August 24/Washington/The Washington Times -- Pity all those earnest folks who guzzle down a pricey bottle of fancy tea, hoping for a healthy dose of cancer-fighting "antioxidants" and "flavonoids." This news is hard to swallow: Those drinkers would have to down up to 20 bottles of the stuff to get the same amount of beneficial substances found in a single cup of humble, home-brewed tea.
So says skeptical new research reported by the American Chemical Society, touted as the first study to ever comprehensively measure the antioxidant levels in commercial bottled tea beverages.
"Someone would have to drink bottle after bottle of these teas in some cases to receive health benefits," said Rutgers University chemist Shiming Li, who analyzed 49 commercial samples and was surprised to find that the average 16oz bottle contained as little as 3mg of polyphenols, a beneficial compound linked with anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties.
"I was surprised at the low polyphenol content. I didn't expect it to be at such a low level," he added.
A simple cup of home-brewed green or black tea contains up to 150mg. Li did not reveal the brands he tested in the project, conducted with WellGen, Inc., a biotechnology company in New Jersey.
However, the swanky teas look so promising; one manufacturer promises consumers "an army of antioxidants" in each bottle. In addition, bottles are typically gussied up with lush images of acai berries, herbs and exotic flavorings like mango, rose hips, jasmine or pomegranate -- the darling of the genre.
They are also dear: Many bottled teas are priced up to $3 a pop -- with total annual sales topping $2.2 billion in the U.S. alone, according to industry sources.
Li said some manufacturers list polyphenol content on their bottle labels, though the amounts could be inaccurate simply because there are no industry or government standards for measuring and listing the substances.
There is another problem. Polyphenolic compounds are persnickety.
A regular tea bag can contain as much as 175mg of polyphenols, the chemist explains. However, the polyphenols "degrade and disappear" as the tea bag is steeped in hot water -- a serious factor on the grander scale of commercial manufacturing.
"Polyphenols are bitter and astringent, but to target as many consumers as they can, manufacturers want to keep the bitterness and astringency at a minimum," Li explained. "The simplest way is to add less tea, which makes the tea polyphenol content low but tastes smoother and sweeter."
"The Tea Association of the USA is aware that there is a degree of variability in the amount of tea used in ready-to-drink (RTD) tea formulations. However, most are sold on the basis of taste, refreshment and convenience as opposed to health benefits," said Joseph P. Simrany, president of the industry trade group.
"Even so, in almost all cases, choosing an RTD tea over an alternative beverage is usually a healthier option, as they contain some level of beneficial ingredients as well as offering options for reduced sugar content," he added. "The Tea Association of the USA has always recommended to consumers that if they are looking to maximize the health benefits derived from tea that they should brew the tea themselves."
Alas, misleading health claims have already gotten some manufacturers in trouble.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed suit against the Coca-Cola Co. for the "deceptive marketing" of Enviga, its green tea soft drink, and Vitaminwater, also promoted as a health drink, the watchdog group claims.
From the August 30, 2010, Prepared Foods E-dition