I’d Like a Cup of Snake Oil With my Meal.

teacup_at_izakayaA couple of nights ago, as I sat pondering the stark range of contrasts in flavor and character among the three types of shochu I was drinking (rice, barley and buckwheat) in a Japanese izakaya during happy hour, I listened to a brief exchange about tea between the two patrons at the table next to me and the server. Considering I was only a couple of feet away, my eavesdropping was unavoidable in the first place, but the word “tea” caught my ear. The older of the two patrons asked the waiter what kind of tea they had, and he said, “green tea,” and then, after a very brief pause that seemed to indicate an afterthought, he added, “and also oolong tea.” The bar patron then asked him if there were any health benefits to the green tea. He skirted around it a tiny bit, but then proceeded to tell her that green tea was very healthy and full of antioxidants, selling her on the idea of buying a cup of this tea more like it was a type of a medicinal cure-everything tonic than an enjoyable beverage.

This is not at all unusual, and I see it as at least a little bit irresponsible and misleading on the part of the bar worker. I would not expect a waiter at a bar – even a traditionally-styled, green tea serving, Japanese pub-like bar – to know anything very specific about tea. I would especially not expect a waiter to be well-informed as to the current research into the medicinal effects of the camellia sinensis plant. And if these assumptions regarding the waiter’s knowledge are accurate the only ethically responsible reply to a customer’s inquiry about the health benefits of a cup of tea should be to say that he was neither a doctor nor a nutritionist and thus he could not comment on the healthful benefits of the green tea. Instead, the waiter in this case touted the drink as being something that the person should drink because it was good for her. He went on a bit about how green tea is full of antioxidants, without, of course, explaining what that means or how antioxidants are beneficial to a body. More extensive knowledge would not have helped him make his case, because the actual effects of adding extra antioxidants into a person’s diet are not completely understood yet. As I anticipated, the patron ordered the green tea.

Now part of what I find rather amusing about the whole thing is that I can assert with complete confidence that the one cup of green tea, consumed at a bar alongside assorted varieties of sake and an array of fatty, deep fried Japanese pub snacks will have a completely negligible effect on this woman’s health and well-being. But somehow she felt that it was necessary, as if somehow those magical antioxidants in that pale green brew that didn’t taste all that great to her unaccustomed palate would be good for her, as if it was a healthy thing to tip the scales just that little bit in her favor. I’ve seen a whole lot of this attitude among people who aren’t generally tea drinkers.

Of course there isn’t anything wrong with this sort of casual and infrequent green tea drinking. But I think it’s much healthier to be realistic and scientific about how tea actually interacts with the human body than it is to buy into the hype that it’s some sort of miracle drink. Research on the health benefits of tea is nowhere near exhausted and there is a great deal of conflicting and unsupported evidence floating around. People in positions of authority – food servers and sellers – need to be clear on presenting only real, verifiable research-supported facts as facts. Conjecture and speculation need to be presented as what they are. Selling a cup of green tea to a customer by promoting the beneficial effects of antioxidants – which I’m sure the server could not have actually defined if pressed – is only spewing out more of that same ill-informed media hype about green tea as wonder drug.

I myself ordered a cup of the oolong, which tasted kind of like a lower grade Wuyi rock oolong and was better than I anticipated it would be. Normally I would not drink Chinese tea as an accompaniment to Japanese food and drink, but ordering the green tea seemed like the wrong thing to do when I was being so critical about how they were selling it to other customers.


  1. I’m right there with you. I was recently asked about the antioxidant content of a white tea. I told this person that I didn’t know because we hadn’t tested that particular batch of teas for antioxidant content, and that without knowing the particular soils the tea plant had been grown in and all the other factors in its production, nor at what temperature or for how long the tea would be brewed, there would be really no way to estimate. (Sometimes when I’m feeling particularly mean, I will ask, “which antioxidant compound are you wanting to maximize in your tea?” Not that I could give a recommendation if they actually named one…)

    Of course, the customer was not satisfied by that answer. And, I suspect, that even if it were possible to give a specific answer like “30 mg per 8-oz cup” would have been satisfactory either. Most people just don’t know enough about botany, physiology, biochemistry, etc. to be able to understand an accurate answer to their questions about tea.

    I saw it explained in a way that’s both accurate and doesn’t require a degree in science, though. I believe it was in the book “The Okinawa Plan,” where they said (paraphrased): Many studies have shown a correlation between tea drinking and good health–this may be because it’s good for your health to drink tea, or because (for some reason) healthy people are more likely to drink tea than unhealthy people.

    When talking to someone who’s not a “tea person,” I usually will just tell them that all teas have antioxidants and other stuff that may well be good for them, but that if they find a tea they enjoy drinking, they’ll end up with more than if they tried to maximize some healthful ingredient in a tea they didn’t like. Drink tea because it’s enjoyable and let the health benefits be a happy extra.

    • Maybe I’ll start telling people I’m “pro-oxidant.” Of course, more seriously what I will actually do is continue to work towards dispelling hype and misleading information. Personally I don’t really care very much about the health effect of tea because I’m interested in the sensory experience of drinking it, and the cultural history around types and traditions. But I don’t have any patience for lies.

  2. Well said. It’s gotten to the point now where beverage marketers are isolating theanine from tea and touting it as the latest wonder. Nothing more unhealthy for you than worrying about your health, if you ask me.

  3. Yes, you have to drink tea constantly to get those health benefits. For tea lovers like us, it’s a given. But for someone at a restaurant it certainly is an issue. It’s so hard to find food when eating out that’s not totally bad for you, just one shot of tea won’t make any difference at all.

  4. What a great post – thanks for that! Lots of snake oil around… and so many complex factors impact on how it all works!

    Drink tea for pleasure and tranquility and it is sure to have a positive effect on you in some way… why ask for more?