Health Drink Kombucha: Fermented Tea to Get Your Guts in Order

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Kombucha is fermented tea crawling with live and active cultures. And it is taking up ever more shelf space in the beverage aisle at Whole Foods. Why? It may help restore health to your digestive tract and give you an immune boost.

Probiotics are not just for yogurts anymore. In fact, they haven't been for a very long time. Age-old Asian food kim chee and German sauerkraut are both made of fermented cabbage loaded with probiotics.

Miso, fermented soybean paste thought to have been introduced in the seventh century by Buddhist monks, is also rich in live and active cultures. So when it comes to replenishing healthy gut bacteria with probiotic foods, dairy-based yogurt and kefir are not the only options. But they may have seemed like the easiest to incorporate into your diet, until the rise in popularity of the health drink kombucha.

The present kombucha trend is actually the second rise of the drink in the United States. Does anyone else remember opening the refrigerator in the early 90s to find that a family member had polluted it with a murky, smelly jar of unidentified content and purpose? I do. My dad once cultured a jar of kombucha at home. What I remember best was the stench. My dad got his kombucha starter kit from an aging pot-smoking dentist friend who lived in the neighborhood.

"I became afraid it was growing some sort of fungus inside me. Something wasn't quite right about it," my dad said of the beverage. "I think it was supposed to give you a boost of energy. But I guess it doesn't matter now, because look what became of me anyway." (He's actually in pretty good shape for someone in his mid-fifties.)

Some people still grow kombucha at home, dipping into smelly barrels of black tea mixed with sugar, topped with pancake- or mushroom-like forms that consist of a symbiotic medley of yeast and bacteria. The mixture bubbles and brews over about a week, releasing "scobies," or little baby kombucha microorganism clusters, that can then be introduced to their own jars and go on to produce their own fermented tea colonies. It's not common here in South Florida, but in other metropolitan areas in the U.S., you can find ads for free scoby swaps on Craigslist, where kombucha devotees exchange their scoby "babies" and bits of their fermented brews for other strains, or gift them in acts of karmic investment.

Lucky for today's want-it-now generation, you can buy commercially produced and neatly packaged jars of kombucha without waiting or introducing questionable microbes into your home. The most popular brands are Synergy and GT's Kombucha (both from the same maker) and Katalyst Kombucha, and they come in flavors like Gingerade, Mystic Mango, Bliss Berry, and Green Lovin'. They taste like vinegar-laced wine coolers.

In 2010, sales of commercially-bottled kombucha and related health beverages jumped by 28 percent, and they're projected to soar even higher, according to SPINS, a company that tracks natural product industry sales. (Those numbers don't include Whole Foods sales data.) There was a glitch in their rise to success due to the discovery that some kombucha products contained up to 2.5 percent alcohol, which caused classification and labeling problems. Whole Foods and other natural foods giants yanked the product off their shelves while drink companies reformulated. When the revised products and labels were reintroduced, though, sales picked right back up where they left off.

Patricia Oleson, owner of South Beach juice shop and local artisan den Under the Mango Tree, is a believer in the beverage. "The taste is not the best, but it's really good for you," she said. She tried the drink for the first time at the farmer's market in Coconut Grove. "The guy grew it at home and he made me try it. It supposedly balances your pH and cleans you up internally, gives you energy and a better mood, kind of like wheatgrass shots. I definitely feel good after I have it, but I think you have to drink it over a long time if you want to see long term benefits."

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