Caffeine in your tea? Stop worrying!
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Caffeine in your Tea? Stop Worrying!

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.

Caffeine in different kinds of beverages

Popular beverages and their caffeine levels.

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.

 

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

16 Comments

  1. Teresa says

    So what do you think of “decaffeinating” your own tea, by pouring off the first hot water and then steeping with new water? At least that’s natural, though I’m sure the taste might suffer a bit!

    • Peter GW Keen
      peter keen says

      Hi Teresa….

      It’s an idea I see frequently referred to but it doesn’t seem to work. It interferes with the timing of the caffeine release. I read somewhere that you;d have to let it steep for five minutes on average before pouring off the water and adding more. I’ve tried it a few times and spmehow. the tea seemd just a little flat.

      Thanks for the question. Please let us know topics you’d like to see discussed
      peter

  2. Joyce Stein says

    A very informative article. I enjoy the new format of the site. Looking forward to the next issue.

    • Peter GW Keen
      peter keen says

      Many thanks. Joyce. Pleasepush us on ideas and topics that are of active interest

      peter k

  3. Brady McElligott says

    Great article! Lots of “anti-caffeine” people used to tell me to drink certain herbal teas instead of regular tea, and I “wouldn’t even miss the caffeine”! I tried them, they tasted great, and I felt awful. Come to find out, some of those “certain herbal teas” were high in ephedra, to which I am extremely sensitive. Good advice–always look at the label. As for me, I’m back to good ol’ black and green tea. (…and even the occasional cup of coffee!)

    • Peter GW Keen
      peter keen says

      My view entirely. I like my tea as close to the bush and plucked leaf as possible. Jasmine fresh petal infusion, yes. Anything else, no reason for it. I must admit that in my reading and discussions, I hadn’t realized just how iffy so much of the non-tea business is. The FDA has avoided taking positions on just what “natural” is and tea seems to fall between food regulation and medical oversight.
      regards
      peter

    • Peter GW Keen
      peter keen says

      Agreed. Also, look at what the label doesn’t say in the legally binding ingredient If the front of the package wafts on about from the mountains of Yunnan, hand-picked, choice of emperors and all that but the ingredients are “green tea’ or ‘a blend of China teas’ you know what it isn’t.

  4. Steve says

    Thank you for another interesting and informative article.

    I was advised to reduce my caffeine intake a few years ago after a particularly nasty episode of atrial fibrillation. At the time I had been regularly drinking some VERY strong (but beautiful tasting) espresso from my local independant coffee shop… far too conveniently located!

    At first I missed it the taste, rather than the caffeine ‘hit’, dreadfully. De-caff coffees are too mild and smooth for my coffee tastebuds! I will drink the occasional ‘de-caff’ coffee, but it isn’t the same.

    After some time without regular high intakes of caffeine, I now am well aware of the effect a little too much has on me. I rarely drink sodas, so my sole source of caffeine is tea, so I do like to be aware of at least the approximate amount of caffeine. Thank you Teabox for labelling all the teas with High/Medium/Low – much appreciated! It means I can select something low/medium for an afternoon cuppa – particularly if I’ve indulged in a morning matcha* as a treat! On another day, I may choose to go wild with a ‘high’ Assam, and moderate my intake carefully later on.

    *There’s plenty of jolt from some of these, at least for me.

    (Regarding future article… would anyone care to write an article about the merits of different materials that teacups and mugs are made from? Why does tea taste much better from some materials?)

    • Peter GW Keen
      peter keen says

      A suggestion that I’ve found works for me…. For black teas, shave off 30 seconds from the brewing time and find the right oomph-brevity gap. That cuts the caffeine flow substantially. Most black teas are in the 4-5 minute recommendation range. I generally try 3-3.30.

      Re cup and pot material. I will chat with Avarinda Anantharam, Teabox’s Senior Editor who manages the blog content and writing. It seems a useful topic to address.

      • Steve says

        … interesting that you mention reducing the steep time with some higher-caffeinated teas. I have being doing this with some (Assams in particular) for taste reasons as I prefer them without milk or sweetening. I find that taking up to a minute off the suggested steep time leaves me with a tea that is unlikely to give me that ‘almost-bitter’ taste that would otherwise be softened by milk. Now I learn that it’s reducing the caffeine a wee bit too – Cheers!

  5. Megha says

    A good approach to herbal teas is “because tea!” rather than “because decaff/organic/weight loss”.

    A while ago I was looking into herbal teas for several reasons, including people who were concerned about how much tea I drank (I take it weak, so it looks like more tea than it is), someone in my family who has an intolerance to the tea leaf (so which teas I could share), and a slightly odd reaction to caffeine that doesn’t bother me, but I wanted alternatives on hand if it ever did.

    What worked for me was finding good teas – things I liked, that also happened to be herbal, that I could stock in my tea stash – so sometimes I wanted a green, or a chai, or a black tea, and sometimes chamomile, or pandan, or butterfly pea flower. If someone is concerned about caffeine, or has an intolerance, I have alternatives to hand, and I don’t mind because they’re good. Interactions or additives are less of a problem since I tend to like pure herbals (I would like to taste it, thanks) and if I pick up something problematic, odds are I wouldn’t drink it often or regularly enough for complications. I think such complications would also be less likely to pile up in teas chosen for taste, than pseudo-medical teas (which I don’t think of as teas, but medicines – treated with all the care that implies), but that’s only a theory.

    • Peter GW Keen
      peter keen says

      I like your phrase “pseudo-medical” teas. (When someone else steals my ideas, it’s plagiarism. When I do it, it’s research. So thank you for my new research idea.)

      There’s a tradition that contrasts entirely from the packaged herbals market and that’s home-brewed tisanes. These are truly natural — and fresh — and there is a wealth of proven and attractive recipes up on the Web. They are not for me — I like tea for being tea: taste, zip, aroma, mouthfill etc. But they are far safer, healthier and interesting than the commercial mass market stuff.

      I share your view. A tea grown, harvested and processed to produce the best taste will be the safest and healthiest by the very fact that it is as pure and natural as the soil and climate permit. Then move on to varieties that maintain the natural instead of adding new types of ingredient. I love jasmine-flavored Jasmine Pearls and Jasmine Oolong. They infuse the whole leaf instead of launching a frontal floral attack on it.

  6. Joseph says

    I liked this article – it helped put to bed some of the myths about herbal tea and caffeine intake. What I’d love to read is an article about what caffeine really is – someone told me once that it wasn’t a stimulant, but a blocker for melatonin receptors. Which is it, or is it something else?

    • Peter GW Keen
      peter keen says

      As I understand it — and I am not at all an expert here — caffeine blocks the brain’s adenosine transmitters. These regulate wakefulness and sleeping so that caffeine has a stimulant effect. Adenosine is a chemical that accumulates in your brain where it attaches to cells that signal drowsiness by slowing down activity. Caffeine reduces the detection of adenosine so that you don’t get these signals. Part of this shows up as constricted blood vessels, which is why caffeine is effective in reducing pain from headaches and migraines and is an ingredient in acetominophen pills.

      It is a powerful stimulant and works very fast. It is temporary in its effects and does no damge to tissues or cells. But it works basically by disrupting the delicate brain/heart/blood flow mechanisms and too much, too long creates a dependency in the central nervous system.

      I think I got that right.

      • Joseph says

        That sounds like what I heard. So it’s not really a stimulant, but rather blocks chemicals that regulate wakefulness. Kind of cool when you think about it, because it kind of reverses the assumptions that we have about caffeine.

        Thanks for looking into this!

  7. Pingback: Green tea and weight loss: Lessons from jockeys, dancer and athletes – Tea Stories | Best Tea Blog | Still Steeping – The Teabox Blog

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