Kombucha: Is it Science or Simply Popularity?

Kombucha is a drink currently regaining popularity on the West Coast of the United States. Praised for its supposed health benefits, this carbonated and fermented tea is said to contain vitamins, amino acids, and other ingredients that have nutritional value. The drink starts when two main ingredients are combined: tea and a SCOBY (symbiotic culture/colony of bacteria and yeast). Left in this state for several weeks to ferment, the mixture is then bottled for another several weeks to release CO2, thus creating the carbonation that the drink is known for. The bottled tea is then moved to a cold environment (aka the fridge) to slow the carbonation and fermentation process (Troitino).

The origins of kombucha are somewhat of a mystery, but people have their speculations. People can’t even reach a consensus on whether or not the drink actually has viable health benefits! Typically, for questions such as these, society tends to ask scholars for their professional perspective and expertise, but, unfortunately for us, scholars have not ‘officially’ put these questions to rest. Will we ever get conclusive answers? Who knows? I guess we’ll have to wait for the answers to bubble to the surface.

Considered to have originated in ancient China in approximately 200 BCE. [1], the drink was introduced in early 400 BCE to Japan’s emperor, Emperor Inkyo, by a Korean physician named Kombu (Troitino; Zhang). However, the Smithsonian notes that this might be a case of mistaken identity for there was a fermented kelp tea that went by the same name, composed of brown seaweed and tea. Whether the drink actually made it to Japan, we do know that the drink found an early European home in Russia and Germany. The drink eventually spread throughout the rest of Europe during WWI (Zhang; Jackson). Once in Europe, the drink’s popularity only continued to expand to other parts of the world (Troitino; Zhang). However, during WWII, a shortage in resources and trade led to a decline in the drink’s popularity (Troitino; Jackson). This was soon resolved in the 1960s when the tea’s supposed health benefits became the focal point of a Swiss study that reported kombucha had similar health benefits as eating yogurt, thus increasing its popularity (Troitino; Jayabalan et al). Around the same time, the drink was gaining ground across the Atlantic Ocean.

Kombucha is now found in grocery stores and farmers markets all over the West Coast of the U.S., thanks in part to George Thomas, “GT Dave,” who created the US’s first major kombucha brand in the 1990s. People drink it because it tastes good and because it’s a less sugary alternative to soda, but it is also marketed as a drink with multiple health benefits. Many Americans believe kombucha “supplies sky-high energy, quells pain, fends off certain cancers, detoxes your body, helps you shed weight, and turns your immune system into a fortress,” (Shortsleeve and Picard). However, research has shown that kombucha doesn’t have any of these benefits. The research into the true health benefits of kombucha have shown that it may be a good source of probiotics and antioxidants, but it is far from the magic tonic that some health gurus claim it to be. While some might drink it because they believe it to be a healthy drink, many others simply drink kombucha because of it’s fun fizz and great flavor. 

By Alex Brandeau and Ryce Matsumoto

[1] Despite the belief that the drink has its origins in China, this is not a fact that is set in stone. Laura Zhang, the author of the Smithsonian’s “The Cloudy Origins of Kombucha” states that her parents and family members—all of whom are from China’s Fuzhou and Shanxi provinces—have never heard of the drink. Zhang also notes that her family isn’t alone in this and that other Chinese residents had also not heard of the drink or anything like it. That said, while we may not know if kombucha actually originated in China, we do know that ancient East Asian cultures used the drink as a health remedy. According to Ed Kasper, a medical herbalist and kombucha specialist from North Carolina, “Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine referred to kombucha tea as the ‘elixir of life’.”

Sources

Jackson, Ameyna. “The History of Kombucha.” Drinkpreneur, 26 Apr. 2017, https://www.drinkpreneur.com/beverage-howto/the-history-of-kombucha/.

Jayabalan, Rasu, et al. “A Review on Kombucha Tea—Microbiology, Composition, Fermentation, Beneficial Effects, Toxicity, and Tea Fungus.” Food Science and Food Safety, 21 June 2014, https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/1541-4337.12073.

Shortsleeve, Cassie, and Caroline Picard. “The 4 Best Health Benefits of Kombucha, According to Registered Dietitians.” Good Housekeeping, 15 Dec. 2020, https://www.goodhousekeeping.com/health/diet-nutrition/a20705895/kombucha-health-benefits/.

Troitino, Christina. “Kombucha 101: Demystifying The Past, Present And Future Of The Fermented Tea Drink.” Forbes, 1 Feb. 2017, https://www.forbes.com/sites/christinatroitino/2017/02/01/kombucha-101-demystifying-the-past-present-and-future-of-the-fermented-tea-drink/.

Zhang, Laura. “The Cloudy Origins of Kombucha.” Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, 15 Apr. 2019, https://folklife.si.edu/magazine/cloudy-origins-of-kombucha.

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