Ancient fermented tea has become big business

As a scientist, I find it an obvious statement that what we put into our bodies has a great influence on our health. What else can our bodies use to build new tissue, to repair damaged cells other than the foods we eat? Our bodies are in a constant state of renewal. Did you know that our skin is replaced in its entirety approximately every month? (Did you know the majority of house dust is composed human skin!) Where do you think we each get the raw materials for this process of growth and repair?

Much of what the typical American consumes is man-made and the effects of which, long term, are unknown. What happens when we consume substances which our bodies are unfamiliar with, that are foreign to us? In many cases, we are not quite certain. There are a variety of materials used in our foods that are not natural but instead produced by man. This is not to say that anything natural can be consumed without harm. But our relative ignorance of what these different things do to our bodies and our health, highlights the lack of conclusive research. Nutrition is an incredibly complex topic, with definitive conclusions difficult to reach.

What of those foods that have been eaten or drunk for centuries? Can we know completely their effects? Scientifically-speaking, we cannot, since nutritional studies are hugely time-consuming, expensive, and difficult to carry out. Yet, if something were clearly poisonous, we would likely know by now. Which brings us to the subject of today’s treatise on a type of “tea”, consumed for thousands of years, created through a process of fermentation. It is called kombucha tea and has an incredibly long history of “cultivation”. Kombucha, which is believed to have originated in China or Japan, has become a big business though. Even Coca-cola has jumped on board! They have purchased a kombucha drink brewer, and will start selling the drink nation-wide.

Kombucha is purported to have some of the same health benefits as tea, as well as a host of others. Tea leaves are used in its production, but it is then “grown”, although not like an ear of corn. It’s made by adding specific strains of bacteria, yeast and sugar to black or green tea, and then allowing it to ferment for a week or more. During this process, the bacteria and yeast form a mushroom-like blob on the surface. This is why kombucha is also known as “mushroom tea”, although there are no mushrooms of any kind used in its production. This mass is a living symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast, and can be used to ferment new kombucha, just as fresh yogurt is cultured from a small amount of already-cultured yogurt.

The kombucha fermentation process produces vinegar and several other acidic compounds, trace levels of alcohol, as well as gases that make it carbonated. Many probiotic bacteria are also produced during fermentation. Probiotics provide your gut with healthy bacteria, and can improve many aspects of health, including digestion, inflammation and even weight loss. For this reason, adding probiotics foods like kombucha to your diet can improve your health in a variety of ways.

Kombucha also contains antioxidants, which can kill harmful bacteria and may help fight several diseases. Kombucha is known to contain small but probably significant amounts of important nutrients such as the B vitamins, essential amino acids, and more. It could very well have been seen as a miracle food in the past by those who were unknowingly trying to compensate for a very limited diet.

A tremendous variety of benefits have been ascribed to kombucha. Although we cannot say with any certainty, it is unlikely they are all true. Without better research, we do not know. But many nutritional experts recommend vinegar in some form. The acidity seems to be helpful for digestion as well as its antibacterial effects.

These benefits to the body’s ability to fight infection are also aided by the many bioactive compounds kombucha appears to contain, again, just like green tea. Although we are uncertain of the mechanism, kombucha appears to assist in improving some of the most important markers of heart disease, LDL and HDL (two different types of cholesterol).

Because of slowed carbohydrate digestion, kombucha seems to be of benefit to those individuals suffering from diabetes. This helps to lower blood sugar levels, reducing the risk of developing the disease. How polyphenols, a class of powerful antioxidant found in abundance in kombucha, help to prevent the growth of cancer we do not know, but they do appear to.

As to the dangers of kombucha, some of the concerns are laughable. No food stuff is safe for every single individual. And too much of anything is a bad thing, including kombucha, at least partially due to the acidity of kombucha. Some authorities state that the tea should not be consumed because it is often brewed in homes under nonsterile conditions, making contamination likely. The same can be said for food preparation.

If any cook does not use safe practices, many foods can be hazardous to our health. If you cannot make an uncontaminated batch of yogurt or sauerkraut, then don’t culture your own kombucha. The making of Kombucha has been handed down from generation to generation for over two thousand years without any sterile laboratory techniques. In other words, wash your hands, use clean utensils and common sense!

Proponents claim kombucha tea helps prevent and manage serious health conditions, from blood pressure to cancer. These claims are not backed by science, but this again is simply because the financial resources have not been provided to do these difficult studies. Thus, scientifically, we cannot say what the benefits are. Nor can we say there are no benefits. Clearly, after hundreds of years of consumption, we can say that many thousands of people have consumed kombucha tea without problem.

You can choose between the “unscientific” claims and testimonials of thousands of people from nearly every culture and nation for many hundreds of years or wait for “scientific” double-blind studies. Unfortunately, the likelihood of these being performed is quite low. Without the ability to produce a profit, the giant, multi-national drug companies are certainly not about to fund them.

I believe it is a mistake to let science be our god, slaves to evidenced-based medicine, whereby something can’t be of benefit if a definitive study does not sufficiently prove it. Prudence, wisdom, and careful analysis should also be valued. If no study has been performed, then we simply can’t definitively say. Yet, the evidence provided by thousands of years of use may allow us to suggest it as an adjunctive option.

In the end, trust your own body’s reaction to the tea or to any new food. In a planet ruled by greed, who will promote a simple, inexpensive, (and for some people healthy) food whose main ingredient is tea? Apparently, one multi-national beverage giant will!

Editor’s note: Dr. Conway McLean is a physician practicing foot and ankle medicine in the Upper Peninsula, with an upcoming move of his Marquette office to the downtown area. McLean has lectured internationally on wound care and surgery, being double board certified in surgery, and also in wound care. He has a sub-specialty in foot-ankle orthotics. Dr. McLean welcomes questions or comments