Somebody in my microbiology class last semester home-brewed kombucha and gave a presentation on the process as her term project. At the time, being the nerd that I am, I’d never heard of it. Apparently, kombucha has been part of the cultural lexicon for several years now. It is not unusual for me to learn about ‘new’ products or fads long after the fact. Of course, once I heard about kombucha I started seeing it everywhere. I finally grew curious enough to buy a few bottles and look into its many health claims.
Before we get to its dubious status as a miracle drink, let me give any other culture-nerds out there a little Kombucha 101. Essentially this stuff is a fermented tea beverage. You start off with a batch of tea, sugar, and a culture of yeast and bacteria that looks like a gelatinous, milky pancake. Screw the lid on tight and let the mixture sit for a while and it will ferment. The yeast metabolizes the sugar so the end product isn’t really sugary. I’ve never tasted home-brewed kombucha but what you get at the store comes in a myriad of flavors. Some are mixed with exotic fruit juices like mango or pomegranate. Ginger appears to be a popular flavor addition. So if you’re wondering what it tastes like, think sparkling apple cider or ginger beer. You’ll find a glop of residual culture at the bottom of each bottle which may gross some people out but I imagine only adds to kombucha’s mystique for others.
Hard core kombucha-ers associate the drink with a huge variety of health benefits ranging from digestive aid to cancer cure-all. The label on the bottle of GT’s Organic Raw Kombucha that I purchased lists ten benefits to the drinker that all, amazingly, start with the letter “r”. These are: rejuvinate, restore, revitalize, recharge, rebuild, regenerate, replenish, regain, rebalance, and renew. The label also says that Kombucha supports digestion, metabolism (this one makes me chuckle, immune system, appetite control, weight control, liver function, body alkalinity, anti-aging, cell integrity, and healthy skin and hair. Wowza! Pass the kombucha!
I fancy myself a skeptic, so a little red flag goes up in my mind when I see health claims for a product that could be considered ‘too good to be true’. Another red flag goes up when the product is also an ‘ancient Chinese remedy’. In such cases, the majority of health claims tend to be based on anecdotal evidence and lack scientific foundation. Sadly, this seems to be the case here. Of course this doesn’t mean that kombucha imparts no health benefits to the drinker, just that it probably doesn’t do all that it is purported to do. Kombucha has probiotics, which we know are good for intestinal cells, antioxidants, and there is evidence that fermented foods can be beneficial for immune function. I tend not to think I need to be ‘detoxed’, but if you do, there is some evidence that kombucha may help with that, too. One question to consider is, “Currently, as a non-drinker of kombucha, is my health deficient in any way that would be best helped by drinking kombucha”
That said, as long as the consumer is a normal, healthy adult, kombucha doesn’t seem to have any ill effects aside from a few cases of people drinking bad home-brew or combining it with certain medications. So if you can afford it (I bought it on sale for $3 a bottle and feel like it benefits you in some way, then I say go for it. If you have cancer, though, I’d go to the doctor. I found the taste somewhat pleasant and noted it only has 60 calories and 14g carbs for a whole big 16oz bottle. Dave, on the other hand, was reminded of his first taste of beer. The bottom line for me is that the price and the cloudy stuff at the bottom will probably keep me from indulging very often.