Kombucha Tea: Health Miracle or Deadly Elixir?

Kombucha tea originated in China about 2,000 years ago and is currently all the rage in the U.S. The fermented tea drink is taking grocery stores and juice bars by storm thanks to the promise of some serious health benefits.

But is it too good to be true? Could this powerful tea also known as the “elixir of life” actually be harmful to your health? Here’s what we know.

Kombucha Tea Basics

Kombucha mushrooms used to make Kombucha tea
Kombucha Mushroom — Source: Wikimedia Commons

Kombucha is made by combining black or green tea with the kombucha “mushroom”, which is actually not a mushroom at all. It is a yeast and bacteria colony that takes on a mushroom-like shape as it grows. That colony is then added to tea and sugar and allowed to ferment.

After it ferments, kombucha becomes carbonated and contains vinegar, B vitamins, enzymes, probiotics and a high concentration of acid. These qualities are linked to health benefits including weight loss, increased energy, improved digestion, and even cancer prevention.

If fermentation sounds familiar to you, that’s because it’s essentially the same process used to make beer and other alcohol. Kombucha also contains alcohol, but it’s usually 0.5 percent or less. This is a small enough amount for it to be classified as non-alcoholic for retail purposes.

Health Concerns

kombucha tea
Source: Flickr

The acid created as part of the fermentation process has resulted in some serious health consequences. The CDC reported cases of illness and death in the mid-1990s among people who drank kombucha daily for several months. The high amounts of lactic acid in kombucha were linked as a possible cause for metabolic acidosis. This is a serious condition that causes shortness of breath and even cardiac arrest.

Home-brewed varieties are especially at risk because they does not go through the pasteurizing process that is required for products sold in stores.

The Bottom Line

Despite reports of kombucha tea deaths, there is no definitive study proving drinking the tea can be fatal. However, there is also a lack of scientific evidence to prove it has any health benefits at all. Medical experts suggest that pregnant women, children, the elderly, and anyone with a compromised immune system should avoid it.

In the absence of clinical trials and other hard evidence, the best advice is to enjoy kombucha in moderation (about four ounces per day). But, the strong, fermented taste is not for everyone and you shouldn’t force yourself to drink it just for the promise of health benefits.

But, if you do enjoy it, bottoms up!