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The Tao of Tea

Tempest in a Teapot

Tea Totaling continued...

A Medline search of articles on tea and its health effects yields scores of reports in the medical and scientific literature in the past several years. What emerges is a significant body of literature from animal studies showing that green tea may prevent heart disease and cancer. Other studies have also suggested that it may help avert osteoporosis, a condition characterized by fragile bones, and that it might have beneficial effects on skin when applied topically.

Experts emphasize that the primary thrust of scientific research has been on the pure tea products -- green, black, or oolong tea, derived from a plant called Camellia sinensis. All of the many other "herbal" or "medicinal" teas found in supermarkets and health food stores may be tasty, and may be good, bad, or indifferent for your health -- but they haven't been the focus of concentrated research, says John Weisburger, PhD, of the American Health Foundation.

"That's an area where consumers have a right to be a little frustrated," agrees Dave Ringer, PhD, scientific director for the American Cancer Society. "While the various mixtures of herbs and teas may be beneficial, they are not proven."

And not all the science has been favorable to tea. A report in the March 1 edition of The New England Journal of Medicine looking at green tea consumption in humans, found no effect on stomach cancers once adjustments were made for other factors that could affect risk. Those other factors included sex, age, history of stomach ulcer, use of tobacco or alcohol, and other dietary habits.

Reality Check

With this flood of tea and tea-related health news, consumers may want to know: What's real? What isn't? And what might be real, but is yet to be proven?

"Scientists can always say something remains to be proven," says Lenore Arab, PhD, professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health.

Studying the effects of tea is difficult because the pattern of consumption varies from country to country -- and even within countries. And understanding the long-term health effects of tea requires long-term studies, she says.

In spite of the difficulties, there is a "large and convincing body of evidence that tea is chemo-preventive," Arab tells WebMD. "What has impressed me most recently is the accumulating evidence of tea's protective role in prostate cancer."

And now Arab says she and other tea researchers are seeing a protective effect against colon and rectal cancer among tea drinkers in Russia.

With regard to heart disease, Arab says a recent analysis pooling the results of 12 studies looking at tea consumption in a quarter million people, found that people who drink more green tea than others have less incidence of heart attack. Intriguingly, that effect was greater in Europe than in the U.S., she says.

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