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The potential health risks of kombucha tea, a celebrity-favourite youth elixir

Lindsay MacAdam
Shine On
March 2, 2012

You've seen it in health-food stores, heard celebrities rave about its anti-aging properties, and maybe you've even tried it to see what all the hype is about. Kombucha tea, an originally East Asian fermented beverage made up of bacteria, yeast, tea and sugar, has been used for centuries in traditional medicine. Despite the controversy surrounding its health claims in the past decade or so, the beverage continues to be produced by a slew of mainstream manufacturers.

Gwyneth Paltrow, Madonna, Reese Witherspoon and Halle Berry are just a few of the many Hollywood actresses who have admitted to swearing by the acidic drink, but according to Sharon Palmer, dietitian and author of The Plant-Powered Diet, we probably shouldn't be taking health advice from the stars. "Although celebrities bring attention to many issues of diet and nutrition, that doesn't mean they are always correct or give the best advice," Palmer tells The Daily Mail.

Related: The health benefits of green tea

While kombucha has been used over the years to treat everything from AIDS to cancer to bad skin -- and has been praised for its effects on general health and well-being, immune system boosting and anti-aging properties -- some medical experts are saying the beverage's alleged benefits cannot outweigh its potential dangers.

According to the New York Times the "buzz" that people often feel after drinking kombucha is likely due to the drink's alcohol content. In June 2010, Whole Foods Market stopped selling unpasteurized kombucha varieties because the alcohol content of the raw tea could be as high as three percent depending on the brand and whether or not it continues to ferment in the bottle. The retailer was, of course, worried about government repercussions.

Mayo Clinic doctor Brent A. Bauer says, "There isn't good evidence that kombucha tea delivers on its health claims. At the same time, several cases of harm have been reported. Therefore, the prudent approach is to avoid kombucha tea until more definitive information is available."

Related: How to make the perfect cup of tea

The cases of harm he's referring to would likely be the reports of infections, allergic reactions and stomach problems in kombucha tea drinkers, not to mention the woman who died from cardiac arrest due to increased acid levels in 1995, after consuming it daily for two months. In 2009, there was also a 22-year-old who was hospitalized for lactic acidosis, the same potentially fatal condition that the woman had in 1995, a mere 12 hours after consuming the beverage. Luckily, he survived.

The American Cancer Society weighs in on the controversy, warning "anyone with an immune deficiency or any other medical condition to consult a physician before drinking the tea. Women who are pregnant or breast-feeding should not use this tea."

Verdict: This is clearly not the miracle drink it's been hyped up to be, and it's scary to realize how much of an impact celebrity endorsements can have on our health choices. Eating well and exercising regularly come out on top once again for achieving optimal health, and no one can argue with that.

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