There’s a health craze making its way through the celebrity set — and nonfamous folks, too — called kombucha tea and it’s not like any “tea” you’ve tried before. Kombucha is a fermented drink made from a bacteria and yeast culture grown in tea that has been promoted as a cure-all for everything from baldness to insomnia, from chronic fatigue to multiple sclerosis, from AIDs to cancer. It supposedly speeds up metabolism, improves immune strength, gets rid of wrinkles and even helps control cravings for coffee and alcohol. The last item on that list is somewhat ironic, given that commercial brands of kombucha recently got pulled off the market temporarily, with orders to relabel the products to reflect that they contain alcohol (albeit in a miniscule amount) as a result of the fermenting process.
That kombucha sounds so disgusting (as you’ll see in a minute) is probably part of the reason people find it so intriguing. A roundup of purported fans of the stuff reads like a list of the latest People magazine covers — Halle Berry, Alec Baldwin, Anna Paquin, Lindsay Lohan and Madonna.
Though I admit that I haven’t tried it, and don’t want to, others have described kombucha as tasting like sparkling cider with an edge — think vinegar. Kombucha is made by dropping a large pancakelike culture of what’s known as a “tea fungus” (nicknamed the “mushroom”) into a jar filled with brewed black tea and sugar and allowing it to ferment for about a week. The mushroom floats in the liquid, eventually producing a “baby” that rises to the surface, which can then be used as a starter culture for another batch of brew.
Why Drink It?
As far as health benefits, properly fermented kombucha does have the potential to contain beneficial bacteria as well as compounds such as acetic, gluconic and lactic acids that battle pathogens — there even are a few published studies that point to the antimicrobial properties of this concoction. But when I checked in with Mark Stengler, NMD, naturopathic medical doctor and author of the Bottom Line Natural Healing newsletter to see whether any of these wondrous claims has any merit, the conversation was pretty short: No, he said.
Dr. Stengler pointed out that not only is there a dearth of research on actual health benefits to humans, there is medical literature documenting cases where home-brewed kombucha has made people (and animals) quite ill — some have died. Noting that “there is virtually no serious scientific support for any health claims,” Dr. Stengler told me that in his view, “overhyped products like kombucha hurt the credibility of the nutrition industry.”
While the commercial kombucha teas seem safe enough and do contain some microbes that are potentially healthful, the truth is that there are far better sources for these probiotics — yogurt, kefir, fermented olives, homemade sauerkraut and Korean kimchi, to name a few. If you encounter a commercially made kombucha that you find delicious, go ahead — buy it and enjoy it. But as a natural therapy for what ails you? Not if evidence is your guide.