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Tea: No Longer a Wimpy Beverage

Tea - Beverage of Champions?When I was 12 years old, my Cuban mother told me I was old enough to drink coffee and poured me a shot in a demitasse cup. It was hot, black, sweet and so thick that you could almost chew it. Whoopee! I don’t think I slept for three days. I was wired and hooked at the same time. It is no wonder that Cubans are noted for speaking Spanish at a pace akin to that of a tobacco leaf auctioneer. Coffee is one of the staples of the Cuban diet. Cubans know coffee.

To hard-core coffee addicts, tea drinkers are those folks who daintily point their pinkies (and sometimes the ring and middle fingers as well) at you while they delicately glide their English porcelain teacups full of some suspiciously colored liquid to their noisily sipping lips. Ugh.

To confirmed tea drinkers, coffee has always been a rather pedestrian beverage, imbibed in styrofoam cups by cops, soiled construction workers, overwrought office executives and newspaper editors. To confirmed tea drinkers, nothing is more disgusting than a cup of coffee that has been oxidizing for several hours in an office Mr. Coffee.

Confirmed tea drinkers and hard-core coffee addicts have always found ways to justify their beverage choices. In an earlier column, I wrote glowingly about the health benefits of coffee. Yes, there are some. I must admit that I had to dig deeply into the research for that column. To my chagrin, no matter how hard I try, it is difficult to classify coffee as a health food.

Tea, on the other hand, has a voluminous body of scientific data to support its case for health food status. At first, the research just touted the health-promoting benefits of green tea. But recent studies have shown that any beverage made from the tea plant, whether it is green, black or white, is actually profoundly good for you.

Green, black and white teas originate from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, which can be grown in Hawaii. Green tea leaves are less processed than black teas, whose leaves are fermented in a variety of ways. Green tea has a more delicate, fresh, grassy taste, whereas black teas are, to use coffee-cultivated expressions, more full-bodied and robust. Black teas come mostly from plantations in Africa, India, Sri Lanka and Indonesia while green teas come from countries in the Far East, especially China and Japan.

White tea is delicate, perfume-scented and is composed mostly of the buds and flowers of the tea plant. Oolong tea, much favored by Chinese, is a mixture of black and green teas. Herbal teas are made from plants other than Camellia sinensis.

Green tea is one of the richest natural sources of a type of antioxidants called catechins. Antioxidants have been linked with cancer prevention, decreased risk of stroke, and lowered blood cholesterol. Antioxidants also bind harmful oxygen-containing molecules in your body called free radicals and peroxides that otherwise could damage your DNA, cell membranes, and other cell components. Green tea has also been associated with fighting cavities, slowing down potentially harmful blood clotting, and acting as an anti-inflammatory agent in arthritis.

Most of the published health research on green tea has been on the role of catechins in cancer prevention, especially cancers of the stomach and the prostate. A new study from Japan found that the regular consumption of green tea (more than 3 cups a day) might also be protective against a recurrence of breast cancer.

In the past few weeks, numerous articles have been published on new evidence that ordinary Lipton-type black tea may energize the immune system to fight off bacterial, viral and fungal infections. A study conducted at Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital compared the health of tea drinkers versus that of coffee drinkers. The researchers found that drinking 20 ounces of black tea every day for a minimum of two weeks more than doubled the immune system’s output of an infection-fighting substance called interferon gamma. Alas, gamma interferon production remained unchanged among the coffee drinkers. Black tea, like green tea, is also rich in antioxidants.

White tea represents the least processed form of tea, since the leaves of green, oolong and black teas undergo withering before various degrees of oxidation. White tea contains a higher proportion of flower buds, which are covered with fine 'silvery' hairs that impart a light white/grey color to the tea. White tea brews to a pale yellow/light red color, and has a slightly sweet flavor with none of the grassy undertones sometimes associated with green tea.

Although white tea has not been as widely studied as green tea, the little research that has been done indicates that it may be even more effective than green tea in cancer prevention. It seems that white tea may block some of the DNA damage that leads to colon cancer. White teas contain many of the same health-promoting antioxidants that are found in green tea, some of which are present in even higher concentrations than in green tea brewed under the same conditions. Other constituents, such as caffeine, also are present at higher levels in white tea. A word about caffeine.

Caffeine is a naturally occurring substance found in the leaves, seeds or fruits of at least 100 different species worldwide. The most commonly known sources of caffeine are coffee, cocoa beans, cola nuts and tea leaves. Caffeine is also added to specifically formulated energy drinks and pharmaceutical products such as cold and flu remedies and non-steroidal anti-inflammatories like aspirin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen.

A cup of green or black tea contains about 50mg of caffeine, filtered coffee about 110mg, a can of soda about 50mg, a chocolate bar about 20mg, and energy drinks average around 50mg of caffeine. How much caffeine is appropriate to take on a daily level is a matter of debate. Some individuals are sensitive to caffeine and will feel effects at smaller doses than other individuals who are less sensitive. Caffeine does have significant physiological effects, especially on the neurological system. I’ll talk about caffeine in a future column.

The consensus is that the health benefits gained from drinking any tea made from the tea plant are significant and greatly outweigh any health benefits gained from a cup of coffee. The decision about which kind of tea to drink is simply a matter of taste. However, as a holistic health professional, I strongly recommend that you purchase organic teas whenever you can.

Given the information contained in this column, for the past year I’ve been curbing my genetic predispositions by limiting my coffee intake and practicing sticking out my pinkie while I raise a teacup to my lips. I’ll learn to love tea. I think I can… I think I can…

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