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Kombucha Tea
Health Potion or Poison?

A bottle of Kombucha Tea.
A bottle of Kombucha tea.

Tea is one of those drinks that makes it on nearly every list of healthy beverages. Traditional black tea made from the leaf of the Camellia sinensis plant has caffeine to wake you up. Herbal teas made from the leaves or flowers of other plants can calm you down. Some variations with ingredients like mint can even act as appetite suppressants to help dieters.

With all that good press, it's no surprise that any products with tea in them are considered good for you. One of those products that's picked up a lot of momentum in the last few years is something called Kombucha tea.

Kombucha tea typically starts out as black tea, which is fine. Then you add a bunch of empty calorie sugars, which is not good; and ferment it with a culture of yeasts and bacteria, turning it into alcohol. Many available brands also add sugar-filled juices and other empty-calorie flavorings to improve the taste.

The first problem with Kombucha (or “booch” as it's often called) is how it's made. The most common method is to use a little bit of the previous batch, and a SCOBY. That stands for “Symbiotic Culture Of Bacteria and Yeast.” Commercial manufacturers tend to make sure their products are pure, but that's not always the case with yeast and bacteria cultures passed between friends. Many have been found to be contaminated with illness-causing fungi and molds. Without rigorous safety steps put in place, you don't know if that SCOBY you're using is good or bad.

Then there's the alcohol. Yes, all kombucha drinks have some ethanol (alcohol) in them. If they have 0.5 percent alcohol by volume or less, they can be marketed as nonalcoholic. However, the way you increase the alcohol in Kombucha is to add sugar and let it sit and ferment longer. So if you buy a batch of Kombucha that's been sitting for a while, the alcohol content may be much higher than what's on the label.

Since 2017, six of the 21 Kombucha teas tested by the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets were above the 0.5 percent alcohol by volume threshold, three were above 1 percent alcohol and two were a whopping 7 percent alcohol. For comparison, a typical beer is about 4.5 percent alcohol.

Federal testing of Kombucha products showed similar mislabeling. In 2015, nine of the thirteen Kombucha products were noncompliant in tests carried out by the United States Department of the Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau.

Next comes sugar; traditional Kombucha teas are loaded with it. A typical person should limit their intake to between 40 and 60 grams of sugar a day. Many Kombucha teas have as much as 20 grams of sugar packed into one 12 ounce serving. That may be half your daily allowance of sugar in a single drink.

Finally, there are the reported health benefits. It's supposed to help improve digestion, strengthen the immune system, lower blood pressure, lessen the effects of rheumatism, fight cancer, cure hemorrhoids, improve liver function and detoxify the body. All those things would be wonderful, if any of them were true. Unfortunately there is no clinical evidence for ANY of those claims.

Looking at the ingredients found in typical Kombucha tea show a host of things that are harmful to health. Alcohol has been shown to CAUSE cancer and damage the liver. Excess sugar HURTS diabetics and can increase nervousness. The bacteria in Kombucha has been shown to cause infections, allergic reactions and gastric distress HARMING digestion and WEAKENING the immune system.

The tiny sliver of science most Kombucha tea companies latch onto is probiotics. Many Kombucha teas have lactic-acid bacteria in them, which may have probiotic functions. That means they may help the good bacteria in our stomachs. Unfortunately, the lactic-acid bacteria found in Kombucha tea, has never been proven in a clinical trial to be a beneficial probiotic for people.

As of December 2019, no double-blind studies show health benefits for any Kombucha tea. Plus, many commercial brands contain large amounts of sugar and higher levels of alcohol than listed on the label. Skip Kombucha tea if you're looking for a healthy drink. Most should simply be seen an occasional treat or indulgence.

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