There are lots of food and drink items on the market today that are touted as “organic” and “healthy.”
Many are easily found at your local Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. But the science behind their health benefits turns out to be iffier than their label lining suggests. Moreover, if you consume too much of these products or have one or more pre-existing conditions there may be real risks to your health. Worst of all, many of them are unsavory — and even vile — to the taste.
My favorite example is Kombucha. It’s often described as “fermented tea” and extolled for having magical healing properties. In fact, it’s little more than carbonated vinegar. To disguise is flavor, manufacturers typically add a large dose of sweeteners that make a drink that’s already naturally sugary even more sugary — and therefore of dubious value.
Kombucha is made by adding yeast and bacteria to green or black tea which produces a mushroom-like film. It’s not actually a mushroom and looks and smells even worse than the drink tastes. In theory, the bacteria from this ugly glob offers “pro-biotic” benefits — strengthening the digestive tract mainly — and also promotes “anti-oxidants” that bolster the immune system and ward off disease. It sounds too good to be true. Rest assured, it is.
In fact, there are a dozen other better-known food and beverage products that pretend to offer most of the same benefits – yogurt, kefir, and kimchee, for example — but they are not as heavily promoted as Kombucha. Global sales of this magical elixir have reached $2.2 billion annually. In the United States, sales were up 40% in 2017. Drinking Kombucha has become a veritable craze.
Fortunately, real scientists and dieticians without a vested interest in Kombucha have questioned its health benefits.
“There are people out there telling you—it’ll cure cancer, it’ll cure diabetes, it’ll cure cardiac illness, it’ll build your immune system, it’ll prevent herpes, it’ll reverse AIDS,” says microbiologist Heather Hallen-Adams, an assistant professor in the food science and technology department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It might have some placebo effect, but anything that can cure everything basically doesn’t cure anything.”
Kombucha lovers are a lot like yoga lovers. They zealously promote the drink as if it were a magic cure-all, with no potential downsides. In fact, there are only a handful of lab studies and even fewer human studies that have confirmed any of the alleged benefits of the drink. The studies tend to be conducted by Kombucha lovers seeking to confirm their own bias with “science.” This is special pleading at its worst.
Part of Kombucha’s appeal — like yoga — is its cultural roots. Rural societies in China have brewed Kombucha for centuries. It’s comforting to devotees of Eastern mysticism to attribute mystical qualities to the drink. A practice this old must contain an ancient even sacred wisdom, they surmise.
In fact, there are lots of ancient practices, from foot binding to clitorectomy that no longer strikes us as wise or healing much less sacred. But don’t tell that to the Kombucha-philes. Even the drink’s unsavory downside is somehow taken as a sign of its earthy “magic.”
Kombucha, like many organic food products, contains real risks to consumers, especially if consumed to excess, which often happens, judging from anecdotal evidence of sickness, sometimes leading to hospitalization. Dieticians warn that drinking too much Kombucha can damage the liver and the heavy sugar content can induce weight gain.
There’s also the alcohol. The commercial version of the drink is supposed to contain no more than 0.5% alcohol, but even that small amount is too much for those that need to steer clear of it completely (especially alcoholics). Home-brewed Kombucha often contains as much as 5% alcohol — on par with near beer, and you can find such off the shelf versions in farmer’s markets everywhere.
Acidity is another issue. The pH levels in Kombucha can damage your tooth enamel and discolor your teeth. It’s the same concern with many other drinks, in fact, including popular sodas. That’s another reason dieticians suggest moderation. If you sip Kombucha all day through a straw, the risk to your teeth increases.
Finally, even its supporters recommend — quietly — that pregnant women avoid Kombucha altogether. You’d think this concern would be featured prominently in the labeling — but it doesn’t. Anything that gets in the way of zealously promoting Kombucha is being minimized. Boutique companies like Dr. Brew and Uplift that are profiting heavily from Kombucha have spent millions on marketing. Their web sites play up Kombucha’s ancestry and make no mention of scientific studies at all.
There’s a reason Kombucha sales are booming. The drink is fast becoming a visible emblem of the new corporate “green” culture sweeping across the globe. It’s also a way for upscale consumers to “accessorize” and “exoticize” their otherwise dull suburban lifestyles. There are no special mindfulness benefits from Kombucha but it hardly matters. These days Westerners seem to be craving a measure of cultural authenticity — a feeling of “roots.” For true zealots — and Kombucha drinkers are passionate, to say the least — having a magic potion at their disposal has become almost totemic.
There’s no harm in trying Kombucha for yourself. There are worse food drinks on the market and a single bottle — at least the more highly regulated commercial versions — now and then probably won’t kill you. But there’s no evidence that it’s worth the extra cost or the potential risks.
My advice: Stick to regular green or black tea. You won’t get to brag to your friends about how cool you are but who knows they may be even more impressed that you turned away from all the marketing hype and decided to keep things simple.