By Revital Aranbaev
Kombucha is a fermented tea that has gained lots of popularity and a substantial following in recent years. Many people drink for its assumed medicinal benefits; it is most commonly known for boosting the body’s immune system. Some say the drink can work miracles with benefits including curing baldness, detoxifying the body, repairing joints, curing cancer, reducing blood pressure and prolonging life.
It is said that kombucha originated in ancient China and was used as a health tonic for thousands of years, but various forms of fermented tea exist in other countries as well. Since the 19th century, fermented tea was used in Russia; they referred to it as "tea kvass."
Kombucha is a SCOBY – symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeasts.It is a fermented drink made with tea (usually green or black), sugar, bacteria and yeast. Even though it's often referred to as kombucha mushroom tea, kombucha is not a mushroom; it's a colony of bacteria and yeast. The natural, vegan beverage contains organic acids, B vitamins, amino acids, polyphenols, enzymes, probiotics and traces of ethyl alcohol, depending on brewing time and conditions.[i]
In order to make kombucha, brewers rely on what’s called a starter – a bit of already fermented tea- referred to as “the mother.” Once the mother is added to sweetened tea and allowed to sit in a glass jar unrefrigerated for 7-14 days, a colony of bacteria and yeast grows above the surface. This “mother” will expand and split into smaller pieces termed “babies,” which brewers can give to friends or sell. [ii]
Though Kombucha has had a rise in the last few years it is the second wave of its popularity. The first wave was in the early 1990s when it was thought to boost immunity in people with HIV/AIDS. At that time it wasn’t as readily available.
In 1995, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued a report linking kombucha to the death of a woman and the illness of another woman. Both women experienced excessive acid buildup in the body that health professionals correlated to their daily dose of kombucha. The center did not definitively cite the tea as the culprit but the incident made people hesitant to make kombucha a part of their daily lives.
In 2003-2004 the slightly fizzy, sour & sweet drink- Kombucha made its return. At that time Whole Foods began distributing the tea nationally. In 2009, kombucha and other “functional” juices in the United States topped $295 million that year, according to SPINS Inc., a market researcher.
Kombucha’s popularity was growing as a part of a larger trend in “probiotic” foods containing bacteria, which some studies suggest benefit digestion and boost the immune system.
In an interview by the Pittsburgh Post Gazette in 2007, commercial kombucha brewer G.T. Dave, credited kombucha for possibly slowing the spread of an aggressive form of breast cancer that his mother dealt with and for keeping up her strength and spirit during chemotherapy.[iii] The experience sparked her teenage son's interest and later his business.
Research has shown that kombucha may have anti-microbial effects against harmful bacteria like E. coli. A Serbian study published in 2007 looked into combining Kombucha with other herbs. The study demonstrated that lemon balm kombucha showed strong antimicrobial effects against E. coli and Salmonella bacteria and it inhibited the growth of Staphylococcus aureus.kombucha made from lemon balm tea had higher antioxidant activity than lemon balm tea alone, probably due to vitamins added by the fermentation process.[iv]
Promoters of kombucha also claim it protects the liver from damage. An Indian study done on animals in 2009, gave carbon tetrachloride to induce liver damage and then assessed the impact of kombucha tea along with black tea and enzyme-processed tea. Researchers found that kombucha tea had more protective effects than the other two teas.[v]
Kombucha “has prophylactic and therapeutic properties” including antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal effects, according to a study destined for the June 2012 issue of Swiss Society of Food Science and Technology. Its authors state that kombucha “may be very healthful” in combating yeast infections, thrush, and other forms of candidiasis.[vi]
Unfortunately there aren’t too many studies that help asses all of the benefits that people connect to drinking Kombucha. Scientific evidence on kombucha’s benefits is just in the preliminary stages but there are numerous individual testimonials from people who drink kombucha reporting benefits like enhanced wellbeing, increased energy and weight loss and many other benefits.
Some medical professionals, however, think the drink is dangerous.Dr. Michael Gregor, a physician, author, and internationally recognized speaker,
lactic acidosis (the build-up of lactic acid). According to Dr. Weil’s article, physicians at Cedars-Sinai Hospital in Los Angeles reported a life-threatening case of lactic acidosis and acute kidney failure in a 22-year-old man newly diagnosed with HIV within a few hours of his consuming kombucha tea. This happened in 2009. Dr. Weil specifically warns pregnant women, nursing mothers, the elderly, children and anyone with a compromised immune system against consuming it.
Dr. Weil is concerned with the possibility of contamination in home-brewed kombucha. “Some batches contain aspergillus, a toxin-producing fungus. This would be a significant risk for individuals with compromised immune systems, such as those with AIDS or in chemotherapy for cancer. There have been reports in the medical literature of adverse reactions, including nausea, vomiting and headaches, in people drinking more than four ounces of kombucha tea daily.”[vii]
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration also noted that the potential for contamination of kombucha tea is high because the teas are often brewed in homes in non-sterile environments. Plus if kombucha tea is brewed in ceramic pots, the acids in the tea may pull lead from the ceramic material which would lead to lead poisoning.[viii]
Dr. Weil says that he knows of no health benefits from Kombucha. He also adds that kombucha has become extremely popular, in part due to photos of celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan and Halle Berry carrying bottles of the beverage and in part by promotion of the idea that it's a healthy drink.
Lastly, the American Cancer Society states that available scientific evidence does not support any claims that Kombucha tea can promote good health or prevent the development of certain ailments. The scientific studies that involve Kombucha tea are based on lab reports and animal findings, and reported benefits are based on personal reports.[ix]
It seems as if the arguments both ways could benefit from more substantial evidence and studies. Do you drink Kombucha tea? Please post your comments.