Kombucha — diet supplement?

Originally Published: April 27, 1995 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: July 4, 2008
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Alice,

I'd like to find out about a fungi called kombucha. I've been told by some alternative health types that it is a beneficial dietary supplement when used as tea. However, I've not been able to find out anything about it. The claims, which I won't go into, seem a bit nebulous — or at least astronomical!

Thanks,
Herbal

Dear Herbal,

Kombucha is fermented tea, popular 5000 years ago in China and Russia because of its healing and restorative properties, and popular for the same reasons today. The beverage, which can taste like either sparkling cider or vinegar depending on how long it has been fermented, is now drunk by many people in the East and West. Its purported benefits range from immune system support, to digestive stimulant, to weight loss supplement, to cancer-preventing food. While many of these claims are not confirmed by research, the beverage does exert measurable antimicrobial and detoxifying activity in the body.

Kombucha is typically prepared by combining sugar-sweetened black or green tea with a fungus (called a Kombucha mushroom, mother, or scobie) at room temperature for ten to fourteen days. The mushroom is a symbiotic colony of yeasts and bacteria bound together by a thin membrane. The fungus' yeasts ferment the sugar and tea compounds into acetic acid (vinegar), B vitamins, and a number of other chemical compounds. The low pH of the mixture, and the presence of antimicrobial agents in the mushroom, prevents the survival of most potentially contaminating organisms, making kombucha a popular drink to brew at home. However, sometimes unhealthy mold can grow on the mother; if this happens repeatedly you might just want to buy the bottled version of Kombucha at almost any health food store.

Acetic, lactic, and gluconic acids are the main active chemical compounds in this drink. Gluconic acid is considered to be the main therapeutic agent, binding to toxin molecules in the body, and facilitating their excretion by stimulating the liver and kidneys. Acetic acid, an antibacterial agent, is thought to kill "bad" bacteria in the gut and intestines, and lactic acid may populate the body with healthy bacteria, aiding in efficient digestion, improving absorption of nutrients from food, and helping to speed elimination. Other compounds, such as tea-derived phenolic compounds, may be involved in claimed anti-oxidant and cancer-preventing benefits.

Other benefits attributed to Kombucha tea have included relief of arthritis, hair re-growth, increased sex drive, eyesight improvement, and even use as an underarm deodorant or soothing foot soak. Because herbal remedies are not considered a food or a drug and are therefore not evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), there is not sufficient evidence to validate or refute most of these claims. However, no harm has been shown among healthy people who drink the tea in the recommended amount of about four ounces daily. If you do try the bubbly drink and find it does nothing for you, it is said that the mushroom makes a good brass cleaner! Enjoy!

Alice