The biotech approach begins with engineering seeds and crops that can grow with less water and have drought resistant properties.
  2. The computer-related approach includes aerial imaging, sensor networks, data analytics, and social networking. These systems are helping farmers optimize their water inputs, create smarter irrigation systems, and communicate with each other on water-saving techniques.
  3. Advancements in filtration and membrane technologies have made it more cost-effective for farmers to conserve water.
  4. Absorbent soil additives can increase the amount of water the soil can retain and release throughout the growing season.

Seeds of solution

If you are an environmentalist, then drought-resistant genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are the answer to your water concerns. Seed producers are using biotechnology to create seeds that can grow a water-efficient, drought-resistant crop. Breakthroughs in seed technology can help farmers around the world growing in different climates optimize water use.

Digital tools

One of the primary water-related issues farmers face is: where to put the water— as some parts of their field often need it more than others.

Drones help farmers perfect irrigation techniques.  Image source

Thanks to computer-related technologies (aerial imaging, sensor networks, data analytics, and social networking), farmers can now determine where the drier part of their field is located. The goal of agricultural aerial imaging, sensor networks, and digital tools (such as data analytics) is to perfect irrigation techniques.

When the sensors detect low soil moisture in a specific area or crop, the control network will turn on the computer-automated irrigation system and turn it off when an optimal amount of water is delivered to that zone.

A single field can differ in slope, land elevation, exposure to the sun, and/or contain various soil types (i.e., mineral and clay content, sandiness, etc.), all of which affect the amount of water needed to grow crops. The development of these computer-related technologies is to allow farmers to more precisely deliver water to meet crop needs on a real-time basis.

In a previous article, D2D described how the use of aerial imaging captured by drones, satellites, and aircraft has been “taking off” in the farming industry.

Large farms today can synthesis data from the fields, the animals, the machines and the barns to run more efficiently.

Normally, growers manually evaluate their soil moisture, crop health, and potential yields on foot or by tractor, but aircraft or drones can quickly fly over their field or satellites can produce a bird’s eye view of the field generating more accurate data often at an accelerated pace. The data produced by the satellite or aircraft imagery can be directly downloaded to a farmer’s smartphone or tablet allowing the farmer to adjust their field management accordingly.

There are many drone companies offering imaging services. Searching the internet for aerial crop imaging companies brings up dozens of entries. However, many of these companies provide only images without any analytics or “actionable intelligence” to make sense of what is shown. DroneDeploy and Agribotix are two startups that offer both imaging services and analytic software platforms where farmers can analyze images taken from their personal drones. Another imaging-as-a-Service company, CeresImaging, captures high-resolution images at specific wavelengths by flying close to the ground. Using various image processing techniques, they generate highly accurate data on every plant in the field then use biological and mathematical modeling to correlate this data to the plant’s physical properties.

Sensing the Earth

Similar to aerial imaging, wireless sensor networks create a smarter irrigation system that allows farmers to customize irrigation to a field’s unique needs. The sensors are placed around a field and continually report various soil measurements, including moisture levels, directly to a computer, tablet, or cell phone. The farmer can then take that information and act on it. More advanced sensor systems have control networks installed in a field’s irrigation system.

CropX, a company with offices in Tel Aviv and San Francisco uses publicly available data to generate algorithms for a particular piece of land. After formulating the algorithm, they use data from sensors strategically located within a field to generate detailed information about how much water is needed as well as where and when it is needed. Raptormaps is another company that combines sensor technology with analytics to provide farmers with information to optimize crop inputs and to make decisions based on field and crop conditions.

Additionally, pressure and acoustic sensors wirelessly connected to a cloud-based monitoring system can be attached to a field’s irrigation pipes and groundwater sources. Using sound waves, the sensors can detect and pinpoint leaks in irrigation pipes below the ground, as well as accurately measure a farmer’s groundwater storage. Ag data analytics use the massive amount of information from imaging and/or sensor networks to assess and predict field conditions.

Farmers utilize social media to communicate with one another

Computer use and access to the internet have not only given farmers tools to more precisely irrigate their crops but have also provided a forum to communicate with other farmers about farming issues such as water-conversation. Social networking and mass text messaging have been successfully used in other industries for communication but is now also starting to be used more widely in agriculture.

Studies show that farmers rely on their social network as a primary information source. Farmer-specific social networking platforms are attempting to leverage this natural tendency by encouraging farmers to share their questions and knowledge with others in the industry on issues including water use, irrigation tools, and weather information.

Water re-use and membrane filtration

This approach shifts from water management and conservation techniques to water reuse. Water purification and desalination (a process that removes salt and minerals from water) has been around for decades and is used in mostly arid countries around the world. Israel is a major proponent of water reuse — reusing about 80% of its municipal wastewater for irrigation. Israel not only reuses grey water from sinks and showers but also uses black water – better known as sewage. Following the Israelis lead in water reuse is Spain at 17%, followed by Australia at 10% and the U.S. at less than 1%.

In addition to water reuse, desalination provides another major water source for Israel. Breakthroughs in membrane technology have lowered the cost of desalination technology significantly.

The World Bank reported advances in membrane filtration have lowered the cost from $1 per cubic meter to 50 cents per cubic meter in less than five years, making seawater desalination considerably more affordable water source option.

Graphene membranes can be used for water filtration, gas separation and desalination projects.

There are a few startup companies working on membrane technology. Most startups or academics that develop promising technologies typically sell it to large companies such as LG ChemAquaTechKoch Membrane Systems, Inc.Evoqua Water TechnologiesMarlo, Incorporated, and The Dow Chemical Company are already heavily invested in the water utility markets.

The most popular membrane technology is reverse osmosis – a process that uses a semipermeable membrane to remove ions, molecules, and larger particles (salts) from drinking water. Historically, the reverse osmosis process used a lot of energy, but newer membrane technologies (e.g., nanomaterials and graphene-oxide membranes) and solar powered electrodialysis are able to filter seawater using significantly less energy (although some of these technologies have obstacles to overcome before becoming commercially available).

Soil sponges

One of the most unconventional, exciting and innovative approaches is to add a biodegradable sponge in the soil. These super absorbent polymers that farmers can put in their soil ahead of planting are slowly gaining popularity.

The size of a grain of sand, a polymer particle can soak up to 250 times its weight in water. Absorbing the excess water left behind from crop irrigation, the polymer then slowly releases the water back into the soil as it dries out. Developed at Stanford University, one such polymer is said to help farmers reduce water use by 20 percent and cut water bills by 15 percent. Environmentally, the polymer lasts about a year before it starts to break down without leaving any by-products behind.

Soil: It is much more than Dirt

soil and crops

Many of us don’t give it a second look, but without soil (note: we won’t call it dirt) life on Earth simply would not exist! 95% of our food is directly or indirectly dependent on soil. You wouldn’t be eating very well without it! The soil is an essential ingredient to healthy food and nutrition and is responsible for the ripe fruit you eat at breakfast, the crisp lettuce used in your salad for lunch, and the chicken you prepare for dinner. Thank you, soil!

Soil also supports the foundation for our homes, it helps grow the fibers that make up our clothes, provides the fossil fuels that keep our engines running, acts as a purifier for our water and air and helps control both erosion and flooding. Soil provides habitat for essential organisms and has a big impact on climate stability. (Read more about this in our post, Out of the Air and Into the Soil).

Soils deliver ecosystem services that enable life on earth (FAO)

Soil health is a paramount concern around the world

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO): 33% of the world’s soil is moderate to highly degraded due to erosion, drought, loss of soil organic carbon, loss of biodiversity, destruction of ecosystems, habitat destruction, and pollution.

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that half of the topsoil on Earth has been lost over the past 150 years.

This is a huge problem! Soil is a finite resource, which means its loss and degradation is not recoverable within the average human lifespan. This is critically important because it threatens our ability to provide food for a growing population and jeopardizes the quality of our environment.

Global status of human degradation of soils. FAO

The Dust Bowl in the 1930s.  Severe drought and wind whipped up the topsoil in the Great Plains, which had been heavily tilled for the previous decade. Image source

The good news is that there is a worldwide effort amongst government agenciesNGOs, and food and agricultural companies to provide education, research, and funding to farmers, ranchers, and landowners to help improve, manage, and sustain healthy soils.

For too long, we have cared too much about what the soil can do for us, and each year it grows a little more tired, depleted, susceptible to pests, disease and water shortages, and we are all responsible. “It is up to us, farmers, ranchers, soil scientists, legislator, and consumers, to invest in our soil once again.
Soil Health Institute

What is healthy soil?

Do you grow your own veggies? If yes, you know that they grow better and have fewer pests and diseases if they are grown in a soil that is rich in organic matter. Adding composted kitchen scraps, well-rotted manure or bags of purchased compost to the soil supports the beneficial biota living in the soil.

Examing soil: The presence of earthworms is a good sign of soil health!

These billions of beneficial organisms–bacteria, algae, fungi, protozoa, nematodes, earthworms, and beetles — feed, digest and decompose the organic matter and in turn improve soil tilth, texture, aeration, drainage, and nutritional content.

The soil food web is composed of billions of organisms that decompose organic materials, cycle nutrients, and improve soil structure. (USDA NRCS)

A single gram of healthy soil contains millions of organisms, most of which we cannot see with the naked eye or have even discovered. (Photo: FAO) Test your knowledge of soil!  Click on the image.

“Making” healthy soil…

By increasing the organic matter in your soil, you can improve its long-term health and performance. Similar to how you can drink and eat pre and probiotics improve your gut health, farmers incorporate organic matter such as crop residues, animal manure, compost, cover crops, and perennial grasses, and legumes to feed the microbial community in the soil. These practices are the basic principles that underpin conservation agriculture.

Researchers agree that soil health improves through diversified crop rotations, minimal soil disturbance (no-till and reduced tillage), and the use of cover crops. These practices are the basic principles that underpin conservation agriculture. As a result, farmers are sequestering more carbon, increasing water infiltration, improving wildlife and pollinator habitat—all while harvesting better profits and often better yields.

Crazy for Kombucha

kombucha on a grocery shelf

Referred to as the “elixir of life”, Kombucha is one of the most desired beverages on the health-food market right now. “Brewers” of this tea tonic boast a laundry list of benefits from the carbonated drink. Some of the most noteworthy claims include aid in digestion, detoxification, cancer prevention, and enhanced liver functioning. Furthermore, a few of our D2D readers are convinced that it keeps them healthy during the cold and flu season, too. But are any of these claims credible?

Kombucha has been brewed since 200 B.C. According to a review on the microbiology of kombucha, the fourth imperial Dynasty of China (Tsin Dynasty) first used kombucha for its detoxifying properties. It then expanded to Japan where, in 440 A.D., it was recorded that kombucha was used to treat digestive problems.

What exactly is kombucha, and how is it made?

Before it is fermented to its probiotic goodness, kombucha begins with a base of green and/or black tea. Sugar is then added to the brewed tea, as well as white vinegar or previously-made kombucha, for an acidic base. Brewing kombucha also requires a SCOBY, short for “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast”.

According to Cultures for Health, “not all kombucha SCOBYs contain the exact same strains of bacteria and yeast, but they generally all act in a similar way to create kombucha tea. One thing all kombucha SCOBYs have in common is that they are a self-perpetuating culture. This means the SCOBY multiplies itself through the process of creating kombucha.

After adding all the ingredients together, the mixture is typically fermented for 10-14 days. During the fermenting period, the SCOBY multiplies itself, creating more available good bacteria.

SCOBY, which is probably the most important part of the kombucha brewing process, resembles a mushroom cap and has a jelly-like consistency. Luckily, as a consumer, we do not have to drink or see this unappetizing blob!

During this fermentation process, an additional SCOBY can be created from the original. The colonies of bacteria, enzymes, and tea yeast are technically “alive”— the sugar that was added to the tea mixture is actually fuel for these colonies. The second SCOBY can be used for future kombucha batches.  This allows for the probiotic content of the kombucha to grow.

We know what you’re probably thinking—I’m drinking a carbonated tea fungus? It’s not as appetizing as the marketing makes it seem, huh? But, luckily this SCOBY blob may hold a lot of healthy bacteria for your gut.

Kombucha is brewed with only 4 ingredients

4 simple ingredients of Kombucha. Flavoring is extra. Image: Health-Ade

If you are a Kombucha fan or want to give it a try, don’t be afraid of the sugar used to make it. The sugar is needed to make the yeast grow and is almost completely eliminated by the time the drink is ready. The primary source of sugar present in kombucha (which is typically only 2-3 grams for an eight-ounce serving) is actually from the cold-pressed fruit juice that is used for flavor. Just keep an eye on the sugar content to make sure you’re not buying an excessively sugary flavor!

Kombucha is very high in B vitamins. The yeast from the SCOBY is high in vitamins and minerals, which contributes to the health benefits of the drink. One serving of kombucha can account for 20% of your B1, B2, B6, B3, and B12 vitamins.

Probiotics & Your Gut

The most noteworthy health components of kombucha tea are its broad spectrum of yeast species and acidic bacteria. The longer you ferment the kombucha, the higher in acetic acid it will have. (And you may recall this healthy acid is the same we discussed in our article on apple cider vinegar.)

As we learned in one or our earlier posts, “Your Second Brain: Gut Microbiota,” the research conducted for probiotics is very promising, however, it is impossible to say for certain that taking probiotics will undoubtedly help an individuals’ gut health. We do know that bacteria can influence your health and mental well-being, but the scientific community is still a ways away from recommending a specific combination. Even if they could, because of everyone’s unique microbiota combination, what can help one person may not help another. (Remember, 2/3rds of your gut bacteria is unique specifically to you.)

Additionally, if you consume probiotics daily, you want to be sure you feed these probiotics with prebiotics. For probiotics to help your gut at their full potential, they need to eat! Probiotic bacteria actually live in your gut and must be fed to help your digestion!

Prebiotics are found in many different veggies and plant-based foods. Foods with a high prebiotic content include garlic, onions, leeks, asparagus, bananas, and yams. So, if you are drinking kombucha for your daily probiotics, be sure to eat these plant-based foods regularly to ensure that your probiotics are being fed properly!

While kombucha is a good source of probiotics, there are many other ways to get a sufficient serving of probiotics. (And kombucha is expensive!) Yogurt, kefir, apple cider vinegar, and fermented foods like pickles and sauerkraut, are all strong sources of probiotics. Additionally, according to WebMD, there isn’t enough scientific research to determine what the appropriate serving, or dosage of kombucha at this time. But, keep in mind your average kombucha purchase will provide 2 servings per container, so you might want to keep it to 1 serving per day.

How about Homemade Kombucha?

We do not recommend brewing your own kombucha. Although it has been deemed “safe for human consumption” by the USDA, if you are not properly monitoring your kombucha fermentation, bad bacteria can grow, as well. Some studies have shown toxic levels of lead are present in improperly-made kombucha. For these reasons, we recommend doing your research and buying a brand you trust.

What does the research say about Kombucha?

According to a 2014 review, A Review on Kombucha—Microbiology, Composition, Fermentation, Beneficial Effects, Toxicity, and Tea Fungus, “there has been no evidence published to date on the biological activities of kombucha in human trials.” (Jayabalan et. al. 2014). However, there has been promising research performed in experimental models, like lab mice.

The acid content of kombucha tea has demonstrated antimicrobial properties against certain pathogens. This means that drinking kombucha could help protect you against the growth of bad bacteria, like Salmonella, E. coli, and other dangerous strands. The antibiotic activity of kombucha is caused by the acetic acid, which is a product of the fermentation of the beverage. (Jayabalan et. al. 2014).

Kombucha has also been studied for its antioxidant capacity. A 2008 study reported that kombucha demonstrated “excellent antioxidant abilities.” Because of the fermentation of bacteria and yeast, kombucha demonstrated free radical scavenging abilities. These antioxidant properties are attributed to the polyphenols in tea.

As we have previously discussed in “The Lowdown on Antioxidants,” antioxidants (like polyphenols) help stabilize free radicals. And while the ability for antioxidants to stabilize free radicals has yet to be proven in complex systems, like the human body, research on kombucha in experimental models has demonstrated positive antioxidant activities.

It was also proven that an increased fermentation time of the tea allows for higher antioxidant capacity. However, when taking these findings into consideration, if a brewer increases the fermentation time by too much, it can cause harmful levels of bacteria to grow in the beverage.

Should kombucha be pasteurized like other ‘raw’ products?

We spoke with a nutritionist who suggested that if you are drinking pasteurized kombucha, you are missing the benefit of good bacteria. Unlike dairy, kombucha is brewed in small batches and monitored carefully, if you are purchasing from the right companies. If you kill off the majority of good bacteria, there really isn’t a point to drink kombucha. However, with raw kombucha, you do run the risk of getting some bad bacteria, but you can hedge yourself if you buy it from a manufacturer that you trust and has a good safety reputation. We like brewers like Health-Ade, which brews all their kombucha in small, manageable batches.