It wakes you up, helps you stay trim, keeps you hydrated, enhances your health and is low in caffeine. What more could you possibly want from a cuppa? Indu Saksena Bedi sips a cup of green tea to find out why it's so hot on the health circuit.

 

Every time a fitness-conscious individual revisits his diet plan, he usually resolves to drink 10 glasses of water a day. But it never goes exactly to plan because consuming so many glasses of water a day is plain boring. Instead, he substitutes the glasses of water with fresh juices and lemonade. But these lead to a calorie build-up.

So what's a guy to do?

This ignorance regarding fluid diets needs to be done away with. Despite being scientifically proven to be the second-best source of hydration after water, no one thinks for a minute to include low-calorie green tea as a source of hydration. In fact, the unsweetened version of green tea is a 'zero-calorie' drink.

Although green tea's health benefits were proven by research a decade ago, most of us drink it simply because it is faddish. Beyond this, our actual knowledge of the benefits of green tea won't fill a teaspoon. Simply following the Oriental habit won't do. For instance, how many of us know the difference between herbal infusions, flavoured herbal teas and green tea?

As things stand, besides the Thai and the Chinese who love green tea [not surprising since it originated in China], beauty spas are doing their bit in promoting this healthy beverage. Offering a complimentary cuppa green tea after a relaxing massage is the norm. But there's more to this humble brew than its hyped-up image.

Until now, the anti-oxidant activity of flavonoids in green tea was said to be its primary health benefit. But recent research reveals that anti-oxidant protection is but one element of green tea. Findings show green tea is a very rich source of hydration, which helps in weight loss, reduces the risk of cardio-vascular diseases, maintains oral health and prevents skin problems. While research on green tea is very telling in the above categories, more research is needed to be able to fully understand its contribution to other areas such as cancer-prevention or arresting neurodegenerative diseases.

While both green tea and black tea come from the same plant camellia sinesis the difference lies in the way the tea leaves are processed after harvest. Black tea undergoes a very special fermentation process, but green tea does not. Also, all true teas have the same flavonoids, but green tea retains a majority of the original anti-oxidants called 'catechin flavonoids'.

"Till now, tea is only seen as a pleasurable drink. It is rarely seen as part of a health regime. We felt the onus was on us to inform people what green tea can and cannot do," says Naveed Asghar, Unilever's marketing director of beverages for GCC and Yemen.

Naveos feels that a lack of awareness has been the main contributing factor for green tea's absence in our diet plans. "Being 99 per cent water, it is the best source of hydration after water and it has numerous other benefits. Even though the caffeine content in green tea is very low, it can rejuvenate your energy. We can safely have up to eight cups of green tea a day because caffeine is not harmful to us unless it exceeds 400mg. One should include at least three to four cups of green tea in their daily diet."

A number of studies, mostly conducted in Asian populations, have shown a decrease in body weight and visceral fat after long-term consumption (usually 12 weeks) of high-catechin green tea.

But what you need to be careful about is the amount of background caffeine intake (your caffeine intake from other beverages and foods) as some studies suggest it reduces the tea's effectiveness in controlling abdominal fat. The weight management benefits of the constituent catechins are more effective in low to moderate caffeine users.

Dr Khalid A Al Madani explains how this happens: "Flavonoids relax the blood vessels through various mechanisms, including inhibition of low density lipoprotein (LDL) oxidation. As LDL particles penetrate the walls of the arteries, they become oxidised. LDL is then scavenged by the body's white blood cells. These cholesterol-loaded cells are then deposited into the lining of the artery wall. This process causes plaque deposits on the artery walls, which makes them lose elasticity leading to a narrowing of the artery passage."

This can be due to the fact that green tea naturally contains fluoride, which is good for our teeth. Green tea flavonoids have antibacterial activity and therefore can hinder the development of caries. Green tea has also been found to sweeten bad breath.

Studies with animals have shown that topical treatment or oral consumption of green tea can protect skin against UV radiation damage.

Some findings suggest that it inhibits tumorigenesis in many animal models, including those for cancer of the skin, lungs, mouth, oesophagus, stomach, small intestine, colon, liver, pancreas, bladder and prostate. But, there are discrepancies between experimental and epidemiological studies on the subject.

"Some epidemiological studies have suggested a protective effect against various types of cancer while some other studies have not found any effect," says Solene Naveos. "More research is needed before drawing any conclusion on its cancer prevention properties."

Experts strongly urge us not to view green tea as a cure-all beverage. "There was an e-mail doing the rounds some months ago which listed many diseases which green tea was supposed to cure. We need to banish these myths and depend only on scientific evidence."