Devotees claim this magical mushroom elixir is chock-full of health benefits, from cancer prevention to appetite suppression.
It’s been called “the tea of immortality” and “the elixir of life,” and it keeps growing in popularity. It’s kombucha, a funny name for a simple drink: fermented sweet tea.
According to an Inc. magazine report from 2015, consumers were predicted to invest $600 million in the fizzy stuff—roughly the same numbers in the United States for coconut water—from Whole Foods, Safeway, Walmart, and the like.
The probiotic beverage that’s taking health-conscious America by storm is made by fermenting tea and sugar using a Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast (scoby). This jelly-like culture, sometimes referred to as a mushroom cap, that floats on top for the fermentation process is the key ingredient because, according to Inc., “it essentially eats the sugar, tannic acids, and caffeine in the tea, and creates a cocktail of live microorganisms that many believe to be beneficial.”
While the origins of the tea are somewhat vague, historians believe it came from the Chinese Qin Dynasty around 221 BC when it was made for the Chinese emperor. The drink spread throughout Asia, eventually making its way to Japan via a Korean Dr. Kombu, hence the name Kombucha—Kombu from the doctor’s name, and cha from the Chinese word for tea. The drink then traveled to Russia via the Silk Road and entered into greater Europe. Kombucha made its way to the United States in the 1960s as part of the counter-culture movement.
The commercialization of the libation started in the 1990s when it began being bottled and sold in the United States. Popularity picked up in the early 2000s and by 2010 there was a noticeable (and marketable) surge in kombucha’s fashionability factor. By 2014, it reached such a mainstream level that the official association of Kombucha Brewers International (KBI) formed with 40 companies. Today KBI has ballooned to over 100 company members. Hannah Crum, president of KBI and co-founder of KombuchaKamp.com, stated that now the brewers can’t make enough to keep up with demand.
But that doesn’t come as much of a surprise, considering the taste. Crum explained, “It’s like a soda. It has an effervescence, nice bubbles, and a tangy flavor.” With a variety of flavors, the ginger variety dominates the market, seconded by the berry-family assortments.
Kombucha: The New Super Food
One of the most alluring aspects of kombucha is its presumed health benefits. For starters, it has the same antioxidant goodness you’d find in regular tea. From there, the drink can be rich in beneficial B vitamins, enzymes, amino acids, and polyphenols. But Kombucha’s big health claim to fame is as a probiotic powerhouse. According to Bill Moses, founder and CEO of KeVita, a kombucha brewer in Oxnard, California, “Probiotics support and enhance the beneficial bacteria that line the gut, and a healthy gut improves the absorption of essential nutrients in foods and supplements, contributing to improved health.” For example, he explained that his own KeVita Master Brew Kombucha includes two strains of live probiotics and 4 billion CFUs (colony forming units), as well as beneficial organic acids, like acetic, gluconic and citric acid.
Admittedly, research on the health benefits of kombucha is limited with studies just starting to see funding. Anecdotal stories include better digestion, more energy, a general feeling of better health, and even statements that kombucha has helped with eczema and psoriasis. Other health claims state that it boosts the immune system, detoxifies, oxygenates blood, and there are cancer-fighting claims.
But Crum cautions, “It’s just a real good-quality food, like a super food. It’s important to think of it that way instead of as a miracle cure.”
In fact, it’s also important to be judicious when first starting the drink. People who drink too much kombucha have reported bloating or feeling like they have to go to the bathroom a lot, according to Crum, since it is a raw, fermented, and nutrient-dense drink. Shapiro cited people having achy joints after drinking too much. She attributes that to the detoxifying elements of the drink. Toxins can be released by the drink, and if someone doesn’t drink enough water, the toxins can be reabsorbed and contribute to achiness.
Crum stated that the key to starting with this drink is to go slowly. Start with four to eight ounces of the drink first thing in the morning and see how it affects you. You can take those small doses up to three times per day.
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