Kombucha: What’s the Buzz About Fermented Tea?

Kombucha is an ancient beverage made by fermenting sweetened black or green tea with added bacteria and yeast to create an effervescent beverage that has gone mainstream.

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a new line of bottled beverages in the reach-in refrigerator at your local convenience and health good store. Move over, soda, water, juice and iced tea, and make room for kombucha (kom-BU-cha). There are nearly a dozen or more brands on the market, with flavors that range from lemon and ginger to Asian pear and hibiscus.

Historically speaking, this slightly carbonated, fizzy tea-based drink is anything but new, having originated in northeastern China around 220 B.C. Fermenting raw ingredients as a method of food preservation has been practiced by many diverse cultures for generations. Consider foods such as pickles, olives, kimchi, sauerkraut, cheese and yogurt, items which derive their flavor, texture and purported health benefits via the fermentation process.

Just what is kombucha? According to Colorado State University Extension, “kombucha is a lightly effervescent, cider-like beverage, made by fermenting sweetened tea (black or green). It is produced using a starter culture of bacteria and yeasts called a SCOBY (Symbiotic Colony of Bacteria and Yeast).” Kombucha makers may add fruit juice, flavors, herbs and spices during the production process. The finished brew has the tang of cider vinegar, and contains B vitamins, antioxidants, trace minerals and probiotics.

Many advocates of kombucha tout the benefits of consuming the beverage as an aid for a variety of ailments and disease, from high blood pressure, cancer and digestive woes to strengthening the immune system. However, it is vital for consumers to note that there is insufficient scientific research on kombucha to support any valid claims on improved health outcomes and alleged cures as a result of consuming the drink. “Only limited scientific research is available to help answer questions about the benefits and safety of kombucha,” says Colorado Farm to Table.

The Mayo Clinic also cautions “…there are risks to consider, and there have been reports of adverse effects, such as stomach upset, infections and allergic reactions in kombucha tea drinkers. Kombucha tea is often brewed in homes under nonsterile conditions, making contamination likely.”

A few of my urban grocery cooperative neighbors brew their own kombucha, but I usually decline the offer to taste mainly because I don’t know how it was processed. Our co-op sells several varieties of kombucha in refrigerated kegs, and sales have increased this past year.

There are sources that advise drinking only small quantities of commercially manufactured kombucha, especially if you’re not accustomed to consuming fermented foods and beverages, while still others sagely recommend avoiding it altogether. Registered dietitian Ellie Krieger, writing for the Washington Post Wellness column, suggests you choose a “…reputable, commercial brand when buying it bottled. To be on the safe side, children, pregnant women and those with compromised immune systems should drink only the pasteurized kind.”

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