The recurrent question “Does tea help you lose weight and prevent and cure illnesses?” often makes tea seem more like a medicine than a drink and very much influences what people put up with rather than enjoy in their tea choices. They may pick mediocre teas and avoid excellent ones more on the basis of health than taste. They want a firm answer to the question to guide them.

Here it is: Yes, No, Maybe and Possibly. You will have to make up your own mind. The general evidence is that tea is very probably good for your health but there is as yet no reliable scientific confirmation of its curative or preventive powers. When you read in an ad that something positive about the connection is “proven”, it isn’t at all. But Maybe and Possibly…. Perhaps.

There are four main issues worth considering in factoring health impacts into your own choices.

1. The intuitive evidence

This is the “there’s something there” accumulation of history, less than scientific but more than just anecdote. From the very beginnings of writings about tea – well over two thousand years – a recurrent theme has been its palliative effects on the body. The very first recorded ad for tea in England highlights that apothecaries recommend it. The English were latecomers to tea and the Dutch and French were already very active in adding it to the medicine chest. It had long been part of Chinese and Japanese practice and of the comprehensive Ayurveda tradition of Indian medicine.

An analogy here is with Chinese acupuncture. It spans folklore, pragmatic application and hints of a scientific base behind the practice. It has deep roots and, even though subject to fashion and pseudoscience, it sustains a long and deep tradition. So, in answer to the core question: Does tea help in your healthy well-being? It seems so – there’s something there.

2. Scientific research

Here, the record is mildly suggestive but not supportive of claims of specific benefits. The topic is widely researched and there’s a fairly broad consensus among scientists that the antioxidants in tea help protect cells and marshal the body’s defenses.

But the conclusions are invariably littered with “may”, “suggests”, “potentially” and the invariable coda of “More research is needed to…” The studies have investigated in detail the links between tea and XYZ: cold cures, cancer prevention, blood pressure, diabetes, depression, weight reduction, ulcer treatment, rheumatism and improved liver functioning, to name just a few. But there is not as yet any positive claim that passes basic tests of statistical reliability, replication, predictive validity, or generalizable results. It’s not enough to point to a small sample study that found drinkers of green tea over a few months or in a limited sample showed a weight loss of X or a Y percent lower cancer rate. At most, these are suggestive or promising but any assertion that they prove the general claim is wishful thinking.

So, the research answer to the question of does tea add to well-being is somewhere between “doubtful” and “could well be.” But in no way it is a “Yes.”

3. Lifestyle advocacy

There’s a proselytizing community that regards tea very much as a health supplement. It talks up its role in clean living, pointing to its cleansing effects, its natural ingredients, and its value in helping people pay attention to just what they ingest.

Much of the advocacy is undermined by overenthusiasm for herbal alternatives to tea. Many of these are serious dangers to health, not aids. There are risks of interactions among herbs, allergic reactions, and lack of quality control in production and mixing of ingredients. FDA recalls are far, far more commonplace for these than for teas, coffee or sodas.

The lifestyle case is weak on the claims. It too often relies on selective examples from research studies where the careful analysis that is qualified with “may” and “seems” is assertedly reported as “proves…” Its broader case seems stronger and supported by the very inconclusiveness of the science: whatever aspect of diet, weight problems, and associated illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure you look at, there’s at least an indication of some likely positive link with levels of tea consumption. The resulting advice is to make tea part of your general healthy living. That’s not a case anyone could make for soda and it makes good sense.  

4. Tea industry marketing

This is an area of massive misinformation: ignore it all. The major growth areas in the tea industry in recent years have been for green teas, marketed for their anti-oxidants, polyphenols and low caffeine. Much of this uses very low end ingredients that taste bland, bitter and even nasty. The ads make them sellable by assertive use of scientific language about cause and effect tea-health links that are completely unsupported.

The claims then read like instant magic, with marketing puffs that look like cut and paste jobs – we need a quick factoid – what y’a got? How about for black tea: “Contains the highest concentration of a carbohydrate that prevents glucose absorption…. The most effective for diabetics…” Tea has only a tiny, tiny trace of carbs and no published study mentions its glucose anything in effectively treating diabetes.

And on the same ad, “The high fluoride content in white tea can neutralize plaque…” Fluoride is absorbed from the soil and the amount is a function of the age of the leaf. White tea has the lowest amount of fluoride, since its very essence is plucking the harvest only for a week or so in the early spring.

On Amazon, variants of this nonsense litter the product descriptions. Puehr is “renowned for lowering cholesterol.” Where did that come from? As for an oolong “naturally melting away belly fat…”

The mass marketing also entirely passes over the decidedly non-organic and even potentially carcinogenic impacts of the tea bag. Many cheap paper ones are treated with epichlorohydrin, which is associated with infertility risks and suppressed immune functions. It’s not a major risk, but is decidedly not a health aid, either.

You must obviously make your own assessments about the weight you place on the claims and evidence. Overall, it does seem likely that tea is a desirable element of your diet. It then makes sense to view Artisan tea, additive=free and  naturally processed from quality leaf, as correlative with good health but not necessarily causal.

Beyond that, you need to choose which aspects of the four perspectives carry most weight with you. You may feel that the lack of scientific confirmation is not persuasive for yourself or that you are convinced by the lifestyle arguments. Your choice. The main personal issue here is not really the degree of benefits to health that tea may or may not provide but the flavor, quality, type and price you should consider in your purchases. Here are the general viewpoints and some recommendations:

1. I don’t particularly like tea but think I really should include it in my diet, if it is so effective for weight control/flu prevention/cleansing and detoxing the body (you may have specific health targets or just want a more general aid.) But it doesn’t make sense to drink tea you don’t like. Don’t skimp on quality. Go for the taste and you’ll get the benefits if they exist and the enjoyment even if they don’t. Oh, and check if the information that makes you feel you ought to add tea to your virtual medicine cabinet is sound and not just opinion presented as fact.  

2. I like tea and am convinced it’s good for me. This is a priority in my selection of drinks. Same recommendation: drink the tea you like. There seems to be no evidence, scientific or experiential, that green tea is “better” from a health perspective from black or oolong. It’s about as meaningful as distinguishing the medical benefits of green apples versus red ones. It’s the apple that matters.

3. I have no idea if tea makes that much difference but I’d like to hedge my bet and go for the ones that are recommended by experts. Same advice. The community of tea professionals does not appear to regard the tea-health issue as a contentious issue. They point to the best teas and very rarely single out one as being of note just because of its health value.  

You can assume that the teas that they regard most highly are good for you. If they weren’t, they would be speaking up. They already are, on relevant topics of pesticides, quality control in the supply chain, misrepresentation. counterfeiting and environmental damage. The interest in the health aspects of tea is so high that all promising leads will be followed up by tea experts and scientists alike.

4. I drink tea because I like it. So, enjoy it. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of opinions, among your best choices will be a really good green tea, such as smooth and aromatic Jasmine Pearls; an estate black Darjeeling; a Wuyi mountain oolong and, perhaps, a top China white such as Silver Needles. These pass all the tea-for-health measures and they are so, so good to savor. As for that bag of Korean green tea dust with added pomegranate, it belongs in your sink, not your cup.

The real issue here is that the best teas are as close to pure and natural as any element of our diet. If they are grown in a pristine environment, left free of additives and extras, and processed to let nature, oxygen and temperature do their work.

Tea is a drink, not a pill. It is natural and organic in and of itself. And it certainly is the healthiest of all the main beverages routine to everyday life: sodas, coffee, chemically-enhanced iced, herbal and sortateas, or energy drinks.

 

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6 Comments

  1. This is another good article! You debunked the health aids promises nicely and ended with the conclusion that one should drink the tea that tastes best, which makes perfect sense.

    • Peter Keen Reply

      Thanks so much. I enjoy tea and it bothers me to see friends pay money to not enjoy it!

  2. Charmaine Creighton Reply

    This is so true! Drink the tea you like in the best way it comes!

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