Is Green Tea All It's Cracked Up to Be? It's close.

By Andrea Karim on 5 April 2007 (Updated 10 June 2007) 18 comments

http://www.flickr.com/photos/kankan/

I've been enjoying the snarky articles at Slate.com recently focusing on the commoditization of Eastern traditions, such as yoga. As someone who purchases but never uses yoga clothing, mats, and accessories, I can truly appreciate the hypocrisy in the American tendency to turn something that is supposed to be purifying and healthy into something that is really a money-making scheme.

However, I have to take issue with Jacob Weisberg's recent article that more or less tries to dismiss the trend that is green tea, mostly by linking to the myriad of products that use green tea as an ingredient. I'm bothered by a few issues that he raises, mostly because, well, I really freaking love green tea.

Now, I long ago discarded the notion that the East has much to teach us about metaphysical stuff. Don't get me wrong - I'm an Asiaphile. But it's not because I find any deep and inherent wisdom in the cultures that make up "the Orient". I like Asia because the land is stunning, the languages are fascinating, the history is long, and the men are handsome.

That said, Easterners are as messed-up as as Westerners. Sure, there are some lovely traditions to be had all across Asia, both found in extinct rituals and current practices. But there are lovely traditions to be found in Portugal, too. Only we don't categorize the Portugese as particularly deep, whereas I think that Asians get put on a spiritual pedestal that isn't fair to anyone.

Commercialism and greed are rampant everywhere in the world, and I don't think that someone who grew up in, say, Vietnam, has any more to teach the world than someone who grew up in Alabama. So my defense of tea-drinking isn't stemming from any illusion that the West is merely a commercial shell of a place with no soul, and Asia is the land of enlightenment or anything.

There's no Ganesh on my bookshelf at home, get it?

OK? Good. Now that that is out of the way. Green tea.

It's an acquired taste...

Like coffee, beer, and avocados, your first impression of green tea might have been something like, "Oh. That's, uh. Hm. Ick." When I first tasted green tea at the age of 12, I can't say that I was delighted with it, either. Our exchange student, who hailed from Tokyo, had brought packets of matcha with her for us to sample. To me, it was like drinking a ground-up version of the hay that we fed the horses in 4-H. Only bitter.

It wasn't until I traveled to Japan for the first time that I started to really appreciate green tea, if not the long ceremonies surrounding it that caused me to experience some severe Charlie horses (I do appreciate the meditation and skill and patience involved in tea ceremonies, I simply can't sit on my knees for the length of one). After that trip, I developed a real love for green tea, of which there are many kinds. Also, I decided that green tea flavoring was the best. thing. ever.

So, my feathers get ruffled when I read someone who wants to disparage green tea for no good reason, other than the fact that they are sick of hearing about it, and kind of want to make fun of a few products and their respective marketing campaigns.

If Slate.com's Jacob Weisberg had written an article saying "I'm really sick of hearing about green tea", I'd be fine, because that's honest. But alas, that was not his tactic. I understand the need to snark about some things, but the green tea attack feels forced and pointless. Also, there are some criticisms of the green tea fad that I just don't find legitimate.

The Snark: Eastern Tradition Hijacked by the West

In the United States, "Eastern" tends to blur together Hinduism, Buddhism, and hucksterism. It inevitably involves something to buy and usually something to eat as well. Only this harmonic-entrepreneurial convergence can explain the invention of New Zen Green Tea Truffles and Green Tea Gummy Pandas, snacks that transform a foggy idea of virtue into morsels of vice.

Now, I agree that the whole East=Wisdom & Peace thing can be tedious. I throw up a little when I see Chinese character stepping stones in gardens. But I don't think we can apply this to green tea.

The Truth: They Started It!

It's a fallacy, and kind of cocky, to assume that just because a trend is popular, it must have started in the West. Green tea is a very popular flavor throughout Asia, and has been for a long time. You can get green tea EVERYTHING in China, Japan, and Korea. Yogurt, Pocky, ice cream (the only ice cream I like, actually), mochi, chocolates, cookies, gum - the list goes on forever. (Also, there's lots of melon-flavored stuff, and I sincerely believe that honeydew-flavored yogurt is the closest thing to heaven that most people can ever hope to experience).

The traditional Asian palette hasn't (yet) been tuned to super-sweet tastes, and green tea is a nice flavor in that it tones down the hyper-sugary taste of many desserts and treats. Desserts in East Asia tend to favor sweetened red beans, lightly sweet gelatin, and sometimes sweetened milk. But usually, dessert in Asia is fruit.

Recap: the green-tea-in-everything trend didn't start in the US, but I'm glad it being adopted here, because it's freaking delicious.

Also, sure, "Zen" food might sound pretensious, unless you happen to understand the "Zen" that is a good piece of chocolate. "Zen" truffles are logical to anyone who finds bliss (scroll down to "Chocolate and The Nervous System") in cocoa.

The Snark: Who Knows if It's Good for You?

Next, Weisberg attacks claims that green tea is really, really good for you.

Under the Food and Drug Administration's policy of permitting "qualified health claims" for which there is some evidence—often based on industry-funded research—marketers can make all sorts of improbable boasts (see under pomegranate juice). Even when it rejects such assertions, as it has for green tea and all cancers as well as heart disease, the FDA seldom does anything to stop them.

He has a point here, and the long-term benefits of green tea may not be well-established. In fact, I'm sick and tired of studies that show this and studies that show that. Bran, beta carotene, vitamin C, chromium, soy - we're told to consume them like crazy to prevent cancer, and then told a few months later that they CAUSE cancer.

Until we really buckle down and have some less biased studies, I wouldn't recommend that anyone drink lots of green tea, especially in the stead of actually exercising and eating well. I don't know if green tea can really prevent health problems or cancer or anything else.

The Truth: It's Good for ME

But I do know this: I am a diabetic (Type 2, for those who need to know), and drinking green tea lowers my blood sugar.

I know this because I have tested my blood sugar before and after drinking green tea, and it will drop my sugar by as much as 30 points. I'm not saying that it works for everyone (it has the opposite affect on my sister, who has a bad blood sugar spike with any caffeine), but it works for some people, and shouldn't be discounted. Not that my experience alone is enough to validate the health benefits - but I think it should be studied, in the same way that cinnamon was.

The Snark: Coprorations Blah Blah Blah Fat Americans

Weisberg follows up with the familiar "Well, BIG BAD COMPANIES put green tea in stuff that isn't healthy, but you think it's healthy because it has green tea in it, but it's not healthy because it's Starbucks" spiel. He even goes so far as to diss my local favorite green-tea joint Koots (Holla!), as a seller or less-than-healthy green-tea-infused items (green tea cheesecake - try it when you're in town).

This follows on the success of Starbucks' Tazo Green Tea Frappuccino, which also uses matcha, green tea in pulverized form. A "venti" has 560 calories if you hold the whipped cream. (The unappreciated business genius of Starbucks is not charging $4 for a latte but rather giving adults permission to drink milkshakes, on the pretext that they are merely tea or coffee.) This is exceeded by the 640 calories in the "power" version of the Matcha Green Tea Blast from Jamba Juice, a franchise chain chasing Howard Schultz's caffeinated footsteps.

The Truth: It's Tasty, and No One is Lying About the Calories

ARTICLE CONTINUES BELOW

You know, I don't think there's a single item at Starbucks that I enjoy that comes in at under 400 calories. And it is possible that people in line at Starbucks are saying to themselves "Hm. The white chocolate mocha with raspberry... that sounds good. Oh, wait, green tea frappucino! That's GOT to be good for me!". But those people are dumb, and they'd choose something terrible whether the green tea was there or not.

[Also, I know a lot of women who have Starbucks for breakfast. Just a drink. 500 calories for breakfast isn't that bad. 3 meals a day x 500 calories + 200 calorie snack = 1700 calories a day. Now, if a 500 calorie drink is being consumed as a snack, then you've got a problem, but I don't know many women who "snack" at Starbucks, and their frappucinos are a meal.]

A trend is a trend, Weisberg! The next big push from Starbucks is going to be South American-influenced flavors. You got something against mangos and pretty Brazilian women in skimpy bikinis? Eh? Everyone loves a Brazilian!

The Snark: Down with White-tea! (Get it? White-tea? Whitey? Har!)

Next, in what I can only assume is an attempt at humor, Weisberg goes after the beauty industry for putting green tea in its products, and says this [emphasis mine]:

Origins "Perfect World" products are made with increasingly fashionable white tea, which is sort of baby green tea (think baby arugula). According to the company, white tea is "among the most potent antioxidants, anti-agers, anti-stress, anti-smoke, anti-pollution antidotes." How is it that tea becomes more medically potent as it loses color and flavor? Next in this progression will be an invisible ghost tea with the regenerative properties of fetal stem cells.

Ha! Stem cells! What a riot! It's funny AND it's topical!

Well, it was topical a few months back, anyway.

The Truth: A Lesson in Oxidation

First let's look at the beauty argument; beauty-wise, green tea is mostly good for tightening your skin.

Bonus beauty tip: Steep a bag of green tea, and use the cooled water to water your houseplants. Take the tea bag (if you are using bagged tea) and swipe it around your face. It's like a tiny facelift. It doesn't last all day, but it's nice for a couple of hours. All caffeine is great for reducing puffiness, so you can dab a little aloe and green tea around your eyes to reduce puffy skin during allergy season.

Next, there's Weisberg's unfortunate belief that white tea can't possibly be as good, medicinally, as green tea.

Here's a brief explanation for those who, like Weisberg, think that young tea has LOST flavor, as opposed to NOT DEVELOPING THE FULL FLAVOR OF GREEN TEA:

...[T]ypes of tea are distinguished by the processing they undergo. Leaves of Camellia sinensis soon begin to wilt and oxidize if not dried quickly after picking. The leaves turn progressively darker because chlorophyll breaks down and tannins are released.... The next step in processing is to stop the oxidation process at a predetermined stage by heating, which deactivates the enzymes responsible. In black tea this is done simultaneously with drying.... Young leaves (new growth buds) that have undergone no oxidation; the buds may be shielded from sunlight to prevent formation of chlorophyll. White tea is produced in lesser quantities than most other styles, and can be correspondingly more expensive than tea from the same plant processed by other methods. It is less well known in countries outside of China, though this is changing with increased western interest in organic or premium teas.

Basically, the message is this: it's a leaf that grows until it is picked. After it is picked, it begins to oxidize unless it is dried. As it oxidizes, it gets darker. The darker it gets, the less beneficial stuff it has in it. It's still good for you, but not as good for you as it was when it was lighter and less oxidized. How difficult is that?

Weisberg ends up by snarking some more about green tea-infused booze, which I think we can all agree simply isn't an argument worth making. It's alcohol. Ergo, it's good.

MY point is the green tea is da bomb, whether on your mug or in your mug.

Yeah, but it tastes... meh.

I know some of you are thinking this. I've known a lot of people who claim that they just can't get into green tea. This is almost always because:

  1. They are buying crappy tea and
  2. They are burning the tea when they brew it

Buying

If you want to enjoy a cup of green tea, you have a couple decisions to make. First, decide if you want to pay more for good tea. Yes, you can buy bagged tea, and yes, there are good bagged teas. But you might as well buy loose leaf tea. It's just better quality, and you have more choice over what you are getting. With ground-up, bagged tea, who knows what kind of leaf is in there?

Tea bags are filled with ground up tea, either because ground up tea brews faster and the industry is worried that you won't wait more than 30 seconds for your tea, or because what you are drinking is the dust that is swept off of the floors in tea factories and farms around the world. Either way, you can guarantee higher quality tea if you buy it loose leaf.

Don't go nuts. Go somewhere that sells the tea, like a Whole Foods or an Asian market, and buy a little bit. Not much. No more than $10 worth. Oh, and do your darndest to buy organic.

Brewing

White and green tea have more anti-oxidants, and for some reason, scald really easily. Scalded tea is really bitter, and one bad cup can be enough to put someone off of tea for a while.

Although you can brew a tasty cup of Earl Grey with boiling water, you have to use cooler water to make a cup of white or green tea. In fact, in many tea houses in Asia, the water you use is close to tepid, just under steaming. Me, I just pour a cup of boiling water and then add about 1/5 cup of cold water, and that does the trick. I steep my tea for about three minutes the first time and about seven minutes on the second round (you can reuse the leaves).

Enjoying green tea doesn't have to be a transcendental experience or a guilt-trip. It's just a tasty thing that might be good for you.

Photo by Kanko.

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Will Chen's picture

I think at Whole Foods you can get a huge box of organic green tea for $5.

If you substitute tea for coffee or soda you will save SO much money.

Andrea Karim's picture

But the brilliantly delicious stuff is pricey. I drink midrange tea.

But yes, even the expensive stuff is cheaper than a latte. :)

Guest's picture

This store has a wide range of teas:
http://www.adagio.com/green/index.html

You can try the samplers and get 6 different teas.

Personally I love genmaicha with the popped rice.

Lynn Truong's picture

i've never seen cheap tea at whole foods, but i buy mine at a chinese supermarket for about 100 bags for 2.99.  These are loose leaves IN tea bags... I'm sure they're not as good as true loose leaves, but they're way better than ground up leaves in tea bags.  for some reason i like loose tea leaves when i go to a chinese restaurant (say no to dim sum places that puts a tea bag in their tea pot!) but I seriously don't like to deal with it when i make it at home. 

Troy Hadley's picture

You know, I am starting to wonder about Brazilians. Yes, they do seem to be unnaturally sexy, but yeesh.

Guest's picture
adora

I'm Asian and I too am sick of that Asian "wisdom" thingy. My asian relatives always want me to pimp them with western vitamins. My western friends want me to pimp them with Asian herbs. I suppose we just want what we don't have.

Sure there're correlation between tea drinking and health, but could it mean that people who care more about their health tend to drink tea as well?

I suspect that the real reason Chinese and Japanese live the longest is natural selection. People who are weak just simply died out because we care a lot about having "quality" offsprings. They used to hire matchmakers that can tell if a woman can give healthy babies. Therefore, the unhealthy, undesirable genes just died out.

Green tea is categorized as "green" not from the species, but from the process. Of course, there are some tea species that more better used "green" than others. White tea didn't "lose" colour, they are "White" because they're made from very young buds which gives very light colour. Like floral or green tea, they are consumed in summer.

Anyway, I don't know if it's good for me, but greentea sure is tasty. I'm obessed with Japanese Gyokuro and SriLankan Jasmine green tea!

*BTW, Try Yellow Tea(silver needle tea) in a clear glass. The air trapped in the leave makes them "dance" up and down beautifully. Then they would all "stand up", and you know it's ready. Great with desserts. :)

Guest's picture
Janice Landey

Yeap. I used to drink cheap teabag green tea. But lately switch to loose leaf from teacuppa.com and sometimes i go for imperialtea house to enjoy the weekend.

My favorite are teacuppa dragonwell tea which has a rich chestnutty flavor. Once i a while i like green sweet green tea like gunpowder which is a much cheaper tea compared to dragonwell..

Guest's picture
Mark

What type of diabetes do you have? If you have type 1, then it seems like nothing but insulin would be able to lower your blood sugar...

Andrea Karim's picture

I'm not sure if green tea has any effect on Type I diabetics, or even how it works on Type II people who have had a good experience with it, like me. I do know that things besides insulin can actually affect blood sugar levels. Alcohol, for instance, has a big effect on blood sugar by affecting the way the liver releases glucose into your blood. So that can drop your sugar.

Guest's picture
Teri Pittman

Try these folks:Special Teas . They have good stuff and the samplers are priced right. For newbies, try Hojicha. It's toasted green tea and really tastes great. Some of the Japanese teas are very touchy and will turn bitter if you oversteep for even a minute. And reuse those tea leaves. Sometimes, if you pour out the first cup and resteep the leaves, you get a better tasting cup.

Guest's picture
Jake

Nicely crafted navigation of the world of tea...

For those who still aren't sure about the taste of green tea, there are two great solutions:

1. Jasmine green tea- especially jasmine pearl green tea which is hand-rolled into small 'pearls,' is highly fragrant and almost sweet in quality, is very well appreciated by tea novices and experienced drinkers alike.

2. Gen mai cha, sometimes called 'popcorn tea' for it's popped rice pieces, is a japanese green tea with a hearty grainlike flavor which tempers the astringent nature of green tea. Especially nice if you don't go for the floral tones of jasmine-

Guest's picture

Numi makes a great flowering tea... you put this little green tea, hand-wrapped bud into a clear tea pot, or a large white cup, and pour hot water all over it (you can see it happen in Marie Antoinette when her brother comes to visit her and she makes flowering tea).

Then you wait, watch, and see the tea 'bloom' in your cup.

Quite bitter if you're not used to it, but very cool for parties, and cheaper than a magician.

In reference to your post.. yes, green tea is everywhere in Asia in terms of flavouring. That and red bean, durian, melons and 'coffee'. mmmmm I want some green tea now...

Guest's picture
Cindy M

Wow, thanks for the info and comments, this is right on time for me. I'm seriously thinking about going to green tea from my daily home brewed Walmart french roast coffee and artificial sweetener. I bought a box of green tea from Odd Lots, about 3 bucks for 100 bags (come on, don't laugh, this all tastes pretty good and tightwad that I am, I refuse to pay much more and wouldn't even consider buying anything from Starbucks, why get hooked). Anyway, I noticed right off the bat that my teeth and gums don't bother me as much, not sure how significant this is but I like it. I do know coffee can be dehydrating. It's going without the sweetener that's hard and yes, I have tried stevia. I'm not after living forever, who wants to do that anyway? I'm 52, the blood pressure and lab work are fine, don't drink, don't smoke, some overweight and working on it. I personally think walking and moving around more is the true secret to better health. My grandmother lived till she was 98 and ate and drank whatever she pleased without taking medications. She did cook everything for herself and favored vegetables, however. Sorry to ramble but again, I appreciate the comments on the East/West ideas, very refreshing to hear both sides can be full of you-know-what at times.

Andrea Karim's picture

Glad you liked the article - thanks for taking the time to share! I think you'll find that green tea will make you feel better, overall, than coffee. I like both a lot, but I notice that green tea doesn't upset my stomach the way coffee can, and it's lighter.

No need to go to Starbucks - but if you feel like splurging occasionally, you can order some lovely green tea online. Just look for any site that sells organix loose leaf tea. Order a teeny bit and see if you like it. My favorite is lychee-flavored white tea. 

Guest's picture
marysgold

I am a bit late to this conversation however I reaffirm your findings Green Tea lowers blood sugar! I am prediabetic & a registered nurse, looking for natural ways to deal with my problem.
I start my day with a double shot (so to speak) i use 2 decaff green tea bags, & a flavored black tea (decaff also) like india spice chai from celestial seasonings, sometimes I even use a 6oz
dinner style cup so the good stuff gets in my blood stream in a hurry. I also use the herbal "fenugreek" this lowers blood sugar too with no side effects, it really works as I "notice" hunger pangs after I have had the fenugreek. Did you know that "falling"
blood sugar levels can be detected on yourself? Just pay attention to your body, blood sugar levels that are dropping send out little waves of hunger pangs, sometimes you can ignore them (the liver maybe kicks in some glucagon to subside the pangs) I have been in a situation where they just keep lowering & I get voraciously hungry thats when I believe my own pancreas wakes up & puts out an insulin load.

Guest's picture
marysgold

back to topic, I notice that days when I get my 6+ cups of decaffinated green tea, my meter readings are good all day.
Things like 89, 110, 116 whereas if I just take the herbal fenugreek my readings will be up a bit like 155, 148, 160.
Once you reach 180 you will begin spilling sugar into your urine
& of course "damaging" your blood vessels, eyes & kidneys, this needs to be avoided if you want to live long and prosper like Mr Spock says. I take various herbals to keep potential high blood sugar consequences at bay. "cholestoff" plant sterols that lower cholesterol, fish oil capsules (blood thinner, lowers triglyceride)
Vitamin D 1600 units, magnesium, helps the body use insulin.
B vitamins & folic acid (these combat oxidative stress in the body)
grape seed extract (lots of good effects)just like red wine without the alcohol.

Guest's picture
Guest

I know that I'm way late with my comment. This morning I was reading an article from Prevention magazine regarding lowering your blood sugar level. Of course when you click the link they want you to purchase their book on how to lower your blood sugar level.

I do not have high blood pressure, my fiance's brothers and sister does and I fear that he will be next. Especially because of the size of his stomach. All of his siblings are on medications also.

I became interested in lowering your blood sugar because the article stated loose weight by lowering your blood sugar level. I am about 5'4 currently 170lbs. I've been over weight for two years now. Earlier this year I was drinking green tea because I love it, however, I did notice that I was loosing weight 10lbs. That was the only thing different that I changed in my diet. I love green tea, so I do believe there is some truth/benefit to drinking green tea and weightloss.

Also, I wanted to make a comment that if drinking green tea is not lowering your blood sugar level, it's possible that you're still eating things that keeping it elevated. I haven't drank as much green tea as I had been and I can tell that I have every inch of that 10lbs back. I was not exercising either. I was drinking the tea and watching what I was consuming.

Right now I'm all about going natural. People don't realize the benefit of exercise and weight loss. I can tell you from my own experience. I'm 48 years old, over the past few years (when the weight gain started) I now have asthma (taking Advair daily when I want to), acid reflux, muscle aches/pains, brain fuzzy, can't concentrate at work just all kinds of things going on and I'm sick of taking prescribed meds. It's to the point I don't get the script.

I do have a friend who was on anxiety, high blood pressure meds, depression meds and a few other things. She told me she read Kevin Trudo's(sorry if the name is spelled wrong) book, she went cold turkey off all of her meds started eating more natural foods and supplements for her blood pressure, etc. She's been without prescribed meds for 3 years now. Yes, she said she was scared but she took a chance. The prescribed meds was only causing more problems. Of course her doctor wasn't too happy.

We really don't read the side effects from the medications we take. Then we go to the doctor we get medication for the side effects we get from the other meds. It's a vicious cycle.

One more thing, I love Martini's and any other sweet drinks it will cause weightgain.