Trends: Taking The Fungal-Tea Plunge

It's the aromatherapy of the mid-'90s, Snapple for the crystals set. And it's created the first known media fungal frenzy. Kombucha, a fungus-based tea, is the New Age's latest health obsession, a cure-all that turns gray hair black again, clears up bad skin, boosts T-cell counts and induces spiritual well-being. Or so its devout drinkers claim. "It gets rid of all the infection in the body: you don't feel pain and things like that," attests Mu Fuhtrakoon, a Los Angeles-based trader in holistic goods who credits kombucha with ridding her of cellulite. Norman Baker calls this magic beverage "a gift from God." He would: Baker trademarked the name Kombucha Tea, and is selling 400 units a month at $50 a pop, $15 for the chronically ill, from his 'shroom farm in Venice, Calif. "Expect a miracle," the packaging exhorts initiates. Drop the white blob into a few quarts of sugared black tea, let it ferment for seven to 10 days, then quaff three glasses of the vinegary caffeinated elixir daily and await your own personal miracle.

The so-called Manchurian mushroom has been used for centuries as a folk tonic in China and Russia. An article in the May issue of Whole Life Times revived interest here, eventually sending reporters from The New York Times and CNN trend-sniffing around health-food emporiums. Meanwhile, the FDA is investigating whether kombucha carries harmful bacteria. As Purdue University pharmacognosy professor Varro Tyler warns, "A product like this can get contaminated and, combined with other fungi, produce toxic products." So the only downside is the slim possibility that the kombucha might kill you, instead of cure you. Bottoms up.