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Christi Sodano/MEDILL

Millennium Products, makers of GT Kombucha, are the most recognizable brand of the tea. The founder attributes the drink's content with helping his mother beat cancer.

Kombucha tea: Friend or foe?

by Christi Sodano
Feb 23, 2012

Since the ‘90s when it first gained recognition as a cure-all for ailments for everything from cancer to graying hair, kombucha tea has continued to gain popularity despite minimal scientific validation and potential risks.

Now commercially available through a variety of national and regional distributors, including Whole Foods and Safeway, kombucha tea has become a hit among the proponents for holistic medicine, but why? Is it just a fad or does kombucha actually possess some type of miraculous healing power?

Also called Manchurian tea, kargasok tea, or tea fungus, kombucha is made at home and commercially by fermenting a flat pancake-like culture in sweetened black tea. Although the culture is actually made of a combination of yeast and bacteria, it is often referred to as the kombucha mushroom, according to an American Cancer Society statement about kombucha tea.

According to the Food and Drug Administration, the brewing process can take up to seven days and the nutritional profile and alcohol content can vary from batch to batch. This is especially common in a home-brew scenario where protocols are not followed and there are differences in the initial tea concentration, the age of the mushroom and fermentation time, which can affect the final product.

While there have been reports of tea contamination that have resulted in hospital trips and even lead poisoning when painted ceramic pots were used to brew the tea, these dangers seem to be far more prevalent in home brews rather than commercially available versions.

According to a FDA announcement concerning tea contamination, “FDA studies have found no evidence of contamination in kombucha products fermented under sterile conditions,” during inspections of a major kombucha tea supplier’s California facility.

Ed Kasper, a retired acupuncturist, better known for his online persona as the “Happy Herbalist,” has been brewing and selling the tea out of his North Carolina home since 1997. He compares brewing kombucha to cooking at home.
“The likelihood of getting sick from your own cooking is overblown compared to eating out at restaurants. You just have to use common sense and be careful to avoid mold,” he said.

Although Kasper was hesitant to say kombucha is a wonder drug, he mentioned that many of his customers use the drink in treating everything from intestinal disorders and fatigue to improving the quality of life in the chronically ill.

“I am not really sick, so it did not really cure anything for me. Some people claim it turns their hair color back to black,” Kasper said.

After years of speculation and countless testimonials asserting many of the same benefits, health organizations and physicians are investigating the purported benefits of kombucha tea.

“In short, there isn’t good evidence that kombucha tea delivers on its health claims. However, there have been reports of adverse effects such as upset stomach, infections and allergic reactions in kombucha tea drinkers,” said Dr. Brent Bauer in a Mayo Clinic statement.

In response to pushback from the scientific community, the more far-fetched testimonials of HIV and cancer cures appear to be losing sway. However, kombucha enthusiasts and commercial manufacturers still tout the tea’s reported probiotic benefits.

Probiotics are living microorganisms that are similar to the beneficial microorganisms found in the human gut, according to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

“Probiotics are pretty popular. Mostly people are eating more yogurt to get probiotics because they promote regular digestion and regulate against intestinal complications, said Bindi Lessing, a registered dietician based in Chicago who specializes in nutrition for people with cancer and other chronic illnesses.

Amanda Milewski, director of marketing for Millennium Products in Beverly Hills, Calif., which is arguably the most recognizable commercial manufacturer of kombucha, emphasized the existence of naturally occurring probiotics, antioxidants, enzymes and organic acids in the company’s teas.

“A lot of research has gone into the probiotics in each bottle. In terms of quantifying the amount of probiotics per bottle we say the content is 1 billion,” she said.

Milewski declined to comment on any negative side effects of kombucha, but did emphasize that because the tea is raw and unpasteurized it should be slowly introduced to the body and that new consumers should monitor how they feel in response to the tea.  

Like Milewski, the FDA, American Cancer Society and Bauer advised a prudent approach in consuming kombucha tea products; however, they do not advocate for the health benefits.

But, that does not deter kombucha tea backers.

“At the end of the day if it makes you feel good, that is half the battle,” Milewski said.