Is the Fermented Tea Kombucha Really the Healing Wonder Drink It's Cracked Up to Be?
They say it cures cancer. They—and by "they" I mean the nameless, faceless but seemingly unlimited horde of strangers on the Internet—also say it cures diabetes, migraines, asthma, acne, AIDS, hangovers, psoriasis, insomnia, fatigue, bronchitis, arteriosclerosis, bad eyesight, cold sores and erectile dysfunction. They say it reverses the aging process, smoothing out wrinkles, growing hair on formerly bald scalps and transforming gray heads back into brown, black, red and blonde. They say it soothes menstrual cramps, smoothes cellulite and cures cancer. They're talking about kombucha, a fermented tea drink containing probiotics, polyphenols, amino acids, enzymes, minerals and more. It tastes pickled, sparkly and faintly alive. Sometimes it contains small, slimy lumps that slither down your throat. But, hey.
I'm a hypochondriac. Not the cartoon kind who haunts doctors offices demanding daily MRIs and colonoscopies for nonexistent heart murmurs and rare tropical parasites. My hypochondria is more selective, more refined. I fear only one ailment: cancer. The moment I detect the slightest spot or twitch, I am convinced it can mean only one thing, and that it's terminal. My mind arrives at this conclusion automatically and instantly. I've never had cancer, nor have any known relatives. I'm physically fit, a vegetarian for 20 years, and have never smoked or worked in hazardous industries. Yet by the time I even start to marshal a rational thought, it's too late and I'm having a panic attack. I'm working on this issue now, addressing fear as an addiction, but all my life I have been its slave, quivering on its spike.
How then should I respond to rumors that a drink made of fermented tea can not only cure but also prevent everything I fear?
More importantly, how should people respond who have been diagnosed, are undergoing treatment, and/or have survived but remain ever-vigilant? When word spreads of magical potions, ears prick up. Hearts race. When tales circle the world of an elixir that not only breaks the wicked curse already cast but also renders the drinker invincible against all future curses, wow. How irresistible is that? Four-dollars-per-16-ounce-bottle irresistible? Sweet-and-sour-soda irresistible? Among the sick of body and mind, amazing claims spur hope. And for many, hope is worth more than all the money in the world.
"Originating over 2000 years ago, brewed with care and blended to perfection, this detoxifying energy drink restores balance and energizes the mind," reads one kombucha company's Web site. "For centuries," reads another, "the wise ones descended each year from their aeries high in the Himalayas to harvest spring tea that grew in the valley below. The tea went back up, high in the mountains where it was blended according to an ancient formula, creating kombucha—a delicious, effervescent wonder drink that has for thousands of years conferred its wonderful benefits on all who drink it: good health, great longevity, inner serenity and incisive mental clarity."
"European women," reads another, "have been passing down the recipe as a beauty tonic to their daughters and granddaughters for generations." Celebrities like Madonna, Halle Berry, Cher and Orlando Bloom are photographed sipping it. After being treated for cancer in the 1980s, Ronald Reagan is said to have consumed a liter of kombucha every day.
We want to believe.
When black or green tea is fermented with sugar and combined with a flying saucer-shaped whitish blob many mistake for a mushroom but which is actually a culture, the result is kombucha. Some call it a scoby, the acronym for "symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast"—the blob is scientifically classified as a zoogleal mat. Kept at the right temperature under the right conditions, a single mat will expand and replicate continuously. The finished beverage contains much-hailed detoxifiers, membrane-strengtheners, free-radical scavengers, immunity-boosters, anti-inflammatories, antibacterials, antibiotics and anti-parasiticals including malic acid, oxalic acid, butyric acid, gluconic acid, glucuronic acid, nucleic acid, vitamins B and C and beneficial yeasts. Understandably, it smells faintly of vinegar.
And it's flourishing with the probiotics boom. New kombucha companies are popping up right and left, and formerly non-kombucha companies are adding kombucha to their product lines. Red Bull introduced Carpe Diem Kombucha in 2007. According to Forbes, one kombucha company (Millennium Products, whose founder George Dave claims the drink aided his mother's breast-cancer recovery) earned $50 million in 2008.
As often happens with miracle cures, even kombucha's name and origins are veiled in fairy dust. Cha is Chinese for "tea," that much we know. Some say Kombu was a Korean doctor who used this stuff to heal an ailing emperor. Depending on whom you ask, kombucha was favored by the samurai, ancient sages and European country folk. One popular provenance narrative entails a 19th-century Russian doctor who attributed his poor rural patients' lack of cancer to a potent home brew. Although this story, drawn from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's novel The Cancer Ward, is actually about a different drink—one made from a birch-tree fungus known as chaga—kombucha is a longtime favorite in Russia, where it was introduced centuries ago by Manchurian traders, who have allegedly been brewing it for 2,200 years.
Growing up in "the Soviet Union, the country that no longer exists," Lev Kilun remembers kombucha brewing in nearly every home. This was only natural, he says: "Tea culture was very big in Russia because there was no coffee." Before World War II, many families maintained zoogleal mats (known fondly in Russia as "mothers"), whose replicants were handed down from generation to generation and shared among friends. The tradition survived wartime sugar shortages and spread throughout Europe, where mid-20th-century researchers, especially in Germany and the USSR, studied kombucha intensely and credited it with amazing powers.
After immigrating to the United States 20 years ago, "I thought, what do I miss from home?" Kilun remembers. "It was this fermented drink." He began brewing his own kombucha. Two years ago, he began renting the former military kitchen near San Francisco where he now manufactures the beverage in five different flavors using organic green tea, bottling it as Lev's Original Kombucha. Local cafes sell his product on tap.
In Berkeley, Alex Hozven showed me the clear glass five-gallon vats in which she recently began brewing kombucha to accompany the krauts, kimchee and other fermented foods she's been making and selling for years at her pickle shop, Cultured.
"These just got fed," Hozven said of the Frisbee-sized scobies floating in amber-colored fluid whose sugar they were transforming, slowly but surely if microscopically, into the fermented base whose strength depends on how long she lets the process last: In winter, it's usually two weeks; in summer, one. No two batches are quite alike. After the first ferment, much of the original liquid is poured off and others can be added for flavor. While most commercial kombuchas use fruit juice, Hozven's twist is vegetable flavors: pumpkin, celery, carrot, fennel, jalapeño pepper, turnip and beet. Blobs wallow at the bottoms of her bottles.
"You're always going to get a few strands of culture," said Hozven, who first discovered kombucha 13 years ago when she sought a caffeine-free energizer after giving birth. "I've come to really like those bits."
Adam Goodman, the self-described "Chief Kombuchero" at Kombucha Botanica in Santa Cruz, California, began by brewing the stuff for a cafe where he worked, scrambling to meet the demand. Now that he runs his own company, using organic juices and fair-trade sugars and teas, Goodman is all too aware of the rumors.
"Some people say they haven't been sick since they started drinking kombucha," Goodman says. "Some people say it gives them a big energy boost. Some people say it helps their immune system. I tell everyone not to believe everything they hear." Still, he has a miracle-cure story of his own. Suffering from eczema years ago, he made compresses by soaking clean rags in kombucha, then applied them to the itchy, oozing, rash-afflicted areas.
"The results were incredible. Ten minutes later I had relatively healed skin. That was pretty exciting."
Before going into the kombucha business, Goodman, Hozven and Kilun were all home brewers. Because of commercial kombucha's high price, the DIY scene is booming, with scobies offered widely on Craigslist, Freecycle and other networks. Kombucha kits and brewing instructions abound online, teeming with tempting claims: "Kombucha could be beneficial in resolving Candida," reads a typical posting, "but make sure your kombucha has been fermented for at least 10 days if you want to cut down on the sugar levels!"
But kombuchamania irks experts such as Marji McCullough, the American Cancer Society's strategic director of nutritional epidemiology. "Although cell culture and animal studies suggest that kombucha possesses antioxidant properties, its safety and efficacy in humans has not been proven," McCullough tells me. "In fact, case reports of kombucha-associated toxicities—such as liver damage and metabolic acidosis—and a death possibly due to kombucha consumption have been documented. A 2003 review of clinical evidence on kombucha concluded that on the basis of available data at that time, the largely undetermined benefits do not outweigh the documented risks. Consumption of this tea, especially for cancer prevention, is not recommended."
The fatality she mentions occurred in April 1995, when the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the Iowa Department of Public Health joined forces to investigate the death that month of one middle-aged woman and the near-death of another in the same small rural town. A week apart, both women were admitted to the same hospital, one in extreme respiratory distress and the other already unconscious. Both went into cardiac arrest. One survived; one did not. Neither woman had a heart condition but both displayed dangerously high lactic-acid levels; authorities learned that both "had been drinking Kombucha tea daily for approximately 2 months," reads a December 1995 CDC Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. Both women had been drinking home brews made with portions of the same zoogleal mat.
Although no conclusive causal link was found between these two cardiac arrests and kombucha consumption—it's hardly a slam-dunk—"reasons for the occurrence and severity of the lactic acidosis in both cases have not been determined," reads the MMWR, which adds that while drinking up to four ounces of kombucha daily "may not cause adverse effects in healthy persons ... the potential health risks are unknown for those with preexisting health problems or those who drink excessive quantities." As a result, "health-care professionals should consider consumption of kombucha tea in the differential diagnosis of persons with unexplained lactic acidosis."
A 1999 report from Australia's Royal Prince Alfred Hospital cites "two cases of symptomatic lead poisoning requiring chelation therapy in a married couple who had been drinking kombucha tea for six months, brewing the tea in a ceramic pot. We postulate that acids in the tea eluted lead from the glaze pigment used in the ceramic pot, in a manner analogous to elution of lead from crystal decanters by wine and spirits," write the report's authors, blaming not the drink itself but the brewing method.
Another troubling incident, reported in the May 2009 Journal of Intensive Care Medicine, involved a 22-year-old HIV-positive man who "became short of breath and febrile to 103 degrees Fahrenheit within twelve hours of kombucha tea ingestion," wrote the report's lead author, Alison SungHee Kole, a pulmonary critical-care doctor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "He subsequently became combative and confused, requiring sedation and intubation for airway control," added Kole, who titled the report "A Case of Kombucha Tea Toxicity." The man was diagnosed with hyperthermia, lactic acidosis and acute renal failure. "While kombucha tea is considered a healthy elixir," Kole concluded, "the limited evidence currently available raises considerable concern that it may pose serious health risks. Consumption of this tea should be discouraged, as it may be associated with life-threatening lactic acidosis."
It's no surprise that mainstream medicine and government agencies would look askance at alternative remedies. What we choose to believe is a matter of faith. The Mayo Clinic directed me to this statement by its internist Brent A. Bauer: "Kombucha tea's benefits are based on personal reports, and lab and animal studies. To date, there hasn't been a single human trial reported in a major medical journal. This doesn't mean that kombucha tea can't possibly have health benefits; it just means that at this time there's no direct evidence that it provides the benefits it's reported to have."
Noting the acidosis cases, Bauer adds that "the risk of contamination is high because kombucha tea is often brewed in homes under nonsterile conditions. ... In short, there's not good evidence that kombucha tea delivers on its health claims. At the same time, several cases of harm have been reported. Therefore, until definitive studies quantify the risks and benefits of Kombucha tea, it's prudent to avoid it."
As an artisanal foodstuff, kombucha ranks right up there with cheese and jam and anything else whose manufacture is part science and part craft, embellished via ingenuity, cleverness and care. Lev Kilun, the maker of Lev's Original Kombucha and a scientist by trade, compares it to wine. The kitchen he rents is on Treasure Island, located in the middle of San Francisco Bay, and he says the sea air and cool temperatures give his raw, unpasteurized product its delicate, distinctive bite.
"It's a little more complicated to ferment green tea than black," Kilun explains, "because black tea has more caffeine and more body. Green is like a pinot noir, and you have to be gentle and use a lot of tea to brew it properly."
At Cultured in Berkeley, Alex Hozven takes a seasonal approach. Jalapeño/watermelon and gold beet/turmeric kombuchas were in stock the day I visited, and turnip/tangerine was in the works.
Kilun would love for mint-kombucha mojitos and mango-kombucha mimosas to become classic cocktails, but admits this idea's not for everyone.
"Fifty percent of people like kombucha and 50 percent hate it," he sighs. "It's one of those things."
But 100 percent love the idea of eradicating cancer, right? Like so much else in this era of superfoods, kombucha is promoted as a tasty, chic half-meal half-medicine. The nameless, faceless chorus makes me tingle with a strange mixture of ecstasy and apprehension, wishes and suspicion. At this point I'm too cheap to make a habit of buying kombucha. Nor do I trust my chemistry skills to make the stuff. My hypochondriacal hopes rise, sink, then rise again as I read the claims online.
"Positive effects on some diseases, infections and ailments can occur within the first few months," reads one manufacturer's Web site, "and dramatic changes are noticeable by some within one year." Ã¢â‚¬Â¨
"Every bottle we send out to you," reads another, "holds the same level of potency that the ancient Zen masters sipped from."
They should watch their words, because the FDA is watching them.
"Whenever a product makes even an implicit health claim, under the law it becomes a drug," says Ira Allen of the agency's public affairs office. Given the claims on many kombucha makers' Web sites, "these products are drugs. All drugs need to be approved by the FDA" in order to be sold legally, "and these drugs are not approved by the FDA." Applying for and attaining FDA approval, which has never been done with kombucha, "is a rigorous process," he says.
"The law defines drugs, in part, by their intended use, as 'articles intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease.' So a product sold as a dietary supplement and promoted on its label or in labeling as a treatment, prevention or cure for a specific disease or condition would be considered an unapproved, and thus illegal, drug," Allen says. "Labeling refers to the label as well as accompanying material that is used by a manufacturer to promote and market a specific product," such as company Web sites.
The FDA, Allen adds, "is concerned about products that make unsupported claims both because they may fool people into believing there is a provable health benefit and because they may keep people with medical conditions from seeking appropriate remedies."
For gout. For constipation. Age. Insomnia. And you-know-what.