Is Green Tea All It's Cracked Up to Be? It's close.
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
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:
- They are buying crappy tea and
- They are burning the tea when they brew it
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.
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.