Coffee vs Tea: When it comes to health, which one wins?

Coffee vs tea.
Coffee vs tea.PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES/ISTOCKPHOTO
Research has mostly been focused on tea made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which - depending on how they are processed - end up as black, green or oolong tea.
Research has mostly been focused on tea made from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant, which - depending on how they are processed - end up as black, green or oolong tea.PHOTO: ISTOCKPHOTO

There are two kinds of people in this world - those who drink coffee and those who swear by tea. Each of these fragrant, caffeinated beverages has its own devoted followers, but when it comes to health, which one wins? More than just a morning pick-me-up drink, coffee has been shown to help protect the liver and fight diabetes. Tea is not only steeped in history, but also offers benefits for the heart and brain.

For self-professed coffee addict Doreen Soh, the morning is not complete without a good strong cuppa.

"If I miss my morning coffee, I'll have it in the afternoon," said the 57-year-old, who has been drinking coffee for more than 30 years. "I don't just drink it for the flavour. It gives me that kick and perks me up."

That caffeine boost may be why so many people get hooked on coffee. But its effects on the body go far beyond that.

Coffee - a drink brewed from the roasted seeds of a group of plants called Coffea - can protect against liver disease and some neurological ailments. It contains antioxidants, which are said to help protect people from various health issues.

However, too much of this heady brew can raise blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In a study published here in 2014, Professor Koh Woon Puay found that regular coffee-drinking helped people with certain types of liver cirrhosis reduce their chances of dying.

It was not the caffeine, but other natural compounds found in coffee that caused this effect, said Prof Koh, an epidemiologist at Duke-NUS Medical School.

"Human studies have not been consistent in showing caffeine in coffee as the protective agent against liver disease," she said. "Other caffeine-containing beverages, such as tea, have not been found to be protective."

Coffee and tea are rich sources of antioxidants, said Ms Claudine Loong, a lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic's school of chemical and life sciences. "They help to fight against free radicals, which are oxygen- scavenging compounds that damage our cells and are associated with multiple health issues," she said.

Coffee can be good for the heart, provided it is taken in moderation. "Low to moderate coffee consumption of up to three cups a day may protect against heart attacks," said Dr Ooi Yau Wei, a cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital.

A few studies have shown that coffee protects against Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease, as well as lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Singapore imported 31,400 tonnes of coffee last year, according to the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority.

But experts warn that heavy coffee drinkers could also suffer side effects. These range from short-term reactions to caffeine such as insomnia, to more serious health issues. Dr Ooi said that heavy coffee intake may trigger heart problems in people who already have underlying heart disease.

Someone who drinks too much coffee could also risk osteoporosis, as a high coffee intake has been associated with lower bone mineral density and the risk of fractures in women.

Too much caffeine, whether it is from coffee or tea, can also raise the risk of high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms, said Dr Heng Kiang Soon, a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic's school of applied science.

Loading your coffee or tea with sugar and cream may negate the good effects of the coffee bean.

Ms Bibi Chia, a principal dietitian at Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre, said unfiltered coffee - made using a French press rather than with paper filters, for example - can increase cholesterol levels. This is due to a compound called cafestol, which is naturally found in coffee. She said: "I'd recommend drinking filtered coffee with less sugar, no cream and no more than three cups a day."

  • COFFEE

    Pros

    •Protects against liver disease and some neurological ailments.

    •Contains antioxidants which help protect people from various health issues.

    •Good for the heart, and protects against Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

    Cons

    •Too much coffee may trigger heart problems, increase the risk of osteoporosis and lead to insomnia.

    •Too much caffeine can increase the risk of high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms.

    •Unfiltered coffee can increase cholesterol levels.

  • TEA

    Pros

    •Lowers the risk of dementia, protects against cancer and helps prevent cardiovascular diseases.

    •Prevents cognitive decline, reduces stress and promotes psychological well-being.

    •Good for the heart. Green tea is linked to lower "bad" cholesterol and higher "good" cholesterol levels.

    •Promotes better dental health and weight loss.

    •Has high levels of antioxidants that are said to prevent cancer.

    Cons

    •Both tea and coffee can reduce the body's ability to absorb iron and certain osteoporosis medications.

  • The power of caffeine

  • Both tea and coffee contain caffeine, but which has more? And what impact does caffeine have on the body, apart from serving as a morning pick-me-up?

    The general consensus among experts seems to be that coffee contains more caffeine than tea, although it also depends on how the beverages are prepared.

    While the origins of coffee and tea are unclear, it is safe to say that mankind has been drinking both for at least 1,000 years.

    Caffeine, which works as a stimulant, is naturally found in both.

    Dr Heng Kiang Soon, a lecturer at Republic Polytechnic's school of applied science, said a cup of brewed coffee contains between 95mg and 165mg of caffeine.

    But an identical cup of instant coffee has only 63mg of caffeine.

    The caffeine content of a cup of brewed tea is about 31/2 times lower than that of a brewed coffee, said Dr Heng. The effects of caffeine can be felt throughout the whole body and go beyond just making a person feel more alert.

    Dr Ooi Yau Wei, a cardiologist at Mount Elizabeth Novena Hospital, said caffeine can improve reaction time, alleviate headache symptoms and protect against Parkinson's disease. It can induce the need to urinate more frequently and might help with constipation.

    However, Ms Claudine Loong, a lecturer at Nanyang Polytechnic's school of chemical and life sciences, said that too much caffeine can also cause problems.

    These include insomnia, anxiety, irritability, stomach discomfort and muscle tremors.

    Linette Lai

What about tea?

Tea is an antidote for 72 poisons, claims an ancient Chinese text. But what does modern science have to say about this fragrant beverage and its effect on our health?

As it turns out, quite a lot. Among the benefits - a lower risk of dementia, protection against cancer and the ability to prevent cardiovascular diseases.

The secret lies in various chemical compounds naturally found in the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, which have positive effects on the body.

Most of the research has focused on the drink made from the leaves of this plant which - depending on how they are processed - end up as black, green or oolong tea.

This includes the standard kopitiam teh, but not floral brews such as chrysanthemum tea.

Researchers have found that tea is good for the brain.

Earlier this year, a National University of Singapore (NUS) study found that regular tea drinkers are less likely to get dementia in the long run.

Assistant Professor Feng Lei, who was behind the research, said: "Drinking tea can help to prevent cognitive decline, reduce stress and promote psychological well-being."

Prof Feng, who specialises in tea research, is from the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine's psychological medicine department.

Tea is also good for the heart. Scientists have found that black tea lowers a person's risk of a heart attack, said Ms Bibi Chia, a principal dietitian at Raffles Diabetes and Endocrine Centre.

Green tea, on the other hand, has been linked to lower "bad" cholesterol and higher "good" cholesterol levels.

Ms Chia added: "Other reported benefits include better dental health and weight loss."

Tea also contains relatively high levels of antioxidants that are said to prevent cancer.

Professor William Chen, director of Nanyang Technological University's food science and technology programme, said: "Simply put, tea contains more antioxidants than coffee. Tea leaves contain a lot of substances that are good for your health."

According to Dr Tay Wen Sien, a family physician at Thomson Lifestyle Centre, these antioxidant compounds have also been shown to reduce the side effects of anti-cancer drugs.

However, Dr Tay added that both tea and coffee reduce the body's ability to absorb iron and certain osteoporosis medications. "It's best to take these drinks at least one hour apart from meals," she said.

Herbal and floral brews made with lavender, chrysanthemum or chamomile flowers are generally not considered "true teas" because they do not originate from the tea plant, Camellia sinensis.

However, early studies have shown that some of these teas - such as chamomile - are also able to soothe inflammations or relieve anxiety.

Ms Sharyn Johnston, who founded the Australia Tea Masters Association, said that interest in high-quality loose-leaf teas and special blends is on the rise. The association has a branch in Singapore.

Figures from the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority show that Singapore imported 11,900 tonnes of tea last year.

One tea devotee is freelance writer Melanie Lee, 38, who has been drinking the beverage for as long as she remembers.

She meets a group of fellow tea enthusiasts once a month to sample their most recent finds. She has also taken classes in the art of preparing Chinese tea, which she says helps her to focus on the here and now.

"Everything has to be done very deliberately and slowly," Ms Lee said. "Tea-drinking is one of the activities that help me take a break from the fast pace of life."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 25, 2017, with the headline 'Coffee vs Tea'. Print Edition | Subscribe