What is Kombucha Tea? Reported Benefits and Dangers of the Fermented Drink

on February 22 2012 10:38 AM

A fermented concoction made with tea, sugar, bacteria and yeasts might not sound like the most delicious or most beneficial drink, but some believe that is exactly what Kombucha tea is. Some have called it a magical elixir; some have dubbed it the new Red Bull only with healthful properties; some claim it can fight everything from baldness to AIDS. However, other sources cite adverse side effects of and deaths linked to the drink.

Kombucha tea is made by fermenting sweetened green or black tea with a culture of yeasts and bacteria called the Kombucha mushroom, according to Cancer.org. It is not actually a mushroom; rather, it is called that because of the shape and color of the sac that forms at the top of the tea after fermenting.  

Kombucha tea is said to have originated in ancient China, but conflicting reports cite Russia and other countries as the first producing-nations.

It's become incredibly trendy lately in the 20-to-30-something, foodie, intelligentsia set, Dr. Daphne Miller, a family practitioner and professor of nutrition and integrative medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told The New York Times. Kombucha is like their Coca-Cola.

Kombucha tea is not justy popular amongst a small, healthfully-conscious sect. A-listers like Halle Berry, Madonna, Lindsay Lohan, Kirsten Dunst and Meg Ryan have all been spotted sipping the tea.

According to The Times, in 2010, Kombucha tea and other functional juice sales topped $295 million in the U.S. This was a revenue boost of 25 percent over a two-year-period, as reported by market research company SPINS Inc. In 2009, more than one million bottles of GT's Kombucha were purchased in the U.S. This was the leading commercial brand of the tea at the time, made by Millennium Products.

Popularity has not only increased because of reports of health-benefits, but also because people can make Kombucha tea at home. The Times reported that the Bay Area in California has become a hotspot for the production of the drink, with fans trading recipes and selling good brews.

So is Kombucha tea a miracle or a hoax? Here are the facts.

Reported Benefits

Kombucha tea has been touted as a magical elixir that yields amazing benefits for those who consume it.

The yeasts in Kombucha tea break down the sugar and combine with the tea to form antioxidants, minerals and vitamins which some believe are capable of fighting wrinkles and diabetes and boosting the immune system, according to a 2009 article from Marie Claire.

WebMD states that Kombucha tea contains vitamin B, which can help extract more energy and nutrients from other consumed foods. The glucuronic acid reportedly can help strengthen cells and prevent some forms of cancer. Antioxidants are derived from Kombucha's base of green or black tea. Finally, Kombucha tea can balance the body's PH levels and increase blood circulation. Some believe this detoxifies the body by releasing impurities in the blood, liver and kidneys.

Yahoo! Sports published an article describing the benefits Kombucha tea has particularly for athletes. The drink can reportedly increase energy, ease muscle soreness, assist in post-workout recovery and boost athletic performance.

Many point to the probiotic nature of Kombucha tea. Probiotic foods have become increasingly popular in recent years, with studies suggesting that probiotic foods can help digestion and boost the immune system, according to The Times.  

According to Cancer.org Kombucha tea has been promoted as a cure-all for a myriad of conditions. These run the gamut from baldness, insomnia and arthritis to multiple sclerosis, AIDS and cancer.

Reported Dangers

Not every wellness aficionado is a proponent of Kombucha tea.

Multiple medical sources note that there is are no published studies to support the reported health benefits of the drink. Brent A. Bauer, M.D. of the Mayo Clinic wrote: There's no scientific evidence to support these health claims.

Dr. Andrew Weil, a doctor and leader in alternative health, wrote on his Web site: I don't recommend Kombucha tea at all. I know of no scientific studies backing up the health claims made for it. He even warns readers of home-brews containing aspergillus, a toxin-producing fungus. This could seriously harm those with compromised immune systems, pregnant women, children and the elderly.

Other reports go one step further and highlight the serious complications of drinking Kombucha tea as well as the reports of it being linked to deaths.

In April 1995, two women who had consumed Kombucha tea daily for two months were hospitalized with severe acidosis, which is an increase of acid levels in body fluids, according to Cancer.org. One woman died of cardiac arrest two days after she was admitted. The second woman's heart also stopped but she was revived and eventually recovered.

In 2009, a 22-year-old man was hospitalized after suffering breathing problems, fever, confusion and high lactic acid levels 12 hours after drinking Kombucha tea. He recovered.

Cancer.org warns that, since deaths have been linked to Kombucha tea, drinking excessive amounts is ill-advised. Other experts warn that home-brewed concoctions are not regulated and could become contaminated with dangerous germs. Allergic reactions have been reported, along with anthrax of the skin. Those with HIV, cancer or other serious health problems are particularly vulnerable, reported the Web site. 

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