Tea: drink of the angels or the devil’s brew?

By Gaz Smith

Having been asked to write about the potential effects of tea on the body, I thought that, rather than conduct my research through the scientific literature, I would see what the popular press thinks about this most important issue on National Tea Day.

This was also an exercise in seeing how the media chooses to filter, or should I say strain, the scientific (and not so scientific) data for our consumption. I began with everyone’s favourite science read, the Mail Online…

Weigh-TEA business

Never mind the food you eat… what you drink could be making you fat (and that includes those cups of TEA)”.

Mail Online, August 2013

Before you panic, it turns out that this seems to be down to the sugar that you put in your tea, rather than the tea itself. In fact, on a similar theme, the Telegraph wrote in June 2010 that “…tea, full of antioxidants, can also help you lose weight, experts claim”. So don’t give up on tea just yet!

Mental Capaci-TEA and Health Implications

Fancy a cup of creativi-TEA? Simple cuppa sparks an instant burst of brainpower by putting people in a good mood, reveals study”.

– Mail online, January 2018

This effect is likely to be due to the caffeine that tea contains, although don’t get carried away yet, because in 2016 the Mail Online Australian edition wrote that caffeine is a vasoconstrictor, which means that it tightens the veins and causes a spike in blood pressure. In fairness they were writing this with regard to the caffeine in coffee, but I’m fairly (very) certain that caffeine is the same whether it is in a cup of tea or a cup of coffee.

And the health concerns don’t stop there. In 2013 The Guardian reported on a woman who developed brittle bones and lost all her teeth from drinking tea. Although they don’t say whether she took sugar.

Scarily for us blokes, they also said that men who drink more than 7 cups a day have a 50 % higher risk of prostate cancer, although they don’t actually say what the base levels are. Or, indeed, anything more than the headline. The article goes on to say that drinking very hot tea (70 ºC or more) increases the likelihood of oesophageal cancer, which the Mail puts at over 65 ºC, while also claiming that the steam from hot tea can cause nosebleeds. In this article the increased chance of oesophageal cancer is five-fold, in fact written eye-catchingly as ‘FIVE-fold’, however this figure turns out to be for those who are also heavy drinkers or smokers – which may add to the effect.

Irritabili-TEA

In 2016 the Mail became concerned that caffeine may cause irritability and stress. Luckily for us in 2010 the Telegraph points out that black tea has much less caffeine than coffee, and that scientists found that putting the kettle on can reduce stress levels by up to a quarter. The experiment, which placed volunteers in a stressful scenario, showed a 25 percent increase in anxiety for those that did not receive tea immediately after the stress-inducing test. Conversely, those who were given tea actually demonstrated a four percent reduction in stress.” They fail to mention how the stress levels were measured.

Latest TEA concerns

This poster takes pride of place at the sms office tea station. All Rights Reserved science made simple.

And what’s this headline in 8 April’s Mail on Sunday? Tea-lovers who enjoy a cup of builder’s brew are warned that their favourite hot drink might leave their teeth pitted and their joints painful” Apparently this is due to the fluoride content in tea causing fluorosis. But if you are not short of a bob or two then things could be OK, as the research, conducted by an expensive brand of tea, found that the highest levels of fluoride are found in the cheaper budget tea varieties. And on the plus side, in January 2018 the Mail also wrote that “Other studies have concluded that drinking tea every day can reduce the risk of cognitive impairment in older people by 50 per cent.  And for those who are genetically predisposed to Alzheimer’s, a cup of tea daily can reduce the risk by as much as 86 per cent. Drinking tea could help to prevent type 2 diabetes, scientists claimed in March. Consuming the popular beverage helps to smooth out spikes in blood sugar levels that are triggered by snacking on sweet treats.” I guess that last one again boils down to how much sugar you take with your tea.

So what are we to make of all this? Drink of the angels or the devil’s brew? Well I think this quote, stuck away at the end of an article in the Telegraph, by the National Cancer Institute (U.S.A.) regarding studies of tea’s links with cancer sums it all up:

“Inconsistencies in study findings regarding tea and cancer risk may be due to variability in tea preparation, tea consumption, the bioavailability of tea compounds (the amounts that can be absorbed by the body), lifestyle differences, and individual genetic differences,” a spokesman said.”

Well quite! I think that covers everything.

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