Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Trendy Bytes: Kombucha Tea

Photo credit: Michelle Loy. Copyright 2011. All rights reserved.

I was cruising through Whole Foods the other day and was bombarded by several vendors, including one for kombucha tea.  I've been wanting to blog about this trendy beverage for a while, and if this wasn't a sure sign that I needed to do it now, then I don't know what would be.  Listen to the vendor's spiel and you'd think this is a wonder drink for sure, treating ailments such as acne, HIV, cancer, heartburn, headaches, and more.  If you aren't even sure what the heck kombucha is, then you're in for a not-so-pretty sounding concoction.  

What is kombucha tea?
Kombucha tea is made by fermenting sweetened tea with a slimy, pancake-like mass of yeast and bacteria, which is often referred to as the "mushroom" or "mother" or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast).  It looks a bit like this.

Photo credit: zeeweez (Flickr)

After the bacteria feed on most of the sugar, you're left with an acidic tea that contains organic acids, like lactic acid, B vitamins, and typically up to 1.5% alcohol.  The alcohol content is why some vendors pulled these products from grocery store shelves last year amidst reports that some concoctions contained up to 3% alcohol, which is above the 0.5% limit for non-alcoholic beverages.  This even became such a problem that the company, Honest Tea, decided to give its kombucha line the boot.  As for the taste, I'd describe it as tangy and slightly sweet with a touch of vinegar and fizz. How's that for a description?  I have to say that it's not something that I'd likely ever crave.  

So, is kombucha good for you?      
If you talk to proponents or vendors, you'll think so.  It is believed that the probiotic activity of the tea promotes a healthy immune system by introducing friendly bacteria into the gut.  While this is a possibility based on some of the research about probiotics in dairy products, there is still little evidence about the same benefits from kombucha.  

After scouring the published research articles for more on the health benefits, I've found very little strong evidence that kombucha tea is really the wonder drink that it's made out to be. A few preliminary studies in animals suggest that kombucha tea may protect healthy cells and repair damaged cells of the liver and kidneys.  However, I'd need to see stronger, more reliable studies in humans before I'd suggest this as a therapeutic beverage.

While kombucha tea may serve as a source of several B vitamins, it's important to consider that there are a variety of other whole foods, such as legumes or whole grains, that are also excellent sources of not only these vitamins but many other nutrients as well.  

Could it be harmful?
Yes, it's possible.  The tea could become contaminated with mold and fungi due to the ideal growing conditions during fermentation, and some of these microorganisms may cause illness or allergic reactions.  This may be even more likely in people with suppressed immune systems or other health problems. That's why the American Cancer Society warns of these health risks for certain populations, such as those with cancer, HIV/AIDS, or pregnant and lactating women.  There have also been a few case reports of individuals  developing serious illnesses after consuming kombucha tea.  

If you're trying to avoid alcohol for any reason, then it may be wise to steer clear of this, too. Some brews could contain nearly as much alcohol as beer depending on how long they ferment.  However, there are some commercial versions that go through a process, such as pasteurization, to remove the alcohol.  

Before taking a sip, you may also want to ask yourself whether you want to eat your calories or drink them.  Some commercially prepared brews that I've checked out contain anywhere between 60-170 calories per bottle, mostly from carbohydrates including sugar.  Commercial brews may also be hard on the wallet since they may cost anywhere from $2-3 up to $5 a bottle.  Ouch! 

What's the bottom line?
Kombucha tea doesn't appear to be the miracle drink that it's promoted as.  In some cases, kombucha tea may be harmful to those with weakened immune systems or certain health conditions, like cancer, HIV/AIDS, or pregnant and lactating women.  If you're trying to avoid alcohol or to watch your weight, then you also may want to rethink this drink.  While there are some potentially harmful effects of kombucha tea, I also keep in mind that there are other things, such as prescription or over-the-counter medications, that have more prevalent short-term and long-term harmful effects, too.  So if you enjoy kombucha tea and have an otherwise nutritious diet, then it would be wise to consider your health status when choosing to consume the drink and find a trustworthy source for the tea. If fermenting your own brew, then it'd be wise to follow safe fermenting practices to avoid contamination with potentially harmful molds and fungi.  

Have you tried kombucha tea? What do you think of it?

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