I’ve never been much of a tea drinker. To me, the flavor is reminiscent of twigs soaked in warm dishwater. I don’t mean to disparage the tea enthusiasts who “ooh” over their oolong and cherish every drop of their chai. Quite the opposite, in fact. I’m as green as Japanese sencha every time another study emerges, steeped with praise about the health benefits of the beverage I’m not drinking.
This month my envy was particularly strong, when The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition featured not one, but 11 new studies highlighting the many ways in which tea can supposedly improve our well-being. The research was originally presented at an entire symposium devoted to Tea and Human Health, held in Washington, DC.
A few of the highlights:
- Tea drinking appears to lower the risk for heart disease and stroke.
- Natural compounds called polyphenols in green tea might protect against several cancers, including those of the prostate, GI tract, lungs, breast, and skin.
- Caffeine and antioxidants called catechins found in green, oolong, and white teas may increase metabolism and promote weight loss.
- Tea polyphenols are thought to strengthen bones and protect against fractures.
- People who drink tea could see improvements in mood, concentration, and performance.
Is tea uniquely healthy?
Not being a tea enthusiast, I immediately wondered whether any other foods could offer the same health boost. But it looks as though tea is distinctively rich in healthful properties. “Tea is uniquely plentiful in catechins, and especially epicatechins, which are believed to be the component responsible for many of its purported health effects,” says Dr. Howard Sesso, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and associate epidemiologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
The less processed tea leaves are, the more health-promoting catechins they contain, Dr. Sesso says. Green teas have the most nutritional benefit, followed by oolong and black teas.
I also had to ask whether it’s possible to capitalize on tea’s healthful properties without actually drinking the stuff—say, by popping a pill? “More studies are needed that directly compare the effects of tea drinking versus tea extracts or supplements,” Dr. Sesso says. To harness all the healthful components of tea into a pill, we’d need to know exactly what those components are, and we’re not there yet. Another reason to avoid tea pills, or even to start drinking tea for health, is that although many studies show an association between tea drinking and health, they can’t show cause and effect.
Not your cup of tea?
If you’re a tea drinker, continue to enjoy your Darjeeling, Earl Grey, or Lapsang souchong. If you’re not into tea, don’t use the research as a reason to change your drinking preferences. “It is too preliminary to conclude that everyone should regularly drink tea,” Dr. Sesso says.
It’s not a good idea to resort to additives to make tea more palatable. I’ve heaped in spoonfuls of sugar, and tried the cloyingly sweet facsimiles sold in supermarkets and at Starbucks to make tea go down easier. “Sweetened tea beverages introduce calories, fat, and other ingredients that get away from the basic premise that the tea leaf may be responsible for any health benefits,” Dr. Sesso says. You can add a little honey or lemon to taste without compromising the purity of your tea, but stop there.
If you just can’t stomach the stuff, don’t fear that you’re missing out on a healthy beverage. Coffee—which research is finding may protect against diseases like type 2 diabetes and some forms of cancer—is a perfectly reasonable and possibly equally healthful alternative.