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The Tao of Tea

Tempest in a Teapot

Reality Check continued...

Tea advocates say most of the health effects derive from "polyphenols," which are the antioxidants in tea. Weisburger explains that it is the oxidized form of cholesterol, for instance, that damages the surfaces of veins and arteries, leading to heart disease. "It turns out that polyphenols in tea prevent oxidation," Weisburger tells WebMD.

Weisburger was keynote speaker at this year's International Scientific Symposium on Tea and Human Health, sponsored by the U.S. Tea Council in Washington. A similar symposium will be held again next year, he tells WebMD.

The American Cancer Society has weighed in with a cautious statement on tea as a cancer preventive. Some animal studies have been shown to reduce risk, "but beneficial effects in people are not proven," according to a 1996 ACS statement on the subject.

"It's only in the last 10 year that Western science has tried to look at antioxidant activities of tea," says Dave Ringer, PhD, scientific program director at the ACS. "It's a young science. Generally, it is felt that tea can inhibit the initiation of cancer and delay its progression in animal studies. But we don't really have large well-controlled epidemiological studies to look at this yet [in humans], because you need to correct for the effects of other dietary components."

Dean Ornish, MD, says he believes some prominent medical journals, like The New England Journal of Medicine, have a bias against studies showing positive benefits of alternative treatments. Meanwhile, the "performance bar" for studies showing the positive effects of a pill or biomedical procedure is liable to be much lower, Ornish suggests.

Between a drug -- whose side effects may be known or unknown -- and a cup of tea, which is the more radical intervention, asks Ornish, director of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, in Sausalito, Calif., and clinical professor of medicine at the University of California School of Medicine.

Ultimately, the best reason to drink tea -- whatever its real benefits -- may be that it tastes good and there's virtually nothing wrong with it, he says.

"My attitude is if there is a potential benefit, even if not yet fully proven, and the downside is minimal if at all, why not do it?" says Ornish.

So drink up, by all means. Alvaro Viljoen, of South Africa, downs six to seven cups of Rooibos a day.

It's nice to have before you go to bed, as well," he says. "It's very relaxing, with a bit of lemon."

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