Monday, October 6, 2003

Is tea a miracle cure?


A lot more Americans are drinking it, but does it make you healthier? The jury's still out

By Peggy O'Farrell
The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Brits already know a cozy cuppa tea can soothe just about anything: Royal divorces, the Osbournes, world wars.

Science is catching up: Researchers are finding evidence that chemicals in tea - black, green, red and white might just be a cure for what ails you.

Consumers are catching on, too. In 1990, tea sales totaled $1.84 billion in the U.S. Last year, the total rang up to just over $5 billion, according the Tea Council of the U.S.A.

Dave Dyssegard, owner of Awakenings Coffee and Tea Co. in downtown, Hyde Park and Crescent Springs, has watched tea sales come to a boil for the last few years.

"Green tea's top on the list, and anything herbal is big," Dyssegard says. "It's definitely grown tremendously in the last four years."

tea High antioxidant content

Long considered a folk remedy for upset stomach, stress, insomnia and the common cold, tea could be a wonder drug in a porcelain cup.

Credit tea's high antioxidant content for its wonder-drug reputation. Fruits and vegetables are good sources for antioxidants, which help prevent, and some say reverse, cell degeneration.

"Tea is the substance that has the highest concentration of antioxidants, particularly green tea," says Dr. Gregory Koo, director of the St. Elizabeth Holistic Health Center in Edgewood. "But black tea still has plenty."

Researchers are especially focusing on green tea.

"It's considered the be-all, end-all to prevent cancer, to reduce the effects of aging and to maybe reduce the risk of hardening of the arteries," says Dr. Cathy Rosenbaum, pharmacist and clinical safety and effectiveness officer for TriHealth.

Koo, incidentally, is adapting to green tea. "I'm a Coke drinker, myself," he confesses.

Dyssegard readily admits to being hooked on the healthy stuff.

Rosenbaum prefers chamomile. "It seems very soothing," she says. As for green tea, "it's not my favorite, to tell you the truth."

Researchers at Vanderbilt University Medical Center found that a supplement containing green and black tea extracts lowered subjects' LDL (that's the bad stuff) cholesterol by about 16 percent.

But don't reach for the teapot just yet: You'd have to drink 35 cups of black tea plus seven cups of green tea to get the same benefits.

The Vanderbilt study was the first to show a direct relationship between tea-drinking and lower cholesterol in humans, though population-based studies showed tea drinkers tended to have lower cholesterol.

Anti-aging properties

The excitement brewing over tea's healthful effects has spilled over to the skin care industry: Green and white tea extracts are featured in several products that claim to improve skin texture and reverse the appearance of aging. White tea is featured in new products from both Origins and Bath and Body Works.

British, Japanese effects differ

The jury's still out on how much effect tea really has on health: A case in point, skeptics argue, is that the Japanese, who drink lots of tea and also eat lots of fish and vegetables, have a low incidence of heart disease.

The British, on the other hand, practically wade in tea, but eat a typical Western diet high in red meat and fat and seem to have little special protection from heart disease.

And tea, in and of itself, won't cure or prevent cancer, says Dr. Rebecca Bechhold, a medical oncologist with Oncology/Hematology Care Inc. in Montgomery.

"I'm all for getting antioxidants in your diet. Certainly teas are a low-calorie, easy way to supplement your intake," Bechhold says. "But tea doesn't prevent you getting cancer, and that's a really important thing to point out. None of the antioxidants have been proven to keep you from getting cancer."

At best, she says, antioxidants from teas and other sources "reduce your risk."

What color is your tea?

Tea traces its roots back 5,000 years to Chinese emperor Shen Nung, who accidentally discovered it. According to legend, his servants were boiling water when leaves from the Camellia sinensis (the evergreen that is the source of all true teas) blew into the pot.

Today, tea is enjoyed in four brews, or "colors."Some facts:

The old standby, black makes up most of the tea sold in the United States. It's the most processed, and is allowed to oxidize, ferment and dry before being rolled. Black tea is best known as the stuff that comes in those little bags from Lipton.

The hybrid of the bunch, red teas are kind of a cross between black and green teas. The tea leaves are allowed to ferment only briefly. Red tea is mostly found in bulk or bag form.

The media darling, green tea is popular in Japan, where it stars in the tea ceremony. Green tea is not oxidized, allowing it to remain green and delicately flavored. Green tea is available in skin care products, supplements and bulk and bag teas.

The rising star, white tea is the rarest and most expensive form of tea. The leaves are neither oxidized or rolled, but simply withered and dried by steaming. White tea is available at specialty and stores, but it's best known for its role in skin-care products.

Cheers to a cuppa

Just what can a cup of tea do for you? According to studies:

•  Prevent heart attack. And tea drinkers who have had heart attacks are more likely to recover than the general population.

•  Repair blood vessel damage caused by coronary artery disease.

•  Reduce the risk of colorectal and stomach cancers, as well as other malignancies.

•  Help soothe an upset stomach (peppermint)

•  Certain herbal remedies can induce sleep (chamomile)

•  Help fight heart disease and cancer

•  Strengthen the immune system

•  Fight wrinkles

•  Protect against osteoporosis

•  May prevent tooth decay, as it contains fluoride

•  Tea is fat- and cholesterol-free, and nearly free of calories and sodium.

•  Tea does have caffeine, but considerably less than its archrival, coffee: Black tea has about half the caffeine found in coffee, while green tea has about a third.

What are antioxidants?

Antioxidants are chemicals found in food, teas and other sources that protect cells from oxidation, or aging. Carotenoids are probably the best known antioxidants, along with flavonoids and catechins. Coenyzme Q10 is an antioxidant popular in skin care products. Research suggests it might slow functional decline associated with Parkinson's disease, but more study is needed.

Antioxidants can be found in fruits and vegetables (apricots, broccoli, pumpkin, cantaloupe, spinach, sweet potatoes and tomatoes), supplements and teas.

Antioxidants seem to work by preventing cell damage or improving cell function. In cancer, for example, they're believed to help counteract damage to DNA that makes healthy cells mutate into malignant cells.

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E-mail pofarrell@enquirer.com




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