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Safety Concerns Addressed for Elderberry and Kombucha

Q. Is elderberry safe and beneficial to consume?

A. Elderberry has been treasured for centuries as traditional medicine to treat skin conditions and respiratory illnesses, such as colds and flu. However, unripe elderberries and other parts of the elder tree, such as the fresh leaves, flowers, young buds and roots, should not be eaten as they contain a bitter alkaloid and a glucoside that can be toxic, resulting in nausea and vomiting and, potentially, more serious side effects.

The ripe blue or purple berries are edible (cooking is highly recommended) and are often used in pies, jams or wine. The berries are an excellent source of fiber, providing 10 grams per cup, and flavonoids, which exhibit antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

A few small studies have shown that elderberry eases flu symptoms, but further research needs to be performed to confirm these findings.

nutritionThere are several different types of elder trees, but European elder (Sambucus nigra) is the type most often used to produce berry extracts for supplements.

Currently, there is not a recommended dosage for elderberry supplements. If you’re considering taking elderberry supplements, consult your primary care provider, as elderberry may interact with immunosuppressant drugs, laxatives or diuretics.

– McKenzie Hall, RDN

Q. I see kombucha everywhere, but is it healthful?

A. Kombucha is a fermented, slightly effervescent drink made from tea, sugar, bacteria and yeast. The fermentation process uses a symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast known among aficionados as SCOBY (symbiotic colony of bacteria and yeast). The taste can be vinegary and it resembles a cloudy apple cider.

Due to the popularity of fermented foods, interest in kombucha has risen significantly, despite costing about $4 for a 12-ounce bottle. Is it worth it? Unfortunately, there’s not much scientific evidence that shows the drink and its bacteria promote health. Additionally, it contains caffeine, though less than an equivalent serving of tea, and, despite claims of being a source of B vitamins, total amounts are very low.

Because of the fermentation process, kombucha can have very low levels of alcohol; the established limit is 0.5 percent, but in 2013 bottles were pulled from store shelves because some contained significantly more.

Though there’s no evidence for increasing immunity or preventing cancer, anecdotal claims of helping digestion abound. Trying this unique drink doesn’t appear to cause any health problems, so if fermented foods please your palate, give kombucha a try.

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