Has Kombucha Gotcha?

By | August 12, 2016

A recent stroll past the beverages section of my local natural foods store revealed five brands of kombucha in twenty-five plus flavors. In addition, there was kombucha soda pop—six or seven kinds. At the deli counter, I noticed kombucha on tap—eight flavors. Yet all I had to do to discover this latest health food craze was take a peek in our school’s glass recycling bin. Yep, mostly kombucha bottles.

For fifty years I’ve watched food fads rise and fall. First it was whole-wheat, which turned out to be just as high-glycemic as white. Then there was soy, until we learned that it packs estrogen. More recently, we have probiotics and coconut oil, even though the former turned out to be no better than eating foods that support healthy gut flora, and the proliferation of plantations producing the latter are destroying precious jungle.

But kombucha seems different. The health claims are taller—it’ll cure everything from terminal cancer to a bad date. And its adherents possess a conviction that reminds me of friends who believe in Sasquatch and aliens living amongst us. I had to know more about this latest miracle elixir.

A tad of research revealed that kombucha is a yeast-bacteria ferment of sweetened green or black tea. It contains the common by-products of fermentation, which includes acetic (vinegar), oxalic, and lactic acids. Nothing special there.

A little more poking around brought up evidence of glucaric acid, which is normally found in fruits and vegetables. It is said to aid in liver detoxification. And the acids in general can reduce the bloated feeling frequently gotten after eating starchy foods. Still, this could hardly account for my comrades downing bottle after bottle at nearly four bucks a crack—especially considering the thin stipend we all lived on.

It turns out that kombucha contains around 1-1½ % alcohol (about 1/3 of what beer contains), around half of the caffeine found in green or black tea, and residual sugar. Could these three ingredients be working synergistically to create the burst of energy and euphoric feeling that people experience? Perhaps these mood-altering and stomach-settling effects—along with effective advertising—contribute to kombucha’s addictive nature and its reputation for having healing properties. Whatever the case, this fizzy sweet-and-sour potion has become the drink of choice for many of my new-age friends.

I must report that along with kombucha’s real and imagined health benefits, I came across these cautions:

  • Prolonged use may lead to liver damage and allergic reactions.
  • Oxalic acid is known to bind with calcium, which makes it unavailable for assimilation.
  • Acetic acid (vinegar) can destroy red blood cells, and it is an irritant which depletes digestive enzymes.
  • Lactic acid, typically a waste byproduct of overextended muscles, must be metabolized by the liver, which robs the body of energy.
  • When yeasts enter the digestive system, they set up a climate conducive to viruses.

I doubt that the occasional bottle of kombucha is going to cause any harm. Aside from the above, my main concern for those who consume it regularly is the risk of creating a false sense of well-being. The kombucha high may either mask health issues or divert attention from them. It can also serve as a substitute for the proper diet and lifestyle practices that foster organic health and support core healing.

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