Coffee vs. Tea: Which is Better for Overall Health?
Most people begin their day with either a cup of coffee or a cup of tea. Both are a great way to get ready for the day ahead, but which one is really best for our health?
Let’s start first with the history of each popular drink, both of which have storied and unique histories.
Coffee comes from the coffea plant, which produces a red berry with seeds inside. The seeds are removed and roasted, then ground and brewed to make the coffee that over 80% of the US population drinks on a daily basis. There is no written account of how coffee was actually discovered, but one of the most common stories is about a goat herder from Ethiopia named Kaldi. The legend goes that Kaldi was herding his sheep one afternoon when it noticed that they became energized and began frolicking after snacking on the berries on a certain plant. This made him curious enough to try the berries himself, after which he noticed he was more energized and alert. The berries from the coffee plant then became a source of energy for herders, tribespeople, and monks alike. In these early days, the berries were consumed raw or mixed with animal fat to form a sort of ‘energy bite’ before the discovery of roasting the beans in the 13th century.
Coffee spread across Africa and the east, where it was exclusively grown for a long time. In Arabia, the traders were so concerned with Europe taking over their production of coffee that they would boil the beans they sold, making them infertile. It wasn’t until a smuggler strapped fertile coffee beans to his body and brought them to India, where they were eventually traded to Europe. From there, the coffee consumption and trade took off, with the Europeans bringing coffee to their tropical colonies where they planted large plantations.1
At one point, Catholics in Europe became so concerned about the spread of coffee, which they called ‘the drink of satan,’ that Pope Clement was forced to weigh in on the topic. After choosing to taste the beverage before offering his opinion, the Pope was pleasantly surprised by the taste and baptized coffee so that his followers could enjoy it.
After coffee was introduced to Europe, small coffee shops began popping up in the mid-1600s. These coffee shops were popular places for men to sit and discuss business. From these early coffee cafes, the Starbucks of today was born in 1971 and has since had a huge impact on the way the world orders and drinks their coffee.
From the plant Camellia sinensis, tea comes in four different varieties: black, white, green and oolong. Tea has a similar, accidental origin, to coffee. The story goes that a Chinese emperor was sitting outside with a cup of boiled water that was just prepared for him. As he sat there, a few leaves from one of the trees in his garden blew into his cup of hot water and brewed. He took a sip of the colored water and was pleasantly surprised by the flavor and perceived medicinal properties and thus tea was born. Tea was originally consumed and used mostly for its medicinal benefits (such as its digestive and antitoxin benefits). 2
Tea was then introduced to Japan by a Buddhist monk who traveled to China for his studies and fell in love with the drink and brought it back with him. In these early days, teas leaves were pressed into a block for easy storage and transport. When ready to be used, the tea was then grated or ground into a fine powder, then blended with hot water using a bamboo whisk (much like the matcha that is so popular today). It was only during the Ming dynasty that tea leaves began to be steeped and enjoyed in a similar way to today.
Tea was introduced to the west by a Portuguese missionary when he returned from a trip to the east in the 16th century. Tea became even more popular when a Portuguese princess, who was tea-obsessed, married into the British royal family and brought her love of tea with her.
The development of the tea trade was fueled by the East India Company who often resorted to dishonest practices to get the best product they could and the highest profits. These practices led to high tea taxes and the public’s growing distrust of the company, eventually setting off the Boston Tea Party and the start of the American Revolution (during which time it was seen as unpatriotic to drink tea in America). This storied history and its many health benefits have made tea second only to water as the world’s most widely consumed beverage.
With histories steeped in tradition and dishonest trade, coffee and tea have gained popularity since they were first discovered but what kinds of health benefits do they actually offer and which one is healthier overall?
Coffee has gotten a bad rap, but this reputation is not all that accurate. From a nutrition standpoint, a cup of black coffee has about 2 calories and is free of fat. The problem with the coffee of today is actually a problem with what is being added. Many of the drinks that are ordered at coffee shops are full of sugar, artificial flavors, and fattening dairy products. A recent report out of Britain found that some drinks from Starbucks have as many as 25 teaspoons of sugar in them, this is particularly troubling because in just one drink there is more than 4 times the recommended daily intake of sugar.
These overly sweetened coffee drinks have caused the actual health benefits of coffee to be overshadowed. Many recent studies have found that consuming coffee in moderate amounts can help reduce the risk of stroke, heart disease, and heart failure, as well as certain types of cancer. Along with these health benefits, coffee has also been shown to improve brain function and athletic performance, detoxify the liver from alcohol damage, reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and depression and even supply us with a healthy dose of antioxidants.1
In one study out of Harvard, researchers found that people who drank 4-5 cups of coffee per day cut their risk of Parkinson’s disease in half when compared to people who consumed little to no caffeine.3
Much like coffee, tea has many health benefits. However, these health benefits have been known for many centuries and are a large part of the history of tea. When tea was first discovered, it was drunk mostly as a form of medicine and was used by monks as a way to stay awake during long periods of prayer. Tea then became more of a social drink, but the health benefits were still seen and reaped.
Green tea has been shown to boost metabolism, leading it to become popular among those conscious of their figure but it also contains substances that help lower the risk of cancer, cardiovascular disease, detoxifying the body, and reduce the risk of diabetes.4
Both coffee and tea offer many health benefits, but the science is still out of which one is better for overall health. Adding one of these brewed beverages to your healthy lifestyle is just another way to get added nutrients and work towards a long and healthy life. Keep in mind that adding sweeteners, cream or other flavors to either of these drinks causes added calories and fat, so limit those additions.
1. "Coffee." Coffee @ NationalGeographic.com. National Geographic Society, 1996. Web.
2. "A History of Tea." Mighty Leaf. Mighty Leaf Tea Company, n.d. Web.
3. Powell, Alvin. "How Coffee Loves Us Back." Harvard Gazette. Harvard University, 28 Sept. 2015. Web.
4. "Tea: A Cup of Good Health?" Harvard Health Publications. Harvard Medical School, 1 Sept. 2014. Web.