Coffee vs. Tea: Do your homework, Fox News


Flavonol molecule

Oh, look! A flavonol! This stuff must be really, really healthy!

Last Friday, Fox News ran a “Q&A with Dr. Manny” segment to address the question, “Coffee vs. Tea: Which is Healthier?” Dr. Manny Alvarez handed the question off to someone named Chris Kilham, who I assumed was a scientist or another doctor. I was wrong, but we’ll get to that later.

Kilham began with some general statements (e.g., “For centuries, coffee has been praised for its invigorating properties. And it is truly healthy for you.”) and then stated his opinion: “For the most part, coffee is healthier for you.” Wow. That took me by surprise. Let’s continue and see what kind of well-researched and scientifically-backed justification he puts forth to back that conclusion.

The very next sentence is “The majority of people who drink tea, drink it black, and there’s no question that naturally occurring compounds in coffee are exceptionally good for you.” Really? I’m not sure what the first half of that sentence has to do with the second half, but let’s look at the first half.

I’m going to assume that he meant “most tea drinkers drink black tea” as opposed to “most tea drinkers don’t add milk or cream.” If he’s speaking of the United States, then the Tea Association of the USA backs him up. Their Tea Fact Sheet says that 80% of the tea consumed in the U.S. in 2010 was black tea. Worldwide, statistics vary. Teavana, for example, in the “Types of Tea” section of its website, says that “Green tea is the most popular type of tea, mainly because it is the beverage of choice in Asia.” The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) disagrees, however, stating that projected 2010 tea production was 2,443,000 tonnes of black tea vs. 900,000 tonnes of green tea. No offense, Teavana, but I think I’ll go with FAO’s numbers on this one. One accuracy point for Kilham.

Next, he proceeds to say that, “Two large cups of coffee, or 300 milligrams of caffeine per day, can improve a negative mood.” Assuming he’s referring to studies like Rogers & Dernoncourt, Haskell et al, or Peeling & Dawson, it’s the caffeine that has the effect, not the coffee per se. So it not only applies equally to coffee and tea, but you could get the same effect from swilling a two-liter of Mountain Dew.

“Rusting of cells in our bodies? Rusting? And they quoted this guy as an expert?”

His next claim starts with, “Research into the chemical properties of coffee show that a cup of Joe contains potent, protective antioxidants, which inhibit the rusting of cells in our bodies.”Whoa! Back up here. “Rusting of cells in our bodies?” Rusting? And they quoted this guy as an expert? Metal rusts. Cells don’t. Oxygen is the basic fuel that keeps our cells going. Our entire cardiovascular system exists to get oxygen to our cells. *sigh*

But yes, coffee does contain antioxidants. So, in fact, does tea. He proceeds to tell us, “Coffee is especially high in one group of antioxidants, flavonoids.” I attempted to find out whether coffee or tea contains more flavonoids, but there are just too many variables. Suffice it to say they both have plenty.

“And this next paragraph is where Kilham really shows his ignorance about tea.”

And this next paragraph is where Kilham really shows his ignorance about tea: “But if you’re drinking green tea, which is simply tea that hasn’t been fermented, then I would probably have to say that green tea is the healthier drink. It’s rich in flavenols [sic], which are lost when the tea is fermented.” Where do I even start with this?

  1. First of all, green tea isn’t simply “tea that hasn’t been fermented.” Black tea hasn’t been fermented, either. Nor have white tea and oolong tea. Either Kilham doesn’t know the difference between fermentation and oxidation, or he doesn’t know the difference between black tea (which is oxidized) and pu-erh tea (which is fermented). I’m guessing both, and I’ll henceforth assume he means oxidized whenever he says fermented.
  2. Next, it’s “flavonols,” not “flavenols.” If you’re going to babble pseudoscience, at least spell the words right.
  3. Flavonols aren’t “lost” during oxidation; most (but not all) are converted into different antioxidants called theaflavins, and some convert to thearubigins (which produce the reddish hue of black tea).
  4. Flavonols aren’t the only basis for measuring the healthiness of a drink. Focusing on them to the exclusion of everything else shows that Kilham just didn’t bother to do any research on tea.

He finishes his answer with the standard platitude of the underinformed: “The bottom line: If you’re talking about coffee and black tea, coffee is the healthier choice. If you’re a green tea drinker, green tea is the healthier choice.”

What’s wrong with that conclusion? It oversimplifies the issue and ignores all of the tea styles other than green and black. It doesn’t look at different types of black tea (or variants like the new purple tea from Kenya) or different ways of preparing them.

When I first wrote this response (before Firefox crashed and killed it), I didn’t know who Chris Kilham was. As I mentioned earlier, I assumed he was a medical doctor, researcher, or scientist. When I went to his website, however, I found that he’s a “medicine hunter, author and educator” who “travels the world in search of traditional, plant-based medicines, and works with shamans, healers, growers, harvesters, scientists, trade officials and other plant medicine experts in dozens of countries.” Yep, when I want accurate scientific health information, I go to shamans and healers.

There’s a quote from Dr. Alvarez that says, “I love adventure! That’s why I love teaming up with The Medicine Hunter, Chris Kilham.” Very telling. Alvarez didn’t call Kilham because he loves accurate information or well-researched responses. He called him because he loves adventure! Of course.

I think I’ll have another cup of tea and improve my mood.

About Gary D. Robson

Gary Robson: Author, tea guy, and owner of Phoenix Pearl Tea. I've written books and articles on a zillion different subjects, but everyone knows me for my "Who Pooped in the Park?" books.

Posted on 25 October 2011, in Tea Thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Phyllis Sederberg

    Nicely written and thanks to your classes teaching about tea, even I could see some of the holes in “the experts” statements.

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