by Dr. Will Cole

If I had to drink one thing for the rest of my life, it would be tea. When I am consulting patients at my functional medicine center, you will see me sipping on a variety of different tea elixirs.

The world of tea offers something for everyone, depending on your taste, mood, and health goals. All true tea comes from the tea plant Camellia sinensis. That’s right, black tea, green tea, white tea, and oolong tea all come from the same plant – everything else is technically a tisane! What makes them so unique in look and taste is the way they are grown, harvested, and prepared.

And while all contain antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral benefits due to their shared catechin polyphenol, antioxidant content, each type contains its own individual benefits, which can help you better decide which will be your go-to choice. With that, here is my official ranking of the top teas you should try!

Caffeine, antioxidants, and purity: the official ranking factors.

When ranking these teas, I took into consideration levels of antioxidants, caffeine amount, and propensity to have heavy metals.

Even though tea tends to have less caffeine than most coffee, all of these teas have caffeine. Whether caffeine is a positive or a negative all comes down to your DNA – specifically, a gene called CYP1A2.

One variant of this caffeine gene causes the liver to break down caffeine very quickly. Those of us who have two of the fast caffeine genes handle coffee and tea like a boss. These fast metabolizers break down caffeine up to four times more quickly than those people who inherited one or two of the slow variant of CYP1A2.

Does that mean that if you are a slow metabolizer you shouldn’t have any caffeinated tea? For most people, the benefits of tea outweigh the caffeine amount. Just limit your amount, and if it makes you feel jittery, just cut back or go decaf (which still has some antioxidants)!

White tea tends to have the least, but for the rest, it really depends on the source, the amount you are using, and how long you steep your tea.

If you want to get the most epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) action out of your tea, or any tea, for that matter, stick to regular hot water. Adding different milks tends to have a dampening effect on the antioxidant bioavailability.

Heavy metals such as lead can be found in many plant products because it is absorbed from the soil. Tea is known to absorb lead at a higher rate. White tea, because it is picked sooner, is known to have lower amounts on average. An easy solution if you don’t want to just drink white? Avoid tea from China. Studies have found that Chinese industrial pollution causes the leaves to have higher lead levels. I suggest getting your tea only from Japan, where this is less of a problem. Also opt for organic tea whenever you can to further minimize any unnecessary toxins. Now, without further ado, let’s get into the rankings.

tea types ranked

1. White tea: the virgin.

This tea is made from brand-new growth buds and young leaves of the tea plant. In order to inactivate oxidation, the leaves and buds are steamed and then dried. Since it is minimally processed, its antioxidant content is slightly higher than that of other varieties of tea. It is characterized by its light color and mild flavor. It is an extremely easy tea to drink and has the lowest caffeine content of all tea types, making it a great choice if caffeine isn’t your thing but you still want a little pick-me-up.

2. Green tea: the grounder.

The Beyonce of tea, green tea is definitely the most popular, right now. While harvested later than white tea, green tea does not go through the same oxidation process that oolong and black tea go through. Like white tea, this allows for some of the highest levels of catechins, specifically the uber-beneficial compound epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). It’s been shown in a number of exciting studies to be extremely powerful in a number of issues:

  • Boosts metabolism
  • Improves the skin
  • Slows down aging
  • Decreases cancer growth
  • Improves brain function
  • Protects from brain diseases
  • Reduces heart disease risk
  • Reverse diabetes
  • Decreases inflammation through boosting pro-antioxidant Nrf2 pathways and decreases pro-inflammatory Nfkb activity.

Green tea is a fun part of the kingdom. Like all the varieties of beer or wine, green tea comes in different forms that each can have their own individual taste and array of nutrients and won’t get you a hangover. Cheers! Here’s how the different green teas rank:

Matcha:

Matcha is a green powder made from a specific kind of green tea leaf. Unlike many other green teas, plants used for matcha are first covered and grown in the shade for weeks upon weeks before they are harvested, resulting in boosted chlorophyll levels, which gives it the bright green color it is known for. Then the leaves are dried and ground into powder. Matcha has one of the highest concentrations of EGCG of all green teas, up to three times more than a typical sencha!

Sencha:

Sencha is brewed by infusing the whole tea leaves in water to produce a very mild and pleasant taste. Harvested early on in the season, sencha is made from some of the most flavorful top leaves. It’s no wonder that this is the most popular tea in Japan.

Gyukuro:

Similar to sencha, the biggest difference is that the leaves are also shade grown just like matcha versus in the sun, which results in a stronger, more intense flavor. Gyokuro is also touted as having the highest EGCG levels.

Bancha:

More bitter in taste, bancha has the lowest caffeine content of all green tea varieties. It is harvested from the same tree as sencha but later in the season, making it one of the cheapest, most commonly found green teas out there.

3. Black tea: the classic.

When the tea leaf is harvested to make black tea, enzymes are activated, resulting in oxidation, leading to a withering of the leaves. Depending on the specific temperature and humidity controls, the leaves brown, and the desired taste and aroma is achieved.

Many types of black teas are blends of different varieties of black teas from different regions. It also has the highest caffeine content of all tea types.

Black teas don’t tend to differ too much in health benefits; choosing the right one for you is really a matter of taste. Some of the most common black teas include:

Earl Grey:

Black tea with bergamot oil.

English Breakfast:

A blend of Assam, Kenyan, and Ceylon varieties of black tea. To everyone in the United Kingdom, this is the only tea that exists. All else is sacrilegious.

Irish Breakfast:

A blend of different varieties of black teas.

Since black teas are oxidized, the catechins originally present are converted to theaflavins. While the high catechin content in green tea is a major health benefit, studies have shown that theaflavins are just as powerful antioxidants, making black tea a perfect choice if you are needing a boost of caffeine but still want the antioxidant power.

4. Oolong tea: the underdog.

If black, green, and white tea are Destiny’s Child, oolong is the overlooked member of the group who got kicked out sometime in the late ’90s. But oolong is awesome!

One of the biggest benefits of oolong tea comes from its weight-management properties. Similar to green tea, studies have shown that regularly drinking oolong tea can help prevent obesity by reducing weight through boosting fat metabolism or lipolysis. It can even suppress the creation of new fat cells!

The bottom line? All tea is super healthy, so choose based on your personal goals and flavor preferences.

I originally wrote this article for mindbodygreen.

Photos: iStock and @PILIPIPA

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