Is tea a beverage or a medicine?

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Tea drinkers have varying levels of interest in the effects on the body of tea: from personal preferences and sensitivities to caffeine, to the decision to drink tea for the explicit purpose of benefits to a person’s health, to a complete disinterest in how tea impacts the body of the person drinking it. Accompanying that variety among tea drinkers is a similarly wide range in the types of claims and marketing strategies of tea companies themselves, from growers and producers to retailers. These vary not only in focus, but also in accuracy.

In spite of tea’s nearly ubiquitous presence as a traditional beverage throughout major parts of the world, the recent growth in interest in tea in the United States appears to be largely driven by the promotion of tea as a healthy drink. In the ideal scenario this serves as an initial entry into the rich world of tea and tea cultures, leading to pursuit of knowledge and more exploration of good teas. But this focus on health can have negative repercussions as well, particularly in terms of expectations and an industry with its priorities in the wrong place, away from high quality and variety of the leaf.

I don’t think that anyone questions the assertion that tea is a healthful beverage. There are people who have reasons not to drink it, like caffeine sensitivity, but the bottom line is that it’s a beverage made from the leaf of a plant that is fully recognized as safe for humans to consume. Particularly when compared to other commonly consumed beverages which are not so trustworthy, tea holds up as a reliably healthy choice. By way of contrast, I don’t think that many people would defend soft drinks or malt liquor as being healthful beverages. None of this is controversial, or necessary to delve too deeply into. The troubles begin when tea is defined and described as a substance delivering particular, quantifiable positive impacts to the body, including alleviating or preventing certain medical conditions.

One important element in the whole discussion of the “healthfulness” of tea is recognizing and acknowledging the difference between foods and medicines. The FDA is quite clear on the difference, and it’s pretty easy to understand. The concept of healthy food is enormously variable depending on individual body types and conditions, and should be approached by each individual based on their own needs. But medicine is a substance that is clearly and explicitly intended to create a change in the bodily condition of the person consuming it. While there are quite a few substances that are used medicinally that are not recognized as medicines from a legal standpoint in the U.S., the people producing and selling those substances are strictly regulated in terms of the language they can attach to them. This does not mean that they don’t work, but it does mean that they can not be sold as substances that have that particular effect on the body. It also does not mean that any and all of these unofficially recognized “medicines” are entirely safe for consumption. Like everything else, consumers should be well aware of what they consume and how it may affect the body.

But back to the specifics: tea is not medicine. More importantly, as tea drinkers we really do not want it to ever be sanctioned and regulated by the FDA as a medicine. This would have enormous and far-reaching impact on the tea industry which would severely damage it, because aroma, flavor, tradition, character, etc. have no bearing on the validity of a substance as medicine. Medicine just has to do what it is sold to do. It needs to perform consistently in laboratory tests of its efficacy. Given the broad scope of what “tea” encompasses and all of the different ways it is consumed and produced, I do not believe that there is any danger of a shift towards tea being recognized and regulated as a medicine. But what is important is that tea may not be marketed as if it is. Unilever, the company that owns Lipton has recently felt the hammer of the FDA come down on it for doing exactly this. The following is excerpted from the FDA’s warning letter to Unilever, and it is instructive in illustrating the distinction:

For example, your webpage entitled “Tea and Health,” subtitled “Heart Health Research” and further subtitled “Cholesterol Research” bears the following claim: “[F]our recent studies in people at risk for coronary disease have shown a significant cholesterol lowering effect from tea or tea flavonoids … One of these studies, on post-menopausal women, found that total cholesterol was lowered by 8% after drinking 8 cups of green tea daily for 12 weeks ….”

The therapeutic claims on your website establish that the product is a drug because it is intended for use in the cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease. Your Lipton Green Tea 100% Natural Naturally Decaffeinated product is not generally recognized as safe and effective for the above referenced uses and, therefore, the product is a “new drug” under section 201(p) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 321(p)]. New drugs may not be legally marketed in the U.S. without prior approval from FDA as described in section 505(a) of the Act [21 U.S.C. § 355(a)]. FDA approves a new drug on the basis of scientific data submitted by a drug sponsor to demonstrate that the drug is safe and effective.

Of course, there are numerous legitimate studies which evaluate the potential applications of tea, and its various individual components, for use medicinally on the human body. These are welcomed and necessary for their contribution to the scientific pursuit of understanding of the tea plant. These studies also have varying levels of reliability, but concrete, measurable data about tea and how bodies respond to it is something that the tea industry needs. But promoting tea as overall, or in any particular beverage forms, as a medicine is bad for the health of the tea industry.

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13 Comments

  1. Thanks for this insightful post :)

    For what it’s worth, I have conducted hundreds of different research studies on a willing human participant and have proven 100% that “Tea is good for Me.” (I will publish the results of my experiments in next quarter’s “Journal of Brett Boynton’s Health and Physiology.” )

    • That would actually make for a great post if you wrote it in a similar style to a medical journal.

      My own research has reached the same conclusion as yours, but I think that my test subject size is too small to quantify my data.

  2. I’m pretty sure from my own experiences following multi-hour tea tastings that tea should be classified as a narcotic. I make sure though not to drive while tea-drunk.

  3. The concern about the FDA deciding to classify tea at a level with greater oversight is very real though. Although it sounds ridiculous at first, just a tactic by the FDA to prevent unsubstantiated or under-substantiated health claims, the FDA has been expanding their oversight roles in many areas lately. For instance, in my industry the FDA has declared their intent to classify medical software as a “medical device” which has strict regulatory implications not present elsewhere in the software world — this has meant literally millions of dollars of cost in organizational restructuring and software redesign over the last two years just for our company alone.

    • I should clarify that the FDA currently has no oversight of medical software, but the classification of “medical device” gives them regulatory power over it, including the power to levy incredibly hefty fines and to shut down whole companies until they pass regulatory reviews.

    • That kind of oversight of the tea industry does sound ridiculous, and I hope that it is not within the scope of the FDA to implement, but I’m not naive enough to believe that it’s not possible.

  4. The thought of the FDA ever pursuing the regulation of tea as a medicinal substance (no matter how possible that really is) makes me shudder.

    I would think that the FDA used Unilever as an example to any other companies making similar claims. My thoughts are that Unilever is such a large company and something like that happening to them is much bigger news than a smaller company being put in the same position. Though it could be just as likely that it is Unilever’s size that got them noticed in the first place.

  5. The thought of the FDA ever pursuing the regulation of tea as a medicinal substance (no matter how possible that really is) makes me shudder.

    I speculate that the FDA used Unilever as an example to any other companies making similar claims. My thoughts are that Unilever is such a large company and something like that happening to them is much bigger news than a smaller company being put in the same position. Though it could be just as likely that it is Unilever’s size that got them noticed in the first place.

  6. i am having tea from past 15 years and literally speaking its not a simple beverage it works as a medicine

  7. Tea is like a medicine we should drink it twice in a day. It reduces blood pressure, cholesterol etc.

  8. Green tea in particular has become somewhat of a ‘media darling’ in the west, due to its numerous health benefits.

    Not to say these benefits aren’t real, but the thought of tea being classified as a legitimate medicine is kind of scary.

    Will I need a prescription in the future on order to purchase some Earl Grey?

  9. Quoting … “One important element in the whole discussion of the “healthfulness” of tea is recognizing and acknowledging the difference between foods and medicines.”…
    An independent agency is needed to clarify the so proposed health benefits associated with teas. The the assumption that the health conscious tea consuming population has of tea with regard to its health benefits are limited.

  10. I may not have been specific enough in stating that the distinction between a food and a medicine is clear-cut from a LEGAL standpoint (in the U.S.) and from the perspective of the FDA. As you and I both pointed out, there are quite a few substances which are not officially recognized as medicines (and therefore regulated by the FDA) that have medicinal properties, which deem them safe or unsafe depending on how they are used and on individual bodily sensitivities and the substance’s particular characteristics. These are clearly usable as medicines, but can not be sold and marketed as medicines in this country.

    You are absolutely right that the source of any claims and research needs to be questioned and evaluated on the basis of its objectivity. I am immediately suspicious of any information that is presented in advertising, or sponsored by a corporation that has a vested interest in the results, but I’m skeptical of almost ALL information before it has been through extensive verification.

    As far as the reasons for the FDA targeting Unilever first, I can’t say with any certainty, but I would guess that it was either that they were a large target and thus worth the FDA’s attention, OR they were large and visible enough to get the FDA’s attention in the first place. The FDA might not have the resources needed for policing lower profile tea companies.

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