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Kombucha: Ancient Elixir and Fad Beverage


Kombucha is a trendy drink with ancient roots. Over the last couple years, kombucha has resurged in popularity.  Numerous brands of the bottled bubbly beverage fill grocery store shelves, and the Internet has many how-to recipes for brewing home batches. So, why has the drink become so popular? Touted as the “elixir of life,” kombucha flashes many hot-topic health claims including preventing cancer, slowing aging, reducing joint pain, and weight loss. Although relatively uninvestigated in scientific studies, kombucha’s dramatic health claims and recent surge in popularity have sparked interest in research communities.
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By Rebecca Brundidge
 
History of Kombucha
Kombucha’s health claims stem from ancient practices. Chinese civilizations in 220 BC Manchuria consumed the fermented beverage for its potential medicinal properties. Kombucha spread from Manchuria to Russia and Eastern Europe via expansion of trade routes. More recently, the beverage traveled further to Western Europe and North Africa during World War II. During this time, Russian physicians noticed the geographic areas that regularly consumed kombucha had significantly lower cancer rates: something that may or may not be tied to the beverage or other, unrelated environmental factors.
 
What is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a fermented beverage made from tea, sugar, yeast, and bacteria. Many describe it having an acquired taste that is slightly fizzy, slightly sweet, and slightly acidic. Black tea, sugar, and a “microbial mat” are left to incubate and ferment at room temperature. Over the course of a few days, a cascade of events produce the bubbly tea. 
 
The mat looks like a floating mushroom cap and mainly contains aerobic bacteria, yeast, and cellulose. The fermentation process uses a mat from a previous brew and produces a new mat, which can then be used in future brews. Yeast strains in the mat break down sucrose into glucose and fructose. They then use the glucose to produce ethanol and carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide makes the drink fizzy, and ethanol serves as food for the bacteria to make acetic acid—which gives the drink a slight vinegar taste.

Benefits of Kombucha 
Still interested after the mention of bacteria, mushroom mats, and vinegar taste? Good, because there are actually a few scientifically-supported benefits of kombucha. Steinkraus et al. suggested consumption of kombucha as a possible prevention for gastritis and peptic ulcer disease. The drink’s antimicrobial attributes acted against Helicobacter pylori, the main cause of the diseases, in vitro. Additionally, they found the acetic acid content in the beverage acted against E. coli and staph, amongst other bacteria.
 
Acetic acid is the main volatile compound in vinegar, a traditional ingredient associated with a variety of functional health properties. Researchers have linked regular consumption of vinegars with antioxidant, antidiabetic, antiobesity and antihypertensive effects. Whether kombucha shares these therapeutic benefits, however, is not as well-researched.
 
Is it true that there can be too much of a good thing? In the case of kombucha, the short answer is: yes, there can be. A few negative health effects reported by individuals consuming large amounts of kombucha show that this drink is not for everyone. In response, Emergency Medical Services released a statement saying they do not recommend kombucha for those individuals who are sick or immunocompromised. 
 
It is also important to point out that research has linked certain kinds of unfermented tea with antioxidant, anti-carcinogenic, and antimicrobial activity in those populations consuming around four cups per day.  However, these benefits are not proven with fermented teas, like kombucha. Furthermore, Emergency Medical Services does not recommend consuming kombucha at the high rates found in tea consumption. A few ounces per day or every couple days is usually a safe amount. 
 
So next time you are feeling adventurous at your local grocery store, pick up a bottle and give it a try. Many brands now have flavored versions that add a little something extra to the traditional blend of only tea and sugar. Popular flavors included lemon and ginger; however, brands are starting to include unique flavors like coconut lime or honeydew melon. Try swapping your mid-afternoon soda for a bubbly kombucha. It is lower in sugar and satisfies the craving for a fizzy drink. In regards to the health claims, it is smart to consume the beverage because you enjoy it, not necessarily just for its health benefits—as many of these are not guaranteed.
 
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