No discussion of tea is complete without addressing caffeine. It’s generally a primary factor in deciding whether to make it your main drink, substitute herbal teas (chamomile is the main soother of choice), or stick to low-caffeine greens and, more recently, “white” ones marketed as even lower than low.
Caffeine is largely seen as a “problem.” The line of apologetic defense of tea is then along the lines of: “Yes, chugging ten energy drinks is not healthy… Caffeine’s addictive and scary in its overdose effects… But, well, tea’s not as bad as coffee… Green tea has less caffeine… OK, low caffeine tea in bags may taste dreadful and be bitter but it’s good for you. And you can always try herbal teas…”
It should be more positive in viewing caffeine as a characteristic of tea rather than a negative danger alert: “Caffeine is good, not bad, for health for most people… Enjoy the tea you like – most of the green tea dogma is nonsense… If you switch to herbal teas, read the ingredients very, very carefully… And don’t be fooled by the term “natural.””
How much do you yourself worry about caffeine? Too much? Not enough? Not a concern? Here are some facts – not opinions – about it. Some of them may shift your answer.
The medically recommended safe limit for caffeine is 400 milligrams a day. The chart below shows the average caffeine levels for teas and alternative drinks.
These are just approximations. Drip coffee, for instance, is higher per milliliter than regular percolated coffee and espresso is much more caffeine-loaded. Black tea varies from around 20 milligrams when brewed for two minutes to 50 at five minutes. A white tea made from the finest buds has 75 mg. A white that contains more mature leaf and is less packed with the health-associated nutrients may be 25.
The message here is that there’s nothing much to worry about. You can safely drink ten to twenty cups of tea of multiple colors before you hit the recommended daily limit. That’s for anyone in sound health, without heart, hypertension or blood pressure problems, and also not pregnant. For the smaller at risk fraction of the population, the obvious advice about any caffeinated drink is simple: Don’t touch it.
Caffeine is a psychoactive with the same properties as heroin. They operate on areas of the brain and nervous system in the same way. Both are addictive and withdrawal symptoms are marked, though manageable for caffeine, with an extreme reaction of headaches and depression lasting 1-5 days. Message: Worry, or at least be careful.
But don’t make it Social Enemy #1. Caffeine doesn’t build up in the body and half of it disappears in about six hours. For a light caffeine tea containing 20 mg a cup, you won’t really notice the effects and for a 40 mg black tea drunk at, say, 8 am, half has gone from your body by 2 pm. Change the am to pm, though, and you will still have some of the jolt effect at 2 am. Hence the tradition of black tea at breakfast and green for later in the day.
The US is middling in its consumption per capita. By far the highest level is in Scandinavian nations and well over twice that of the US. Their life expectancy ranks in the top ten globally, 2-3 years longer than the US average. Message: The general caffeine impact is overhyped. There is no reason to avoid tea just because of caffeine.
The broader issue is the pluses and minuses for yourself. Caffeine has many positives and is part of what makes tea flavorful. 80-90% of the population enjoys it as a mild stimulant that is quickly absorbed in the body. It has been reliably shown to improve short-term memory retention, something that students pulling an all-nighter to get ready for a mid-term know full well, without scientific evidence needed. One tea company pithily summarizes the upside as caffeine “clears the mind and elevates the spirit.”
Decaffeinated tea: Don’t touch it. Decaffeinated tea sounds like a good idea and the packaging will make it seem even better as “naturally decaffeinated.” It isn’t at all natural, but because the chemical solvent ethyl acetate used in the most common process is found in plants, the word can be legally used. Check out if decaffeinated tea is good for you or not.
Herbal tea: This is a whole topic in itself. These “natural” teas come with many significant health risks and additives. The interactions of many of the commonly used ingredients have led to frequent FDA warning notices and recalls. Teas promising weight loss are dangerous, as are ones that contain innocent-sounding ingredients star anise, comfrey, and oleander. They can become toxic in combination with each other and interact with medications.
Obviously, your decision about caffeine is a personal choice that should take the facts and messages into consideration but not be driven by them. The core issue is: are you comfortable about making any caffeinated drink one that you consume several times a day? If not, don’t drink tea. If so, drink the type you most like; from a health and safety perspective it doesn’t make much difference whether it’s a green, black or oolong.
It’s worth taking time of day into account, though, more as a matter of mood enhancement: when do you want a wake up jolt and when a soothing relaxant? Medical studies and statistics do not show caffeine to be a major cause of illness in itself but confirm the everyday concerns about its negatives: sleep disruption, short-term withdrawal discomfort, and anxiety increases.
As with so many aspects of the tea taste-health equation, you don’t need to give up one to get the other. That a tea is low caffeine doesn’t mean it’s a good tea. Beware the “white” teas being marketed on that basis. That a full-tasting black tea is higher in caffeine doesn’t make it more unhealthy.
If you drink fewer than six cups a day, there is no reason to count caffeine milligrams anyway. The historical pattern of tea drinking makes plenty of sense: a morning wake up black tea and lighter oolong, green or top rate white for the late afternoon. Caffeine in teas gets more attention than it really merits. Choose your tea for the enjoyment it offers and keep caffeine very much in the back of your mind, not as a primary issue.