Research suggests that the benefits of tea for your health—the most frequently sipped beverage worldwide after water—include a lower risk of cognitive decline, heart disease, stroke, and type 2 diabetes.
But which variety is the healthiest?
The simple answer? All of them. Whether it’s black, green, oolong, or white tea, this beverage offers a no-calorie way to up your intake of disease-fighting plant compounds.
“In the U.S., tea drinkers have the highest flavonoid intake,” says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at Tufts University. Flavonoids are the antioxidants responsible for many of the health benefits of tea.
“We’re talking about a flavorful, aromatic, healthful beverage,” Blumberg adds. “Why not choose a different one to go with a different meal or time of day—just like wine?”
True teas are made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant; differences in flavor and color depend on how the leaves are rolled, crushed, and exposed to air before drying. Herbal teas such as chamomile or ginger are technically tisanes, or infusions of herbs and spices.
How much should you drink? There’s no standard recommendation—as with other plant foods, more is generally a good thing, within reason. Some experts recommend having 2 to 3 cups per day to get the health benefits of tea.
Just be sure to balance your intake with your tolerance for caffeine (or favor decaffeinated varieties).
For National Tea Day, here are some commonly available tea varieties, and the health pluses of each:
How it’s made: Young tea buds are rapidly steamed and dried after picking to inactivate the enzymes that cause browning.
Beverage benefits: White teas contain the most catechins, a type of flavonoid that may help keep blood vessels open and help the body break down fat.
How it’s made: Fresh leaves are picked and immediately steamed so that they retain their green color. (Oolong tea, which is between a green and a black tea, is briefly exposed to oxygen before it is steamed.)
Beverage benefits: Green tea is a good source of the plant compound epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which has been found in studies to reduce LDL (bad) cholesterol. EGCG may also counter inflammation in the body.
If you like lemon, squeezing a slice into green tea may help its beneficial compounds survive digestion, according to research from Purdue University.
However, green tea extract supplements have been linked to liver damage, so it's wise to skip them.
How it’s made: Tea producers roll or crush leaves, releasing an enzyme that oxidizes the catechins. The fermentation creates the brew’s rich flavor and dark color.
Beverage benefits: It may help strengthen your skeleton. Post-menopausal women who regularly drank black tea had higher bone mineral density in the lumbar spine and hip, according to a Japanese study that tracked 498 women over five years.
Reconsider adding that splash of milk, however, at least some of the time—its proteins can bind with some of the beneficial compounds in black tea, reducing your body’s ability to absorb them, researchers say.
4 Facts for Tea Drinkers
• All teas naturally contain caffeine. Black supplies the most (72 mg in 12 ounces—about half that in a same-sized serving of coffee).
• The World Health Organization has classified “very hot beverages” (158° F or higher) as possible carcinogens. Though drinks are not usually served that hot, it can’t hurt to let your tea cool a bit before drinking it.
• Decaf and home-brewed iced tea have fewer beneficial compounds because of the decaffeination process or dilution with ice, respectively. If you like, double up on tea bags to make up some of the difference, Blumberg suggests.
• Watch out for sugary tea drinks—a 16-ounce Starbucks chai latte with 2 percent milk has 240 calories and a whopping 42 grams of sugar.
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