Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
29 Sep

Dear Mark: To Tea or Not to Tea?

Dear Mark,

Do the benefits of tea outweigh its negatives (caffeine, teeth staining, etc.)? Is tea a worthy substitute to a glass of water? If so, how many times a week should one drink tea?

Given our big fall theme the last week or so, I thought this was an especially timely question. The truth is it’s nice to kick back at night with something warm (even in California) once Autumn hits. Call it nostalgia if you will.

The Primal Blueprint is all about loading up on antioxidants. Though I wouldn’t ever suggest that tea should (or could) stand in for veggies and certain fruits like berries, I believe in using other sources to boost my overall antioxidant intake. Wise supplementation is obviously a part of this, as is tea and red wine among other things.

It’s true that tea does carry a few negative factors as our reader mentions. One quick point: since black tea is the worst culprit for teeth staining, you can always go for another variety like white tea. As far as the caffeine goes, I think this is more of a reason to pause. Caffeine, as we mentioned in our Caffeine Talk post, can decrease blood flow to the heart during exercise and can increase blood sugar levels in people with type 2 diabetes. Additionally, if you’re more caffeine sensitive, it can cause heartburn and even increase your risk for non-fatal cardiac events.

I don’t mention these points to be a killjoy – especially for you tea lovers out there. I use tea myself and recommend it as a great addition to a good Primal Blueprint diet. The fact is tea has only 1/4-1/2 of the typical content of brewed coffee. Besides, even if you don’t want the caffeine, there are other “tea” related possibilities. (I’ll get to that in just a minute.)

But now to the upsides, and there are many. Tea offers anti-inflammatory, anti-oxidative properties, which relate to any number of minor and major health issues. The overall picture of research seems to suggest that tea can offer protective factors against cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, high blood pressure, arthritis, and (less definitively) many cancers. There’s even some indication that tea intake can lower the body’s absorption of carbohydrates and that tea can play a positive role in the body’s response to bacterial infection.

How much do you need to make a difference? I’d argue that any increase in antioxidant power in your diet is a positive thing. It’s not an all or nothing proposition. In terms of protective factors for diseases (as seen in particular studies), the amounts vary. In a Swedish study showing tea’s protective impact against ovarian cancer, 1 cup a day (black tea) lowered the women’s risk by some 24%. Two cups a day decreased risk by 60%. (It’s important to note that these kinds of dramatic results were not replicated in other prominent studies.) Some research related to tea’s allegedly protective effect in cardiovascular health cites 3 cups a day. Quite a few studies cite 2-3 cups as making the most significant difference but note that 1 cup a day often shows measurable impact.

A few words about choosing teas…

All true “teas” are from the same plant. (Herbal teas aren’t really tea. While they may offer certain particular, often marginal “medicinal” benefit, they generally don’t contain the same antioxidant load of tea.) The differences in black, green, and white tea (the true tea varieties) are a product of processing rather than source. The less processed the leaves are, the more of their polyphenols are retained. White is the least processed of the three main varieties, and black is the most processed. Green and something called oolong (between green and black essentially) are in the middle. Incidentally, not only does white tea retain the most polyphenols, it also has the least caffeine. Nonetheless, if you grew up on black tea and can’t get yourself to drink anything else (and you’re not caffeine sensitive), don’t sweat it. Tea as a whole offers solid antioxidant value whichever variety you choose.

As for “red tea” or Rooibus (not really a tea, but we’ll grant it admittance here), it hasn’t been studied as much as the true teas. Nonetheless, it does seem to display antioxidant properties. If you prefer it to tea, I say go for it especially because it doesn’t have any caffeine.

And let me address the inevitable question about bags versus loose. The trouble with bagged tea isn’t necessarily the bag itself. (Although a lot of people argue that the bag design doesn’t allow the tea to steep properly.) Bagged tea is generally the “dregs” of tea separation and processing. (And usually old, to boot.) Though the powdery remains will offer some antioxidant benefit, it won’t be nearly that of fresh, loose tea. To use loose tea, you’ll likely want to invest in either a press or some kind of an infuser. Alternatively, if you’d rather give up tea than give up the convenience of the bag, look for tea leaves in individual “sachets.” (They’re more common now just about everywhere.)


Yes, you’ll likely pay more for loose, fresh tea than for the jumbo box of Lipton at Costco. I always say it’s about nutritional bang for your buck, and that mantra holds here as well. HOWEVER! (Worth the capitalization.) This doesn’t mean you have to go to a fancy specialty shop and break the bank. Though the service and variety in these places are excellent, I’m sure, the important thing you’re looking for is freshness. (As with anything else in the nutritional realm, freshness equals optimum antioxidant value.) Most specialty shops will likely offer that, but I’d argue that a good ethnic market likely provides the same fresh product for a fraction of the cost. If you live in an area that doesn’t offer this type of market, consider going online for fresh tea rather than using the typical grocery store fare. (There’s no telling how old it is.) Good readers -we’d love to read your suggestions for Internet/mail order sources! I’ve heard good things about Upton Tea Imports and Adagio Teas, but I’m sure there are many good online purveyors out there.

Finally, the one “tea” I’d forgo (and forget) is chai. I mean specifically the doctored up chai tea drinks you see in the West at coffee houses. They’re loaded with sweeteners – some hovering at or above 40 grams of sugar per serving! My advice: stick to the simple thing. (How often that’s true in life and nutrition, eh?)

Thanks again for your questions and comments, and keep ‘em coming!

mat.teo, naama, slambo_42, avlxyz, Allie’s.Dad Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

Tea Time

How to Eat More Chocolate and Drink More Wine Every Day

Is All Chocolate Created Equal?

Top 10 Natural Ways to Reduce Inflammation

The Entire “Dear Mark” Series

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. My newest pick-up-up is Butter Tea, which I think is commonly consumed in the Himalayas (with yak butter). One of Sasquatch’s readers recently reminded me of this Tibetan staple I read about in a book a number of years ago (which seemed weird to me at the time, but my thinking about such traditional foods has really changed since then).

    My quick version isn’t very authentic, and I don’t have access to yak butter, but it’s fast and easy. I find the grass fed butter perks me up mentally and physically when I’m dragging in a way that plain tea doesn’t. If you read Weston A Price’s book, you’ll learn there is far more benefit to butter than mere good taste!

    Back to the tea – I make about a pint or more of fairly strong chai tea (it’s easy to make the spice blend to add to black tea leaves, btw) in a liter size glass beaker (the container needs to have extra room for blending).

    Then I add about 4-6 tablespoons of raw grass fed butter (but any unsalted butter on hand should do). When the butter is nearly melted, I blend the tea with a handheld (stick) blender for about 20-30 seconds – enough to emulsify the butter so it no longer creates an oily slick on top when the liquid settles down.

    If I want to make only one cup at a time, I use an oversized latte mug to make the tea, but only fill it half way, then add 2 TBL butter. Then I whip it about 30 seconds with a little battery operated milk frother/whipper until it is fully emulsified.

    Be careful of the hot tea sloshing up out of the cup as you blend! Choose a large enough container and mind your blender.

    Anna wrote on September 29th, 2008
  2. Good loose leaf tea can be steeped multiple times. Don’t know about relative nutrient extraction for each dunk, but the second time around still tastes great. It’s a way to save a bit of money and/or justify the expensive stuff.

    And used loose leaf tea makes great compost.

    Kurt wrote on September 29th, 2008
  3. Thanks Mark – very informative. I am a Red Bush / Rooibus drinker and have found it to be one of the few non-cafeine teas that works well with milk (or a non-dairy equivalent, of course!) and almost tastes like the real thing.

    One thing worth mentioning – decaf. You can buy decaf tea and as far as I know the antioxidants do survive this process, although I must admit I’ve only ever seen decaf versions of popular black tea brands rather than, say green tea.

    Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later wrote on September 29th, 2008
  4. Guilty here. I have a daily morning cup of coffee (straight… no cream and no sweetner) and drink a glass of unsweetened ice tea a couple time a week.

    Son of Grok wrote on September 29th, 2008
  5. And an occasional cup of blueberry green tea. Especially when the weather starts getting colder.

    Son of Grok wrote on September 29th, 2008
  6. Being a South African, rooibos (not rooibus) is as common here as drinking black tea (if not more so). I don’t compare it to ‘normal’ tea as I see it simply as a different thing (like earl grey, or green tea).

    We actually do usually drink it with milk (and sugar, if people are inclined), but it’s also great without milk (how most people worldwide would usually drink herbal teas I suppose)

    And if you have a sore throat – roobois + honey always does the trick.

    Dee wrote on September 29th, 2008
  7. Great post, I am a big tea drinker especially herbal varieties; Green and Mint mainly I find them very soothing and a small hot tea after a meal does a great deal to help with digestion…..
    I would definitely go for a quality tea when buying also look for something foil packed if you can, as you never know how long the tea has been sitting around…

    Chris - Zen to Fitness wrote on September 29th, 2008
  8. Big boost for this company:
    IMHO,I think their teas are far superior to others!!

    sarena wrote on September 29th, 2008
  9. Every day i have a cup of green tea, it’s part of my daily diet. I just have to have it!

    Donna wrote on September 29th, 2008
    • I love tea! I drink a mug of green tea daily. It’s a necessity for me!

      And, I always thought Green Tea has less caffeine compared to white tea…

      Primal Toad wrote on May 18th, 2010
  10. i just started drinking green tea in the morning because i dont like coffee.. and now i just love drinking it.. atleast 4 times a day.. not sure if thats a bad thing

    anna wrote on September 29th, 2008
  11. Yay Teas!

    I’m a huge tea drinker and easily get more than 3 cups per day (usually looseleaf greens, reds, or whites – occasionally blacks and herbal teas closer to bedtime).

    I love tea for the nostalgic effect of sipping something warm while trying to focus and get things done. Tea is my reset button! When I studied at Oxford University for a year I worked at a lovely tea shop called “The Rose” and fell in love with loose teas. I do still get bagged teas on occasion for travelling but you can buy empty loose tea bags and but loose tea in them to go.

    There’s also no substitute for making your own herbal teas! The freshness of the taste is SO worth it. Mint tea’s easy: boil water, add mint leaves to a cup or pot to taste, and add a tiny bit of black tea to taste to bring out the flavor of the mint. You can also make a nice lemon-ginger tea: boil water and pour over small slice lemon and small shaving of ginger – it’s a great digestive aid. Cinnamon tea’s a great compliment to a good meal too: pour water over a cinnamon stick!

    And of course any of the above can be iced with a little pre-bed preparation.

    Thanks for the tea post, Mark!

    Erin Davidson wrote on September 29th, 2008
  12. I’ve been a serious tea drinker all my life – coffee has never knowingly passed these lips! If you want some of the best teas, go with the guys who have been doing it forever:

    Chris wrote on September 29th, 2008
  13. Hey, Dee, I’m a former South African from the Boland! I grew up in Wellington and went to University in Cape Town.

    I too love Rooibos tea and was wondering about the Rooibus spelling as well.

    Mark, I pointed back to your fun article about tea from my blog. I wanted to share it with my readers because I had several posts along these lines in the last week or two. :-)

    Thanks for a great article. Love your blog and have linked permanently to it.

    Jennifer Eloff wrote on September 29th, 2008
  14. I prefer to drink tea at room temperature and use a straw to reduce staining. As for polyphenols, I recall reading somewhere that while white tea does have the most and black the least, processing alters the polyphenols, so you get a different mix in each type of tea, and thus should consume all four if you like the taste.

    It is virtually impossible to find decaf Oolong, but I understand that you can reduce the amount of caffeine in any regular tea by steeping it for one minute, throwing out the water, and then adding more hot water and steep for 3-5 more minutes depending on the type of tea. Most of the caffeine flows out in the first minute, while the flavor and antioxidants continue to seep out during the second steeping.

    @Erin: I’m a fan of homemade lemon-ginger tea, too, especially in the winter.

    Sonagi wrote on September 29th, 2008
  15. @Anna,
    Having spent a lot of time with Tibetan refugees in India, I make a few points:
    1) Pedantic time — the yak is the male. Yak butter tastes remarkably like bull’s butter: there’s no such thing. The female is called a “tri”, also spelt “dri”. I’ve not had much tri butter or milk for that matter, but tri cheese is common, and the more expensive variety is delicious in cooking. A bit like a funky Grana Padana.
    2) The variety of tea is important. The proper authentic stuff is I imagine impossible to get. It’s brick tea from Yunan (I think). The nearest taste I can get is Twinings Russian Caravan or, at a pinch, their Prince of Wales. Tibetans make the tea in a metal tea pot which is left to boil on the stove for a very long time. But this sort of tea can take this brutal punishment.
    3) They then salt it liberally and pour it into a churn called a dungma. The plunger is slowly pumped up and down (otherwise the stuff will slop out the top) and then poured into a bowl, enameled mug or thermos flask (called a jadam).
    They say that, being salted, Tibetan tea (Boeja) doesn’t make you “go” so often, unlike chai (Ja-ngamo).
    FWIW, I quite like the stuff. If there’s a layer of fat (zhag) on top of the tea, so much the better, they say. Unfortunately, for the “benefit” of western guests, Tibetans also used to add a teaspoon or three of Nescafe to the mug of tea. Yech….

    Michael wrote on September 29th, 2008
  16. Thanks, Michael. I figured there would be someone reading who would know the finer points of making Butter Tea. For tea making at home – well, the tea and even the equipment is probably possible to source internationally with enough persistence, motivation, & cash, but the butter…? Probably not. But, I’ll be sure to try it the real way whenever (if ever?) I get to Tibet or some part of India where it’s made properly. Something to look forward to.

    Anna wrote on September 29th, 2008
  17. anna- personally, i drink green tea as much as i want, but, i do drink de-caf green tea. Personally, i don’t limit myself, i drink it as i please!

    Donna wrote on September 30th, 2008
  18. @Anna,
    In India, Tibetans use ordinary butter, so the type of butter is not an issue, and it’s also made with either real milk for colour, or powdered milk is also popular, but which is obviously not recommended for low carbing.

    Michael wrote on September 30th, 2008
  19. REAL chai tea isnt really that bad for you! Just boil spices and red label tea and add milk (and honey if you like but no needed)!

    But yes, tea is tasty and I have black te in the morning (with milk) and green tea in the afternoon (to make up for adding the milk and blocking the antiox’s earlier…;). Its like my rituals during the day.

    Those of you who drink butter tea… youve got tough tummies! That (+durian, +balut, +kopi luwak) has to top my list of the worst food ever!!! I just cant get over it!

    But yes, tea = good!

    Tara wrote on September 30th, 2008
  20. Good overview of tea and the different varieties, thanks! I agree, most tea bags contain ‘dust’ or twinnings and the good quality stuff is usually found in loose leaf form, although there are some great companies out there doing the bag justice with high quality teas.
    I’m a big fan of gynostemma tea (tastes midly sweet and aids weight loss…added bonus is that its herbal so no buzz)
    Check out my online shop for some other great loose teas

    p.s. butter tea is definitely an acquired taste, but something that should be tried at least once :)

    Dan wrote on October 1st, 2008
  21. Great post, I am an avid tea drinker and recently gave up coffee (read Mochas) to self treat heartburn (it worked).

    I am a huge fan of Upton’s Tea as well as a local California tea company, Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, they have some great blends and have a great website:

    I am not affiliated with them at all, found them at the local market and love that they are a California based Co.

    Strenua wrote on October 1st, 2008
  22. I actually order my tea from Imperial Tea Gardens online and stick mostly to the oohlong and green teas. A friend got me started on it as he had cancer 12 years ago and now drinks a gallon a day and swears by it. He hasn’t been to the doctor since.

    I use one of the iced tea makers to make mine. I don’t know if I lose any of the quality in making it this way but the convenience has been wonderful and it has gotten me away from drinking soda.

    Thanks for the post!

    Thinking Thin wrote on October 1st, 2008
  23. Okay, okay… maybe Ill try the butter tea. I am a food adventurist after all. I must try it once at least! Anyone have a tasty “beginners” recipe for me? Im scared… lol.

    Tara wrote on October 1st, 2008
  24. I know when you said to forego chai tea that you meant the doctored up (rather sugared up) store-bought versions, but I just want to clarify that real homemade chai is better for you than just regular tea as it is full of spices. My Indian mother-in-law taught me how to make it and it is delicious.

    Just boil fresh ginger root and spices (standard is cardamon, clove, cinnamon, fennel and a little bit of black pepper) in water and let steep for 15-20 minutes or longer. Add tea and steep. Then milk and sugar. Experiment with the amounts of ginger and spices that you like.

    Oh yeah, and to make it really delicious, use milk instead of water in making the tea.

    Katharine wrote on October 3rd, 2008
  25. Good post Mark. I do love my tea. However, generally I have to stick with the bagged version as it’s the only practical choice at work.

    Tom Parker wrote on October 4th, 2008
  26. Mark,
    Nice article. I’m glad to hear that something I like is good for me.

    I drink several cups a day of Republic of Tea’s Golden Yunnan (black tea). I get it from them via mail order by the pound, loose.

    It’s the one tea, with a splash of milk, that I never tire of.

    joe wrote on October 6th, 2008
  27. I like drinking tea. Even the bitter ones. (I pretty much have to pinch my nose to drink it, but I figure I have to drink it.) I bought a new brand of loose leaf green tea thinking that it would taste similar to the brand that’s in our office. But the one I bought is very bitter. I’ve made about 8 cups worth and it’s been in the refrigerator since last week. I’m drinking it cold. It tastes a little refreshing. But I’m worried that it is too old. Can I be drinking spoiled tea?

    KAY wrote on October 14th, 2008
  28. please advise me

    KAY wrote on October 14th, 2008
  29. I’m wondering what your thoughts are of Yerba Mate tea that they drink in brazil, paraguay, uraguay?? I’ve heard it is supposed to be a good tonic!

    suzanne wrote on December 2nd, 2008
  30. Hello!

    Just incase anyone would like to know- if you drink milk with your tea it actually negates the effects of the antioxidants. Why? well because the proteins in milk, called caseins, interact with the antioxidants, catechins!

    So its okay to drink milk with your tea if you are drinking it for the taste, but not so much if
    you are for the health benefits!

    Michelle wrote on February 5th, 2009
  31. Hi, I just found your site.

    Loose tea prices vary greatly but generally loose tea is cheaper than similar varieties of bagged tea. My favorite is “Russian Caravan”, a blend of green and oolong tea, from It’s $12 a pound but a half pound lasts me several months, while a $3 box of tea bags (Twinnings 20ct, for example) lasts less than two weeks if I drink nothing else.

    Lynn wrote on September 10th, 2009
  32. By the way, the “Russian Caravan” loose tea from is very different from Stash’s “Russian Caravan”. I don’t know about Twinnings I didn’t know until reading these comments that they also have a “Russian Caravan” tea.

    Lynn wrote on September 10th, 2009
  33. Decaffinated teas can still be packed with the good stuff… Make sure you find tea that has been decafinated by CO2 method. It has close to 90% of all the nutrients of regular teas.

    Steeping in hot water releases more caffine. I use luke warm water in a gallon pitcher and brew it overnight in the fridge. I like it cold and unsweetened. My wife (who cannot tolerate excessive caffine) warms the cold tea up on the stove or microwave. She can drink 10+ cups a day with no caffine reaction with cold brewed REGULAR tea.
    The taste is milder and has far less tannins and caffine.

    Michael wrote on December 23rd, 2009
  34. Mark, what is your take on flouride, alumninum, and DDT levels in green and black teas?
    Michael Barbee has quite a bit of information on it in his Politically Incorrect Nutrition book.

    chocolatechip69 wrote on January 5th, 2010

Leave a Reply

If you'd like to add an avatar to all of your comments click here!

© 2016 Mark's Daily Apple

Subscribe to the Newsletter and Get a Free Copy
of Mark Sisson's Fitness eBook and more!