Who Would Take Home Gold at an Olympic Tea Party?

In the spirit of the Winter Olympics and healthy competition, here’s a fun category that you won’t find in South Korea: Competitive tea drinking. And an unexpected country takes the gold: Turkey; silver goes to Ireland; and bronze is bestowed, not surprisingly, upon the United Kingdom. Russia comes in a distant fourth, and as for the United States, we totter in at 35th.

Famous for their tea imbibing, the English consume 165 million cups of tea every day. The Irish average 4.8 pounds of tea per person per year, far less than the Turks, at 6.9 pounds annually. The U.S., in comparison, averages half a pound per person annually. But beyond the cultural comparison, we Americans are missing out on the benefits the rest of the world seems to be enjoying.

Drinking tea is good for us, in many ways. In addition to a multitude of flavors and varieties, there’s compelling evidence that tea reduces the risk of heart disease, and possibly even helps prevent cancer and Alzheimer’s disease. Considered by many a super food—whether it’s black, green, white, oolong or herbal—tea gets the job done, health wise.

All those tea types, with the exception of herbal teas, come from the same tea plant, Camellia sinensis. They are rich in polyphenols, antioxidants that detoxify cell-damaging free radicals in the body. Tea also has about eight to 10 times the polyphenols found in fruits and vegetables. For black tea, a process called oxidation turns the leaves from green to a dark brownish-black color. Green tea comes from the same plant, but is not oxidized.

Oolong tea is made from leaves of the same plant that green and black teas come from. The difference lies in how long the leaves ferment. Green tea leaves are unfermented, while leaves for black tea are fully fermented. Oolong comes from leaves that are partially fermented.

Research suggests that regular tea drinkers — people who consume two cups or more a day — have less heart disease and stroke, lower total and LDL cholesterol, and recover from heart attacks faster. There’s also evidence that tea may help fight ovarian and breast cancers.

Tea also helps soothe stress and keep us relaxed. One British study found that people who drank black tea were able to relax faster than those who drank a fake tea substitute. The tea drinkers had lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone.

Why Is Tea Good for Us?

Catechins, a type of disease-fighting flavonoid and antioxidant, are the key to tea’s health benefits. The longer you steep the tea, the more flavonoids you get. For the best tea benefit, some studies suggest drinking three cups each day to cut heart disease risk. If caffeine consumption is a problem, you can drink decaffeinated tea or herbal teas.

The fermentation process used to make green tea boosts the levels of antioxidants. Black and red teas have them, too, but in lesser. Antioxidants latch on to and neutralize chemicals called oxidants, which cells make as they go about their normal business. Elevated levels of oxidants can cause harm—for example, by attacking artery walls and contributing to cardiovascular disease.

Green, black, white and oolong teas contain caffeine and a stimulating substance called theophylline. These can speed up the heart rate and make us feel more alert. In fact, black tea extract is sold as a supplement, largely for this purpose.

Some scientists think that specific antioxidants in tea, including polyphenols and catechins, may help prevent some types of cancer. For example, some research shows that women who regularly drink black tea have a much lower risk of ovarian cancer than women who do not. More research is needed to confirm this. There also is some evidence that the antioxidants in black tea may reduce atherosclerosis or clogged arteries and help lower the risk of heart attack.

Regularly drinking black tea may reduce stroke risk and also lower our risk of developing diabetes, high cholesterol, kidney stones and Parkinson’s disease, though more scientific research has to be conducted to formally prove these claimed benefits. Green tea has been used in traditional Chinese medicine for many centuries, and has been used as a remedy for headaches and depression.

How Much Caffeine Is in Tea?

Most tea has between 15 and 70 milligrams of caffeine per cup, compared to between 80 and 123 mg per cup of regular coffee.

All true teas from the Camellia sinensis plant contain caffeine, which is a naturally-occurring stimulant found in several plants. Caffeine is water soluble, and is extracted into the brewed cup when preparing tea, coffee, or other caffeinated beverages.

Tea can be made from different parts of the tea plant, and these parts contain different quantities of caffeine. Leaf buds (tips) and younger leaves are higher in caffeine than older, mature leaves. In the tea plant, caffeine acts as a natural insecticide, serving to protect the plant against being eaten by insects. Since the tips and tender young leaves are most vulnerable to insects, these parts of the plant are highest in caffeine; the older leaves are tougher and lower in caffeine.

Despite tea’s many health benefits, heavy caffeine use can have a negative impact on our health, including anxiety, insomnia and stomach irritation from acid. While the amount of caffeine in tea tends to be low, and brewing time effects caffeine levels, drinking large quantities of tea isn’t a great idea for people sensitive to caffeine for medical reasons.

In addition to caffeine, tea also contains L-theanine; theanine can interact with caffeine, allowing a smaller dose of caffeine to have a stronger effect in terms of boosting concentration and alertness.

The blending of tea with caffeine-free ingredients to produce flavored teas can result in a lower total caffeine content so long as less total tea leaf is used in the blend. It’s important to avoid sweetened teas, as the sugar isn’t good for our health.

Herbal teas are beverages made from the infusion or decoction of herbs, spices, fruits or other plant materials in hot water. They do not usually contain caffeine, unlike the true teas or decaffeinated tea, which are prepared from cured leaves. In addition to exploring herbal teas, people desiring caffeine-free tea-like drinks might want to try South African rooibos and honeybush, two plants which are often described as being similar to tea in flavor, health benefits, and manner of production.

Who knows, maybe by the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, American tea drinkers will be contending for consumption medals while improving overall wellness.


Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!