There is an appeal in making something yourself. When I concoct a pizza from scratch, I save money and it comes with a feeling of accomplishment that is unavailable from swinging by Papa John’s. This satisfaction would be even more pronounced if I grew the tomatoes myself and turned them into sauce. Similarly, I hear fishermen wax about the feeling of self-reliance that comes from catching, cleaning, and frying one’s own meal.
Those who produce a homemade tea called kombucha also get this pride, but unlike anglers or home chefs, some of these folks claim to cure diabetes or arrest the aging process. Kombucha is touted as an Old Wives Tale panacea and is one of many such products, though it is a somewhat unusual variety, coming in beverage form.
Proponents credit kombucha with being able to relieve many symptoms or illnesses, a typical trait in the world of anecdote-heavy folk remedies. What it is supposed to cure will depend on what is ailing the person, as the placebo effect, post hoc reasoning, and the fluctuating nature of many illnesses do what double blind studies cannot, i.e., testify to the drink’s efficacy. The consequences are mild if the self-administering patient thinks kombucha will take care of sniffles, hives, or hair loss, but they are potentially fatal if one expects it to resolve hypertension, HIV, or cancer.
Often described as time-honored or an old family recipe, it therefore appeals to those vulnerable to the antiquity and naturalistic fallacies. With regard to the former, the tea is often associated with Ukraine and is said to go back hundreds or thousands of years. There is some creativity here, as its supposed place of origins eschews the usual locales of ancient medical wisdom like China, India, Egypt, and Native American tribes.
Regardless of its real or imagined medicinal properties, kombucha is sweetened black tea fermented by a yeast-bacteria blend. This mixture forms what resembles a quarter-inch thick rubbery mat. These can be ordered online, though this messes with that whole back to nature vibe. The makeup of the mats varies depending on the climate where it’s made, as well as which bacteria and yeast are available.
Skeptic leaders Scott Gavura and Edzard Ernst looked separately in kombucha claims and neither could find any clinical trials that showed the drink to have an identifiable health benefit. None of its active ingredients would suggest any medicinal effects beyond the negligible impact that small amounts of alcohol and caffeine might have.
However, given its lack of uniformity and regulation, the tea may carry risk. Gavura cited the case of an alcoholic who developed jaundice after two weeks of kombucha imbibing, and other users have contracted hepatitis, lactic acidosis, acute renal failure, and other nasties. It is especially crucial that those with a compromised immune system avoid the product, even though Wellness Mama touts the tea as an immune booster.
She also highlights the possibly true but irrelevant fact that kombucha “has been around for centuries in many different cultures.” Despite this appeal to antiquity, she also manages an appeal to novelty, an impressive pseudoscientific double. She writes, “Once a very obscure drink, kombucha is now a popular beverage that is available at most health food stores and many local grocery stores.”
Her more specific claims range from trivial to potentially deadly. For example, she says it will increase energy, an arbitrary distinction that means little if the promise is not realized. At the other end of the spectrum is her insistence that it will detoxify the liver. The liver’s function IS to detoxify, so if it needs detoxed, you should be in an ER, not a tea shop.
I will credit Wellness Mama with saying kombucha is not a panacea and she owns up to the lack of double blind studies, though tries to dismiss that by pointing out the lack of double blind studies on flossing. It would be kind of hard for a study subject to not know if they were flossing, so such a trial is implausible. By pointing out that flossing and kombucha both lack double blind testing, Wellness Mama commits the false equivalence fallacy, where one asserts two elements are equal because they have a common trait. We know from studies involving sets of identical twins that flossing and brushing removes more plaque and prevents more tartar than does brushing alone. But the more important point is that nothing about flossing studies or lack thereof attests to what kombucha can do.
Wellness Mama tosses out some of the alternative medicine standbys, for example saying the tea detoxifies, without explaining which toxins are being extracted or by what process kombucha manages this. A second hackneyed claim is that the tea boosts the drinker’s immunity. Boosting the immune system is not only impossible (except in extreme cases like stage 4 cancer or HIV positivity), it is not even desirable. Overactive immune systems are the cause of autoimmune disorders like lupus, myositis, and Chron’s disease.
Another alt-med darling promoting kombucha is Dr. Axe. He remains unencumbered by the modest restraint Wellness Mama offers, extoling kombucha as an “immortal health elixir originating in the Far East 2,000 years ago. Kombucha is a beverage with tremendous health benefits extending to your heart, your brain, and especially your gut.” And you’ll be amazed with what it does to your sense of hyperbole.
He parrots Mama’s detoxing and immune-boosting lines, but completes the alt-med triumvirate by calling the tea “anti-inflammatory.” This is another buzzword that, when employed by alt-med proponents, is almost certainly being misused or oversimplified.
This is what the dietician blog Abbey’s Kitchen had to say on the matter: “Inflammation is a complicated condition that cannot be solved or worsened with one single food. If someone is trying to sell you a supplement or diet as anti-inflammatory, or shame you for enjoying an inflammatory hot dog at the ball game, you can be sure it’s a real stretch. If you stick to a balanced diet rich in fruits and veggies, kick the smoking, drinking, and drugs, and exercise regularly, you’ll be in pretty great shape.”
Axe’s most nebulous claim is that kombucha will improve the drinker’s mental state. Hmm, well maybe if it’s mixed with scotch.