Kombucha Tea, or KT for short, is the hottest trend among health nuts these days. If you haven’t seen it around yet, you will soon. So what’s all the fuss about KT? According to the owner of the best-selling version on the market, GT Kombucha, it “…nourishes the body, delights your taste buds, bolsters your immunity, and makes your spirits fly”. Impressive stuff. That, and it supposedly saved his mother’s life from breast cancer.
Now, while GT Kombucha claims that they use “the wisdom of ancient medicinal foods” in making this tea, there is actually nothing ancient about it. The general consensus is that Kombucha Tea originated in East Asia, but became popularized in Russia and Europe during the early 1900’s. To make it, take green or black tea, add sugar, and ferment it for at least one week in a jar using a mixture of yeast and bacteria. Once the microbes have worked their biochemical magic, you heat, pour, and drink. I specifically use the word “drink”, and not “enjoy”, because its taste has been described as “somewhere between vinegar soda and carbonated apple cider”.
So what do we actually know about the health benefits of this tea? A search of the scientific literature reveals the following:
- When given to rats, KT “protected” them against the effects a cholesterol-rich diet. Sounds nice and all, but scientists have recently decided that the amount of cholesterol we actually absorb from the diet is pretty inconsequential, so this study is of limited use.
- When given to diabetic rats, KT reduced body weight and counteracted diabetic symptoms. This study also showed that unfermented black tea also produces such an effect, but the authors claim that KT is more “efficient” at doing so.
- While extracts of KT show antibiotic activity, the authors weren’t able to determine what the active chemical was. Regardless, this activity was shown in the lab and not through live infection of an animal model, so there’s no definitive proof of antimicrobial activity in animals yet.
Now, I could go on for hours breaking all the studies down, but honestly someone else already has. If you do actually read that review, then you (like me) would believe that KT is probably really good for you. That is, unless you read the American Cancer Society’s statement about KT:
“Available scientific evidence does not support claims that Kombucha tea promotes good health, prevents any ailments, or works to treat cancer or any other disease. Serious side effects and occasional deaths have been linked with drinking Kombucha tea.”
Wow… those were some strong words! So the apparent problem with Kombucha tea is that consuming too much is actually not good for you. A lot of the problem seems to derive from the abundance of acids produced during fermentation. These acids might accidentally leach off harmful chemicals from the fermentation vessel (e.g. lead from a teapot). As for the lack of scientific evidence, they do have a compelling argument. The only studies done on KT have been carried out in mice and rats; I was unable to find any good controlled human trials. Furthermore, once you start to look back at the older studies performed on KT, they generally suggest that KT can be actually quite harmful to some people.
So is Kombucha tea ultimately good for you? Depending upon which bacteria are present for the fermentation and how exactly you ferment the tea, then perhaps. I’d imagine that since it is a tea, it certainly will have some healthful benefits. Yet caution should certainly be used as the fermentation process is not currently regulated and the science around KT is still developing. If you do decide to indulge, I would suggest you avoid the risk of home brewing and go buy it from a well-known brand. Most importantly though, like everything in life, remember to enjoy it in moderation!
Note: This post is not intended as medical advice, it is merely a review article. My advice should not be relied upon in place of consultation with a licensed medical doctor. Just saying :)