Kombucha: Revered For Millennia, But Is It Really A Life Saving Brew?
There have been hundreds of health food trends over the years – from green tea to coconut oil it can be overwhelming to know which of them really do have amazing health benefits. One health food which has soared in popularity in recent years is kombucha – an ancient drink with a fascinating history.
Kombucha is claimed to have a myriad of health benefits and it is perhaps this reason that the unusually brewed beverage has been passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years. But just how long has kombucha been around? And is it really as beneficial for your health as some people claim?
What Is Kombucha?
Kombucha is a type of tea – either green or black which originated in China but has now become a global phenomenon. What makes kombucha so unique is the fact it is fermented, with a pancake-like disk of yeast known as SCOBY. The sweetened, slightly fizzy beverage is consumed cold, and it has traditionally been brewed at home. Nowadays there are wide range of commercial kombuchas available and even Pepsi have their own range of flavored kombucha.
A SCOBY used for brewing kombucha. (Alexbrn / CC BY-SA 4.0)
The Origins of the Drink
It is difficult to confirm the exact origins of kombucha, and there is much debate surrounding the question.
The origins of tea-drinking in general are attributed to Shen Nong, an emperor of China who began brewing the beverage around 2700 BC. It did not take long for the Chinese people to realize drinking tea had a number of health benefits and it quickly became a popular drink among the entire population – from the upper echelons of society to soldiers and people living in humble remote villages.
By 200 BC the healing properties of tea had become legendary, and the first version of the drink believed to be kombucha was created during the Qin dynasty for the emperor Qin Shi Huangdi. This was so highly regarded it became known as the “elixir of life” and “tea of immortality”. Qin Shi Huangdi believed that drinking the tea kept him young.
Some people as recently as the 1990s have claimed the drink is so special it must be of extra-terrestrial origin.
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The Chinese considered kombucha the ‘elixir of life’. Here the mythological White Hare is making the elixir of life on the moon. (Vmenkov / Public Domain)
From China to Japan
It is notable that despite originating in China, kombucha is a distinctly Japanese name and this is no coincidence. Kombucha was probably first brought to Japan in around 400 AD, by a Korean man named Dr. Kombu. He presented the drink to Japanese Emperor Inyoko, who both enjoyed it and noted its health benefits. As a result, the tea became popular throughout Japan, and earned its name from Dr. Kombu, and the suffix “cha” which is the Japanese word for tea. The tea became popular among the Samurai, who would drink it to increase their strength and energy before a battle.
Although many of the origin stories around kombucha are hard to verify, there is compelling evidence that Dr. Kombu really was the one who introduced the drink to Japan. A set of ancient scrolls called the Nihon SHoki provides a detailed record of ancient Japanese history, and they confirm that there really was a Korean doctor at court around 400 AD by the name of Komu-ha.
From Ancient Asia to Modern Europe
It is likely kombucha was introduced to Russia at the end of the 19th Century when soldiers from China, Japan, Korea, and Russia were involved in territorial conflicts which had the side effect of mixing cultural practices.
As a consequence, by the 1900’s kombucha was being brewed over a wide area, including much of Russia, and it was being used by many as a folk remedy.
Kombucha spread further into Europe during the First World War when a German scientist, Dr. Rudolf Sklenar, witnessed Russian peasants using kombucha to aid wounded soldiers. He was intrigued by kombucha and its potential use as a treatment. After bringing it back to Germany he used kombucha in his treatment of cancer patients.
Kombucha – was known as a "cure all" and used as medicine for wounded soldiers and as a treatment for cancer patients. (Mgarten / CC BY-SA 3.0)
Both Russia and Germany continued to use kombucha as a medicine throughout the early 20th Century, and a huge number of studies were conducted in an attempt to understand and verify the benefits of the drink – many of these studies were focused on how kombucha could help with digestive problems and in managing diabetes.
It was only during the Second World War, when both tea and sugar were heavily rationed, that the trend for kombucha died down.
The Kombucha Fad Returns
Health fads are no new thing. While drinks such as cola have now been reclassified and are no longer considered ‘health products’, kombucha returned to the mainstream and became a popular health fad again in the 1960s as hippies experimented with natural remedies. The benefits of drinking kombucha were once again embraced and enjoyed. This resurgence in popularity was given a further boost when Swiss scientists presented research confirming some of the health benefits of drinking kombucha.
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Kombucha returned to the mainstream and became a popular health fad again in the 1960s as hippies experimented with natural remedies. (Mila Supinskaya / Adobe)
A further and rather surprising boom in popularity came as a result of the Chernobyl disaster in 1986. Doctors were monitoring the health of people living in the towns surrounding Chernobyl, and incredibly they found that there were a group of people who were suffering less from the effects of the radiation – and that group all drank kombucha.
As implausible as it may seem, the notion that kombucha may be able to combat the effects of exposure to radiation was further tested in 2011 after the accident at the Fukushima Nuclear Plant in Japan. Since 2007 at least 7 studies have confirmed that drinking kombucha can help to combat the effects of mild exposure to radiation – and so the drink was once again adopted by the health conscious. It has also become popular by people going through chemotherapy as it has helped some people with the side effects of treatment.
The Risks and Controversies
Although modern research does indicate kombucha has some health benefits, it is important to note the drink is not quite the elixir of life it was originally believed to be and, like all the best things, it should be enjoyed in moderation.
Kombucha contains lactic acid, and although you would have to drink a lot, it could result in a buildup of lactic acid in the blood stream, which can be fatal.
As kombucha is a fermented beverage, it is mildly alcoholic. You would have to drink gallons of kombucha to ingest a comparable level to a single light beer, but the alcohol content has resulted in some controversy over the past few years, most notably when US Supermarket chain Whole Foods withdrew kombucha from sale over concerns of its alcohol content. This has since been termed the “Kombucha Crisis” as it led to widespread panic about the drink and there were some in the US who called for it to be classed as a beer and demanded it no longer be marketed as having health benefits. The production and sale of kombucha has now become more strictly regulated.
Further risks are linked to the fact kombucha has traditionally been a homebrewed beverage. Some batches have caused food poisoning and inexperienced homebrewers can struggle with properly sterilizing their equipment or regulating acidity levels which has resulted in some people contracting infections from drinking poorly brewed kombucha. Critics of the current trend for kombucha have pointed to these incidents as evidence the drink is unsafe and should not be widely sold.
Brewer preparing to seal a jar of fermenting kombucha. (exclusive-design / Adobe)
There is also the problem that with such an incredible reputation, people have been willing to put faith in kombucha for a plethora of issues which it has not been proven to help. It was, for example, heralded as a potential cure for AIDS in the 1980s. People who were desperate for an effective treatment put their faith in the drink, believing it was powerful enough to help them. This not only results in disappointment when the drink has no effect but can result in people rejecting medicine which does work because they believe that kombucha will achieve the same results with none of the unpleasant side effects of heavy duty medication.
What Does the Future Hold?
Kombucha has been consumed for hundreds (or even thousands) of years, and while its benefits may have been exaggerated when it comes to claims such as curing cancer, restoring hair loss, and eternal youth, there is now evidence that the drink can be good for you if it is brewed by an experienced practitioner and consumed in moderation.
There is now evidence that kombucha can be good for you if it is brewed by an experienced practitioner and consumed in moderation. (Liam / Adobe)
As with all superfoods and health fads, kombucha has risen and fallen in popularity over the years. But it remains a staple in the diet of many health-conscious consumers today and its secrets have not been lost to time. Now that companies such as Pepsi have picked up the trend, it is safe to say this strange drink which was once considered the elixir of life is not going away any time soon.
Top image: Homemade fermented raw kombucha tea with different flavorings. Source: sveta_zarzamora / Adobe.
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