I get confused about tea and coffee. I was taught to avoid them, but many of my friends tell me that they have health benefits. What is the current scientific take on these drinks?
We presume you are talking here about black tea and real coffee—because these are what Ellen White mentions as harmful. There are many herbal teas, such as chamomile, mint, rooibos, and berry “teas” that are not included in Ellen White’s advice. She described symptoms attributable to tea and coffee that are almost classic textbook descriptions of the effects of caffeine. She noted the addictive properties of tea and coffee, which, again, would easily be linked with the caffeine content of these drinks. She mentioned the occasional medicinal use of tea, in which caffeine probably played a role.
At the time Ellen White wrote this counsel, coffee and tea were often stewed, and they contained large quantities of tannin and concentrated chemicals besides the caffeine.
We agree with Ellen White that tea and coffee are not drinks we would recommend. Curiosity and transparency, however, require us to be honest and admit that there are some reports that tout benefits of tea and coffee. We also note that false claims for harmful effects have been made.
Over the years, claims have been made that cyclical breast pain of mammary fibrous dysplasia is made worse by coffee, and, similarly, that ringing in the ears (tinnitus) is worsened by these beverages. There is very little evidence to support these claims of harm.
Tea and coffee contain hundreds of substances, some of which may, individually, be beneficial to conditions such as diabetes or Parkinson’s disease; they also contain many other substances that may, for example, raise blood cholesterol. Some of these are what are called diterpene compounds, and coffee may contain them as cafestol or kahweol, and they indeed raise cholesterol levels. The method used to prepare coffee, however, may remove such substances, particularly if a paper filter is used.
Not available to citizens more than 100 years ago are decaffeinated varieties of tea and coffee. Such beverages are a very large improvement over the caffeinated varieties, but have not been adequately studied to allow us to make definitive scientific recommendations regarding benefits or risks in regard to specific conditions. Most studies have shown that measurable effects relating to coffee and tea consumption require the use of more than three such drinks per day on a regular basis. It is easy, at such levels of consumption, for dependency to develop, and caffeine’s addictive properties have been used in many beverages to boost sales and buyer loyalty.
Tea and coffee are often vehicles for refined sugar consumption, and the sugar “kick” may be as desired as the caffeine stimulation.
While methods of preparation and the varieties of coffee beans in use have changed, for most drinkers of coffee or tea it is the caffeine that is being sought. The much-touted flavonoid content and phytochemical benefits of tea and coffee are available in a wide variety of fruits and plants that do not contain caffeine. The use of decaffeinated beverages is definitely preferable to caffeinated ones, but most of us could do a lot better to stick to pure water as our principle beverage. The health benefits of water match any of the benefits of other drinks, particularly as water provides the kidneys with a great capacity to manage the metabolic byproducts of daily living. A balanced diet will take care of nutritional needs, especially as we focus on fruits and vegetables.
Send your questions to Ask the Doctors, Adventist Review, 12501 Old Columbia Pike, Silver Spring, Maryland 20904. Or e-mail them to [email protected]. While this column is provided as a service to our readers, Drs. Landless and Handysides unfortunately cannot enter into personal and private communication with our readers. We recommend you consult with your personal physician on all matters of your health.
Allan R. Handysides, a board-certified gynecologist, is THE director of the Health Ministries department of the General Conference.
Peter N. Landless, a board-certified nuclear cardiologist, is an associate director of the Health Ministries department of the General Conference. This article was published August 25, 2011.