So chapter one of your fermented-health book would be “What is kombucha?”
It’s a short chapter; space can be filled with illustrations. Kombucha is a sugar-sweetened tea (black or green) that has been mixed with yeast and bacteria and then given time to ferment. The microbes are together known as a SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). The entity looks like a pallid slab of human subcutaneous tissue, or a shiny undercooked pancake. It is alive and self-perpetuating—new starter colonies (sometimes known as “daughters”) typically come from other kombucha (“big momma”).
The drink has been around in some form for between 2000 and 200 years—its history is shrouded in mystery, but it does involve transport out of Asia by German World War I POWs, and then seeding in California during the AIDS epidemic. The mass-market U.S. boom has really come in the last decade, increasing more rapidly year over year. As the importance of gut microbes in health has come to light, sales of live-bacterial products like kombucha suddenly have seemed to offer some explanation for long-held health beliefs.
Part of the idea is that ingesting life microorganisms is good for the balance of the ecosystems that live in our guts, commonly known as the gut microbiome. These beliefs are at the center of the marketing strategy by the largest producer of kombucha in the U.S., GT’s Kombucha (“Living Food for the Living Body”). The company’s mission is to “combine the wisdom of ancient medicinal foods with the resources of the modern day to create products that uplift and enlighten the health of all those who enjoy them.”
The ethereally young-looking founder, GT Dave, describes himself as “a lifelong practitioner of health” whose bottled microbial product “bolsters immunity.” In 1994, GT’s mother, Laraine (who inspired the brand’s logo when she conceived GT in the lotus position), was diagnosed with breast cancer. GT came to believe that kombucha “played a strong role in helping her to overcome the breast cancer.” Other kombucha producers—and consumers—have made claims about improved liver function, weight loss, improved complexion, and reduced hair loss.
Such claims have not born out in clinical studies; while gut microbes are vital to health, maintaining them isn’t necessarily best approached by introducing random microbial colonies floating in fermented tea.
All of this I know, and yet I buy kombucha occasionally, because I started to like the flavor, which is sometimes worth the financial regret. And if there is one claim that seems to have merit, it’s GT Dave’s insistence that kombucha “makes your spirits fly. You feel on top of the world.”
In other words, kombucha contains alcohol. The yeast consumes the sugar, fermenting it into carbon dioxide and ethanol. Some of that is converted by bacteria into acetic acid, but the process isn’t perfectly predictable, so alcohol remains in various amounts.