Spotlight on Kombucha

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While most people have heard of kombucha, many are confused about what exactly it is.  A mushroom?  A fungus?  A mysterious liquid that bubbles up from the center of the earth?

Actually, it’s a lot simpler than that:  Kombucha is a fermented beverage.  It is typically centered around black or green tea, to which sugar and a yeast/bacteria culture are added.  The resultant kombucha tea is drunk as a general health tonic.

The characteristic image many people have of kombucha tea is the unusual-looking cap which sits on top of the mixture during the fermentation process.  This is called the SCOBY, which stands for “symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast.” This disc, or cap, looks like a mushroom, which is why kombucha is commonly mistaken as a fungal beverage (not surprisingly, the appearance of the fermenting mixture has caused it to be described as “the fungus among us”).

The exact origins of kombucha are a little uncertain.  There is speculation that it can be anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand years old.  One thing which is definite, though, is that it exploded in popularity worldwide in the late 1990’s, which mirrors the general time frame when alternative medicine and natural health supplements started to become more accepted in the mainstream.

A number of broad health claims were made regarding kombucha, particularly when it first came into widespread use.  These ranged from the plausible to the downright fanciful; definitive scientific studies have so far largely been inconclusive regarding any potential benefits, though very few formal human trials have been done.  The principal area of interest now surrounding kombucha focuses on its potential probiotic benefits.

Since it is derived from a bacterial source, kombucha is thought to have a positive impact on the health of the gut.  Because the gastrointestinal tract is a vital part of the immune system, kombucha, therefore, has the potential ability to contribute to immune health and strength.  Due to its probiotic characteristics, the tea is often grouped into the same beneficial category as yogurt and kefir.

Kombucha is available both commercially and home-brewed.  While some might prefer the ease and convenience of purchasing it pre-bottled, others opt to make it at home.  For those desiring to make it themselves, it is a relatively straightforward process involving a relatively minimal amount of equipment.  The SCOBY can generally be purchased at a health-food store or ordered (these typically come in a vacuum-sealed pouch).  Alternatively, some people obtain their SCOBY cultures from others – these can be passed along and can last for years, if not decades, when properly maintained.

A couple of caveats are recommended with home preparation of kombucha.  The first is to make sure all equipment is adequately sterilized, in much the same way one would do in the process of home-brewing beer.  The second consideration is to be aware of the sugar, alcohol, and caffeine content that might be present if you are sensitive to or intolerant to any of those substances.  Lastly, there is some debate as to the appropriateness of kombucha consumption in pregnant or nursing women, so it is wise to bear that in mind prior to drinking.

To wrap it up, kombucha is a tasty natural beverage with many potential health benefits.  It is naturally carbonated, so offers an excellent alternative to sugary sodas.  Give it a try; you just may find it suits you to a “tea”!

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