Of all the hot-right-now, old-as-the-hills fermented foods that are being touted as cure-alls for an array of specific medical problems, kombucha tops Sandor Katz's list.
The author of The Art of Fermentation told me that he's seen claims that kombucha will "prevent your hair from going gray, will prevent you from getting cancer, will cure everything."
And kombucha is also more popular in mainstream US grocery stores, convenience stores, and restaurants than ever before. In March 2016, the market research company Mintel released their prediction that 51% of US adults aged 25 to 34 already drink kombucha, and attributed some of its recent hype to a "buzz from lifestyle food bloggers [that's] creating awareness among consumers [who] don’t lean toward the extremes of a healthy lifestyle, but are open to something new."
(For a sense of kombucha's reach: I visited my 90-year-old grandparents in Michigan this past weekend and even they had a bottle of kombucha in their refrigerator. For full disclosure: I love to drink kombucha and am currently brewing my own.)
But just what role does kombucha play in a so-called "healthy lifestyle"? Back in 1997, the American Nutrition Association listed some of the wide-ranging health benefits attributed to "kombucha tea," from lengthening lifespan to aiding in the treatment of psoriasis and limb pain to AIDS to restoring hair color.
And, more recently, in the introduction to their book Kombucha! The Amazing Probiotic Tea That Cleanses, Heals, Energizes, and Detoxifies, Eric and Jessica Childs of Kombucha Brooklyn refer to kombucha as "an ancient elixir that is excellent for health and well-being in our modern world" that "detoxifies the liver and blood, [...] provides a crash-proof energy boost, [...] focuses the mind, [...] settles digestion, and [...] streamlines a variety of inefficiencies in the body." People drink kombucha, they say, "because it makes their lives better."
The elegantly beautiful keep a bottle nearby to help them stay young and gorgeous. Health experts laud kombucha’s natural detoxifying properties, including it in their prescription for optimum health. Whatever your reason for trying kombucha, you will be amazed by how easy it is to make and how effective it is in optimizing your health.
Can we believe it? "There's all sorts of unscrupulous marketing and people making unsubstantiated claims," Katz told me, and this makes it easy for us skeptics to dismiss the health assertions altogether. Yet "we have to be careful not to throw away the baby with the bath water," he warned. Probiotic foods can contribute to an overall restoration of diversity in the gut, Katz said, but "what benefit that has is very vague and general" even if we do know the bacteria in our intestines are integral to many different physiological processes.
"As much as I love kombucha (and sauerkraut and kefir and many other ferments), it is not reasonable to expect any single food or beverage to cure specific diseases," he writes in the forward to The Big Book of Kombucha: Brewing, Flavoring, and Enjoying the Health Benefits of Fermented Tea by Hannah Crum and Alex LaGory.
So is kombucha the panacea many Americans have been missing for hundreds of years, or is the latest beverage to earn valuable grocery store real estate and marketing dollars? Turns out, kombucha is a little bit of both.
We found ourselves craving less of the over-processed junk food we had been accustomed to eating and more of the nourishing, nutrient-dense food that better supported our individual well-being. Over time, we came to live by our simple mantra, 'trust your gut.'
To read these kombucha success stories is to not think of the beverage as a beverage, but as a way of eating—and even, of living.
The probiotics in raw, unpasteurized kombucha, which you can also find in yogurt, kimchi, and other fermented foods and beverages, may confer some health benefits. Other claims—that kombucha cures cancer, or fights free radicals, or detoxifies the body—have not been proven in humans, though you yourself might find the anecdotal evidence of various individuals convincing.
So drink kombucha—in moderation, and prepared as safely as possible—if it makes you feel good and/or you enjoy its taste (sharp and fizzy, with a vinegary sweetness), but know that a doctor will not prescribe it as medicine.
"The bottom line," writes Patti Neighmond for NPR's The Salt, "is that we know very little about kombucha and how it may affect health.”
*Please forgive me.
How do you feel about kombucha? And when did you first try it? Tell us in the comments below.