Kombucha: Health or Hype?

By Eileen Weber

Whole Foods Market's kombucha arrives in kegs from Ciara's Kombucha in New Jersey, an artisan producer.

If Whole Foods Market is your weekly pit stop, you have undoubtedly sped past the case of specialty drinks touting major health benefits and lifelong happiness. Kombucha is one of them.

The health benefits accredited to this sparkling tea range from an increased energy level, strengthened immune system, and metabolism boost to preventing cancer, arthritis, and other degenerative illnesses. So is this the new fountain of youth, or just the latest snake oil?

If you’re Joni, a Whole Foods Market employee who preferred only to be called by her first name, you can’t believe everything you read.

“It’s more hype than reality,” she said. “It’s an acquired taste and it smells like beer on your hands.”

Her co-worker Georgiana has a different opinion, however. She’s been brewing it herself for 15 years. Her first taste was at a friend’s house and she’s been hooked ever since drinking a 12-ounce glass daily. As to kombucha’s sudden boost in popularity, she guessed that consumers are just more interested in taking better care of themselves.

“I feel much more alive when I drink it,” she loftily mused.  “Although, the stuff I make at home tastes nothing like what’s in the bottles.”

Originally brewed in China a few thousand years ago, it subsequently spread to Russia, Europe, and then the rest of the planet. It is a simple fermentation of tea and sugar resulting in a carbonated and slightly alcoholic drink. (However, the alcohol content is typically less than 0.5%).

Kombucha loosely translates to “tea fungus” or “mushroom tea,” although no mushrooms are used to ferment the liquid. Black tea is the main component, but often green, white, and sometimes yerba mate are substituted. Much like any fermented liquid, kombucha is the end result of what happens when yeast and bacteria meet.

It is called a SCOBY, or Symbiotic Colony Of Bacteria and Yeast. The SCOBY is called the “mother” because it can reproduce other batches. Those batches are called “babies.” (The mother also tends to look like a mushroom or a flat pancake, hence the name “mushroom tea.”)

While there have been a few studies on kombucha, there has been no formal scientific evidence to support the health claims. (In some cases, kombucha has been known to cause nausea, vomiting, allergic reactions, and yeast infections.)  Still, there are plenty of people who proclaim it as a miracle in a cup.

Whole Foods gets their kombucha in kegs from Ciara’s Kombucha in Tom’s River, New Jersey. They consider themselves a grassroots artisanal brewer and their story is a particularly interesting one.

Ciara Patras was born with bilary atresia, a congenital liver disease. A very serious condition, it meant that Ciara would inevitably need a liver transplant by the age of three. In the meantime, she had an operation to bypass her bile ducts and connect her liver to her small intestine. As part of her recovery, it was imperative that Ciara’s immune system be kept as healthy as possible.

Her mother, Ruth, was already drinking kombucha. Cancer ran through her family, so she tried to be proactive with her own health not realizing she’d really need it for her daughter’s. With a glimmer of hope, Ruth started feeding Ciara her homebrew. With every trip to the doctor’s office, the blood work continued to come back positive. Her immune system was getting stronger. And to this day, Ciara, who is now 18 and ready for college, has never had a liver transplant.

The company launched in 2010 and has grown gradually. With a business model focused on small batches and spreading locally, they are now sold all over the tri-state area. While Ruth will happily recommend drinking kombucha regularly, she debunks the myth that it’s a cure-all.

“I would never claim is prevents disease,” she said, a little frustrated with other brands that do. “It just aids the body in what the body is supposed to do. It just gives your body a fighting chance.”

She made the point that your body is meant to heal itself. We eat good foods every day to keep ourselves healthy. Kombucha is just one way to do that. And if you’re body is strong, it will fight off viruses, bacteria, and diseases much easier than when it’s unhealthy.

Ciara’s has plenty of competition: California’s GT’s, Kombucha Brooklyn, Champagne Tea from Pound Ridge, New York, and Vermont’s Aqua Vitea, just to name a few. Even tea giant Celestial Seasonings has gotten into the act.

I tried three different brands—Whole Foods (Ciara’s), GT’s Raw and their Synergy line, and Celestial Seasonings. They each had the telltale cider vinegar tang of kombucha. But the Celestial Seasonings Pomelo Citrus was strongly acidic and almost too tart to swallow. The GT’s brand is definitely an acquired taste. I tasted the raw version as well as their Gingerberry. Additional flavors didn’t mask the medicinal quality.

The best one by far was Ciara’s. It had a light berry tea flavor with a pleasant effervescence. It wasn’t too vinegary, which I think is what turns most people off to it. When kombucha is done right, it can actually be quite tasty.

Not thrilled with the bottled version? You can brew your own. One cup of sugar to one gallon of tea is the proportional makeup. Some use refined white sugar and others swear by using only unrefined sugars like evaporated cane juice or natural sweeteners like molasses and honey.

(A number of web sites, however, stated that too much honey could disturb the balance in the fermentation liquid. But all of them warned against using artificial sweeteners. And really, who needs anything artificial in their health drink?)

You can buy a starter culture on eBay or Cultures for Health, which sells starter cultures for yogurt, kefir, and sourdough bread as well. There are even brew kits like the one Kombucha Brooklyn sells. You can get it directly on their web site and you can also get it on Amazon.

But if you want to give Ciara’s a try, Whole Foods sells it in 32-ounce and 64-ounce glass jugs.  The 32-ounce is $8.99 ($4.99 for refills) and the 64-ounce is $13.99 ($9.99 for refills). They offer different flavors, but their main ingredients are live kombucha cultures, distilled water, organic sugar, and organic flavors.

Whether you believe the hype or not, kombucha at its core is just sweet tea. For thousands of years, people have been drinking it black, green, or otherwise and enjoying its benefits. As they say, one man’s snake oil is another man’s kombucha.

2 thoughts on “Kombucha: Health or Hype?”

  1. Understanding the skoby process, will make it myself.What kombucha to purchase to grow my own organic skoby. Ciara’s looks most genuine.Any suggestions.

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