Coffee is the caffeinated beverage most consumed by Americans and the skeptical cardiologist. It is good for the heart (unless adulterated by titanium dioxide or lots of sugar, a horror that Starbucks likes to promote).
Worldwide, however, as this cool graphic demonstrates (interactive at the Economist) tea dominates over coffee in lots of places.
Tea in general and particularly green tea is perceived by many to be incredibly healthy: fighting cancer, dementia, obesity and heart disease. But is this perception justified?
The Green Tea Superfood Hype
If you Google search the health benefits of green tea you might conclude that it is a panacea for all that ails modern civilization. However, bad nutritional advice is the norm on the internet and even websites like Web MD, which you might consider to be reliable, spread inaccurate, misleading and poorly researched information regularly.
WebMD has an article on green tea that starts off
“Green tea is so good for you that it’s even got some researchers raving.“It’s the healthiest thing I can think of to drink,” says Christopher Ochner, PhD. He’s a research scientist in nutrition at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.”
Who is Chris Ochner and why is he “raving” about the health benefits of green tea you might ask? That’s certainly what I wanted to know, particularly since this same quote or variations on it are all over the internet on sites like “Herbal Republic” which ups the green tea ante with the title “”Green Tea is Beyond a Superfood”-Dr. Christopher Ochner” (by the way, any source of nutritional information that uses the term superfood should be considered bogus.)
Although no source is provided for this quote from Dr. Ochner, there is a Christopher Ochner, Ph.D listed on the Icahn Medical School Staff. His Ph. D. is in psychology and he works in the areas of adolescent obesity (perhaps he pushes green tea on his obese adolescents). I can find no publications by him on the topic of green tea and no evidence that he made these comments. I have sent him an email asking for clarification and edification.
The website, juicing for health.com lists “5 scientifically proven reasons to drink green tea” (by the way, I consider articles with headlines that start with a number, i.e. “3 health foods that are actually killing you from the inside”, “5 veggies that kill stomach fat”, and “35 celebs who’ve aged horribly” are worthless and should be ignored and avoided at all costs)
Green Tea and Catechins: Magical Weight Loss elixir?
It’s hard to find good studies on green tea that aren’t somehow funded by the tea, nutraceutical or food industry. For example, one “S Wolfram” has written extensively on the benefits of green tea in marginal scientific journals. He works for DSM Nutritional Products, LTd., a Swiss food conglomerate.(“DSM Nutritional Products is the world’s largest nutritional ingredient supplier to producers of foods, beverages, dietary supplements, feed and personal care products” says one DSM PR release”).
DSM developed a highly concentrated extract of a catechin called Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG) in green tea that had been identified as having potential health benefits for humans.
In one recent “review” Wolfram wrote in somewhat vague but highly optimistic terms
“Dose-response relationships observed in several epidemiological studies have indicated that pronounced cardiovascular and metabolic health benefits can be obtained by regular consumption of 5-6 or more cups of green tea per day. Furthermore, intervention studies using similar amounts of green tea, containing 200-300 mg of EGCG, have demonstrated its usefulness for maintaining cardiovascular and metabolic health. Additionally, there are numerous in vivo studies demonstrating that green tea and EGCG exert cardiovascular and metabolic benefits in these model systems.”
I’m not sure what “model systems” he is referring to but it is certainly not humans. He may be talking about rodents, because in 2005 Wolfram published a paper entitled:
“TEAVIGO (epigallocatechin gallate) supplementation prevents obesity in rodents by reducing adipose tissue mass”
In the conclusions of this “landmark” study performed in mice and rats he wrote
“Thus, dietary supplementation with EGCG should be considered as a valuable natural treatment option for obesity.”
Voila! From a few experiments in rodents and a few short-term, small studies in humans performed by heavily biased scientists, DSM’s version of EGCG emerged as a leading nutraceutical (I prefer the term, snakeoil) and now you can buy this online from a host of bogus supplement/nutraceutical sites as Teavigo.
The production and marketing of TeaVigo is a classic example of how the cynical food/supplement/nutraceutical industry creates a product that has a thin veneer of scientific credibility for health promotion but is considered “natural” (despite being manufactured)
and therefore appeals to Americans who are seeking “natural” ways to prevent or treat the common chronic diseases of Western civilization.
Because there is no good scientific evidence supporting a role for green tea extracts or ECGC in preventing any specific disease, there is no FDA scrutiny of
the drug for efficacy and safety. This is fine for nutraceutical manufacturers as they have been granted the ability to sell their useless products without any regulatory or FDA approval.
“Green tea has long been used for health benefits and Teavigo® is the purest and most natural form of the most active substance in green tea – Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG). EGCG contains potent natural antioxidants and efficient free-radical scavengers (free radicals being the highly reactive compounds that cause cellular damage).
“To get the optimal benefits from ordinary green tea would take an intake of four to eight cups of green tea a day. With Teavigo® you get the same pure, natural and healthy effects, with more convenience and without the caffeine.”
The evidence supporting tea and green tea health benefits is weak, coming from observational studies. A recent review of all these observational studies (supported in part by the tea industry) concluded that
Although the evidence appears to be stronger for green tea than for black tea, which differ greatly in their flavonoid profiles, it is difficult to compare this evidence because the populations and their baseline risks of cardiovascular disease differ greatly between the individual studies on these 2 types of tea, and few studies of green tea provide evidence in non-Asian populations.
Whereas there is reasonable observational evidence that high tea consumption is associated with lower cardiovascular risk, the evidence for green tea being healthier is mostly marketing hype.