Konbucha: a popular tea with health benefits…or not?

By | September 24, 2018

Konbucha tea seems to be increasingly popular these days. For example, at one Whole Foods Market grocery store in Portland there is a konbucha bar with a lineup of teas on tap, and there are many types of konbucha drinks for sale in the refrigerated drink section.

Coincidentally, when recently reading a magazine I came across an article which touted the health benefits of konbucha tea. Even though this was a paid advertisement, my curiosity was intrigued and I was about to go to the store and start developing a konbucha habit––which clearly would improve my health in many ways.

Fortunately, before doing that I mentioned it to a Japanese person who said, “Be careful, there is no konbu in konbucha!”

As you may know, konbu (昆布) is a type of kelp which contains many healthy nutrients and is used in some forms of Japanese cooking including ramen.

Hearing the name konbucha, and knowing konbu to be nutrient-rich, I thought it was reasonable that this tea was in fact beneficial for the body. However, a quick check on Wikipedia told the disturbing truth. In short, konbucha sold in the U.S. does not actually contain kelp and is instead a type of sweet tea fermented with bacteria and yeast.

While certain fermented foods (such as natto) do appear to have health benefits, according to Wikipedia the potential dangers of konbucha outweigh the potential health benefits, at least based on the available scientific data. While konbucha has been touted to help cure or help many ailments (including arthritis, cancer, and constipation), it seems there is no scientific evidence to support such claims. (Note: the adverse effects do appear to be rare, but given the lack of data for positive effects the former seems to outweigh the latter.)

In the big scale of things, I don’t think science has truly advanced enough to determine with certainty the medical benefits of various foods and drinks. But given the available evidence, it seems doubtful that konbucha is actually as great as the marketers are saying. Normally I consider myself pretty aware of sneaky marketing tactics, but in this case I was nearly fooled.

In case you are curious, what is called konbucha in the U.S. would more accurately be described in Japanese as “紅茶キノコ” (koucha kinoko), where koucha means “(black) tea” and kinoko means a type of mushroom.

Historically it seems unclear whether konbucha was misnamed purposefully or due to some misunderstanding, but regardless it doesn’t seem like anyone will fix the name anytime soon.

For the record, I don’t hate konbucha––I had it once and did enjoy the taste. If you want to drink it, that’s fine with me. Just don’t drink it because you believe there are so many proven health benefits, do it because you simply like the taste.

(Note: My stance on this topic is based on the assumption Wikipedia’s article on konbucha is generally correct. While \ Wikipedia can sometimes provide misinformation, in this case there are nearly 50 references provided, and the history of the article shows several people have worked on it across more than a years’ time. However if you know of any studies that do indicate positive health benefits of konbucha, please let me know.)

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2 thoughts on “Konbucha: a popular tea with health benefits…or not?

  1. Yeti

    When I first heard about kombucha I also thought it had something to do with 昆布, but after learning what it was I assumed it was not actually etymologically related. Do you think it is really supposed to be the same word? If so, then that’s really confusing…

    Reply
    1. locksleyu Post author

      I think the name was given purposefully, at least in the sense that someone *thought* there was some connection between Japanese ‘昆布茶’ and the tea in question. Wikipedia mentions this on the topic:

      The American Heritage Dictionary suggests that it is probably from the “Japanese kombucha, tea made from konbu (the Japanese word for kelp perhaps being used by English speakers to designate fermented tea due to confusion or because the thick gelatinous film produced by the kombucha culture was thought to resemble seaweed).”

      But in any case, this confusion will only effect a small number of people, in other words those who have access to “kombucha” and also know Japanese well enough to be familiar with the word “昆布”.

      Reply

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