Let’s Talk — Tea and Health Benefits

Any time the idea of health benefits is brought up on tea forums it always feels like teeth are being pulled, and understandably so. Tea is the perfect consumable for the creators of fad health trends to target, because in the West tea is largely a mystery to the average person. Having worked in a tea shop, I can say that one thing more surprising than how little people know about tea is how much people think that they know about it. It’s always fun to watch people’s reactions when they learn that all of their tea comes from the same species of plant, or that tisanes don’t actually contain tea leaves. My point is, the less educated that people are about tea, the easier it is to exploit.

Take exhibit A here.

These buffoons explain the wonderful, magical powers of puerh. Thank goodness that such an amazing fat-burning beverage exists! Following the airing of this episode, my local tea shop had a spike in the number of people coming in asking for puerh. All jokes aside, this spreading of misinformation is a really horrible thing. Not only are they tricking all of their viewers into thinking that puerh is somehow going to magically help them lose weight , but the tea is being misrepresented on one of the largest platforms to whom it will ever have audience. Let’s look at the claims being made.

I think one of the first things to note is that our “expert” on the show explains that puerh comes from eastern China.

 

The main claim is that puerh has the ability to shrink your fat cells. As upsetting and off-putting this claim initially seems to passionate tea drinkers such as myself, there’s no good in mocking the statement without doing a little digging. There is research regarding the health benefits of puerh. The “shrinking” of fat cells? No. However, there was a study conducted that showed significant reduction in blood-lipid levels in rats with hyperlipidemia (high cholesterol) after being treated with theabrownin, a chemical found in puerh. Another study suggested that puerh had the ability to increase “good” (HDL) cholesterol and decrease “bad” (LDL) cholesterol. Of note in this particular study is that the lab rats were consuming the tea leaves completely, whereas simply drinking the tea solubles is not likely to have the same level of impact. Interestingly, I cannot find any research done on humans drinking puerh, only animal experiments. WebMD actually has a page on their website for the tea, stating that the tea is “possibly effective” for mental alertness (because of the caffeine) and that there is insufficient evidence to suggest that the tea is useful for treating high cholesterol, or any other conditions.

Another issue that I have with the scholarship in this field is that the distinction between raw and ripe puerh is rarely made, despite the fact that their chemical composition is different. Furthermore, age is not taken into account. Puerh is a traditionally aged tea, and the chemical makeup of the tea will change over time as it continues to oxidize.

The Dr. Oz video isn’t the only instance of off the wall health claims, however. Exhibit B is a simple google search that shows just how many people are buzzing about the health benefits of puerh. Also, keep in mind that puerh is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m sure there’s an even larger group of people continuing to discuss the health benefits of green tea.

So, is puerh, or tea in general, good for you? Probably. Is it to any significant level? I doubt it. The research surrounding health benefits that one can get from drinking the tea are largely inconclusive.

It’s no secret that people in the tea community get bent out of shape when the health benefits of tea are brought up. The health benefit claims are divisive in that they draw forth a crowd of people who treat tea as a fad dieting option, which is upsetting to the passionate hobbyists. It’s unfortunate for many reasons. Not only are dieters pursuing a means of achieving their goals that will ultimately be fruitless, but the tea community is also hurt by an increase of people who don’t actually care about the drink aside from its mystical healing properties. The tea community is very warm and welcoming, but it’s always difficult to break the news to the fad-health people. Often when people get it in their mind that tea is a mystical healing herb, it’s not easy for them to hear otherwise. I do think that the tea community has been handling these passerby well, it’s just always important to remember that you’re always interacting with other human beings. Let’s continue to love one another, tea drinker or not. For me, tea is the best soul medicine available.

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