Recipes by Robyn Webb, MS, LN
Tea may not have as large a following as coffee in this country—or as spirited a fan base as beer—but its standing in American culture is on the rise. That’s due in part to research suggesting that compounds found in tea may lower cholesterol; reduce the risk of heart disease; fight complications of diabetes; alleviate stress; reduce the risk of gastrointestinal, breast, ovarian, prostate, and skin cancers; increase bone mineral density; and protect the brain against Parkinson’s disease and cognitive decline.
That may seem like enough data for anyone, but Jeffrey Blumberg, PhD, FACN, director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University, notes that a lot of the work on tea is preliminary because it’s based on observational research or studies on mice, and only shows an association between drinking tea and, say, cancer prevention. Few of the more than 300 studies on tea in the past several years, says Blumberg, have been long-term, randomized clinical trials of a large group of people—the gold standard for this type of research.
So the science, while promising, is nowhere near conclusive. What does that mean for you? According to Blumberg, tea’s heart-protecting properties have been well studied, making it a great choice for most people. “The bulk of the dry weight of tea and what you drink in a cup are flavonoids,” he says. Flavonoids are compounds found in fruits, vegetables, and beverages like tea and wine that have beneficial antioxidant effects on the body, protecting it from free-radical damage. Thanks to a specific class of flavonoids called catechins, tea reduces the risk of atherosclerosis (a marker for heart disease) by helping blood vessels dilate. It may even prevent someone who has had a heart attack from having another one.
Want to reap the biggest heart health benefit? Shoot for between four and five cups of any type of tea daily, and drink it strong. (But take note: Bottled and iced teas don’t count. Catechins begin degrading once they’ve been brewed, so while they’re present in hot tea, the compounds disappear as bottled tea is stored. And iced tea is usually diluted with water, which means the flavonoid content is slim.) If you’re concerned about caffeine—an 8-ounce cup of tea has 47 milligrams of caffeine, compared with the 95 milligrams in an 8-ounce cup of coffee—you can drink decaf, but you’ll have to drink more, or brew a stronger cup, to get the same amount of flavonoids found in caffeinated tea.
Interestingly, although green tea has gotten a good reputation for being high in the polyphenol epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), Blumberg says the health benefits of green and black teas are similar. And since there’s little good research on the varying polyphenol content of the different types of tea, he suggests sipping any variety you enjoy. “Tea is a very inexpensive way to get catechins. No. 2, it has no calories. No. 3, it tastes really good,” says Blumberg.