There was a time when we all thought kombucha was the new coconut water—one of those beverages with unclear health benefits that seemed suddenly ubiquitous (at least in the food stores I’d frequent). But after interviewing a bunch of brewers for a piece I wrote last summer, and beginning to drink the stuff fairly often myself, I began to reconsider. Sure, kombucha is having a moment right now—one might even call it trendy, given its association with both coastal hipsters and the celebrity crowd. But this is one drink whose healthiness might actually live up to its hype.
Kombucha, for the uninitiated, is a carbonated, fermented tea spawned from a live culture, called a mother or SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). It has a vinegar-y taste that some might describe as ‘acquired.’ Because it comes from a living organism, kombucha is probiotic (one of those other current health buzzwords), and served unpasteurized to keep its living qualities strong. There is confusion over kombucha’s provenance—the recorded history of the drink began in Russia sometime two centuries ago, but some place the beverage’s origination way before that, in ancient China or Japan.
“Kombucha is the most versatile fermented food, and we as humans require the probiotics, enzymes and natural vitamin boost these foods provide, which is why fermented foods have been an integral part of our diets through all history,” says Hannah Crum, founder and master brewer for Beverly Hills-based Kombucha Kamp.
Rana Chang, maker of House Kombucha in San Francisco, says kombucha’s biggest health benefit is that it is an alkaline-forming, not acid-forming, food, and can help regulate your body’s pH levels. ”The modern diet is often very acidic, and combined with stress and other factors, many people suffer from a pH imbalance that is too acidic,” she notes. “An imbalanced pH can be at the root of many common symptoms such as constipation, heartburn, headaches, frequent colds, digestive problems, acne, fatigue, and sleeplessness.”
Kombucha has been credited with relieving many of these things. It’s alleged to promote increased energy, a healthy urinary tract, faster wound-healing, and better digestion; to aid with detoxification, hangovers, and immune system functioning. It’s also bee touted as a cure for cancer and used as a treatment for AIDs patients. A review of the literature on kombucha’s health benefits is mixed, at best (as one NIH study puts it, “some stories state miraculous results; other accounts mention no improvement in general well-being”).
“Because there isn’t any proof that this stuff does anything, people are quick to be, like, ‘Well, you know, this is all crap,’” said Rich Awn, all-around foodie entrepreneur and maker of Mombucha kombucha in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, when I interviewed him last summer. Still, Awn credits kombucha in part for his good health—as did his mother, a nurse, who was in turn taught to brew by a nurse named Ruth Patras (Patras believes kombucha saved her daughter from a liver disease).
Kombucha is “trendy for a reason,” said Awn, when I followed up with him yesterday. “I mean, most kombucha tastes like ass, so it’s not popular cuz it’s yummy.” [Awn notes that his kombucha is, in fact, yummy; I've tried it, and I will vouch for that.] Because there’s no money to be made from home remedies, there hasn’t been much medical research to back up the health claims, and that’s why so much of the evidence is ‘purported,’ Awn says, but “notwithstanding, this stuff has gotten rid of people’s skin problems, liver problems, my sister’s gall stones after her second pregnancy, and has kept me from getting sick for years somehow.”
Crum agrees on the sickness front: “If you’re sick of being sick in this toxic world we live in, take action with a daily detox of homemade Kombucha and see how it makes you feel,” she advises.
Leslie Crews, president of Kombuchick, notes that not only is kombucha great for “replenishing gut flora,” it can serve as a transition beverage “away from sodas and other corn syrup-laden” drinks. “It’s also a great beverage alternative to spirits, beers and liquors at social functions,” she adds.
“If you’re craving coffee, tea, beer, or soda, kombucha is the perfect alternative,” agrees Chang. “It’s low in calories, contains negligible amounts of caffeine and alcohol, and helps balance your body’s natural pH. Normally, pick-me-up drinks like coffee and tea (alcohol, too) lead to high acid, which eventually can lead to acid induced fatigue.”
According to Awn, there’s at least one more benefit: Kombucha culture (the people-and-customs kind, not the yeast variety). “It’s this hippie thing that people do and teach each other how to make,” Awn says. “I teach people how to make it in their homes all the time because you can make a ton of it for pennies. It’s this healing thing that people can give to each other that’s not a drug, but more like a plant. There’s some magic in it just by virtue of how it’s propagated.”
Awn compares it to Alejandro Jodorowski’s ‘psychomagic,’ a therapeutic practice combining Eastern philosophies, mysticism and psychotherapy which, according to Wikipedia, “relies on the belief that the unconscious mind takes a symbolic act as a fact.” When I note that that sounds an awfully lot like a placebo effect, Awn says, “totally.”
“Kombucha has some for real good stuff in it, like B-complex and some awesome acids for the blood,” he notes. But “there’s tons of placebo in kombucha, too. I don’t think that’s bad. I think the mind’s power to heal is the greatest defense we have yet to fully tap.”
Photo: Neighborhood Beatbox