Saturday, July 18, 2009

Drinking woo-juice!!!

This country is full of strange and mysterious new things every time I come back here!

I keep having to adapt and re-invent my habits because all the food is different from what I've grown used to in Europe. At lunch, for example, I couldn't find any rainforest juice (apparently it's a Swiss thing even though it comes from the Amazon -- the Swiss are all about sustainable+fair+eco foods), so I had to pick something else. I decided to try

Kombucha!!! I had to try it since I've been wondering what in the world is kombucha? ever since I started reading Kombucha Chic's blog. Here's the verdict:

Pros:
* I like it even though it tastes like vinegar. Especially the green kind.
* Seems invigorating, as claimed on the label.
* I've been drinking it for the past few days, and it's starting to grow on me. (Also in me, being a "living food"...)

Cons:
* I'm not entirely convinced this stuff is safe.

I know humans safely eat some foods that contain live cultures such as yogurt and and certain cheeses, but those are foods that people have been eating for millenia. The bottle says that Kombucha is Chinese, so it's possible that people have been drinking it cold, raw, and alive for millenia, but maybe not. The ingredients are listed as "100% G.T.'s organic raw kombucha*, and 100% pure love!!!" which is probably accurate, and yet it leads me to suspect that the FDA hasn't examined this product very closely.

Then there's the list of health benefits: digestion, metabolism, immune system, appetite control, weight control, liver function, body alkalinity, anti-aging, cell integrity, and healthy skin & hair -- with a disclaimer saying that these statements have not been evaluated by the FDA. (Further evidence for my theory above!)

I just like it as a beverage, but I'm a little worried that I may be supporting the woo industry. In particular, the testimonial on the bottle about how it helped the kombucha-maker's mother in her battle with breast cancer reminded me of Julie's post How Infertility Made Me a Skeptic w.r.t. confusing the effects of "complementary" and "alternative" treatments with the effects of whatever real treatment the patient is concurrently following.

On the other hand, it's theoretically possible that it's health-promoting. And not dangerous.

Anybody else out there tried this stuff?

9 comments:

Sabayon said...

The wikipedia article on it is actually fairly interesting and contains all the relevant scientific studies ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kombucha ). As far as I can tell, it has roughly the same cultures as are used to produce vinegar, so its probably no better or worse than vinegar is for you.
Personally I just find it way too expensive for what it is, but then I am cheap.
I also sincerely doubt it is much more than 85% pure love.

John Moeller said...

If it has that FDA disclaimer, you're supporting the woo industry. It means that the makers of the product are claiming something about it that they probably can't substantiate (if they could, they wouldn't need the disclaimer).

As for whether something is acceptable based upon longevity: people drank untreated water from the same rivers that carried their waste for millenia. It doesn't mean that it was a good idea. Any cultured foods that we still eat today have been tested rigorously and passed muster for modern food safety standards, as set by, e.g. the USDA or FDA. I have to wonder if that juice even qualifies as "food" under those standards, or if it can skate in under the radar because of that disclaimer.

Additionally, re: Wikipedia: you should be reasonably skeptical about anything that you read on Wikipedia. There's nothing stopping enough people who support outlandish claims from controlling edits on a page, unless Wikimedia pays attention to it (which is difficult with so many pages). That said, I haven't read the article, and even if I had, I'm not qualified to render a judgment on it.

Teresa said...

In the question of woo vs tasty beverage, I'm coming down on the side of; "if you like it, drink it, but don't expect anything from it".

Hi! My name is Teresa, I came here from Ben's blog at his urging.

Apparently, we are supposed to get to know each other and become BFF's :-)

The quack-disclaimer in the form of sandard-legal-copy-butt-cover is a pretty good indication, plus the price.

I'm with Sabayon on the love content. If they are charging you for it, it isn't love. :-)

PS, I am blogrolling you.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Sabayon!!!

Aha, so that's why it tastes so much like vinegar! Mystery solved. But it somehow makes it seem more boring...

Hey John!!!

I'm not saying that extensive human use proves a substance harmless, I'm saying that if it's been used by humans for millenia, then we have lots of information on what the effects are. A good example would be alcohol: I wouldn't call alcohol "safe", but people know well what the dangers are and what the warning signs are.

As far as FDA testing is concerned, that's essentially my question here. Since this is being marked as a food, it isn't subject to the same safety tests as a new drug would be. It's my understanding that cultured foods only have to pass safety tests in terms of preparation and handling to ensure that harmful bacteria (eg. salmonella, botulism) are not present. The FDA tests foods to ensure that they are what they say they are and that they're free of contaminants, but they don't test that the food itself in its pure form doesn't have side-effects (the way they test a new drug for harmful side-effects).

Take, for example, the case of Zicam Cold Remedy Nasal gel: "The FDA said Zicam Cold Remedy was never formally approved because it is part of a small group of remedies that are not required to undergo federal review before launching. Known as homeopathic products, the formulations often contain herbs, minerals and flowers." In other words, since it's not a drug, it didn't have to be tested for side-effects like a drug. It turns out that putting lots of zinc up your nose can destroy your sense of smell, and this nasal gel was full of zinc. But homeopathic medicines are allowed to contain zinc, so it was allowed on the market without any product safety testing.

Similarly for Kombucha, which claims on the bottle to be a type of "Chinese tea". Is a new tea required to pass clinical safety tests before going on the market? I doubt it.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey Theresa!!!

Cool, great to meet you!!! I saw Ben's comments here and subscribed to your blog. I'll add you to my blogroll as well.

John Moeller said...

The Zicam incident pretty much kicked me over into the "don't trust them" camp. Anosmia is a serious injury.

My river example was probably pedantic, and was a poor choice on my part. The point that I'm really trying to make here is that many people have a tendency to equate, for example, "Chinese" with "reliable" simply based upon the longevity of practices in traditional Chinese medicine. Much of the information contained in TCM is actually lore and not evidence.

C. L. Hanson said...

Hey John!!!

True, it seems like a lot of woo practitioners like to claim their products are Chinese because the Chinese are just mysterious enough (to us westerners) that we're willing to believe they may have some ancient mystical secrets that we don't know about. And it's true that a lot of major advances in world civilization have originated in China. But Chinese ideas and products that work can come right in through the front door and get assessed objectively, just like local inventions. The claim "this has been widely used in China" (whether it's true or not) shouldn't give a product a free pass to credibility.

kerfuffler said...

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Yes, you can enlarge the map easily.....please come back to see for yourself.

C. L. Hanson said...

Thanks Kerfuffler!!!

I just replied.