Stirring interest in green tea

Beverage: Sales increase as drink's health benefits are touted.

January 05, 2000|By Erica Marcus | Erica Marcus,Newsday

Once possessed of a vaguely countercultural vibe and available primarily in health-food stores and Asian markets, green tea has hit the big time.

Take a trip to the supermarket, and the tea shelves are fairly bricked with bright green boxes. Lipton, Twinings and Salada, stalwarts of the tea trade, are all offering green teas. Too busy to brew your own? Snapple and Arizona Iced Tea are happy to sell you bottled green tea. Even cosmetic companies have gotten into the act: Elizabeth Arden is introducing a green-tea-scented spray and fragrance collection that promises "Exhilaration. Rejuvenation. Jubilation."

For all the hype surrounding green tea, its production is quite simple. Both green tea and black tea are simply the leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush. But whereas black tea leaves are left to oxidize (and darken) after being picked, green tea leaves are processed immediately, while the leaves are still green. (Oolong tea is semi-oxidized, occupying the gray area between black and green.)

So why all the hoopla?

"Green tea is one of the single best things you can put into your body," said Dr. Mitchell Gaynor, cancer specialist at Cornell University's Strang-Cornell Cancer Prevention Center and co-author, with Jerry Hickey, of "Dr. Gaynor's Cancer Prevention Program" (Kensington Books, $24). Gaynor, who drinks four to five cups of green tea each day, is one of a growing number of doctors and nutritionists promoting green tea's ability to protect against cancer, heart disease and stroke. And the media's coverage of each new piece of scientific data is driving up consumer demand.

Lipton, for one, has seen explosive growth in the green-tea market since 1996, when Reader's Digest published an article touting the benefits of the tea.

"In the last four years, sales of green tea have essentially doubled every year," said green-tea brand manager Dana Emery. "In 1996, our supermarket sales were $9 million; in 1997, $17 million; in 1998, $30 million. Our projections for 1999 indicate that it's going to be from $55 million to $60 million." By comparison, annual supermarket sales for Lipton's black teas hover around $300 million.

On the other end of the market, purveyors of high-end teas also are seeing an upswing in green-tea sales. Mark Lii, president of Ten Ren Tea and Ginseng Co. Inc., operates three stores in the New York area devoted to selling the finest imported teas, many of them from Lii's native Taiwan. Green tea, once a minor seller for Ten Ren, started to take off in 1994, after a laudatory article appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Green tea's reputation as a cancer fighter probably accounts for most of its healthful appeal. And the evidence is indeed compelling.

Gaynor offered an overview: "The research started coming out in about 1992," he said. "Epidemiological studiees were looking at societies with relatively little cancer, and what were the diets of those societies." Asian nations topped the list of countries with low incidences of cancer, and Gaynor reeled off some impressive numbers: Compared with Americans, Japanese women have one-seventh the rate of breast cancer; Asian men living in Asian countries have one-thirtieth the rate of fatal prostate cancer.

Gaynor happily conceded that green tea is probably not the only factor at work here. The traditional Asian diet is high in many substances that have been found to have a beneficial effect, among them soybeans and soy products, the omega-3 fatty acid found in oily fishes, and seaweed. Nevertheless, laboratory studies have shown that there are specific compounds in green tea that are potent weapons against life-threatening disease.

According to James E. Klaunig, professor and director of the division of toxicology at Indiana University, green tea contains a variety of antioxidants. These beneficial chemicals neutralize free radicals, charged molecules within the body whose erratic behavior is believed to cause cancer, heart disease and age-related ailments. "There's no doubt it has antioxidant properties," said Klaunig. "And it has been proven to prevent cancer in animals. It isn't far-fetched to conclude that it has anti-cancer effects on humans, but we are still looking at that."

While black tea also contains antioxidants, Klaunig said it has fewer than are present in green tea. "You probably need to drink twice as much black tea to get the same benefit," he said.

But green tea is more than a collection of powerful disease-fighting chemicals. For millenniums, it's been a vital part of many Asian cultures. The tea ceremony has evolved as a highly ordered and meaningful ritual in almost all Asian countries, and the tea itself inspires the same level of connoisseurship in Asians that Western aesthetes devote to wine. That connoisseurship is beginning to seep into America gourmet circles.

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