Is Kombucha really the 'elixir of life'?

Posted Apr 15, 2014 by Bill K. Anderson
Kombucha, often referred to as the "elixir of life" due to its numerous potential health benefits, has raised some controversy as it became popular in recent years.
The so-called "elixir of life" has been hailed as a cure-all drink with potential benefits to aid digestion, strengthen the immune system, improve liver function, slow down aging, increase energy and quality of sleep, and possibly even fight cancer at approximately 60 calories per 16 ounce bottle. Kombucha is made by adding bacteria and yeast to a sugar sweetened black or green tea and allowing the brew to ferment in an unrefrigerated glass or ceramic jar for approximately one to two weeks. Afterwards, a colony of bacteria and yeast (called the SCOBY or “symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast”) forms in the form of a rubbery disc that floats on top of the tea. The resulting drink is filled with live bacteria, or probiotics, which have been said to aid digestion and even strengthen the immune system.
According to nutritionist Monica Reinagel, these bacteria “actually live inside of us and help digest our food, digesting particles we can’t digest on our own. And they actually produce certain nutrients for us.” These are the same probiotics that are found in yogurt, which is also said to have healthful benefits. Despite its fairly recent popularization attributed to a larger trend in probiotic foods especially among the trendy “20-to-30 something, foodie, intelligentsia set,” according to Dr. Daphne Miller, a professor of nutrition and integrative medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, Kombucha has been around for quite some time. It is thought to have originated in China, and then migrated through Russia and Japan and eventually to North America. However, it has only recently become popular as a health food.
Although there is an abundance of evidence surrounding the importance and benefits of probiotics, safety has been an issue for Kombucha, mainly for home-brewed and unpasteurized batches. If Kombucha is prepared in non-sterile conditions, there is a high risk for unhealthy bacteria to get into the tea. The most serious case of contaminated Kombucha occurred in Iowa in 1995 in which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported a severe unexplained illness in two people, one of whom died. Additionally, several doctors warn that “patients with suppressed immune systems should not consume Kombucha beverages produced in an uncontrolled environment.”
In contrast, bottled versions of Kombucha that are sold in stores are produced in carefully controlled environments and are likely to be safe. Some claim that paying 4 dollars (sometimes more) for a bottle of the tea is expensive, but those who rely on the potential health benefits of Kombucha are willing to pay the price. Studies conducted on human cells have revealed that Kombucha tea can have anti-proliferative effects on cancer but other health benefits such as increased energy and anti-aging benefits have not been proven.
However, fans of Kombucha claim to have experienced alertness and younger looking skin after many bottles of the drink. Critics on the other hand, attribute these results to the placebo effect.