Tea drinkers have varying levels of interest in the effects on the body of tea: from personal preferences and sensitivities to caffeine, to the decision to drink tea for the explicit purpose of benefits to a person’s health, to a complete disinterest in how tea impacts the body of the person drinking it. Accompanying that variety among tea drinkers is a similarly wide range in the types of claims and marketing strategies of tea companies themselves, from growers and producers to retailers. These vary not only in focus, but also in accuracy.
In spite of tea’s nearly ubiquitous presence as a traditional beverage throughout major parts of the world, the recent growth in interest in tea in the United States appears to be largely driven by the promotion of tea as a healthy drink. In the ideal scenario this serves as an initial entry into the rich world of tea and tea cultures, leading to pursuit of knowledge and more exploration of good teas. But this focus on health can have negative repercussions as well, particularly in terms of expectations and an industry with its priorities in the wrong place, away from high quality and variety of the leaf.
I don’t think that anyone questions the assertion that tea is a healthful beverage. There are people who have reasons not to drink it, like caffeine sensitivity, but the bottom line is that it’s a beverage made from the leaf of a plant that is fully recognized as safe for humans to consume. Particularly when compared to other commonly consumed beverages which are not so trustworthy, tea holds up as a reliably healthy choice. By way of contrast, I don’t think that many people would defend soft drinks or malt liquor as being healthful beverages. None of this is controversial, or necessary to delve too deeply into. The troubles begin when tea is defined and described as a substance delivering particular, quantifiable positive impacts to the body, including alleviating or preventing certain medical conditions.
One important element in the whole discussion of the “healthfulness” of tea is recognizing and acknowledging the difference between foods and medicines. The FDA is quite clear on the difference, and it’s pretty easy to understand. The concept of healthy food is enormously variable depending on individual body types and conditions, and should be approached by each individual based on their own needs. But medicine is a substance that is clearly and explicitly intended to create a change in the bodily condition of the person consuming it. While there are quite a few substances that are used medicinally that are not recognized as medicines from a legal standpoint in the U.S., the people producing and selling those substances are strictly regulated in terms of the language they can attach to them. This does not mean that they don’t work, but it does mean that they can not be sold as substances that have that particular effect on the body. It also does not mean that any and all of these unofficially recognized “medicines” are entirely safe for consumption. Like everything else, consumers should be well aware of what they consume and how it may affect the body.
But back to the specifics: tea is not medicine. More importantly, as tea drinkers we really do not want it to ever be sanctioned and regulated by the FDA as a medicine. This would have enormous and far-reaching impact on the tea industry which would severely damage it, because aroma, flavor, tradition, character, etc. have no bearing on the validity of a substance as medicine. Medicine just has to do what it is sold to do. It needs to perform consistently in laboratory tests of its efficacy. Given the broad scope of what “tea” encompasses and all of the different ways it is consumed and produced, I do not believe that there is any danger of a shift towards tea being recognized and regulated as a medicine. But what is important is that tea may not be marketed as if it is. Unilever, the company that owns Lipton has recently felt the hammer of the FDA come down on it for doing exactly this. The following is excerpted from the FDA’s warning letter to Unilever, and it is instructive in illustrating the distinction:
For example, your webpage entitled “Tea and Health,” subtitled “Heart Health Research” and further subtitled “Cholesterol Research” bears the following claim: “[F]our recent studies in people at risk for coronary disease have shown a significant cholesterol lowering effect from tea or tea flavonoids … One of these studies, on post-menopausal women, found that total cholesterol was lowered by 8% after drinking 8 cups of green tea daily for 12 weeks ….”
The therapeutic claims on your website establish that the product is a drug because it is intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease. Your Lipton Green Tea 100% Natural Naturally Decaffeinated product is not generally recognized as safe and effective for the above referenced uses and, therefore, the product is a “new drug” under section 201(p) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 321(p)]. New drugs may not be legally marketed in the U.S. without prior approval from FDA as described in section 505(a) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 355(a)]. FDA approves a new drug on the basis of scientific data submitted by a drug sponsor to demonstrate that the drug is safe and effective.
Of course, there are numerous legitimate studies which evaluate the potential applications of tea, and its various individual components, for use medicinally on the human body. These are welcomed and necessary for their contribution to the scientific pursuit of understanding of the tea plant. These studies also have varying levels of reliability, but concrete, measurable data about tea and how bodies respond to it is something that the tea industry needs. But promoting tea as overall, or in any particular beverage forms, as a medicine is bad for the health of the tea industry.