Kombucha: An Old Drink Making New Claims

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I stumbled upon a new drink recently in my local supermarket — the bottles were in a refrigerated case next to a colorful array of super juices and fortified teas.

The name was Kombucha.  I didn’t really know about it before, but I sure do now.

I picked up a bottle of GT’s Organic Raw Kombucha and put it in my cart to try at home.  I couldn’t believe what was written on the label.  It appeared to be a miracle elixir — capable of curing practically everything, including cancer.

It looks like Kombucha Tea may be the next big thing, the new “super food.”   Besides GT’s, other brands include Kombucha Wonder Drink and Carpe Diem Kombucha Tea.kombucha_book But expect to see even more companies jump on the Kombucha bandwagon.  In fact, I recently received a press release announcing that Kombucha Brooklyn won the “Next Big Small Brand Contest for Culinary Genius” created by a New York branding agency.

So what is Kombucha tea?  This is an ancient Chinese drink that has been worshiped for 2,000 years for its purported medicinal properties.  It also became popular in Russia , Ukraine and Germany in the 19th century.  Kombucha (pronounced Kom-BOO-cha) is made by fermenting sweetened black tea with a flat, pancake-like culture of yeasts and bacteria known as the Kombucha mushroom. It’s not actually a mushroom but is called one because of the shape and color of the sac that forms on top of the tea after it ferments.  Learn more at Wikipedia.

Also known as Manchurian tea, Manchu fungus, tea fungus, Kargasok tea and Tea Kvass, Kombucha has only recently become available in mainstream markets.  There’s also a growing movement of people who make their own Kombucha, as you can see on these Web Sites  Kombucha America and  Get Kombucha, and in this slightly funny and horrifying YouTube video.

Kombucha tea is promoted as cure-all for a wide variety of conditions, including cancer, AIDS, multiple sclerosis, arthritis and intestinal disorders.  Supports believe the fermented tea can boost the immune system, detoxify the body, repair and balance the body, and reverse the aging process.  It’s touted as a “living food” with yeasts, probiotic bacteria, active enzymes, organic acids, antioxidants and polyphenols. Some bloggers, including Food Renegade, have gotten on board and are singing the praises of Kombucha.  But the American Cancer Society and Mayo Clinic suggest we should be a bit more skeptical of the claims.  Iin fact, they both warn against the use of Kombucha, especially the homemade brew.  According to the American Cancer Society…

No human studies have been published in the available scientific literature that support any of the health claims made for Kombucha tea.  There have, however, been reports of serious complications associated with the tea.  In April 1995, two women who had been drinking the tea daily for 2 months were hospitalized with severe acidosis — an abnormal increase of acid levels in body fluids.  Both had high levels of lactic acid upon hospitalization.  One woman died of cardiac arrest 2 days after admission.  The second woman’s heart also stopped, but she was stabilized and was able to recover.  The mushrooms used by both women came from the same “parent” mushroom.  While no direct link to Kombucha tea was proven in this case, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has warned consumers to use caution when making and drinking the tea.

The FDA investigation concluded:  “Drinking this tea in quantities typically consumed (about 4 oz daily) may not cause adverse effects in healthy persons; however, the potential health risks are unknown for those with preexisting health problems or those who drink excessive quantities of the tea.”

More advice from the American Cancer Society…

Since cultures and preparation methods vary, Kombucha tea may contain contaminants such as molds and fungi, some of which can cause illness.  After the tea is fermented, it is usually highly acidic and contains alcohol, ethyl acetate, acetic acid and lactate. Deaths have been linked with the tea.  Drinking excessive amounts of the tea is not recommended.  Several experts warn that since home-brewing facilities vary signficantly, the tea could become contaminated with harmful germs, which could be especially dangerous to people with HIV, cancer or other immune problems.  Allergic reactions, possibly to molds in the tea, have been reported, as have anthrax of the skin and jaundice.

Kombucha tea should not be brewed in ceramic, lead crystal or painted containers, as the acidity of the tea can cause it to absorb harmful elements from its container.  Lead poisoning has been reported in at least two people who brewed Kombucha tea in a ceramic pot.

Since the potential health risks of Kombucha tea are unknown, anyone with an immune deficiency or any other medical condition should consult a physician before drinking the tea.  Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding should not use this tea.  Relying on this type of treatment alone and avoiding or delaying conventional medical care for cancer may have serious health consequences.

So this drink may not be all that it appears…and it may not even be safe.  Even so, expect to hear a lot more about Kombucha in the months to come.  I can tell you one thing for sure, it’s not a beverage I’ll be sipping over ice in the afternoon.  I couldn’t get past the “floaties” in the bottle and the strange vinegar-like taste.  No Kombucha for me, please.

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  • http://www.NutritionCare.netq Judy Converse MPH RD LD

    What’s the hullabaloo? Fungal DNA is in some vaccines you give your child, and you are worried about drinking a little of it? This sounds like the FDA making a mountain out of a molehill – when the real mountain they ought to tackle is bio-active plastics leaching into food, GMO crops showing changes in liver and kidney tissue in research with rats, and the mess we have with vaccine safety. I personally don’t like the taste of this stuff, have tried to like it, but found it only gave me a stomachache. But – let’s get our priorities straight here. A little Kombucha isn’t going to do any harm.

  • http://the50besthealthblogs.blogspot.com/ Jim Purdy

    I think I’ll just wait until next week, when there’ll be another new “super-food” touted in infomercials, and supermarket checkout tabloids.

    Until then, I’ll stick with my old favorite salads and soups.

    The 50 Best Health Blogs

  • http://nutritionnibbles.blogspot.com Sybil

    Thanks for this post, Janet. A few months ago, I saw these bottles and, out of curiosity, bought one. I did some research when I got home and found pretty much what you did…
    So… I didn’t drink it.
    Not for me, either!

  • http://www.dietcoachrd.com Aileen Birkitt, RD, Nutrition 4 You, LLC

    Thanks so much for this info- I will surely pass your information on to clients. Very informative. We have to be so skeptical of all these “nutritional” drinks and supplements.

  • Ross Kennedy

    Is that Instructables video meant as sarcasm, or may he be one who really doesn’t care about food safety?

  • http://www.antioxidants-for-health-and-longevity.c stan

    The American Cancer Society is not in the business of improving the health of the public. Their mission is to protect the profits of the lucrative cancer industry that provides them with funding. They’re always going to steer you away from anything that might prevent cancer – that would be bad for business. I wouldn’t trust anything they say; they have a major conflict of interest.

  • Katya Baxter

    We used to make our own Kombucha (called Gripp in Russian) back in Russia and drank some almost daily. Although it wasn’t officially labeled ‘superfood’, it was a common understanding that the drink was beneficial for digestion. In fact, my mother who now lives in the US still brews it and drinks it every day – it does wonders to her stomach…. Yes, if not handled properly, it may have harmful effects (as is the case with ANY food). Also, if you are not used to anything like it, it may give you trouble – after all, it IS a form of fungus. But the truth is, the drink has been around for centuries and to say that it should not be consumed because of the lacking research is simply not right. By the same token, just because it is emerging to be the ‘next popular superfood’, it doesn’t mean that we need to go out and buy a case of it expecting that it will cure all diseases. Using common sense when it comes to buying something heavily advertised, finding unbiased research results, checking out some history and traditional uses, and listening to the body would be my approach to introducing something like Kombucha into my diet.

  • Cindy Kipp

    I had crazy reaction to this stuff last night. It’s why I’m online this morning to figure out what happened. I’m finding that many people who have commented online drink Kombucha for what I keep seeing described as “mild euphoria.” I would not characterize it as mild. Last night I drank a little less than half a bottle of GT Synergy’s Mystic Mango before I went to bed. Within 20 minutes I was feeling really lightheaded, followed by an incredible euphoric feeling. I found the dizziness really pronounced and the euphoric feeling had me walking around the house and looking at myself in the mirror like I was on drugs. I told my husband I felt like I had taken a hallucinogen…I’m not kidding…for about 5 minutes I was really feeling “out there.” Then I felt kind of jittery – a feeling I am not fond of. I took my blood pressure it read 156 over 87 with a pulse of 101 and this was after I was sitting down trying to get calm! In summary I would say that people who like Red Bull and other energy drinks will probably love the feeling you get from Kombucha, but if you’re like me and you don’t respond well to feeling your heart rate go up and don’t like that “out of body” feeling, don’t try it. It took about an hour before I felt calmed down and was able to go to bed. Also – I was absolutely freezing while it was going on – my hands were like ice. Today – I feel fine and don’t seem to have any after effects. Crazy stuff. I would be very interested to hear if this reaction diminishes over time if you drink it in small quantities to get its health benefits.

  • Pingback: Why You Can Ease Up On Superfoods | Nutrition Unplugged

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  • http://zymovore.blogspot.com/ Lewis Habben

    my reply is for Cindy Kipp.

    My educated guess is you were having a mild form of shock or maybe elevated enzymes(acute pancreatitis) Don’t be alarmed though, shock is your body’s immune system going into overdrive against a foreign substance, sort of like vaccines. But, obviously I’m assuming that you haven’t consumed many different types of microorganisms in your life.

    as Dr. Mercola said, 80% of your immune system is in your guts and by drinking the Kombucha your immune system is learning to not freak out, and how to deal with something so relatively strange… And yes, your immune system will learn to tolerate it over time.
    My educated opinion.

    Craphole article

  • http://zymovore.blogspot.com/ Lewis Habben

    sorry if I was harsh… What I meant to say is the alphabet soup of bureaucracies/technocrats are a bunch of liars. Anyone who would quote them at length is either paid to, unwittingly disseminating corporate propaganda, or not looking for truth.

    The alphabet circus may be experts, but they give half the truth, and the other half is corporate marketing… that is how I feel, based on what sort of food they approve.

  • Joel Gombiner

    Most of the studies that American Cancer Society cites were in fact funded by the dairy industry. Conflict of interest? Furthermore, these are anecdotal studies. A woman got sick in 1995 and now we’re writing off kombucha? Come on, give me a break!

    When you look at real laboratory studies that have been coming out in the last few years the story is completely different. Now that good scientific methods are being applied to Kombucha, the health benefits are beginning to emerge from the murk of misinformation.

    Look at my blog post where I set the record straight: http://euhedralism.blogspot.com/2011/03/kombucha-in-building.html

  • Lisa Smith

    I’ve been drinking Kombucha for about one month and a few times in the last two weeks I’ve experienced a similar reaction to the one Cindy Kipp had. I felt really wound up and shaky, my heart seemed to be racing and my breathing was rapid. I’m on hormone replacement therapy so I thought maybe it was affecting my hormone levels, such as my body was producing more estrogen so maybe I need to back off on the estrogen or something. I’ve also experienced some skin itching but I’m eating a lot more raw foods so I’m not sure if it’s the Kombucha or the change in my diet. Aside from these two things, I feel amazing! My energy level has increased and my mood and outlook has improved tremendously. I love the way I feel now and I plan to keep drinking it!

  • Andrea

    I suppose the American Cancer Society would also warn against homemade yogurt, sourdough bread or sauerkraut. These are ferments people have been making at home for hundreds or thousands of years with numerous health benefits. Just as with anything for human consumption, universal cleanliness precautions must be observed, however we are inundated with the idea that for something to be clean and healthy it must be sterile. We have virtually eliminated probiotics from the modern diet unless they come to us in prepackaged pills or plastic, commercial grade yogurt containers. Stop the paranoia!

  • Christina

    We’ve been drinking this tea since our childhood. Keep in mind we are Korean. We consume fermented foods on a regular basis.

    We use this tea to aid in digestion, improve metabolism and detoxify the body. I only have good things to say about kombucha tea. In my opinion, it is no different than consuming Bragg’s apple cider vinegar.

    Please use your common sense. If it doesn’t make you feel good then don’t drink it! And why on earth would you drink so much of something you’ve never had?

    On another note the FDA is NOT on your side! They won’t even endorse the affects of calcium tablets. Duh! Know a conspiracy when it has you by the throat!

  • zawadi

    CHRISTINA is right, If it doesn’t make you feel good then don’t drink it or if u feel you can’t leave it completely, then take just little for improve metabolism and detoxify the body.

  • Jeannie

    It takes a while for your body to get rid of toxins and become accustomed to anything healthy, including kombucha. Try 1/4 glass once a day, in the morning, progressing to full glasses after a month or so. This stuff is great for any intestinal troubles, and the immune system. I drink extra if I feel a cold coming on, and so far have managed to keep winter bugs at bay without having to reach for the vitamin c tablets or paracetemol. But remember to take it slowly, a body subjected to a lifetime of ill treatment is not going to adjust straight away to this miracle liquid.

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