Which tea is better for you?

Monday, July 17, 2006
No doubt about it, tea is definitely back in fashion. It's the world's second top drink, after water and now there are hundreds of herbal teas available.

So which one should you be drinking? Herbal tea is always regarded as healthier than your standard black brew, But is this really the case?

Our reporter Dr Andrew Rochford has volunteered to help solve this mystery once and for all.

Before getting started, to get the low-down on herbal teas Andrew's going straight to the 'tea lady' herself, Jacqui Mitchell, who owns Lillydale Herb Farm. She turns hundreds of her herbs into teas.

"I find the herbal teas a lot more interesting and you are getting the pure food and minerals and supplements into your body as well," says Jacqui.

But are herbal teas healthier than traditional black loose-leaf teas grown all over Asia?

To experiment, Andrew's going to test some leading herbal teas:

  • Camomile — which is supposed to help you sleep.
  • Rosemary tea — which is supposedly a memory booster.

b>First test: rosemary tea

Andrew's going to drink two cups of rosemary tea a day for two weeks to see if it helps it improves his memory.

To measure Andrew's memory before taking his first sip of rosemary tea, he's off to the University of Queensland to see Neuropsychologist, Dr Nancy Pachana.

The memory test comprises of firstly, a verbal test where he is told a story and he has to recall specifics about the story, secondly a spatial test where Andrew first looks at a selection of objects briefly, then they are hidden and he must recall what he has seen.

Andrew scores seven out of 10 for the story and eight out of 10 for the objects.

"That was a good effort. I think we have some good data on the state of your memory now. So why don't you go away and drink that rosemary tea and then we'll come back and re-test your memory," says Dr Pachana.

Test two: camomile tea

Andrew is going to drink camomile tea every night for two weeks because it's supposed to make him relax, chill-out and sleep a bit easier.

After a week into his experiment to see whether rosemary tea is going to boost his memory and whether camomile tea will help him sleep, Andrew's decided to also find out how healthy is the normal builder's brew.

There's no better place to find out, than in the home of the Boston Tea Party — these guys take their tea pretty seriously. Dr Jack Bukowski is a leading medical researcher who's discovered some astonishing things about normal tea.

In the lab, Jack and his team found a molecule that helps our immune system fight off all sorts of ailments. It's an amino acid called L-theanine which lo and behold, this molecule occurred in large quantities in tea beverage.

To test whether tea really did boost the immune system Dr Bukowski took a bunch of non tea-drinkers and turned them into tea soaks for just one month.

"What we found was the immune systems of the people drinking tea, increased their capacity to fight bacteria say by 15-fold, compared to before they started to drink tea," says Dr Bukowski. "Not only is that important in fighting infections, but that's also important in fighting cancer as well."

So all those cups of tea a day must be doing the world a power of good! And green tea will boost your immune system even better.

"The green teas seem to have more L-theanine, black tea has it as well. But the concentrations tend to be two to five-fold lower than they are in green tea," says Dr Bukowski.

Back home, Andrew's hoping his rosemary tea experiment is going to be equally impressive.

"It tastes like I'm drinking a lamb roast," he says. "And every night … I've been faithfully sipping my camomile tea before nodding off."

But so far, no change — But there's still a week to go.

"I'm enjoying the camomile tea a lot more than I'm enjoying the rosemary tea. It's not something I'd usually choose but it's quite nice to get into the routine of a warm drink at night. I'm still interested to see if it's going to make me sleep any better. But hey it makes me feel kind of cultured," says Andrew.

Test one: rosemary tea

After completing the two weeks, it's back to see Dr Pachana for more memory testing.

This time it's a new story to recall and a different collection of objects to remember.

The verdict? The same result as two weeks earlier — before regularly consuming the rosemary tea. Andrew has again scored seven out of ten for test one, and eight out of ten for the second test.

Dr Nancy Pachana, however, wasn't at all surprised at these results.

"I think this issue of the effect of rosemary tea and its effect on memory is a reflection of that bias towards wanting a quick and easy solution," she says.

But if you like the taste, go for it as it certainly won't do you any harm.

Again, nothing has changed: "First night I went to the bathroom a little bit too much, which kept me awake. I think I drank too much. But aside from that, it hasn't really changed anything. Maybe made me little more calm. But I was a good sleeper to start with. I don't think it's changed my sleeping pattern in any way."

Now just because it didn't work for Andrew, doesn't mean it won't work for others. Research from Imperial College London showed that people who drank five cups of camomile tea a day for a fortnight had increased levels of glycine, which can ease muscle spasms. The camomile also provided a level of pain relief.

But, there's still one more little tea mystery to solve.

Is there as much caffeine in tea as there is in coffee? Andrew's going to send a sample of coffee and also a sample of some tea off to the lab to find out just how caffeine is in each of them.

He's chosen a loose-leaf breakfast tea and some off-the-shelf medium roast ground coffee.

In the lab we asked the experts to measure the caffeine in the coffee and tea in their dry form. Then again, as we'd normally drink them, diluted with water.

So which has more?

The results showed that the tea and the coffee sampled have exactly the same percentage of caffeine. When you add water, there's just a little bit less caffeine in tea than there is in coffee — however there's still quite a lot of caffeine present, probably more than most of us would expect.

So does that mean we shouldn't drink tea before bed because the caffeine will keep us awake?

Dr Jack Bukowski says no, because of that brilliant little molecule in tea that helps our immune system. It's the amino acid called L-theanine.

Not only does it fight off ailments, it counteracts the effects of caffeine as well.

The L-theanine within the tea has been shown to suppress the jittery effects of caffeine. The L-theanine actually makes you very relaxed without being sleepy and drowsy," says Dr Bukowski.

Tea is a drink enjoyed by many around the world as a hot beverage. Herbal teas have had the intrinsic value of health attached to them, but as we've learnt, normal tea is also linked to a variety of benefits to the human body. Both, in moderation, have their place in assisting human health, it just depends on which is your cup of tea.

So it looks like that steaming cup of tea has it all. Science is just now proving it, but maybe all those people who've been drinking tea for centuries knew what was good for them, all along.

  • Which is the healthier choice — green or black tea? The only real difference between black tea and green tea is the processing. They both come from the same bush! But black tea gets more processing. That means green tea is healthier for you because fewer nutrients are lost in the processing.

  • Studies have shown the anti-oxidant qualities of tea flavonoids may reduce the risk of heart attacks and stroke — and tea has also been associated with healthy bones.

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