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Dude, Where's My Kombucha?

The federal government is looking into the fermented tea's alcohol content. That's not the only thing that's wrong with it.

When Lindsay Lohan set off her alcohol-monitoring ankle bracelet at last month’s MTV Movie Awards Party, celebrity gossip-mongers turned to her habit of drinking kombucha, a fizzy fermented drink that can contain low levels of alcohol. The initial reports were probably untrue, but the incident launched the expensive, once-obscure sparkling tea into the public consciousness.

Then, Whole Foods Market abruptly pulled kombucha from its shelves over other, more substantiated claims that the alcohol levels in the beverage meant it wasn't being taxed correctly, according to U.S. tax law. Hippie and hipster guzzlers all over were left wondering: what’s going on with my beloved mushroom tea?

For the uninitiated, kombucha is a fermented drink that’s been touted as a cure-all energy drink. Historically, the drink has been consumed across Russia, Bulgaria, China, and Indonesia. It’s made by combining brewed tea, sweetener, and a visible, cloudy mass of yeast and bacteria known as a mother. The mother breaks down sugars into alcohol and acetic acid (vinegar), which act as preservatives, making it possible for kombuchaseurs to make their own batches in less-than-sterile home kitchens.

When the drink is bottled commercially—much of it by G.T. Dave, the Coke of Kombucha—it is often pasteurized, which kills the live bacterial cultures. Other makers let it continue to bubble and ferment. Therein lies the problem: Continued fermentation means booch becomes hooch. In recent tests at the University of Maine, food science professor Brian Perkins found that at least one major brand contained 2.4 percent alcohol—well above the .5 percent limit on nonalcoholic beverages and approaching the alcohol content of some ultralight beers. This taxable amount of alcohol in kombucha is what the feds are going after—and why it disappeared from supermarket shelves.

Alcohol may help explain the serious buzz about the stuff and its alleged stress-relieving powers. But it’s more than just alcohol that explains its appeal. Since its widespread introduction to the United States in 1992, the drink has reportedly worked wonders, from supposedly curing Ronald Reagan of cancer to legitimately protecting laboratory rats from liver damage. Kombucha has antimicrobial properties which have helped fight E. coli and other bacteria in the lab, but this action may jeopardize the microbial life found in healthy digestive systems. In the case of one woman’s unexplained death, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that the daily consumption of home-brewed kombucha led to an excessive acid buildup. For those reasons and more, both scientists and alternative medicine gurus caution that kombucha's health risks outweigh any potential benefits.

As kombucha gains traction as the beverage of choice for enlightened foodies and starlets alike, it’s worth questioning the bewildering array of health claims that surround it. With less added sugars than most sodas, it might be appear to be a healthy drink option. And now that Lohan has put this potent, foul-smelling beverage back in the spotlight, it might be time to raise a stink about its claimed magical or detoxifying properties—and keep a lid on it until there’s a better consensus from clinical researchers.

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