grow your own miracle cure

THE HUMAN CONDITION It's ugly, it smells sour, it has the texture of squid, but the Americans can't get enough of it. Edward Helmore on kombucha, a 'life-enhancing' mould that is spreading fast
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Indy Lifestyle Online
HIGH in the kitchen cabinets of health-conscious Southern Californians, strange blobs are lurking. The latest craze in the land of the body beautiful is an ugly, sour-smelling fungus. Its cultivation has become a cult, its properties are held to be the elixir of good health and long-life, and its spread is promoted by an association whose single aim is to see that everyone who wants a kombucha gets one for free.

According to the Kombucha Foundation, this new-age mushroom has been worshipped and cultivated for millennia. As it floats in a mixture of tea and sugar in a plastic container, its dark skin, which has the consistency of fleshy squid, is supposed to exude enzymes, vitamins and detoxifying acids into the solution. Devotees then quaff the liquid as a daily tonic.

"The kombucha mushroom," reads the Association's literature, will miraculously "stave off the ravages of age, and bestow an overall feeling of empowerment and health over a lifetime averaging over 100 years, a few to 130."

And that's not all. The kombucha is supposed to be anti-carcinogenic - at the same time, it flushes toxins from the liver and kidneys, promotes T-cell counts and reverses MS , cleanses the blood, relieves allergies, PMS and flatulence, smoothes cellulite and, of course, improves sex drive.

According to Maha Barata, a leading member of the Kombucha Foundation, "the mushroom asks only for loving care and it will not only produce health for its caretaker, but will also allow the opportunity to spread health to anyone and everyone through its propagations."

The kombucha craze arrived in America after a long, 2,000 year journey from its origins in Manchuria by way of the Black Forest from where the monthly Die Fazination von Kombucha is published. The magazine is the popular source of kombucha rumour - such as Ronald Reagan drinking a distillation of its tea to cure his colon cancer, and Joseph Stalin sipping it regularly.

Strictly speaking, the kombucha isn't actually a mushroom: it's a symbiosis of yeast cells and bacteria. The Moscow Central Bacteriological Institute calls it a "tea sponge" formed from Bacterium Xylinum and deposits of yeast cells that create a substance called glucoronic acid in the tea. This is supposed to be a liver detoxifier that binds up poisons and toxins and flushes them out through the kidneys.

In Los Angeles kombucha has achieved what crystals failed to accomplish - bridge the generation gap. From New Agers to the wealthy grown tired of the annual tip and tuck routine to the elderly, this fountain-of-youth can now be delivered to your door for $5 a pint. It's becoming nearly as common as expensive bottled water.

Hollywood being what it is, a few celebrity testimonials have created a surge in demand. Saad Ghazi, chef at a popular Indian restaurant in Studio City, says he has a waiting list of 30 people anxious for a culture including Rosanna Arquette and Herbie Hancock. Apparently the roots of this cult can be traced back to a "well-known Hollywood producer who got it from Manchuria". Afficionados like to say this was in fact Tyler Moore. He in turn gave a piece to Sister Denise of the Brahma Kumaris Meditation Centre in Hollywood, who gave some to Sister Joan, who then passed it on to Betsy Pryor, co-owner of Laurel Farms, a leading commercial grower.

Department stores in Los Angeles report that their sales of wooden spoons, pyrex bowls and tea towels have rocketed - all for the cultivation of the mushroom. With growers proliferating in cities across the US, the mould is spreading fast - or as one kombucha cultivator puts it: "Something is happening that is unexplainable."

Despite testimonials along the lines of the blind finding sight and cripples throwing off their bonds and walking free, many scientists are sceptical. "It's very popular with New Agers who would rather drink a substance of unknown identity than learn that it may kill you," says Paul Stamets, a West Coast mycologist who speculates that under certain conditions the lumpen goo could harbour botulism and other harmful toxins.

Daniel Walsh, a fraud specialist with the Califonia Department of Health Services, says the kombucha has all the characteristics of the snake oil cure-alls flogged in the Wild West by smooth-talking charlatans: the mushroom is backed by studies in foreign countries, it appeals to vanity, has its origins in ancient remedies, and claims to cure almost any ailment.

More earthly side effects have been noted too - drinkers experience the so-called "kombucha retch factor," when the drinker becomes nauseous and vomits. Snake-oil or miracle cure, the strange smell in your neighbour's kitchen may not be spilt wine from last night's party but the acid wafts of the latest health fad.

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