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Dec. 2, 1999 (Atlanta) -- Lately, green tea has been touted as an elixir for a myriad of illnesses, including heart disease and cancer. However, a researcher from Rutgers University says that while preliminary data point to tea's curative powers in animals, nothing has been proven in humans. In fact, writes Chung S. Yang, PhD, in an editorial column in the November/December issue of the journal Nutrition, "if such beneficial effects do exist in humans, they are likely to be mild."

Tea has been a popular beverage for centuries in countries like China, Japan, India, and England. In fact, tea consumption in the world ranks second only to water consumption. Recently, the United States has experienced a surge in tea drinking. But tea's unique flavor is not the only reason consumers are increasing their tea consumption. Recent research has shown that tea may protect against several types of cancer, it may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke, and it has greater antioxidant power than many fruits and vegetables. That is, if you drink a lot of it.

The three basic tea types come from the evergreen shrub Camellia sinensis. Black, green, and oolong teas are produced from the tea plant by varying the processing conditions. Black tea is produced by fermenting the leaves, while green tea leaves are not fermented. Oolong teas go through a shorter fermentation period than black teas and are regarded as semi-fermented. All three kinds go through a heating process to halt fermentation.

Although most people drink black tea (made from fermented leaves), about a quarter of all tea consumed is green (unfermented). All teas from Camellia sinensis contain compounds known as polyphenols -- a class of bioflavonoids -- which are found in all plants. Polyphenols have anti-cancer, antioxidant, anti-bacterial, and anti-viral properties. Besides tea, these compounds are especially high in coffee, red grapes, kidney beans, raisins, prunes, and red wine.

It is believed that green tea guards against cancer by scavenging for free radicals, which are the by-products from all the chemical reactions that occur in the body -- like the exhaust from an automobile. Free radicals can damage the cells that block the action of cancer-causing agents, or carcinogens, and detoxify them. Tea polyphenols also may limit cell replication, the primary characteristic of cancer.

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