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Tea Totaling

Experts agree that even without the advent of Rooibos, tea has become a veritable health phenomenon, as reports of its beneficial effects have spread in the media.

Nearly three million tons of tea are produced worldwide, according to the U.K.-based Tea Institute. Tea drinkers consumed nearly three cups a day in 1999, or a million more cups than the year before, according to the Institute.

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?

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