If you've ever wandered through a health food store or a trendy cafe, you've likely come across bottles of kombucha lining the shelves or a fresh batch brewing in glass jars. Kombucha has become a popular beverage in recent years, touted for its potential health benefits and unique flavor. But what exactly is kombucha, and is it good for you? Let's delve into this ancient and intriguing beverage.
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What is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented tea made from a blend of sweetened black or green tea and a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, known as SCOBY. The SCOBY, also known as the "mother," is a slimy, pancake-like culture that feeds on sugar and converts it into organic acids, probiotics, and enzymes. The result is a tangy, slightly effervescent drink with a distinct vinegary flavor.
Kombucha's origin can be traced to Asia, where it has been used for centuries under the name "tea of immortality". It's also called "mushroom tea" because of the bacteria and yeast that clump together during the brewing process resembling a mushroom cap. Kombucha is not made by a mushroom though but by the SCOBY.
Proponents of kombucha claim the brew has many health benefits, among them improved digestion, appetite suppression, better memory, high blood pressure management, new hair growth, and more energy. Skeptics, however, argue that many of these benefits are actually unproven by medical studies. Moreover, there are reasons to believe that fermented tea can be dangerous if brewed at home.
Kombucha's taste, texture, and composition
Kombucha is slightly effervescent, highly acidic, and sweet thanks to its high sugar content. It contains sugars, B vitamins, and antioxidants, as well as low concentrations of alcohol -- a byproduct of the fermentation process.
It also has floating bacteria inside it, which might seem unappealing for some, but not all that different from the kind you find in wine for instance.
An eight-ounce serving has 30 calories, which is a lot less than most soft drinks.
Kombucha history and myths
It's believed kombucha originates from China, with the first record of the brew dating from the Tsin dynasty in 212 B.C. The Chinese used to call it the "Tea of Immortality". Through trade, the drink first spread to India and Russia, then much of Asia. Now, it is widely found across Europe and North America, having become a trendy brew among younger people.
There is a legend saying that in 414 AD. A physician by the name of Kombu - supposedly from Korea - brought the fungus to Japan to treat the Japanese emperor Inkio. The Emperor was healed and from that time the brew was attached with the name Kombu-cha (Cha means tea) in honor of the doctor.
The brew grew a reputation for performing miracles, hence its alternate names like "miracle fungus", "magical fungus", "elixir of life", and "gout tea". In each place and country where it spread to, local people attributed their own label for kombucha, so we have Russian Fungus, Japanese sponge, the Divine Tsche, Mongolian wine, Indian wine, Fungus Japonicus, Pichia fermentans, Cembuya, Orientalis, Combuchu, Tschambucco, Volga Spring, Mo Gu, Champignon de longue vie, Teekwass, Kwassan, pseudo lichen, Kargasok Tea, Scoby, and kochakinoko. They all mean the same thing: kombucha.
Wherever this tea originated from it is now known throughout the world. Once quite obscure and more known among new age circles, kombucha can now be easily found in food stores like Whole Foods or corporate cafeterias like those at Google or Facebook.
Is Kombucha good for you?
All this talk of a miracle ale might get a lot of people excited, so is there anything to it? It depends. I urge you all to be skeptical of anything that's touted as an elixir drink sure to cure anything from arthritis and constipation to cancer.
"There is really very little evidence to support any kind of claims about kombucha tea. So we don't know if it does anything at all," said Andrea Giancoli, spokeswoman for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics for NPR in 2013.
"Proponents claim kombucha tea can stimulate the immune system, prevent cancer, and improve digestion and liver function. However, there's no scientific evidence to support these health claims," concludes Brent A. Bauer, M.D. in an article for Mayo Clinic.
Though very popular, few to no reliable studies have been made that might document the health benefits of Kombucha. Depending on where you brew it, and the kind of SCOBY employed in the fermentation, the brew will contain bacteria like Bacterium xylinum, Bacterium gluconium, Acetobacter hetogenum, Pichia fermentons, but also antibiotic-producing bacteria like Penicillium species.
This means that kombucha should share many of the benefits of other fermented foods, like sauerkraut, pickles, kimchi, kefir, and yogurt. Judging from its bacterial composition, Kombucha could prove to be a great probiotic improving the microfauna inside the gut. And since kombucha is often made with black or green tea, it should share some of its properties, including antioxidants such as polyphenols and vitamin C, which may help protect the body from oxidative stress and inflammation. Some studies suggest that antioxidants may reduce the risk of cancer, heart disease, and other chronic illnesses.
The risks of home-brewed kombucha
Some researchers have found anthrax bacteria in kombucha brewed in unsanitary conditions. Yeast species include Schizosaccharomyces pombe, Torulaspora delbrueckii and Zygosaccharomyces bailii. Candida fungus species -- which cause the most common fungus infections -- like C. albicans, C. kefyr, and C. krusei were also found in some batches.
Besides small amounts of alcohol (usually under 0.5%), Kombucha contains substantial acetic acid (vinegar), ethyl acetate, glucuronic acid, and lactic acid. Caffeine is also found given most brewers use black or green tea for the brew's solution, which might also explain why some report enhanced energy.
One 2003 systematic survey of Kombucha studies found no study "relating to the efficacy of this remedy." Moreover, the author notes "several case reports and case series raise doubts about the safety of kombucha. They include suspected liver damage, metabolic acidosis, and cutaneous anthrax infections.
However, these reports are from the consumption of homebrewed kombucha. Bottled Kombucha, the kind you see sold in stores, is safe or should be. If you brew Kombucha at home, however, please be careful since there are high chances of contamination.
Kombucha is categorized as a specialized process in the FDA Food Code, requiring any retail or foodservice operator planning to sell kombucha to obtain a variance from their regulatory authority and to submit a food safety plan to their regulatory authority as defined in the Food Code section 3-502.11. The FDA recommends using brewing water over 165°F (74°C), keeping equipment clean and sanitary, using a fresh commercially purchased culture for the first brew, and discarding kombucha with a pH below 2.5 or higher than 4.2, as well as discarding any kombucha with signs of mold growth.
The brew needs to be stored in glass. If stored in ceramic pots, the acid will eat away the lining causing lead poisoning when ingesting the brew.
Kombucha is also highly acidic, which can cause gastrointestinal discomfort or exacerbate acid reflux in some people.
Kombucha: a nice soft drink but no superfood
In conclusion, Kombucha isn't a superfood. There isn't evidence yet that might suggest this, at least. It won't kill you either, but it could cause some health problems if you brew your own or the bacteria interacts in a special way with your organism.
As an anecdote, I brewed my own batch for 6 months from a mother that I reused constantly. The SCOBY mother grew to about three fingers thick. The drink is tasty for my liking, though some might find it too acidic. I didn't have any health problems but didn't feel any better. I stopped after a while after I neglected the mother and was too disgusted by what I found in my one-gallon jar to start fresh. I threw the mother in the trash, though some say you can grill some great burgers with it.
Kombucha is a unique and intriguing beverage with potential health benefits. While more research is needed to fully understand its effects on the body, incorporating kombucha into a healthy diet may provide some benefits.