Gut health is essential for your overall wellbeing. Science tells us the goal, not just for digestive health but our overall physical and mental health, is an abundant and diverse microbiome – a gut filled with a large number and variety of “friendly bacteria”.
How best to achieve it? “Avoid processed and sugary foods and eat a diverse, whole-food diet, rich in plant foods to feed those microbes,” says Tim Spector, professor of genetic epidemiology at King’s College London and author of The Diet Myth: The Real Science Behind What We Eat (W&N, £8.99).
Another helpful tactic? Drink fermented drinks, which deliver live bacteria (probiotics) to the gut. And thankfully the market is booming with them, making products like kefir, kombucha and other bacterial brews increasingly available and particularly tasty.
We’ve reviewed the most impressive beverages, assessing each for flavour, natural ingredients and price.
While it might be tempting to look at the amount and variety of bacteria each claim to contain, Professor Spector stresses this isn’t always key. “Just look for billions rather than millions of colony-forming units (CFUs) on the label, to maximise the amount that makes it to the gut,” he suggests.
“Everyone’s microbiome is unique, like a fingerprint, so we can’t yet promise that certain strains will boost yours. The best advice is to mix up the drinks you have, for maximum diversity. Fermented products do their work as they pass through you, so have little and often rather than occasional binges.”
Kombucha is created when green tea and sugar are fermented using a Scoby (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). The resulting drink is fizzy, very slightly alcoholic (usually under 0.5 per cent) and while some of the sugar remains, most is consumed by the bacteria, which can be visible in the drinks as stringy “bits” – perfectly safe and, indeed, desirable to consume.
Most products have between 2g and 4g sugar per 100ml, compared to more than 10g for juice or cola. They will also contain caffeine.
Kombucha Kat Original: £9.49 for 250ml, Amazon
Because kombucha has a naturally vinegary taste, many brands add fruit for a second round of fermentation and a sweeter end result. Kombucha Kat does offer flavoured varieties (currently Blueberry and Ginger), but we think it’s nailed it when it comes to the Original.
Unpasteurised, certified vegan and organic, it has a beautifully crisp, subtle tang with a hint of apple and a mild fizz. It would appeal as a functional health elixir, grownup alcohol-free tipple or simply a refreshing soft drink.
The brewers have recently switched from hand bottling to aluminium cans to keep up with demand and offer a better price point and increased sustainability. Still a small, Oxfordshire-based company founded in 2016, it’s set for big things.
No1 Kombucha Passionfruit and Goji, £1.50 for 275ml, Sainsburys
The latest brand of “booch” to hit the shelves was developed by former rugby star Jonny Wilkinson, who brewed his own at home (although presumably now doesn’t have to).
While currently exclusive to Sainsburys, the brand’s aim is to be the “tastiest and most accessible kombucha on the market”.
Each of the three varieties comes in at under 50 calories and is unpasteurised, antioxidant-rich and vegan but not, we noted, organic.
Passionfruit and Goji was the standout flavour and the brand as a whole seems to be fizzier than most, so a good substitute for fizzy drinks.
Captain Kombucha Ginger Lemon, £2.99 for 400ml, Holland & Barrett
Apparently the A-list favourite, this organic, vegan Portuguese brand has supposedly found fans in Madonna, Gwyneth Paltrow and Justin Bieber.
We found some of the flavours odd and the plastic bottle wasn’t appealing.
However, the Ginger Lemon variety had a refreshing zing and strong, ginger-beer like kick – a good choice, perhaps, if you’re missing the hit of alcohol, or to complement a spicy meal.
Equinox Raspberry & Elderflower Kombucha, £1.80 for 275ml, Waitrose & Partners
Launched in 2012 and based in Yorkshire, Equinox is one of the largest kombucha brewers in the UK and winner of two Great Taste awards.
You may well recognise the colourful logo and equally colourful kombuchas, which are available in five flavours including Raspberry & Elderflower.
Despite a fairly strong taste with distinctly more vinegar than some other brands, this was a favourite with our child testers, who were happy to quaff it in place of less-healthy options.
You can smell the raspberry and taste its tartness while the elderflower adds a subtle sweetness.
It was also the most competitively priced drink in our test.
Kefir is usually made by adding live kefir grains to milk (although non-dairy milk or water versions exist), and allowing them to ferment. The result is a tart, fresh, slightly effervescent, thick milk that tastes like a stronger version of natural yoghurt – and can contain up to 10 times the number of bacterial strains.
Bio-tiful Baked Milk Kefir: £1.99 for 250ml, Planet Organic
Bio-tiful Dairy is the UK’s biggest kefir brand and each bottle contains more than 40 strains of bacteria.
While it comes in six natural flavours, Baked is our top choice as an entry-level kefir for those getting used to the sour taste. As the name suggests, the milk is baked before fermentation, giving it a mellow, sweeter taste.
There are no added sugars and, as with all kefirs, most of the lactose is consumed during the fermentation process.
Drink it on its own, add to smoothies or use it anywhere in place of yoghurt or cream (good in soups and salad dressings).
Chuckling Goat Live Kefir: from £39.95 for a three-week supply (4 x 900ml), chucklinggoat.co.uk
If you’re serious about reaping the health benefits of kefir, place an order with the Chuckling Goat.
This goat’s milk kefir is described by the makers as a medicinal product and comes with clear instructions on building up your dose gradually (from a tablespoon to 170ml daily) to get your body used to the powerful range of bacteria therein.
It’s live and unpasteurised, and continues to ferment in the bottle, producing more and more cultures, so open with extreme care! Using goat’s milk rather than cow’s is thought to be easier on digestion.
Chuckling Goat came about when Welsh goat farmer Shann Nix Jones reportedly cured her husband of a near-fatal bout of MRSA by applying her goat’s kefir to his wounds.
She’s since found beneficial effects when used externally on inflammatory skin conditions like acne, eczema, psoriasis and rosacea, as well as internally for IBS, depression and anxiety – and they’re all backed up with plenty of anecdotal and scientific evidence.
A three-week course is recommended and it’s not long before the “fizzy feta” flavour is the highlight of your morning (if not, blend it into a smoothie with some fruit).
The Collective Mango ’n’ Turmeric Kefir: £2.50 for 500ml, Ocado
Known for its luxury yoghurt range, New Zealand company The Collective has expanded to include kefir drinks, boasting 13 bacteria strains and 60 billion cultures.
Available in three flavours as well as natural, we were most impressed by the Mango ’n’ Turmeric. If you’re not used to the sour taste of kefir, the mango perfectly masks it and the anti-inflammatory turmeric isn’t overpowering. A delicious, moreish smoothie that would have the fussiest of kids thinking of this low-sugar, gut-healthy drink as a treat.
It works well poured over fruit or cereal, too. Plus, it’s a good source of vitamin B2 and B12, calcium and protein.
WOW Good Bacteria, Orange & Mango: £1.60 for 250ml, Drink WOW
This is water with a small amount of cold-pressed juices added for flavour, along with a single strain (Bacillus coagulans, as it happens) of 1 billion bacteria. So while it’s lower in bacteria and less diverse than something fermented, it’s arguably a healthier, much lower-calorie drink to grab on the run than a soft drink with added sugar.
If you’re not keen on the vinegary or sour tang of kombucha and kefir – or pure water – give this a try. This is one for all the family as it tastes, essentially, like squash.
It comes in two flavours, but Orange & Mango tickled our tastebuds the most.
Viva La Vinegar! Strawberry, Basil and Black Pepper: £2.79 for 250ml, soupologie.com
Drinking vinegars might not sound instantly appealing, but bear with us. Marketed as “excitingly different drinks”, these will take you by surprise – each flavour is sublime.
They’re made with apple cider vinegar, known to aid digestion; coconut vinegar; 1 billion live cultures; and natural fruit and vegetable flavours – and are very low calorie (from 17 to 32kcal). The unusual combination of Strawberry, Basil and Black Pepper really got our mouths tingling.
If you were feeling less virtuous, it would make an excellent cocktail mixer, too.
Not the cheapest drink on our list, but one of the best.
Los Bros Organic Cola Kombucha: £2.39 for 330ml, happykombucha.co.uk
Could this be a healthy cola?
Los Bros is a new, Australian brand of “living sodas” and its UK branch has been taken over by the company formerly known as Love Kombucha, which brews in small batches in Berkshire.
The packaging is bright and retro and the range of flavours enticing. Not a pure booch, this cola is a blend of kombucha, raw apple cider vinegar and botanical spices and citrus extracts.
It tastes like old fashioned cola-bottle sweets, without that cloying sensation you get from classic cola (or the metallic aftertaste of a diet version).
It would look equally at home at a kids’ party or in a hipster bar.
The Verdict: Best gut-healthy drinks
For its crisp, clean taste, Kombucha Kat takes the IndyBest crown. This brand has gone from homebrew to national level in just a couple of years but still retains its eco, artisan philosophy.
Chuckling Goat kefir may be more expensive than supermarket brands, but it’s in a different league and worthwhile investment for your digestive, skin and overall health – after three weeks we’re feeling great.
And for sheer originality, a special mention goes to Viva La Vinegar!, for combining the strangest of ingredients to produce a deliciously addictive, gut-friendly tipple.
Hannah Ebelthite is co-author of bestselling gut-health book ‘The G Plan Diet’ (Aster, £12.99)