Kombucha – Is this the next trend?

Kombucha is this the next trend. Here at Viscose, we receive new enquiries from a variety of different sectors and work with an interesting mix of customers. As we have such a wide range of products on offer, we could be taking preform orders for chutney one minute, and the next we are discussing a new project with a company in the gas industry, or dispatching goods to a pharmaceutical client on the other side of the world. This makes sure things don’t get boring in the office!
Even in this busy environment, the team are always on the lookout for new trends and exciting ideas. One product that has recently popped up a few times amongst the new customers is kombucha. Asking around the office, no one had really heard of it and no one could explain what it was. So before this new word enters the Viscose vocabulary, we thought it best to learn a bit more about it . . .

First thing’s first, what is it?
Kombucha is a sweetened tea that has been fermented by means of a “symbiotic ‘colony’ of bacteria and yeast” (SCOBY). It is used as a functional beverage for its apparent health benefits. The kombucha culture SCOBY is sometimes referred to as ‘mother’ because of its ability to reproduce or ‘mushroom’ in appearance. Black or green tea is usually used in the process, but oolong tea and white tea can also be used. Due to the fermentation process, kombucha has a small alcohol content, but it is usually less than 1% and varies depending on how long the tea is brewed.

Where did kombucha come from?
No one knows exactly where kombucha comes from. It is believed to have originated in the Far East thousands of years ago, where the ancient Chinese are said to have called it the “tea of immortality”. Historically home-brewed, kombucha arrived in Europe via Russia, but did not gain prominence in the West until very recently.
The Japanese name for what we refer to as kombucha is kōcha kinoko 紅茶キノコ (‘black tea mushroom’) and the Chinese and Russian names also refer to the mushroom-like Kombucha culture in their respective languages. However, it is from another Japanese word that it is believed we derive the English name. Kombucha is a Japanese tea made from seaweed (konbu) and it is speculated that it was used by English speakers to designate fermented tea, or possibly because the thick gelatinous film produced by the kombucha culture was thought to resemble seaweed.
The first use of the word kombucha in English can be traced to 1991 and, by the late 1990s, Kombucha had made its way into North American shops and was being bottled commercially. In fact, the American metal group System of a Down referenced kombucha in their 1998 song Sugar.
In 21st Century, we have seen an increase in popularity of teas and probiotics. The kombucha product combines both of these trends. By 2014 in the USA, sales of bottled kombucha reached $400 million and there now exists an American trade organisation for brewers of the tea, Kombucha Brewers International.

Kombucha is good for you, then?
Much of the interest in Kombucha stems from claims that it can be used to treat and even cure a variety of illnesses and ailments. Some websites suggest that there are links between the fermented teas drunk in Russia and the lower rates of cancer amongst its drinkers, others maintain that it can boost the immune system and can be used to fight AIDS. It is also argued that it can enhance the libido, treat diabetes and even reverse grey hair!
No controlled human trials have been conducted, although experiments on animals and in vitro suggest that drinking the brewed tea may be beneficial to our health. In a 2003 systematic review, it was concluded that kombucha should not be recommended for therapeutic use.

So, it’s not all good news?
There have been reports of adverse effects associated with kombucha consumption, although these are very rare. These include severe hepatic and renal toxicity, as well as problems regulating the levels of acid in the body (metabolic acidosis).
Many of the adverse health issues can be traced to over-fermentation leading to increased acidity of the tea, or contamination during the brewing process. Brewers have been cautioned to monitor their fermentation process carefully. However, there are many ‘make your own’ kombucha kits on the internet that are more likely to result in bacterial or fungal contamination that will be hard to police. Kombucha is not recommended for consumption by pregnant women, children under 4 years old and those with poor immune function, because of its microbial sourcing.

Not just another health drink . . .
During our research, we found an interesting link to between the kombucha culture and our plant cellulose-based Viskring product. When dried, the culture used in the fermentation process becomes a leather like textile, which has been identified as microbial cellulose. Like our cellulose product, the dried culture is environmentally friendly and non-toxic.
In recent years it has been used in the fashion industry, as it can be moulded onto casts to create seamless clothing. In 2011, Suzanne Lee debuted kombucha textiles in her clothing, as did Sacha Laurin in 2014, who designed a collection entirely made out of the material.
There is on-going research into the medical applications of microbial cellulose, including soft tissue replacement, artificial blood vessels and wound dressings. In the non-medical field, this type of cellulose has been used in diet foods, as an acoustic membrane in earphones and high strength paper, and has many more proposed applications.
Our cellulose department works with various sectors worldwide and there are several known applications of the product. We are constantly looking for innovative ideas to expand its application and this year we are working with a student from Swansea University to research the cellulose product further.

Are you a kombucha brewer or connoisseur? Do you use the Kombucha culture for other applications? Do you have another use for plant cellulose that you want you to know about? The Viscose team would love to hear from you! Please get in touch tweet us @viscoseclosures

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