Posted on Thu, Aug. 15, 2002
The aroma at San Francisco's tiny KK Cafe is thick with fried burgers and espresso. But what really draws the customers is an odd homemade brew of peanuts and rice.
A growing legion of devotees is streaming into the Haight-Ashbury burger joint to buy peanut milk that customers say has helped them with everything from skin ailments to the side effects of chemotherapy and AIDS-suppressing drugs. Cafe owners Jack and Margaret Chang, who developed it by accident three years ago, now sell an estimated 200 quarts a day.
The drink's production has not been inspected by the city health department. It is not approved by the Food and Drug Administration and has never been clinically tested for benefits. Yet testimonials line the cafe's dingy walls, swearing the juice has done what modern medicine can't.
Health experts are skeptical.
"Peanuts and rice are wholesome foods, but do I believe it has any power beyond chicken with peanut sauce over rice? Personally I wouldn't," said Dr. Rajiv Bhatia of the San Francisco Health Department. He said that many people have severe allergic reactions to peanuts, and was concerned that the contents are not listed on the bottle and that the bottling process is not inspected.
The Changs said everyone who buys it knows what's in it, and they are careful not to make any precise medical claims.
"I don't know why it works and I am not a doctor or a scientist," said Jack Chang, a spry and wiry 55. "I'm just a cook. But I see my customers coming in every day healthier."
Chang developed the recipe by accident. Chronic gum disease prevented him from eating the crunchy peanuts he'd always enjoyed in his native Taiwan. So one day he boiled peanuts with rice and a little sugar, and drank the stuff.
He was surprised when within weeks his gums healed, he claims. He also thinks he got more energy. Margaret, 53, tried the grainy drink and said she felt an energy lift, too.
The couple kept mixing batches for themselves, and eventually let curious customers try the brew. Chang offered it first to customers with HIV and AIDS who frequented the cafe, located near a hospital and the Castro district, where many gay people were fighting the disease. After watching his brother die of an AIDS-related illness in 1990, he said he was eager to offer something to help.
Soon, the couple said, people were reporting all kinds of health benefits.
The Changs began bottling it in their cafe kitchen under the name "Signs and Wonders," a phrase from the Bible. They were featured on the local evening news, and the story hit the airwaves in Los Angeles.
Now the Changs say they can't keep up with demand for their milk. They stay late every night making it, and now want to find an investor to mass produce it.
Regular customers range from healthy professionals looking for an energy boost to the chronically ill.
A father said that two months after his 9-year-old son started on the drink, he was able to take his son off strong anti-inflammatory steroids for swelling from kidney disease. A woman who drinks it every night said she no longer suffers hot flashes.
Tatum Blass, 27, a medical student who has suffered from diabetes and kidney disease, said painful skin lesions vanished after she began drinking peanut milk in December. "Nothing else worked," she said. "I'm not cured, but at least I have my skin back."
A man undergoing chemotherapy and taking anti-HIV drugs said it was the only thing he could drink during his therapies. He claims it boosted his energy and helped him withstand the treatments.
Although health experts recognize people with diseases for which there is no cure may be drawn to such alternative or home remedies, they caution that patients should be wary. Even natural remedies can interfere with drug treatments, said Brenda Lien of Project Inform, a non-profit group that reviews treatment possibilities for people with HIV and AIDS.
"Some people will say, `I just feel better since I've started using such and such an approach.' Even placebos have an effect, whether it's real or not," she said. She stressed that there's no clinical tests that show any nutritional supplements necessarily help people with HIV.
If a drink made with peanuts and rice has any benefit, said Bhatia, it may be simply that it is nutritious and possibly easier for sick people to digest than solid foods.
"If the drink is either by faith or by soothing effects relieving those symptoms, it's hard to make a strong case for trying to dissuade them," he said. "In a way, it's sort of like taking communion."