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Judging from studies, a cuppa kombucha tea is not what the doctor ordered

The popularity of kombucha tea, a drink made from black tea and sugar that is fermented with bacterial and fungal cultures, continues to grow.

This craze is inexplicable to me. For despite the testimonials of such celebrities as Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Halle Berry and Alex Baldwin, there’s absolutely no good scientific evidence to back up the long list of medicinal claims (everything from easing arthritis pain to smoothing out facial wrinkles) that have been made for this centuries-old Chinese concoction.

Just because something was used in antiquity, doesn’t make it healthful, folks.

Yet people keep drinking it. By the gallons, apparently. The New York Times reported earlier this year that U.S. sales of kombucha and other “functional” juices raked in $295 million for their manufacturers (which include big names like Coca-Cola) in 2009 — a 25 percent jump over sales two years earlier.

So what does science say about kombucha tea? Dr. Michele Berman, publisher of the Celebrity Diagnosis blog, reported yesterday on a literature review of kombucha that she and her husband and co-blogger, Dr. Mark Boguski, conducted at PubMed:

We … found 40 articles on kombucha tea. Many of these studies originated in China or India and consisted of testing the effects of kombucha tea on rats or mice; a few papers tested effects on human cancer cells in vitro. Some beneficial effects were seen but one study concluded that “[c]omparable effects and mechanisms in humans remain uncertain, as do health safety issues, because serious health problems and fatalities have been reported and attributed to drinking kombucha.

In other words, there have been no studies involving either the effectiveness or the safety of kombucha in actual human beings in a major medical journal. So any claims being made for the drink are untested and purely anecdotal.

Even alternative health guru Dr. Andrew Weil warns people away from the tea. "I don't recommend kombucha tea at all," he writes on his website. "I know of no scientific studies backing up the health claims made for it."

Not benign
The greatest danger from kombucha, says Berman, seems to come from brewing the tea at home — something that many Americans do, probably because they believe the drink is then more “authentic.” But these home-brewed versions can cause serious, even life-threatening, problems when they “become contaminated because of improper preparation and/or when kombucha interacts with alcohol or prescription drugs,” Berman points out.

Adverse effects, she adds, include “hepatitis, xerostomia [dry mouth], dizziness, nausea, vomiting, headache, shortness of breath, restless legs, abdominal pain, hypotension [abnormally low blood pressure], and tachycardia [racing heart beat]. In most cases, patients fully recovered after discontinuation of kombucha and symptomatic treatment. However there are case reports of serious and sometimes fatal cases of hepatic dysfunction and lactic acidosis.”

Back in the early 1990s, during the first wave of kombucha tea craze, an Iowa woman died of lactic acidosis and another became seriously ill after drinking home-brewed kombucha tea daily for two months. (At that time, the drink was being touted as a way of boosting the immune system, particularly in people with H.I.V. and AIDS.)

The CDC warned at the time that although “drinking this tea in quantities typically consumed (approximately 4 oz. 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 of the tea.”

Whole Foods recently removed kombucha drinks from its stores because they were found to contain elevated levels of alcohol (a byproduct of the fermentation process). Although MinnPost is supposed to be a Lindsay Lohan-free space, I feel compelled to report Berman’s observation that this may explain why the actress’ alcohol-monitoring bracelet became activated after she had been ordered by the court to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages.

Yes, Lohan attests to the health wonders of kombucha tea, too.

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Comments (4)

I feel like it is good for curing a hangover?

I drink Kombucha because I like it. I tended to think of it as "beer for tea drinkers". In other words I am no more likely to accept the claims that it is good for my health than I believed that other fizzy flavored tablets dropped in water would keep me from catching a cold.

Although I under stand the concerns that a new fad might be dangerous, according to the article the greatest dangers were associated with home brewing. How dangerous is home fermenting things in general? no one ever gets sick or dies from home brewing beer or wine? Or processing and canning your own food? Home canning seems to be making a come back. What's the likelihood that some one will get sick or die from that?

I recently saw an article about several people dying and going blind in Nigeria from home brewed alcohol. There is always a risk that you will get sick or even die from improperly prepared foods and drinks.

I appreciate that Susan wants to warn people to be wary of fads and un-evaluated health claims. But I'm wondering how many people are going to get sick and possibly die from improperly home canned foods. That seems to be a much bigger fad at the moment.

Candace,

You're right about my purpose in writing the post. Although home-brewed kombucha tea poses a real health risk, few people will get ill because most will just buy the stuff at a store. For most consumers, then, the danger of this drink is to the pocketbook. It's another "health food" with no evidence to support its health claims.

While I agree with the general idea of this article, mainly that people should avoid jumping on the bandwagon of health fads, I still think that there are, all celebrity endorsements and health hype aside, at least a few good reasons to drink the stuff.

As a soda replacement you really can't beat Kombucha. I mean granted nobody has ever died from attempting to make soft drinks at home (at least let's hope not), but at the same time there's not (nor could there ever be) an obesity epidemic in this country caused, at least in part, by people drinking too much Kombucha! 16oz of Coke contains 192 calories, 52g of sugar and 46 mg caffeine while the same amount of Kombucha contains only 70 calories, 4g of sugar and less than 4mg of caffeine.

And in regard to the alcohol issue: in moderation, a small amount of alcohol has been shown to have a cardio-protective effect, it reduces blood pressure and boosts HDL or "good cholesterol" levels. But even with all that being said, we're only talking about around .05% abv. Even with some news sources saying that the alcohol content could get as high as 2% by the time a bottle was consumed, to put that into perspective, even at this worse case scenario, you'd have to drink four 16oz bottles of kombucha to get the same amount of booze you'd find in one 8oz glass of wine. Good luck with all that.

Finally, and this is the most important point for me, kombucha is one of the only vegan, raw, unenriched sources of B-12 (40% of RDA for a 2000 calorie diet per bottle) Without it I would be forced to rely upon enriched (processed) foods and/or vitamin supplements-- better the devil you know, eh?

Ultimately, as long as you're not drinking it in excess expecting it to make you able to fly, to cure your blindness or bring your dead ancestors back from the grave, I see no harm at all in drinking a bottle or two a day.

PS
@William:
Yeah, I've also found it to be great for hangovers!