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BODY WATCH : Magic Mushroom or menace : The kombucha 'tea' cult is growing ever stronger. But no one can prove the drink alleviates everything from asthma to AIDS. And some say it might even be harmful.

December 13, 1994|MARTIN BOOE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"What kombucha does is . . . is it sets up a vibrational tone," Norman Baker is saying. "It's a living thing! Give it love! Sing to it!"

Baker, who in stature and intensity calls to mind Richard Simmons, places his hand over his heart and stares earnestly into his visitor's eyes. "In fact, we believe the kombucha has an intelligence well above the level of a dolphin. It knows where to go in your body."

Ah, kombucha. Hindu love god? Recently exhumed Mayan fertility idol? No, Baker is talking about a mushroomish mass of plant matter.

Throughout Southern California and points beyond, kombucha is spreading like kudzu. But the pie-sized, brown mass with a tough but gelatinous consistency is not for eating. Rather, it is floated atop a solution of black or green tea and sugar, and fermented for seven to 10 days--after which it renders a tangy, cidery beverage with a whiff of vinegar and a hint of carbonation.

Recommended dosage: four ounces, three times a day before meals.

Kombucha "tea," as it's called, is causing quite a stir. The list of ailments it is purported to cure, according to its fans, is staggering: asthma, eczema, low energy, bad digestion. It clears up your skin, gets rid of wrinkles, and even turns hair (or at least some of it) from gray back to its original color. There are even claims that it rebuilds AIDS-ravaged immune systems and mitigates symptoms of multiple sclerosis.

Skeptics, however, say that kombucha may be benign at best and toxic at worst, and fear a cultlike hysteria may arise before it is carefully analyzed.

Meanwhile, there's a rush on kombucha accouterments. Pyrex bowls are selling as fast as the shipments come in. And health food stores such as Wild Oats in Pasadena are selling dozens of bottles of a commercially produced kombucha beverage for $5 a pint.

It is difficult, however, to know just how much of the information circulating about kombucha--which reportedly originated in Manchuria--is accurate.

According to "Kombucha, Health Beverage and Natural Remedy From the Far East," by Gunther W. Frank (Wilhelm Ennsthaler, 1991), the Soviets began conducting experiments with it under Stalin when it was discovered that people in the Ural Mountains who were inveterate "tea kvass" drinkers had dramatically lower cancer rates than other similarly industrialized areas. Still, the article contained in the book was penned, according to a note by Frank, by a Russian doctor who preferred to remain anonymous.

"The tea has been available in Europe for years," says German-born Aurelia Haslboeck, a healer and aroma therapist who says the tea works "like magic." The Los Angeles woman says she is frequently complimented on the luminosity of her skin.

Kombucha tea has also been widely embraced by people who are HIV-positive.

"I'd say from between 15% to 20% of our AIDS patients have experimented with it," says Dr. Gary Cohan of the Pacific Oaks Medical Group, which specializes in AIDS and HIV treatment and research.

*

Norman Baker and his partner, novelist Betsy Prior, are believers. They are also the owners of Laurel Farms, a kombucha distribution outlet based in Culver City. Fifty bucks gets you a starter mushroom and instructions, although the two say that's just to subsidize free kombucha for those who are too sick or broke to pay.

Still, Laurel Farms is a registered trademark, and the talk soon turns to joint ventures with Coca-Cola and Snapple.

Combined, Baker and Prior are a gale force of kombucha boosterism that borders on the messianic.

Their office answering machine takes more than a hundred messages a day from people pleading for kombucha, people relating tales of miraculous remissions.

But they are quick to note: "We're not saying it's a cure." Saying it is a cure would immediately put kombucha within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which is keeping a watchful eye on kombucha developments.

Rosio Vior, the FDA's Los Angeles branch spokeswoman, says kombucha raises several red flags.

"One of the warning signs we look for that something is a scam is when people say that a product cures a whole host of illnesses," she says. "Another is when they refer to it as ancient, something used for years. You have to ask, if this stuff is so wonderful, why don't the medical professionals know about it?"

Dr. Jeffrey Gates, an associate researcher in Cornell University's nutrition department, has been monitoring kombucha use for almost a year. A member of the China Group, a research group immersed in studying the diet of Chinese peasants, Gates recently sent samples of kombucha to a biotech lab to be analyzed for "anti-carcinogenic activity."

While awaiting results, Gates says he is slowly forming some preliminary conclusions about the fungus.

"There is a possibility that kombucha actually does work, but the question remains: What is the margin of error allowed, how much is too much, and what will happen if it's contaminated? What are the consequences? Death? Organ damage? Simple nausea?"

Through the Internet, Gates has collected reams of anecdotal evidence about kombucha.

"The vast majority of stories are positive, but there have been reports of nausea and vomiting, and in one case a woman attributed a breast lump to the tea," he says. There also have been two unsubstantiated reports of death caused by kombucha, and Gates says he can't rule out the possibility--however dim--that kombucha could be toxic to the liver.

Adds Cohan, the Pacific Oaks physician who specializes in AIDS treatment: "Some of my patients have experimented with it and have fun with it, and I don't think there's any great harm in it. But if it's so great, where's the data? There's a cult mentality at work here."

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