The Kombucha Fad – Redux

The Weekend Financial Times, in a review of the new book A History of Women in 101 Objects by Annabelle Hirsch, mentions the bizarre trend, early in the 20th century, to market the ‘wonder element’ of radioactive radium in foods and beauty products. It was discovered by scientist Marie Curie in 1910. Entrepreneurs were quick to cash in on the glowing element. Radium soon became hailed as an all-around health and beauty elixir and added to everyday items such as water, coffee, beer, chocolate, face creams, and more.

Sound familiar?

As listed in my 2020 post, Kombucha: The Outer Limits, we are witnessing a wide range of products that piggyback on the gold standard of authentic, unpasteurized, raw kombucha as the category expands worldwide. Just as radium was an unlikely addition to beauty products, “kombucha” has become a label slapped on everything from face creams to tablets, which bear no relationship to the beverage.

The FT reviewer notes the extent of the fad of yesteryear:

Here’s the entry on Burkbraun’s Radium Chocolate, from the early 20th century and included to symbolise the radium craze that followed Marie Curie’s discovery of the element, making her the first female “science superstar”. At this time, Hirsch tells us: “Pretty much everything had been getting laced with radium,” including “face creams, toothpaste, lipstick”. And some things just got the name “radium” attached to them — “yes, even condoms (which didn’t actually contain any radium but still featured the word on the packet to suggest potency).”

Radium was, as Hirsch points out, “the number-one health and beauty trend, a little bit like chia seeds are nowadays”. That made me snort with laughter — although the story ends with tragedy. The US Radium Girls scandal of the 1920s involved young factory workers who coated watch-faces (and sometimes their own fingernails, for fun) with radioactive paint, and ended up dying of “anaemia, bone fractures and other symptoms of acute radiation poisoning”.

Source: Financial Times Weekend Edition, Nov 4, 2023, p.9

That was then, this is now.

Luckily, no dosage of kombucha has yet proven lethal.

However, a bakery promotion has weird echos of the claims some make for kombucha.

In the early years of the 20th century in the British city of Bath, on a site that is now a Burger King, the bakers Humphries and West sold radium bread. This seems to have been a pretty standard recipe except they used the mineral waters of the city: which were radioactive. Fans of radium baked goods (and presumably the bakers themselves) declared that the bread was ‘Bath’s New Speciality’, on a par with the famous Bath buns, and would soon become as synonymous with the city as that famous sweet bread laced with sugar and fruit. It was claimed the radium stimulated your metabolism and the iron was good for gout.

Source: Half Lives: The Unlikely History of Radium

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