October 4, 2012
Why do you drink tea? Do you even think about why you drink it, or why you started?
Considering that, in general, teaheads are a fairly reflective bunch, you probably have answers to those questions.
But, we all know casual tea drinkers, people who drink tea without thinking too seriously about it. That’s being a bit general, since I often drink tea without thinking about it. But the casual drinker just drinks tea like they would drink water or Coke or cough syrup. There isn’t anything wrong with this.
Tea, however, has a growing cache amongst the general public. There are ten fifty billion articles about this everywhere on the internet, so I won’t elaborate here, but I think perhaps the most important factor in the emergence of the new Age of Tea in the West is that, accurately or not, tea has been marketed as the health beverage to trump all others. Tea will save you from cancer, tea will keep your brain supple into old age, tea will burn off the pounds you have accumulated by stuffing pizza into your face for decades, tea will facilitate your ascension into the Final Sphere of Heaven, and on and on and on.
Is this new to tea marketing? Not really. Things like blueberries, pomegranate, oat fibre, and acai berries have come and gone as health wunderfoods, usually after one or two scientific studies that show that, perhaps maybe possibly not really, they might help you live a longer and less decrepit life. Of course, one or two studies mean absolutely zilch in scientific terms, and some of these foods didn’t even have a study, just a dude with an idea to sell more such-and-such.
Health benefits are possibly the best marketing hook you can have besides the tricky and unpredictable “cool factor”. Think of how many boxes of tasteless bran flake garbage get sold just because a lot of people don’t have satisfactory bowel movements and also don’t like to eat carrots. Ditto vitamin supplements, totally unneeded in an age when every edible foodstuff you could want is within easy reach to us Western denizens. Eating correctly and getting a bit of sunshine does the trick, but it is easier to just pop some expensive pills and continue to scarf hamburgers by the hoseful.
So tea has now been caught up in this cycle, for good or bad. Tea has always been touted by the Chinese, who have been drinking tea for probably 4000 years, as a healthful drink. Tea started out as medicine, only later becoming something you drank for fun. I feel, and this is a shared feeling amongst teafolk more experienced than myself (including the ubiquitous James Norwood Pratt), that thinking of tea as a health beverage, rather than as a innocent and benign pleasure, takes away most of the enjoyment. I mean, who enjoys drinking cold remedies, besides meth addicts?
However, tea has been researched for its health benefits by serious scientists, mostly in Asia, which makes sense since tea consumption is quite high in Asia, and many populations in East Asia live quite a lot longer than we in the west do, on average. Is there a correlation?
The science is inconclusive at this point, but some evidence exists that tea drinking, along with proper diet and exercise (how exciting), can be good for you. Let’s get a little more specific about what “good for you” actually means, and how it is different from “doesn’t harm you”.
Things like fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and exercise, are pretty unequivocally good for you. Study after study has shown this. Tea, however, has a much more ambiguous effect on health. The science is…well, fuzzy. There are several peer-reviewed papers that show tea has antioxidant properties, mostly from green tea. Wether or not antioxidants actually have the magic properties ascribed to them is up for debate.
Most of the studies on green tea involve in vitro methodology, basically throwing stuff into a test tube. This works okay except that the environment inside a human being is much more complicated, so what happens in a test tube does particularly reflect what would happen in a human with the same chemicals. In vivo tests, involving actual organisms like rats, humans, or lizard men, are more difficult to glean good data from without serious control of variables such as lifestyle, diet, and genetics. Evidence for the healthful effects of tea that are actually caused by the tea itself, not just by a different factor like exercise, is limited. But there still is some evidence.
I am not going to write a whole essay here detailing how tea might be good for you, properly citing all the scientific papers I’ve read about this. I’ve been graduated from university since April and I seriously don’t want to have to do anything like a research paper ever again (at least not for free), so my advice to you is to go to Wikipedia page on tea and scan the References section for the facts that have been verified by peer-reviewed scientific study. Read those studies (or at least the preambles, because almost every scientist has never learned how to write clearly and effectively and thus even simple scientific papers are hopelessly confusing RANT OVER) and decide for yourself if you think tea is good for your health.
In my humble opinion, tea is healthful insofar as that when is prepared properly, it has no sugar or calories or fat, and plenty of good vitamins and whatnot that might not save your from early death, but aren’t going to hurt you. If you replace all the soda you drink with tea and eat properly and stop smoking and exercise and stop injecting heroin into your eyeballs, then you’ll be more healthy and live longer (barring a yak falling on you from the sky or something), and probably be happier, too.
So lots of Americans are drinking tea now because of health reasons. Well, fine, whatever gets more tea sold, though I find it pretty irresponsible that people on television who claim to be doctors (ie “Dr.” Phil, who hasn’t been allowed to practice psychiatry in years) or doctors who by virtue of their status as TV celebrities have forgotten how medicine actually works (Dr. Oz, whose wife practices “energy healing” aka “magical quackery”) can turn around a whole business and influence millions of people to act a certain way on the flimsiest of authorities, that is, “I am on TV and you should listen to me”. Dr. Oz has spoken many times about how tea, specifically pu’erh tea, can help you lose weight, a claim which has not been verified by any science performed in this universe. How many women (let’s face it, Dr. Oz’s audience is mainly women) have put their trust in this idea and bought and consumed pu’erh tea, probably shitty pu’erh tea sold by hucksters, expecting to lose those five pounds that are keeping them from being happy? This isn’t as dangerous as Jenny McCarthy going on Oprah telling people that vaccinations cause autism (which resulted in actual deaths! Look it up! Jesus!), but it is just as duplicitous and downright scummy.
Tea should be a pleasure, not a medicine, not something drunk out of guilt or warped body image or because some horseshit peddler on TV told you it was good for you. Tea has already caused enough misery through the exploitation of plantation workers and the destruction of China via the Opium Wars. Don’t let it bring any misery into your life.
PS: I was going to go into “energy” and “chi” and all that Eastern mysticism stuff (where you scoop the water from is important to the chi in your tea, you guys! Barf) but this post is already ranty enough.