Tea is thought to have many health benefits, from keeping you hydrated to supporting weight-loss and reducing dental cavities.
Tea may also reduce your risk for illnesses like heart disease and cancer.
But there are so many types of tea, and they don’t all offer the same benefits. So, how do you pick the best one?
Here’s what to know about tea and cancer prevention.
Real teas all come from the same plant
When you’re at the grocery store, you will likely be greeted by a wall of teas. But not all of them are real tea, which is caffeinated.
If the front of the box or ingredients list black, green or white tea, you've found a true tea. Same for matcha, which is powdered green tea.
All of these come from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. The only difference is how the leaves are processed.
“Tea leaves are left to oxidize, or ferment, after they are picked, and the different types represent different levels of oxidation,” says wellness dietitian Lindsey Wohlford. “The process is stopped early for green tea. Black teas, meanwhile, are allowed to fully oxidize before being dried and used as tea leaves.”
The amount of time tea oxidizes impacts how much caffeine it has. Green tea usually has the least caffeine, and black tea, the most. They all have less caffeine than coffee.
Tea’s potential benefits come from antioxidants
Antioxidants neutralize free radicals in your body that can cause inflammation and upset cell function. This is how the antioxidants in tea help you stay healthy.
Most of the research on tea and cancer prevention has focused on the natural antioxidant epigallocatechin-3-gallate, EGCG.
In some studies, ECGC was found to reduce the risk of cancer, particularly bladder cancer. But overall research is too limited to draw strong conclusions.
“Most of the research is pretty inconclusive, especially when it comes to cancer prevention,” says Wohlford. “But because it’s plant-based, tea can be part of a healthy plant-based diet. The antioxidants are beneficial for our health.”
Green tea usually contains the highest amount of EGCG, but all teas contain valuable antioxidants.
While there’s no harm in limiting caffeine, keep in mind that decaffeinated tea has fewer antioxidants. That’s because some of them get removed in the de-caffeinating process.
Herbal teas are not tea, but may still have benefits
Herbal teas are often called tea. But they are not made from the tea plant and are not caffeinated. The proper name for these drinks is Tisane; they include options like chamomile, peppermint and Rooibos.
These drinks may not be true tea, but they can still have health benefits because they also come from plants. For example, some contain the antioxidant L-theanine, which may help reduce stress.
“Infusing leaves from a plant in water is another way to extract nutrients from plants,” says Wohlford. “In most cases they can be used in moderation as part of a healthy diet.”
But if you are on medication or undergoing treatment for cancer or another illness, talk to your doctor about which herbal teas are safe for you.
“There are herbal teas that have ingredients that can be problematic for some people,” says Wohlford. “If you are thinking of using tea for medicinal purposes, talk to you doctor first.”
Pay attention to how you prepare your tea
Some teas lose health benefits if the water they’re seeped in is too hot. For green tea and white tea, you’ll see more health benefits if you use water that is slightly less than boiling. Icing tea does not affect the health benefits.
Hot or cold, tea does not have any calories and can be almost as good for hydration as drinking pure water. But if you add creamer or sweetener to it, that can change.
“If you can drink it plain, that’s ideal. But if you must have a sweetener, use something natural like honey or agave. For milk, you can use unsweetened almond milk or soy milk, or stick to the recommended one tablespoon of low-fat regular milk,” says Wohlford.
“We cannot say with certainty that tea is a cancer prevention beverage,” she adds, “but it can be part of a healthy diet if you don’t load it with lots of extra calories.”