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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

It looks and tastes like a cross between Champagne and vinegar, kombucha is now a $150-million-a-year industry that’s growing exponentially,

Is Celebrity Favorite Kombucha Really a Health and Anti-Aging Cure?

Madonna, Halle Berry, and Gwyneth Paltrow have been snapped swigging the sweet-and-sour fermented tea, which fans credit with curing everything from acne to cancer and turning back the biological clock—and new scientific studies seem to agree. So is kombucha a drinkable fountain of youth?

It costs just a few bucks per bottle in your local supermarket and is claimed to reverse the aging process and cure everything from baldness to cancer. For pennies, it can even be brewed at home, if you don’t mind a little slime.

So who wouldn’t join Madonna, Halle Berry, Lindsay Lohan, and Gwyneth Paltrow on the kombucha bandwagon, especially now that new scientific studies appear to support all those claims? A sparkling golden fermented beverage that packs a massive antioxidant punch and looks and tastes like a cross between Champagne and vinegar, kombucha is now a $150-million-a-year industry that’s growing exponentially, despite worries about possible side effects and health risks.
Comprising acetic acid, malic acid, butyric acid, oxalic acid, lactic acid, and a teensy bit of alcohol, kombucha has been a standard refresher, alleged hangover cure, and all-around home remedy in Asia and Eastern Europe for millennia. Its origins and etymology are veiled in mystery: cha is Chinese for “tea,” but debates rage over those first two syllables. Some say kombucha was brought to Russia by Manchurian traders. Others trace it to southern China, Korea, and Japan. Some go so far as to call it ancient.
Which culture created it? When something’s being touted as the next best thing to manna, everyone wants to say, "We had it first."
“In many cases—but not all—foods that have long, rich cultural and medicinal traditions often turn out to have proven scientific benefits,” says registered dietitian Sharon Palmer, author of The Plant-Powered Diet. Still, she adds that “although celebrities bring attention to many issues of diet and nutrition, that doesn’t mean they are always correct or give the best advice.”
Kombucha was withdrawn from Whole Foods and other stores in the summer of 2010 due to concerns over its alcohol content. By that fall, it was back on the shelves.
Kombucha Stink
Charles Krupa
Because the rubbery white wodge that fuels its fermentation resembles a mushroom cap, kombucha is often mistakenly called “mushroom tea.” That mat is actually a culture: in technical terms, a symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast. Fed a steady stream of super-sweet black, green, or white tea—one cup of sugar per gallon—it will replicate indefinitely, producing ever more wodges, each of which can be reused indefinitely.
Mid-20th-century Russian and German studies credited kombucha with reducing or curing dysentery, dyspepsia, high blood pressure, gastritis, colitis, gout, kidney stones, and even cancer. Nobel Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn credited kombucha with curative properties in his novel The Cancer Ward. After his own bout with cancer, Ronald Reagan became a fan. Celebs have followed suit ever since: Reese Witherspoon, Anna Paquin, and Orlando Bloom have been snapped clutching bottles of “booch.” Now a new wave of studies might boost sales even higher.
One cell-based study, destined for the June 2012 issue of the journal Swiss Society of Food Science and Technology’s, asserts that kombucha “has prophylactic and therapeutic properties” including antimicrobial, antibacterial, and antifungal effects. Its authors speculate that kombucha “may be very healthful” in combating yeast infections, thrush, and other forms of candidiasis.
Palmer warns that the scientific evidence on kombucha’s benefits is just in the preliminary stages. “Cell and animal studies indicate that it may have some antioxidant properties, but there’s no proof to back many of the popular claims,” she says.
A 2011 study affiliated with India’s Jadavpur University and published inPathophysiology found that kombucha consumption effectively protects liver cells. Its authors conclude that kombucha “was found to modulate the oxidative stress-induced apoptosis in murine hepatocytes probably due to its antioxidant activity and functioning via mitochondria dependent pathways and could be beneficial against liver diseases, where oxidative stress is known to play a crucial role.”
Maybe Lindsay Lohan wouldn’t put it quite that way, but the message is clearly spreading.
“I sell every bottle of kombucha that I make, and I can hardly keep up with demand,” says Alex Hozven, co-owner of the Cultured Pickle Shop in Berkeley, Calif.
Hozven first began brewing kombucha 13 years ago, when she was nursing her son. Having given up caffeine, she had heard that kombucha produced a light buzz.
“I was interested in fermented foods anyway,” she recalls. “Here was one more to experiment with.”
Using local produce, she devised a line of seasonal luxury kombuchas such as blood orange-caraway, parsley-grapefruit, and lemon-turmeric-sunflower-greens, as well as pumpkin, celery, carrot, fennel, jalapeño pepper, turnip, and beet. They have proved wildly popular.
“My kombucha’s a lot more expensive than anything else out there,” Hozven says, “but I still sell every drop.”
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