Kombucha: An Old Drink Making New Claims


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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