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Kombucha Tea: Fabulous or Just a Fad?

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Don’t get me wrong—I’m into health food. I explore the depths of organic markets, I regularly read books about natural eating, and I’ve even converted my family members and friends to organic shopping. But recently, I’ve seen a new product crop up on my health-food radar—and, frankly, I’m sort of confused. It’s bubbly, it’s sort of bitter, and it’s being heralded as the latest magic bullet for our health. It’s Kombucha. (That’s a type of tea, by the way.) 


After grimacing through a free sample, I got to wondering if braving the taste was really all it’s cracked up to be. According to the woman who handed me the sample, the tea has the power to make me better looking, help me live longer, and even make my armpits smell better. Clearly, I needed a little more information, with a little less spin. 


What Is It?
Kombucha is a “living” health drink. The term refers to the drink’s main ingredients: fermented tea and Kombucha cultures. The tea is alive in the same way yogurt or live yeast is, with active cultures that make positive changes in our bodies by eliminating harmful bacteria. I was into this idea at the sample counter … until I tossed one back. The taste is what I would imagine a cross between soda water and apple cider to be—sort of sour, with a hint of sweetness. Of course, the taste also varies depending on whatever flavoring is added to the base ingredients—I later tried a ginger-tinged Kombucha and found it much more enjoyable. 


Where Does It Come From?
Kombucha first caught my eye because of its old and fabled origins: the drink has been brewed for thousands of years in the Far East. I figure if something’s been around that long, it’s got to be doing something right. The earliest recorded use of Kombucha was in China around 250 BC—it was called “the tea of immortality.” Legend has it that the word Kombucha came from Japan around 400 AD, when a physician named Kombu served it to the emperor: the doctor’s name was then combined with “cha,” meaning tea. Since the turn of the millennium, and especially over the last few years, Kombucha has become almost mainstream—it’s even available at a handful of nonorganic grocery stores. 


How Is It Made?
Although it looks like one, the Kombucha culture is not a mushroom—it’s a colony of bacteria and yeast that looks like a beige or white rubbery pancake. The culture is added to sweetened tea and then fermented for seven to ten days. The resulting liquid contains vinegar, B vitamins, and a number of other chemical compounds. The bacteria that crop up are the friendly kind that we hear about in yogurt commercials, and they help with digestion and internal cleansing. Wouldn’t fermenting the tea make alcohol? Yes, but the bacteria in the culture promptly turn it into organic acids—so driving is perfectly safe after you down a bottle of Kombucha. 


Likely because of its similarity to vinegar (in terms of its taste and brewing process), Kombucha is often brewed with some infusion of tea, herbs, fruit, juice, and other flavorful ingredients after the fermenting ends, then packaged in pretty bottles and shipped off to various retail outlets. 


What Flavors Does It Come In?
Kombucha’s come a long way in terms of its mass-market appeal over the last few years. All it takes is a gander down the cold-drinks aisle at Whole Foods to see that it’s suddenly become available in a variety of colors and flavors—from citrus and mango to red clover and juniper berry. Consumers can also choose from types of tea, like green, black, white, or oolong, and types of sweetener. Something to be aware of is that Kombucha, since it’s made with sugar, does have calories; the bottles I picked up packed around fifty. 


How Does It Help?
Kombucha is being praised for doing everything from spurring weight loss to improving circulation to curing cancer. Unfortunately, these claims lack the support of medical research. But just because this tea may not save lives doesn’t mean its many drinkers aren’t getting a boost from it in other ways. “I switched from drinking coffee to a Kombucha every morning,” says Amber James, a fan of the tea. “Once I got over the withdrawals, I started feeling way more alert and energized.” Other reported benefits include digestive regulation, increased alertness, and regulated appetite. 


The drink also contains probiotics, or live bacteria, that positively alter the balance in our intestines. Scientific research shows that high concentrations thereof can aid digestion and eliminate harmful bacteria, according to research published in the Journal of Molecular Systems Biology, the Mayo Clinic, and many other scientific studies. 


But what about studies on Kombucha? As I would with any supplement I was thinking of taking, I tried to find studies backing up the tea’s health claims. (You were already planning on doing that, right?) Kombucha’s selling points are based on a combination of personal reports and animal studies—as yet, no major medical journal has reported an actual human trial that substantiates the slew of purported health claims. Also, some medical professionals (including the FDA) have expressed concerns that home-brewed Kombucha commonly poses health risks due to contamination and improper brewing. 


Still, there’s something to be said for the volume of personal testaments to the ways in which Kombucha has improved people’s health, so sipping it in conjunction with making other wise choices to promote your physical well-being can be a positive lifestyle addition. If you like the taste, try it out—while it’s not some magic potion that will allow you to live for a hundred years, it can’t hurt, either (as long as it’s not home-brewed).

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