If you enjoy a cup of coffee or tea in the morning, you’ve likely wondered about the health benefits and detriments that come from each. Here we compare the two and offer definitive conclusions.
Tea is a beverage made by infusing leaves in water boiled to just below boiling point, whereas coffee is made by brewing ground coffee beans with boiled water. Tea drinkers are able to get more catechins generally than those who drink coffee as tea brewing has longer contact time with the leaves and thus leaches more polyphenols from them. However, coffee drinkers get more caffeine than those who drink tea.
Caffeine and theophylline. Caffeine is an alkaloid (meaning it has a base chemical structure) that can be found in coffee beans, tea leaves, and cocoa beans. It is the most widely consumed psychoactive drug in the world.
Coffee contains approximately 200-300 milligrams of caffeine per 8 oz cup, whereas brewed black tea contains approximately 10-20 milligrams per 8 oz cup. Tea has been shown to have significantly less carcinogenic potential than coffee due to its lower levels of caffeine and a wide variety of anti-carcinogenic compounds present in tea. Coffee has higher concentrations of polyphenols than tea, which have been linked to lower rates of cardiovascular disease and diabetes.
Tea contains more theophylline than coffee. Theophylline is an alkaloid that is related to caffeine but acts as a bronchodilator (opens up breathing passages) in the body. Black tea in particular is known for its high levels of theophylline due to its long brewing time (20 minutes) for black tea leaves; white, green, and oolong teas all have shorter brewing times.
Catechins and Tannins
These are the main type of antioxidants present in tea, responsible for its bright and vibrant color. Tea contains higher levels of catechins than coffee, primarily due to its longer brewing time. Catechins are found in tea leaves in high amounts pre-dissolved into the water, so the longer brewing time causes more catechins to be released into the water.
Antioxidants and Antinutrients
These two groups of nutrients work synergistically to protect your body against free radical damage from oxidation (a condition of oxidative stress, which is basically a molecules losing an electron). Antioxidants neutralize free radicals and inhibit oxidation by donating electrons to molecules that would otherwise be damaged by free radicals.
Antioxidants are generally found in foods and beverages that contain high amounts of polyphenols (such as tea and coffee). Antinutrients are compounds that inhibit the absorption of nutrients from food. Tannins are an example of an anti-nutrient that binds to minerals and prevents their absorption by the body.
Coffee has higher antioxidant capacity than tea due to the polyphenols it contains. But, due to its higher caffeine content, coffee can also cause more damage to your body, primarily in the form of free radical damage to cells. Catechins on the other hand are able to prevent some damage caused by caffeine from occurring. However, more research is needed to conclusively state that coffee has less of an effect than tea on your long-term health.
The presence of chemicals that act as antioxidants against free radicals in coffee and tea are said to provide hepatoprotective effects (protect the liver) by reducing oxidative stress. This reduces inflammation and improves the activity of the proteins responsible for clearing out toxins in your body.
One study found that regular consumption of green tea was able to reduce markers of oxidative stress, further improving liver function and reducing disease risk in hepatitis C virus carriers. In coffee drinkers, liver function is reduced as caffeine is metabolized by the liver.
Lowering of Stress
Many studies have been done showing that tea helps to reduce stress and anxiety while improving mood and relaxation. It has been suggested that the caffeine in tea can help to increase levels of dopamine and serotonin in the brain, which are neurotransmitters that allow us to feel pleasure and relax.
Coffee consumption is associated with a reduced risk for diabetes due to its high levels of phenolic acids, which have been shown to slow carbohydrate absorption and improve insulin sensitivity in the body (study). The caffeine in coffee has the ability to stimulate the release of insulin from the pancreas, which is a hormone that allows you to absorb glucose and use it for energy.
It is known that tea contains some components that have anti-cancer potential and inhibit cancer cell growth, while coffee contains higher levels of other components thought to actually promote cancer cell growth. Catechins (found in tea) can have chemo-preventive effects on your body by inhibiting tumor formation and inducing apoptosis (a form of programmed cell death) in damaged cells.
A study in animals found that consumption of green tea significantly reduced the frequency of colon cancer, possibly because it may alter the proliferative and apoptotic pathways in tumor growth. Tea has also been shown to contain high amounts of antioxidants, which scavenge free radicals that are produced by the body which can damage tissue and cause premature aging.
Tea vs. Coffee
Drinking either coffee or tea can be beneficial to your body, depending on your preference. While both contain caffeine, coffee has higher concentrations of the stimulant which can cause more damage to your body in the long run.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t drink coffee though! Caffeine has been shown to improve short-term memory and cognitive function and is associated with increased metabolism (via thermogenesis), which can help you burn more calories throughout the day.
Coffee and tea are typically used interchangeably, but their differences are substantial. While tea has weaker antioxidant activity, it does contain many phytonutrients and other beneficial components that have been shown to have health benefits.