Kombucha Craze Decoded

By: ARYA ROERIG

Magic health elixirs have been toted by healing professionals since the beginning of human time. Well before Gatorade made its first appearance in Florida, things like ale, tea and wine were revered for their healing powers. A whole round of products have come into popularity in the last few years promising to hydrate, energize, cure a bad back and make everyone feel generally better–all naturally. But are these claims valid or just hype?

Testimonials online claim the fermented tea kombucha as a cure for everything from cancer to gout. Studies have shown that the mushroom-like culture, possibly originating in Russia, is antimicrobial, has hepatoprotective qualities, and works as an antioxidant. However, like many holistic remedies, most of these claims have little scientific backing. But proponents are passionate. The most popular commercial brand of kombucha, G.T. Dave’s, started after the tea helped its founder’s mother battle breast cancer.

“I don’t know if the health benefits are real and I would never say they were for a fact, but I’m pretty sure it has improved my digestion,” says Kerri Kiernan, a nutrition educator in Wisconsin who has been brewing her own kombucha for almost a year.

Known by different names in other parts of the world, including Manchurian Tea, Manchu Fungus and Tea Kvass, kombucha is a fermented tea brewed either at home or bought commercially. The culture itself looks like a large pancake and, though often called a mushroom or by the acronym SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast), it is scientifically classified as a zoogleal mat. Commercial drinks are often flavored with natural fruit juices or bottled plain.

“I kept waiting for it to blink at me from the counter and ask for more honey,” says Kiernan. “It’s definitely a science experiment.”

Home brewed kombucha starts with an original culture, or mother, mixed with tea and sugar. The culture ferments with the sugar into a solid mass of yeast and bacteria and the resulting drinkable liquid contains vinegar, B vitamins and a number of other chemical components.

The simplicity of brewing kombucha, the growing ease of finding it in stores and it’s slew of alleged health benefits is likely what keeps people coming back for more.

But, of course, not everyone is sold. In March, 2010, the Mayo Clinic’s Brent A. Bauer, M.D. stated that until definitive studies quantify the risks and benefits of kombucha tea, it’s prudent to avoid it. The culture has also been shown to increase the size of both the liver and spleen in mice.

Much like kombucha, which has had a long history in other parts of the world, coconut water is a staple beverage almost everywhere coconuts grow, most notably Southeast Asia and South America. It has been marketed as a sports drink because of its high potassium and mineral content. The most popular brand, Vita Coco, can be found anywhere from gas stations to grocery stores and is endorsed by professional athletes like Alex Rodriguez. Rhianna even has her own flavor.

“It was everywhere,” says Lisa Selver, who grew up in the Philippines. “The venders were everywhere–it’s like soda machines here. It’s definitely nothing new that people drink coconut water.”

Aloe vera, while a longtime staple in beauty products, has also had a relative comeback in the U.S. as a health and sports drink. Containing natural immune enhancers it is said to ease digestion, stimulate collagen and elastin repair and reduce inflammation.

Aloe vera juice, derived from the gel-like insides of the aloe vera plant, contains vitamin A, B1, B2, B6, B12, C and E, along with folic acid and niacin and is thought by many to help soothe indigestion.

While personal accounts of success abound, the jury is still out on hard evidence as to whether or not natural health drinks should replace old fashioned water.

“I really enjoyed the novelty of making it,” says Kiernan. “By all means, if it’s between an energy drink and something natural–go natural. But, really, there is no magic potion. Eat right and drink plenty of water and you can probably get the same benefits as any fancy drink someone’s trying to sell you.”

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