What do kombucha tea and sourdough bread have in common? They both are bred from a “mother,” a solid mass that is a culture of yeast and bacteria often called a mushroom or SCOBY (Symbiotic Culture of Bacteria and Yeast). The culture can look almost like a jellyfish — a brown-red disk of waxy slime, waving tendrils of yeast and bacteria in the liquid beneath it that form “babies,” which can be cut off to form new cultures. Sounds yucky, right?
Yet, kombucha (come-BOO-shah) is a centuries-old fermented tea beverage that is quickly gaining popularity in the United States. Some believe it originated in Russia in the early 19th century. Planet Organic describes kombucha as “the elixir of life” that is an authentic, delicious, handmade living tea originating in Ancient China.
Kombucha, the latest and hottest health drink, is presumed to be super beneficial to athletes with rewarding health benefits believed to improve health, energy and general well-being. WebMD.com reports that regular drinkers of kombucha claim it aids digestion, sleep, weight loss and detoxification; stimulates the immune system, prevents cancer, stops hair loss, and improves liver function. However, there are no clinical trials or sound scientific evidence to substantiate the numerous claims.
According to WebMD, kombucha contains essential B vitamins, helping to extract more energy and nutrients from ingesting other foods. The combination of B vitamins coupled with utilizing other foods helps to ease muscle soreness and assist in the body's ability to recover more rapidly after exercising. It can strengthen the immune system as it contains glucuronic acid, which helps to strengthen cells, helping to prevent some forms of cancer and also protecting joints from wear and tear. There are two types of kombucha - pasteurized and unpasteurized, the latter contains probiotics that ward off bad bacteria and help sustain good bacteria. It is an antioxidant as it is made from a base of either black or green tea. It is also believed that kombucha balances the body's pH and aids in increasing blood circulation to detoxify the liver and kidneys, as well as helping to release impurities in the blood due to the glucuronic acid.
Popping open a bottle of kombucha is like popping a bottle of Champagne as the drink is effervescent and fizzes up the nostrils. It is a tangy drink that tastes almost like vinegar soda pop in its original form. However, producers are now introducing flavors to sweeten the acidic taste. And, like home brewers of beer, kombucha can be brewed at home. Home-brewed varieties start by either purchasing the ‘kombucha mothers’ or by using a starter sample from an existing culture to grow a new colony of bacteria and yeast that ferments in a clean jar for 7-14 days. Some brands are pasteurized to kill potential pathogens; other brands and most home brews are drunk raw or unpasteurized.
Experts warn about the dangers of home-brewed and unpasteurized kombucha prepared in non-sterile conditions and the risk for unhealthy bacteria getting into the tea. On WebMD.com, according to Janet Helm, MS, RD, a Chicago nutritionist and author of Nutrition Unplugged blog, if you want to drink kombucha, a safer bet is to go for one that is commercially prepared and pasteurized
There have been reports of adverse effects from drinking the tea, ranging from upset stomach to toxic reactions and metabolic acidosis (excessive acid buildup in the body). The FDA cautions that home-brewed versions are at high risk of contamination. However, a Holmdel resident turned entrepreneur by creating her own kombucha tea to save her daughter, now 17 and healthy, from having a liver transplant before age three. Ciara’s Komboost Kobucha was created and is currently sold at about 50 stores on the East Coast.
Kombucha is non-alcoholic and can be found in beverage cases at health-food markets and grocery stores like Whole Foods.