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The fermentation fad

Examining the hype behind fermented drinks: kombucha and kefir
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COURTESY OF ANGIE via FLICKR
COURTESY OF ANGIE via FLICKR

As someone who grew up drinking kefir with cultural food, I’ve found kefir’s increasing popularity in western Europe and North America extremely weird. Seeing the drink come in several different flavours offered by several different brands, to be consumed alone and primarily for its health benefits, feels a little wrong — like the drink has been entirely stripped of its context.

Of course, kefir is neither the first nor the last product to receive this treatment from modern marketing in the West. Every week, it feels as if some obscure resource or old practice is ‘discovered’ by a young ‘entrepreneur’ who wishes to rebrand it to mass appeal, and there’s no better example of this in the fermented food market than kombucha.

Superficially, kombucha and kefir are rather similar. They both have histories that date back to ancient times — with the former’s origins being traced back to China and the latter being developed in eastern Europe. Both kombucha and kefir have traditions that ascribe them magical and medicinal qualities. They’re also both marketed based on their health benefits.

But kombucha is much more popular than kefir, despite the historical proximity of kefir’s conception to western Europe and a greater number of studies that confirm its health benefits. So what exactly makes us go crazy for kombucha, if not its purported health benefits?

History of consumption

To figure out why kombucha has become popular in the West, it’s helpful to know how it got there. Kombucha first became popular during World War I and remained popular afterward due, in part, to European pharmacists playing up its health benefits and ‘exotic’ origins, going so far as to call it “Fungojapan” and “Mo-Gu,” which is the Chinese word for mushroom. 

Though kombucha’s popularity declined during World War II due to the rationing of its main components, tea and sugar, kombucha came back in the 1960s as part of the hippie movement. Again, the hippie crowd seemed to gravitate toward kombucha not only for its health benefits but also for its countercultural symbolism — many noted that it was better specifically because it was not European.  

Later rises in popularity are, for the most part, explicitly linked to kombucha’s alleged health benefits. In the 1980s and 1990s, acquired immunodeficiency syndrome patients started drinking kombucha because of rumours that it would increase their T-cell count, though its popularity declined when the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention linked it to two severe cases of metabolic acidosis in the mid-1990s.

Kombucha then gained newfound fame due to scandals related to its alcohol levels in 2010. Though the kombucha products were temporarily taken off the shelves, most companies just started regulating alcohol levels more closely while others chose to lean into the natural production of alcohol — through the fermentation process — by creating kombucha beer. Both regular and alcoholic kombucha were, and still are, sold on the account of their health benefits. 

So do fermented drinks make you healthy?

If people are mostly consuming kombucha because it improves their health, why hasn’t kefir seen similar fluctuations in popularity? The kefir market has mainly expanded in the last decade or so, being almost a bandwagon on the kombucha health trend. 

Kefir and kombucha have more probiotics and vitamins and less calories than most other alternatives like pop or juice. Both drinks also claim to help prevent serious diseases like cancer or heart disease, although there is limited evidence to prove this. 

However, these claims are more backed up for kefir than kombucha. On top of that, kefir is a good source of calcium, like all dairy products, and it’s not linked to any serious or fatal conditions, unlike kombucha which has its fair deal of adverse health effects such as stomach problems, allergic reactions, and nausea.

It seems that, like most food we consume, fermented drinks are good in moderation and have certain health benefits. While kombucha can have negative consequences when consumed too heavily, anyone who enjoys the taste as well as the health benefits should be able to consume it in moderation and can ask their doctor if there are any concerns. On the other hand, those who don’t like it can get similar benefits from other products, both fermented and not. 

Kombucha’s comparative popularity still remains a point of interest to me, though. The only good explanation in my opinion is that it appeals to the Western markets because of the placebo health benefits created by its exoticization, as well as some people’s belief that Eastern practices are healthier than Western practices. 

Presently, the marketing of the biggest seller of kombucha, Synergy, still gives off a vaguely Eastern aesthetic to me, not enough to scare off the uninitiated but still there as a point of intrigue. All this is not to shame anyone for drinking kombucha, but it’s good to remember that the reasons behind something’s popularity are always more complicated than meets the eye, especially when the products are related to our health.