Kombucha Tea: What’s the Real Deal?

If you’re one of the many people who takes celebrities seriously as a source of information on nutrition and fitness, you might be wondering if there’s anything to kombucha tea, the latest (but certainly not the last) trendy drink that’s reportedly loved by everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Madonna.

The short answer is “not really”. According to Mark Stengler, ND, author of The Natural Physician’s Healing Therapies, “When the movie stars tout its benefits, you know it’s something to be wary about”.

Kombucha is a fermented tea that’s made by taking a large pancake-like culture of bacteria and yeast (called the “mushroom”) and allowing it to ferment in a jar with black tea and sugar for about a week. The mushroom “floats” in the tea and eventually produces a “baby mushroom” that floats on the surface of the liquid—the baby mushroom can then be used as a “starter” culture for another batch of brew. Aficionados passed along these “mushrooms” and treated them like heirlooms. The tea is now sold commercially at many health food stores—the best-known brand is GT Kombucha by Synergy drinks.

Kombucha tea has been promoted as a cure-all for everything from baldness to insomnia, from chronic fatigue to multiple sclerosis, from AIDs to cancer. There is virtually no serious scientific support for any of these claims. “Overhyped products like kombucha hurt the credibility of the nutrition industry”, adds Stengler.

There have been a few published studies showing that kombucha has antimicrobial activities. The exact mechanism by which the tea is able to fight microbes is unknown, but properly fermented kombucha may contain helpful probiotics (beneficial bacteria) as well as compounds like acetic acid, which appear to be effective against some pathogens. None of these very few positive studies was done on humans, and there have been several documented cases of severe toxicity and illness in both humans and animals after consuming homemade varieties of the brew.

The commercial variety of kombucha tea is unlikely to make you sick, but it’s unlikely to do much of anything else except put a dent in your wallet. It’s advertised as being a good source of probiotics but there are far better and cheaper ways to get these healthful bacteria in your diet—yogurt, kefir, fermented olives, homemade sauerkraut and the Korean dish kim-chee are all excellent sources.

Ralph Moss, PhD, the widely recognized authority on integrative and alternative treatments for cancer recently summed it up this way:

“I have stopped drinking kombucha tea and will seek other, less problematic elixirs. For now, I am back to drinking Chinese tea (Camilla sinensis). There is about 100 times as much research on tea, especially green tea, as there is on kombucha. In addition, the cost of Chinese tea is about 4¢ per teapot compared to the $4 or so that I forked over for each bottle of kombucha”.