KOMBUCHA: WONDER DRINK OR FIZZY SNAKE OIL?

“Have you tried these Kombucha tea drinks?” e-mailed my friend Anne the other day. “I have been reading about their supposed health benefits online…some flavors are rather odd-tasting, and they all smell strange, but they are strangely addictive.”

That night, as I was savoring the best veggie burger I have ever had at Laurent Tourondel’s brand new BLT Burger joint, my friend Tracy asked, “Have you tried those Kombucha teas?”

Kombucha is in the zeitgeist, evidently; Google employees reportedly consume 100 cups a day of this peculiar fermented brew, and System of a Down refers to it in the song “Sugar.”

I have tried Kombucha, and I like the way it tastes; it’s got a weird, slightly tart taste and a subtle, almost imperceptible fizz unlike any other drink I’ve ever had. And it’s said to be the antidote for just about anything that ails you.

But what is it, exactly?

“It is primarily a fibrous cellulose spongy membrane that is formed by the various Kombucha bacteria and yeast cells that live in the liquid sugary tea,” according to the website kombucha-america.com. “By drinking Kombucha Tea daily you may help prevent your body tissues from absorbing all the toxins and poisons found in our industrial environment that may be making you ill.”

Kombucha-america.com sells the Kombucha culture you need to brew your own Kombucha tea, if you’d like to try what sounds like a slightly bizarre science project:

This 2000 year old tea is made using an extraordinary mushroom* that is placed into a batch of regular sugary tea. The tea then begins to ferment and in about 7 days it is ready to drink. During that same 7 day period a second mushroom grows within the tea, this new mushroom is used to make your next batch of tea. Each time you make a batch of tea a new mushroom is produced. Because of this quick reproductive cycle of the Kombucha you can make an endless supply of this incredible tea for free!”

The Kombucha culture is not actually a mushroom, but something called a tea pseudo lichen. And, thankfully, you don’t need to grow your own; there are several brands of bottled Kombucha on the market. It’s a pricey beverage, as you might expect from something so labor intensive. But given the laundry list of modern ills it supposedly combats, maybe it’s worth it.

A brand of Kombucha called Synergy, which comes in a 16 oz. bottle for $4.99, claims that “Kombucha supports digestion, metabolism, immune system, appetite control, weight control, liver function, body alkalinity, anti-aging, cell integrity, healthy skin & hair.”

The label also explains that Synergy was founded by G.T. Dave in 1995 “after his mother’s success drinking it during her battle with breast cancer.”

Elsewhere on the label, in tiny print, it says “These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.”

Another brand, Kombucha Wonder Drink, comes in an 8.5 ounce bottle for $2.99, and calls itself a “sparkling Himalayan tonic.” Its health claims are couched in fairy tale language:

For thousands of years millions have relied on this exhilarating tonic to promote wellness. Discovered in the Himalayas, Kombucha spread across Eurasia and is now revered on every continent. Some legends claimed it was the fountain of youth, while others told of its energy-enhancing properties on the battlefield. Known to be high in anti-oxidants, immune system enhancers and natural detoxifiers, this crisp, effervescent wonder drink confers its health-giving benefits on all who drink it. Discover new serenity, endurance and clarity. Share it. True believers drink daily.

Should beverage companies be allowed to tout their tonics as a cure-all without having to back up their claims with scientific studies? The market for this kind of “functional food,” which claims to offer some kind of benefit beyond your basic vitamins and nutrients, is exploding. Sales are expected to reach some $50 million in the next four years.

But whether these products actually have the power to enhance our physical and mental well-being hasn’t been proven, which is why the Center for Science and the Public Interest calls some of these products “21st Century quackery,” and has been leaning on the FDA for years to crack down on these kinds of unproven claims.

The FDA has scheduled a public hearing on December 5th to address the question of whether functional foods should be more strictly regulated. Given the FDA’s recent history of approving drugs that have turned out to have serious and even fatal side effects, I can’t say that the FDA’s seal of approval would mean a whole lot to me.

I’m willing to take a chance on Kombucha because I like the way it tastes; if it’s even half as good for you as it claims, that would be a bonus. I just wish it wasn’t so expensive. I guess I’ll have to order that Kombucha starter kit.

it cured me...

I was straight but after drinkin this for a few late nights i am totally gay now!! so cured!! so fabulous!^*

oh sparkles!!

I have IBS and tend towards

I have IBS and tend towards low blood sugar. I'm very happy with Kombucha's health benefits. When I drink it, I feel just good--I can't explain it--and clean. It reduces my appetite, which matches the companies' claims about regulating blood sugar. But the biggest thing for me is that it relieves my IBS symptoms really well. I now drink a big bottle (of the brand pictured at the top of the article) every day; it's cheaper than to-go coffee and feels waaay better. It might be expensive for average users, but it's a cheap cure for IBS!

i think you can find out

i think you can find out where to buy off that "Synergy" link in the article. or click http://www.gtskombucha.com/wheretobuy.html

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I've been drinking kombucha whenever i can. I notice a difference in body activity a little while after drinking ( I drink 2-3 gulps after opening a bottle, everyday)

i like it

cheap kombucha?

Hi, I just moved from the West Coast to New York City. I also like the taste of Kombucha and was a regular drinker in WA (where a bottle cost as little as $2.89). Does anyone know where I can find it for cheaper then five dollars a bottle in the city?

thanks,
vanessa