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Hold the Milk?

Polyphenols called catechins are the antioxidant compounds found in tea that confer its well-known health benefits. They're present in all types of true tea (from the plant Camellia sinensis. Catechin content is the highest in white tea, the least processed type. Green tea has the next highest catechin content, then oolong and, finally black tea.

If you add milk to your tea, the milk protein, casein, binds catechins, making them unavailable to the body. German researchers recently focused on this effect in a small study, which included 16 postmenopausal women who first drank black tea without milk. The investigators found that the tea improved the ability of arteries to relax and expand, increasing blood flow. But when skim milk was added to the tea, this healthy effect was blocked. They also looked at how tea alone and tea with added milk affected blood vessels in rats and observed the same effects seen in the women.

Not surprisingly, this study got a lot of attention in Britain, a nation of tea drinkers, most of whom take their tea with milk. The findings may explain why the lower rates of heart disease and cancer seen in Asians (who traditionally don't add milk to tea) haven't shown up in the UK.

Like tea, cocoa is rich in polyphenols, but of a different chemical class. A study published in the April 2007 Journal of Food Science found that milk proteins don't reduce the bioavailability of the polyphenols found in cocoa. The reasons for the difference in milk's effects on polyphenols in tea and cocoa aren't completely understood. I don't imagine the tea-drinking Brits are going to change their ways and give up adding milk to their tea, but if you really want the health benefits of green tea, you should try to develop a taste for it without milk.

How do you take your tea? Feel free to elaborate in the comments if your preferred additions are not listed here.

Read about My Life with Tea.

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Reader Comments (29)

But I drink tea to wake up and because I like the flavor. I don't drink it for the health benefits. Doing away with the milk would not taste good to me. :\

What about India? India is in Asia, and they put milk in their tea (well, the chai masala anyway). How healthy are they?

September 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersteph

The interesting thing about this is that it has implications far beyond milk. Cheese is 20% casein, and it's also of course found in any other milk-derived or milk-added product (this list includes such items as McDonald's fries, by the way). Meats or any complete protein source (protein powders and bars) will also contain casein.

So - the question is how much casein binds to how much polyphenol, and how long does this effect last? Technically, if you are a yogurt and had a cup of tea an hour later, this effect would still be present.

Does anyone have any more detailed information on the duration of the effect? Just skipping milk in tea doesn't seem to be enough of an advisory to be useful, given that people often eat and drink at the same time.

September 7, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTy Frost

Eileen: And Lisa
On behalf of Dr. Weil he says:
if you really want the health benefits of green tea, you should try to develop a taste for it without milk.
Green tea by itself is a potent source of healthy antioxidants known as catechins. But a new study indicates that adding citrus juice or vitamin C can significantly boost the bioavailability of those compounds, which have been linked to lowered cancer risk as well as improved heart and brain health.

September 8, 2010 | Unregistered

I'm skeptical. Basically, this study has shown one health effect of one variation on tea-drinking. What happens if you use (more healthful in general, I think) whole milk? What about raw milk? This study doesn't prove that tea those are less healthful than tea without.

Also, as we've seen so many times, the fact that this one measure is decreased by adding milk doesn't mean it's less healthful-- just that it changes this one measure. The human body and nutritional science are so incredibly complex that we find all the time that our hypotheses and even often our conclusions are wrong when it comes to dietary advice. I'm willing to bet that, given that people have been drinking milk in tea traditionally for at least hundreds of years, there is reason to do it from a health standpoint.

September 8, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJennNnn

TO all concerned
non-dairy drinks do not contain casein so no worries there.

September 9, 2010 | Unregistered

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September 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim Scheibel

I also stopped drinking coffee and switched over to black tea, as it is much easier on my stomach. I've gotten used to having a cup with nothing in it-- and now really enjoy it!

September 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMegan Mountcastle

Asians not take milk in tea?? Have you never been to India, Pakistan or Bangladesh? - they BOIL the tea in milk and sugar.

Nigel at Teacraft

September 28, 2010 | Unregistered Commenternigel melican

I really enjoy reading the articles on this blog. I'll bookmark this so I can read more later.thanks. exuberil

October 7, 2010 | Unregistered Commenterjamesambe
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