by Dr. Will Cole
My staff makes fun of me for being a “beverage guy,” and it’s true. When I go out for lunch or dinner, I usually order more than one beverage. I love juices, smoothies, tisanes, and tea…but especially tea. If I could only drink one thing for the rest of my life, it would be tea. When I am with patients at my functional medicine center, I am almost always sipping on some sort of tea, and I consider myself somewhat of an amateur expert because in my world, tea is not just delicious. It is therapeutic. If you think you aren’t really a “tea person,” I challenge you to let me try changing your mind. The world of tea offers something for everyone, depending on your taste, mood, and health goals. Let’s take a closer look at the wonderful world of tea.
All true tea comes from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. Yes, all tea: Black tea, green tea, white tea, and oolong tea all come from the same plant. Anything else is technically a tisane, or what people call “herbal tea” (which is not really tea at all). How are so many different teas, which have completely different tastes, made from the same plant? It’s all in how the plant is grown, harvested, and prepared. And while all types of tea contain antioxidant, antibacterial, anti-inflammatory, and antiviral benefits (due to the polyphenol called called catechin and the antioxidant content) each type of tea also contains unique benefits. Knowing these can help you choose the right tea for you, not just based on taste, but on what it can do for your health. Consider this your tea prescription guide.
Keep in mind that although tea tends to have less caffeine than most coffee, all tea has at least some caffeine. If you are a slow metabolizer of caffeine (which you can find out with a DNA test), caffeine may be more difficult for you. Your caffeine gene CYP1A2 has two variants, slow and fast. If you have one or two slow variants that will mean you are a slow metabolizer.
However, even for slow metabolizers the benefits of tea usually outweigh the caffeine amount. Just limit your intake and if it makes you feel jittery, cut back or go decaf (which still has some antioxidants).
First, some general tea notes:
- If you want to get the most epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) action out of your tea, drink it hot rather than iced to get the maximum effect of this antioxidant.
- Adding milk (including plant milks like almond or coconut milk) may make the antioxidants less bioavailable.
- Avoid tea made in China. 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 than some other plants. White tea, because it is picked sooner, probably has less heavy metals than other types. However, studies have found that Chinese industrial pollution is a primary source of lead in tea leaves. This is less of a problem in tea made in Japan, and even less of a problem if the tea is organic.
Now let’s look at the different tea types:
1. White tea
White 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, so if you think you don’t like the taste of tea, you might like this tea. 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 think but you still want a little pick-me-up.
2. Green tea
The Beyonce of tea, green tea is one of the most popular teas and lands taste-wise between white and black. 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 have many health-boosting qualities, such as:
- Boosting metabolism
- Improving skin quality
- Slowing down aging
- Decreasing cancer growth
- Improving brain function
- Protecting from brain diseases
- Reducing heart disease risk
- Reversing diabetes
- Decreasing inflammation by boosting pro-antioxidant Nrf2 pathways and decreasing pro-inflammatory Nfkb activity.
Another fun thing about green tea is its many forms, each with its own taste and nutrient profile – like beer or wine, but without the hangover! Cheers! Here are the green tea superstars:
Matcha is a green powder made from the whole green tea leaf, so when you drink it, you drink the actual leaf. Unlike many other green teas, plants used for matcha are first covered and grown in the shade for 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! If antioxidant therapy is your goal, matcha may be your best choice.
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.
Similar to sencha in taste but similar to matcha in that the leaves are shade-grown (resulting in a more intense flavor) and the EGCG content is exceptionally high.
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
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 rown, and the desired taste and aroma is achieved. 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.
Many types of black teas are blends of different varieties of black teas from different regions. Black tea has the highest caffeine content of all tea types. Black teas don’t tend the 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:
Black tea with bergamot oil.
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.
Another blend of different varieties of black teas.
4. Oolong tea
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, and then join me in a warm cup.
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