Kombucha is the health miracle of the moment

January 02, 1995|By Molly O'Neill | Molly O'Neill,New York Times News Service

In cupboards and closets across the country, Kombucha mushrooms are floating in bowls of sugared tea and saturating a growing number of homes with the smell of vinegar and the hope for restored vigor.

Kombucha, a white, gelatinous blob about 12 inches in diameter that propagates quickly, has spread like a New Age chain letter in recent months. Its cultivators estimate that more than 3 million Americans are now growing the fungi.

When fermented, the Kombucha (kom-BOO-cha) creates a sparkling beverage that tastes like hard apple cider.

Friends of the fungi tend to view it as the pods from the movie "Cocoon," a gift from outer space that can lower blood pressure and raise T-cell counts, increase vitality, eliminate acne, ease the aches and pains of arthritis, and even restore gray hair to its original color.

Some say it is a miracle cure. Some say it is a miraculous catalyst for community. Some say it is nothing more than a marketing miracle and may be dangerous.

Paul Stamets, a mycologist in Olympia, Wash., said that Kombucha could be a variation on the "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" theme.

"This is potent stuff and the risk for contamination is high," said Mr. Stamets, who owns Fungi Perfecti, a supplier of mushroom kits and cultures for exotic mushrooms.

Mr. Stamets researched the Kombucha for a pharmaceutical company 15 years ago.

The Kombucha, he said, is not a mushroom, but several yeasts living symbiotically with several bacteria that produce a powerful antibiotic.

"It could be a fabulous addition to drug therapies," he said, "but we have little idea of what it is, no idea what its side effects are and no doubt that it can become contaminated by spores in the air. You could kill yourself or your friends with a contaminated culture."

The federal Food and Drug Administration said it had received no reports of adverse reactions. But because the agency is concerned about toxicity, it is "taking a preliminary look into the possibility of contamination," said Dr. Samuel Page, director of the FDA's Division of Natural Products.

As the Kombucha ferments it reproduces itself every seven to 10 days and its cultivators pass their "babies" along. Initially embraced by the self-help set, bottles of homemade Kombucha tea are now crowding the refrigerators in buttoned-down law firms and accounting offices.

Until recently, Kombucha was available only by mail order. The initial starter fungus was shipped with instructions that should insure that the culture would continue in perpetuity.

A fungi shipped to New York writers Joan and Lydia Wilen, co-authors of "Live and Be Well," (HarperCollins, 1992) in October 1994, for instance, now has more than 1,000 descendants fermenting throughout the city, in Florida, in the Midwest and in Portugal. That number will double within 10 days.

Now, health food stores like The New Nutrisserie in Manhattan have decided to stock starter fungi. "The demand was overwhelming," said Mark Shin, the store's owner.

But the craze hasn't reached Baltimore. Area health food stores contacted by The Sun did not have the mushroom in stock, and some proprietors seemed unfamiliar with it. However, The Golden Temple on North Charles Street plans to start stocking it in the new year.

The American Kombucha vogue began in 1992 when Tom Valente, the publisher of Search for Health, a bimonthly magazine in Naples, Fla., touted its virtue to the 5,000 readers of his magazine.

Mr. Valente became the American distributor of one of the few books on the subject, "Kombucha: Healthy Beverage and Natural Remedy From the Far East," by Gunther W. Frank (Wilhelm Ennsthaller, Austria, 1991).

Laurel Farms, the most visible of the commercial Kombucha cultivators, began growing and shipping the fungi in Los Angeles in 1994. Healthy customers are charged $50, the chronically ill $15. Each of the 400 slippery disks shipped monthly from Laurel Farms bear a sticker that reads "Expect a Miracle."

Ginger Erano, a 38-year-old computer graphics specialist at a large Manhattan accounting firm,said her miracle was medical. After four days of drinking 12 ounces of Kombucha tea daily, she said, her psoriasis disappeared, pain from carpel tunnel syndrome lessened and her eyesight improved.

Others, like Bill McHugh, a 60-year-old actor, are more taken by the therapeutic aspects of making the tea. "There's a discipline involved in taking care of the mushroom," he said. "Taking care of something else is good for you."

Kombucha is brewed by placing the fungi in a glass bowl with three quarts of cooled black tea that contain one cup of sugar. It is then covered with cloth, and placed in a dark, warm place for a week to 10 days, until it spawns a second disk. The tea is then strained and stored in glass in the refrigerator.

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