What is Kombucha — the so-called ‘elixir of life’

Kombucha is essentially a fermented tea made by a culture of bacteria and yeast (more on that later), which uses a solution of tea, sugar and sometimes flavorings as “fuel”. Kombucha originates from Asia and has been used for centuries. 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 a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, or SCOBY for short.

It is believed that the beverage has many benefits among which improved digestion, appetite suppression, better memory, lowers high blood pressure, promotes hair growth, gives more energy and… a couple more. Skeptics, however, argue that these benefits are actually unproven by medical studies. Moreover, there are reasons to believe that the fermented tea can be dangerous if brewed at home.

Kombucha. Image: Colorado State University

Kombucha. Image: Colorado State University

Kombucha taste, texture, and composition

Kombucha is slightly effervescent, highly acidic and sweet from the sugar. 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. One eight ounce serving has 30 calories, which is a lot less than most soft drinks.

History and Myths

Image: Kombucha Home

Image: Kombucha Home

It’s believed Kombucha originates from China, the first record of the brew dating from the Tsin dynasty in 212 BC. The Chinese used to call it the “Tea of Immortality”. Through trade, the drink first spread to India and Russia, then much of Asia.

There is a legend saying that in 414 AD. Dr. Kombu – supposedly from Korea – brought the fungus to Japan to treat the Japanese emperor Inkio. The Emperor was healed and from that time the mushroom was attached with the name Kombu-cha (Cha means tea) in honor of that doctor.

A Kombucha SCOBY mother. It ferments the tea to produce the brew. Image: Inhabitat

A Kombucha SCOBY mother. It ferments the tea to produce the brew. Image: Inhabitat

The brew a reputation of performing miracles, hence the name miracle fungus, magical fungus, elixir of life and gout tea. Each place and country where it spread to attributed its own name 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 and Kargasok Tea, Scoby, kochakinoko. They all mean to say Kombucha.

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Wherever this tea originated from it is now known throughout the world. In the U.S., it has surfaced from the underground. Once quite obscure and 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 thritis, to constipation, to cancer. The truth lies somewhere in the middle, as always. “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.

Though very popular, few to none reliable studies have made that might document the health benefits of Kombucha. Depending on where you brew it, and the SCOBY used, the drink will contain bacteria like  Bacterium xylinum, Bacterium gluconium, Acetobacter hetogenum, Pichia fermentons, but also antibiotic producing bacteria like  Penicillium species. Some have found anthrax bacteria. Yeast species include Schizosaccharomyces pombe, Torulaspora delbrueckii and Zygosaccharomyces bailii. Candia fungus species — these cause the most common fungus infections — like  C. albicans, C. kefyr, and C. krusei were also found in some batches. Judging from its bacterial composition, Kombucha could prove to be a great probiotic improving the microfauna inside the gut. However, there’s no reason to believe yogurt isn’t better.

Besides small amounts of alcohol (usually under 0.5%), Kombucha contains substantial acetic acid (vinegar), ethyl acetate, glucoronic 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 paper “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. One fatality is on record.”

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Bottled Kombucha, the kind you see sold in stores, is safe or should be. If you brew Kombucha at home, however, please careful since there are high chances of contamination. 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. Apparently, there seems to be more evidence that testifies Kombucha adverse effects than benefits. ScienceBasedMedicine reports some risks associated with Kombucha ingestion:

  • an alcoholic developed jaundice after two weeks, which resolved after discontinuation
  • dizziness, nausea and vomiting that resolved with discontinuation and restarted with rechallenge
  • toxic hepatitis that resolved with discontinuation
  • metabolic acidosis and disseminated intravascular coagulopathy, resulting in subsequent cardiac arrest and death
  • metabolic acidosis, cardiac arrest (with recovery)
  • anthrax infections of the skin through topical application of kombucha
  • lactic acidosis and acute renal failure
  • lead poisoning secondary to making it in a ceramic pot

Kombucha is categorized as a specialized process in the FDA Food Code, requiring any retail or food service 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 first brew, not selling kombucha with a pH below 2.5 or higher than 4.2, and to discard kombucha with signs of mold growth.

“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.

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.  I brewed my own batch for 6 months from a mother that I reused. The SCOBY mother grew to about 3 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 or healthier either. 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 fun to try, but if you’re worried stay away to be on the safe side.

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