The kombucha craze: Bacteria brew seen as a tonic for intestinal health

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, July 24, 2017, by Lisa Spear

Millions of bacteria line the inside of our guts. We have more bacteria in our bodies than cells, and these little critters are working to help us break down and digest the food we eat —  without them we wouldn’t be able to survive — so it would seem logical that if this intestinal flora is killed off or imbalanced, perhaps by antibiotics, our bodies could benefit from an extra boost. This is where kombucha comes in.

Kombucha is tea brewed with probiotics — bacteria and yeast — and is said to replenish the microbes in our digestive systems which help the body absorb nutrients. Sometimes the drink, which is typically fizzy, is flavored with spices like turmeric or ginger.

“The reason health nuts are into it is because there are live microbes,” says Tom Benander of Hilltop Kombucha, a homebrew company in Shutesbury. “If you drink them, they are going to start living in your intestinal tract and that is the benefit.”

The drink, which sells for as much as $5 for an 16-ounce bottle, has seen a spark in popularity in recent years and is now available not only in health food stores, but mainstream supermarkets as well.

At the River Valley Co-op on King Street in Northampton, there are half a dozen bottled kombucha varieties in the cold case near the salad bar. There are a number of flavors like a blend of lemon and ginger from a company called “Health-Ade Kombucha” shipped in from California in UV-protective amber bottles. Then there are local varieties like the Jasmine Tea kombucha from Greenfield’s Katalyst Kombucha or the smoky black tea from Hilltop in Shutesbury. Near the checkout aisle, there is a station with the tea on tap, where shoppers can fill containers.

“We sell a ton, everybody asks for it,” says employee Rodney Sinclair. Sales there are up 10 percent from last year, according to Evan Lash, the assistant operations manager.

Just down the road at Big Y, there five brands of the drink available in a number of flavors, like strawberry sage and elderberry as well as a station like River Valley’s where customers can fill a growler or smaller bottles. Trader Joe’s in Hadley started carrying kombucha just six months ago, and it has proven so popular that the company already has introduced seven flavors from five different distributors, says Trader Joe’s crew member Robert Travis.

“It is definitely going more mainstream now,” says member owner Garth Shaneyfelt of the Artisan Beverage Cooperative that makes Katalyst Kombucha in Greenfield.

On the global level the kombucha industry is expected to grow from just over a half billion dollars in 2015 to $1.8 billion by 2020 according to MarketsandMarkets Research Private Ltd., a global market research and consulting firm.

Health evidence lacking

But despite claims advocates like Benander make for health benefits kombucha provides, they haven’t been proven.

“There is no evidence behind it,” said Rony Ghaoui, a gastroenterologist at Baystate Medical Center, who noted that even medical students snap up the bottles for sale in the hospital cafeteria. The gut’s bacteria is unique to every individual, he says, and not well understood, so how kombucha effects it is unknown.

Everyone’s intestinal flora is so diverse, that it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint exactly how to change it to improve digestion, he says.

No clinical studies have been done on the effects of kombucha, he adds, largely because there is no funding available and big pharmaceutical companies don’t see big profit potential in a natural remedy.

Still, Ghaoui says, many of his patients swear by it. “I think this is because there is this hunger for natural remedies.” He doesn’t recommend it, but concedes its popularity. “ It doesn’t hurt to try it.”

The SCOBY monster

A popular local brand Katalyst Kombucha of Greenfield contains up to 18 different strains of bacteria, says Shaneyfelt, a member of the cooperative that makes it. The most prevalent bacteria in the brew are the bacillus species, which are often found in commercial probiotic products, such as yogurt.

Benander, 47, who has been drinking his homebrew for more than 10 years says he isn’t sure what bacteria is in it, but he’s certain it’s working to keep him and his customers healthy.

On a recent Friday afternoon he was stirring a batch of the brownish tea which he sells to the River Valley Co-op and the Leverett Co-op.

Even though it looks like there is a sea creature swimming in the two-gallon tank, the blob is a mushroom-like culture of bacteria and yeast. It is often nicknamed the “mother,” but the more scientific name is SCOBY (a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast disc).

The SCOBY is the key ingredient in brewing kombucha and it seems that the way to get one is to take a piece of someone else’s. There are also suppliers online that offer homebrew kits, but if you know someone with a SCOBY, this cellulose substance can easily be broken into layers and shared.

Benander was given his SCOBY 10 years ago. At the time, it was just the size of his palm, he says, but has since grown into a giant mass. Every so often, he has to throw parts of it away so it doesn’t consume his entire tank.

His brew, which also contains sugar, sits in the tank at room temperature for about 10 days before Benander bottles it and places it on a shelf to ferment for a few more days.

It doesn’t look appetizing, as he pours a serving into a cup to taste. It’s the ninth day that this batch has been fermenting, and it should be ready soon, but it is still too sweet with the flavor of fizzy apple cider vinegar.

“There are a lot of floaters,” he says as he stirs it with a plastic spatula. There are a lot of people who say, ‘I saw one of those tanks, I will never drink that.’ ”

During the fermentation process, the bacteria eats the sugar, so the sweet taste is almost undetectable when it is done, he says.

The finished product also has a tiny alcohol percentage, but it won’t make your drunk, says Benander, though some people mix it with hard apple cider or drop a raisin in the bottle and let it sit to up the alcohol content.

A serving also contains as much caffeine as a cup of coffee, so it can give you an energy boost.

Fans are hooked

Benander says that even though they didn’t like it at first, his two teenage girls, Lyla, 15, and Alex Benander, 13, are now hooked on it. “Once you start drinking it, it is hard to stop, he says.

Another fan, Elise Hayden-Ferdman of South Hadley, who was buying some at River valley Co-op last week, agrees.

“I’m a bit of an addict,” she says. “I like that it calms my belly and tastes good.”

She had a bottle of “Mystic Mango” kombucha from the company Synergy in her shopping cart for her son, Maxim, 15, who also loves the drink.

“It is a nice substitute for soda pop because it is fizzy and sweet,” she says.

While Benander, too, likes the acidic taste, he says he’s more focused on the health benefits he says he has experienced. Since he started drinking one cup of his brew a day, he says, he has never gotten a cold or the flu and is in perfect health.

“Now, I never get sick, I am bulletproof.”

He acknowledges, however, the drink might not be for everyone.

“This is for hardcore nutritionists,” he says.

Homebrewers beware

Homebrewing kits are readily available on the internet. But when prepared at home, there is a risk, as with any homemade food or drink, of contamination with E. coli which can make you sick, Ghaoui says.

There is also the risk of mold growth, which also can make people ill, he says, though it is rare.

“If it is fuzzy, toss it,” says Shaneyfelt of Katalyst Kombucha adding that he hasn’t heard of anyone having an issue with mold growing on their home brews.

Legend has it that kombucha originated in ancient Asia. Its name is reportedly derived from a doctor named Komu-ha-chimu-kama-ki-mu, who brought the fermented tea to Japan to aid a sick emperor, according to the “The Big Book of Kombucha.”

The tea was later brought to Europe as a result of trade route expansions in the early 20th century. It became popular in Europe until a tea shortage during WWII, according to an article in the journal “Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety.”

Then, it gained attention in the 1960s following a Swiss study that compared its health benefits to those of yogurt, according to the article.

It didn’t enter the mainstream until the 1990s when the first kombucha company sprouted up in Beverly Hills called GT Kombucha’s. Since then, a number of other companies have entered the market and last year, PepsiCo. bought a small kombucha company called KeVita.

“To say it became more commercial is an understatement,” says Benander.

But while the medical world awaits the development of a road map to understand the bacteria that live inside the body, kombucha drinkers are sure they’ve found a drink that’s good for them.

Jon Messer, 74, of Easthampton, drives to the River Valley Co-op on a regular basis to visit the kombucha tap.

“This stuff keeps me going,” he says on a recent afternoon as he fills a cup. “I come all the way over here to get this. I think it is a good probiotic.”