Health claims and bad marketing

A few months ago I noticed that my blog’s email address was harvested by Misty Peak and they started sending me junk mail. I never paid them much attention until their email about storing puerh that’s full of errors arrived at my inbox. Well, yesterday I just got another rather amusing email. This one’s about health claims, arguably the worst of all marketing ploys for tea. Let’s examine the email, shall we?

Like the water we drink, the food we eat, and even the medication we may use, quality is key when selecting and consuming Pu’er tea. It is very often prescribed for cholesterol, weight loss, high blood pressure, anemia, diabetes, and poor circulation, so understanding how to actually use this tea as a tool is important. 

Prescribed? Really? Who “prescribes” tea, specifically for the ailments named? Yes, there’s some (hard to prove) evidence out there that tea in general may help, but to compare it to medicine, well…

Then we got “5 tips” which, of course, is where the gems are

1- How much to drink?

Read your body in the beginning and give careful attention to how you feel before, during, and after drinking this tea. It has tremendous energy, so give it the attention it deserves when first introduced to it. We suggest atlas 3 cups/pots per day, each being 5-8 ounces. Simply pouring this tea a few times a week will not give you the desired results for your health, although it will be enjoyable. Find the time to begin to incorporate the tea into your day. 

Translation: Drink a lot of this tea, and I mean a lot. Usually when referring to “cups” like this the text is trying to say that we should be preparing a fresh cup/pot of it using fresh leaves. Three rounds a day is quite a bit of tea no matter how you drink your tea.

2- When to drink our tea?

It is best to drink the tea when your stomach is not completely empty, unless you plan to eat shortly thereafter. Three times a day is recommended, at least. For weight loss, drink Pu’er tea 20-60 minutes after your meals, giving it its wonderful ability to flush the body of oils and cholesterol that may have been consumed while eating. It will also give you a clean feeling. This is not always easy to manage, so if you can only find one or two times to enjoy the tea, make the time worthwhile. Turning off a phone or finding a relaxing place to drink makes the experience more enjoyable and the energy of the tea stronger. Drinking our Pu’er tea will give you a great relaxing, even meditative, feeling, so learn how you feel first with the tea and go from there. We recommend starting your day with it, even if that means drinking it with your morning coffee, if need be. 

That last line is where things start to really go wrong. Up till now, the email is mostly just junk marketing material that we see all the time – tea may be healthy for you, etc etc (more on that later). Suggesting people should drink tea AND their coffee together in the morning, however, can be a little more dangerous – puerh can be pretty punchy, caffeine wise, and getting an unwanted caffeine buzz is no joke, coming from someone who’s experienced it before. In serious cases it can lead to uncontrollable muscle contractions and heart palpitations. But, of course, they have to keep suggesting that you should drink loads of their tea.

3- Can I drink too much tea?

The simple answer is yes, but that would take a tremendous amount of consumption. The tea is high in L-Theanine, which has many health benefits, but one of the greatest benefits of it is how it contracts some of the negative properties of caffeine. So if one is sensitive to caffeine, drinking a great amount of this tea will still be less harmful because of this amino acid that is present.  Consuming too much liquid, liters and gallons at a time, is absolutely not suggested. The average tea drinker in China will consume upwards of 2-4 gallons of tea in a given day, so consuming a few extra cups for us would not be considered harmful, but do pay attention to your body. 

And continuing from the last line of that last section, here’s where they go off the deep end. L-Theanine can “contracts [sic] some of the negative properties of caffeine”? Where on Earth did they come up with that idea? I did a quick search on Pubmed, and this article suggests that presence of both amplify the effects of the other. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything suggesting that L-Theanine can counteract anything from caffeine – that idea is simply ridiculous. To suggest people who might be caffeine sensitive that it’s ok to drink lots of puerh is irresponsible at best. Also, L-Theanine is present in every tea, in similarly small amounts. There’s really not much meaningful difference between one type of tea or another if you’re talking about things like caffeine and L-Theanine content, especially since the biggest variable is how much leaves you’re using and not the type of tea you’re drinking (one would often use more leaves to prepare some types of teas than others, for example).

And 2-4 gallons? Did anyone stop for a second and think about how much liquid that is? The average person doesn’t drink 2 gallons of water in a day. Even if they really meant liters (three obvious typos so far, time to proofread your emails) it’s still a lot of tea – irresponsibly so when asking the question of “can I drink too much tea.”

4- Is it okay to mix the tea with other teas?

No. Plain and simply, think of tea (and all foods) as medicine. When we unknowingly combine or blend them and their properties (warming/cooling/energizing/relaxing/ect), we are creating chemical reactions within our bodies that may not work well together. Teas are often blended in tea shops or malls haphazardly, only basing the blends of what tastes good, rather than what is chemically beneficial to our bodies. Our tea is completely unblended and unaltered from its raw state. It is picked, fired, rolled by hand, then dried under the sun, as it has been for thousands of years. It is best to not add herbs or other teas to the tea if not experienced. 

Hahahahahaha.

5- Is any Pu’er tea okay?

Just because it is Pu’er  (Pu-erh) tea does not mean it is good for you. In fact, the most counterfeited tea in the world is Pu’er tea. Doctors recommend us to drink 8 cups of water each day, but the real key is to consume 8 clean cups of water each day; the same goes for tea. Consuming tea that has been treated with careful attention is critical. Our tea is hand-picked, hand processed, never touched a machine or a chemical, organic, and picked from trees older than America. Quality is key if we want great results. 

I’m pretty sure that the spring 2016 tea they’re selling for $55 per 200g is not from trees as old as claimed – the current market is such that this kind of price really isn’t going to get you very good raw materials, certainly not early spring materials from trees of this age. So claiming that other people are potentially selling counterfeits while theirs is the genuine article really rings hollow. Twodog recently wrote a piece on the subject so there’s no need for me to repeat the information, but needless to say, age statements on trees are mostly overinflated, with Verdant being a prime example of ridiculous age statements and these guys not far behind. I recently had a chat with a tea vendor who started pressing cakes a dozen years ago, and a tree that’s over a thousand years old would yield, at most, a couple kilos of finished tea leaves for pressing. Verdant’s 10kg per tree output – well, they’re selling a fantasy. Misty Peak has proven to be pretty good at ridiculous marketing statement as well, and this is yet another case of that.

In conclusion: I should add that I have never bought anything from them, nor do I intend to. It seems like most vendors want to claim some health benefits for tea – weight loss, diabetes, etc. There’s actually not much real research on the subject that proves that drinking tea will do any of these things. Most research (and I’ve looked at quite a few papers of this type) are about how specific chemical compounds may have some effects on helping to treat certain diseases, with most of this research done on mice. Usually the dosage of these chemicals are much higher than what you could possibly get from drinking. L-Theanine, for example, is regularly used in 150 or 200mg dose, when one gram of tea only contains about 6mg. You’re not going to start drinking 30g of tea a day (assuming 100% extraction/absorption, which isn’t going to happen) just to try to get 200mg into your body.

Actual clinical research on tea’s health effect on the body is very thin – for example this recent paper talks about diabetes and the lack of studies of how tea may or may not help. The few studies I’ve seen before that actually try to study real people drinking tea usually have one or two cup a day as the limit, mostly because it’s very hard to find people who would drink more a day on a regular basis – it’s not something you want a lot of. The results are usually mixed, because life’s complicated and nailing down tea as the main reason why there’s an effect is hard to prove. People who drink tea in the West on a regular basis, for example, may tend to be people who eat healthier diets or predisposed to certain things, so these complicate the results. Misty Peak’s marketing is misleading, but worse, it also suggests practices that can be downright dangerous for some people, and is quite irresponsible in making unsubstantiated claims. It’s one thing to spew nonsense about storing puerh – worst case is you get some moldy tea if you really left it on your porch open to the elements. It’s quite another thing to tell people who are caffeine sensitive it’s ok to down three cups of puerh a day.

Tea is poison

I’m currently in Heathrow waiting for my plane to Munich, where I’m going to be giving a (pretty terrible and rough) paper that I’ve been working on regarding early ideas about tea in Britain in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Specifically, I was trying to look at how people thought about tea’s connection with health. It was quite interesting, really, because for anyone trying it for the first time, tea is obviously doing something to your body. It’s not just water – it’s more than that. If you drink a strong cup of tea, it will do certain things to you – and these are effects that are universally noticed.

However, that doesn’t mean people all have the same conclusion when it comes to tea and what it does to your body. Whereas in the very early eighteenth century when tea was still a rare and unusual commodity, people writing about it were still most introducing it, by the mid century it was obvious that tea consumption had become very popular (with mentions of ladies drinking tea in the afternoon, people using tea in copious amounts, etc) worries about tea also increased. You start seeing people writing about it and saying it causes health problems – everything from physical problems to causing neurological diseases. In one instance, an author even claimed he tested and found that tea caused scurvy, which is of course the opposite of the truth (tea in fact cures scurvy with its vitamin C).

Then by the late eighteenth century, people seemed to have started to calm down a bit, and worried more about the economic effects of tea. This is when George Macartney was sent to China to try to persuade the Qianlong emperor to open up trade, only to be rebuffed. You see this anxiety reflected in writings at the time – a lot of pages devoted to the economic health of Britain and how tea was draining it. Tea is not physical poison, but it’s economic poison. People also drank a lot with their tea – adding alcohol in it. So it got mixed up with the whole temperance movement. Not quite tea as a poison itself, but tea as the conveyor of poison, in this case.

It’s only by the nineteenth century that we seem to see that subside as well – of course, things had changed a lot by then. But it’s pretty clear that for almost a hundred years, there were doubts, worries, anxieties, and uncertainties about this drink. Contrast that with today’s unequivocal belief that tea is healthy, in any circumstances, things have definitely changed. Is that really true though? I think, as with anything, tea is best only in moderation. Claims of the cure to cancer are, unfortunately, probably exaggerated.

Drinking with your body

My friend L from Beijing has come and gone for a quick visit to Hong Kong. I took him around town to take a look at various older shops here, and drank some interesting things along the way, such as an aged baimudan that’s quite good and some 40+ years old tea seeds that have an interesting fragrance to them. If you look hard enough, you can find interesting things in all kinds of places.

L also brought some things himself, including a cake that he sells, made by the same people who were behind 12 Gentlemen cakes that I tried in 2006. They have now moved to a different philosophy of tea making, and L recently went on a trip in Yunnan with them, visiting their own maocha production facility (they only buy fresh leaves, not maocha) and talking to the producers. The idea behind the cakes is that the cakes are produced with the intent to minimize the aroma and fragrance. As L quotes the maker of the tea, “beginners drink tea with their nose, experienced drinkers drink with their mouth, and the connoisseurs drink with their body”. They’re taking it to the next level, so to speak, by trying to make teas that don’t possess fragrance or aroma, and in so doing taking out the distractions. More on their tea another day.

This is by no means a unique insight –  I have both heard similar things from others, and have also witnessed this myself. It is indeed true that beginners tend to drink with their noses – fragrance, above all, is what they focus on. This explains why jasmine is a perennial favourite of so many casual tea drinkers, and why a light oolong or green teas tend to be “gateway” teas that get people in the door – they’re fragrant and they’re nice to drink. Then, as you progress through the collection of more experience and the like, you start learning about the nuances, and the mouth comes into play – the body of the tea, whether it stimulates the various part of the mouth, the tongue, whether it is smooth, etc. Then finally, you get to the point where you are drinking the tea with your body, where the taste, the fragrance, etc are all less important than how it makes you feel. You can call it qi, even though I dislike the opacity of the word because it means little to those who hasn’t experienced it, or you can call it energy, or whatever you fancy. Yes, every tea has qi of some sort, although I don’t think many will actually be strong enough for you to experience it. In fact, any time a vendor talks too much about qi it is probably a sign that s/he is up to no good, and the tea is really not very good at all, which is why I prefer not to use the word at all – it needlessly adds to the learning curve and there’s a high potential for the Emperor’s New Clothes here.

Yet it is true that beyond a certain point, what distinguishes between a good tea and a great tea is the energy the tea has. Fragrances can be manufactured – they’re mostly the product of the post-plucking processes and can be easily manipulated by the tea processor who’s skillful enough to do the deed. It is much harder to fake energy. The best teas will give you a sensation of a current running through your body, but not in a way that makes you nervous, jittery, or uncomfortable. The 1997 brick I tried recently that made everyone at the table feel jittery was not a good tea in that sense – it was not something I’d consider drinking any time soon, if ever. On the other hand, genuine, good old tree teas tend to provide that energetic sensation in a way that is pleasing and comfortable. It’s hard to describe it, but once you’ve tried it you won’t forget it.

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So with that in mind L brew me some tea. We tried a number of things over the course of two days – one of the produced cakes, some maocha they collected (with him seeing in person the entire process from plucking onward) and also a number of other things. The cake that they produced was, indeed, very bland in the “no fragrance, no taste” sort of way, but it does interestingly enough have some decent energy. He insists on drinking the tea quietly, without comments, which of course helps you focus on the tea in question, but once again, might cause an Emperor’s New Clothes problem.

I think in general this is a good idea – experimentation, even failed ones, are probably good for tea in general. Someone who has a new idea and who wants to produce a tea based on it, and actually having the ability and the skills to do so, should be encouraged to do his best. I still remain a bit skeptical of the end product, but I certainly applaud the general direction in which they’re going. I would also much prefer to drink their bland tea than a newly produced tea using boring old plantation leaves. Now, if someone can figure out how to satisfy all three parts, then you’ve got the perfect tea.

Moderation

One of the biggest pet peeves I have when I see people advertising tea is some sort of mystical, magical health benefit that pretty much promises it will do anything other than raise the dead.  Accompanying this is the pretty frequent sighting of posts on various tea forums from newcomers who say things like “I want to get the health benefit of drinking tea — which tea is best for X?”  Stores like Teavana then capitalize on this sort of thinking, and invents, without any sort of rationale, a whole series of “health benefits” of various kinds of tea for different parts of the body, with the clear implication that if you want a full body benefit, well, you better buy all of their teas.

There’s only one problem – all this talk of health benefits, etc, ignores the fact that just like pretty much anything else, there comes a point when there’s too much of a good thing.  You can, indeed, overconsume tea.  An analogy can be drawn with wine — while a glass of red wine a day may be good for your health, two bottles a day is pretty much certainly going to cause you health problems.  While it is not clear where tea’s “health threshold” may be, it has to have one.

In my experience I have had two unpleasant encounters with drinking too much tea.  The first was an instance in which I drank too much tea while pulling a near all-nighter in college trying to finish a paper.  I remember my legs were shaking uncontrollably and I’m pretty sure it was due to caffeine overdose of some sort.  The second was actually much more scary — I was drinking lots of tea in the run up to my general examinations for me to proceed on my dissertation research, and one night as I was getting ready for bed, my heart started beating at a rate and strength that was very unnatural — I thought I was getting a heart attack or something.  It calmed down, eventually, but not before it really scared me.  Doctors, of course, found nothing wrong, and suggested I consume less caffeine and sleep more.  Recently, a tea friend here in Hong Kong told me that he had something very similar — heart rate that was abnormally fast (140-150 bpm).  Doctors couldn’t find anything either.  We both agreed that tea, specifically strong, young puerh, and lots of it, may be the culprit.

I have been mostly on a “one tea a day” regimen for the past 6 years, and I haven’t had another such episode since then.  I think lots of people get the impression that I drink lots of tea every day.  The fact is, I don’t unless I’m visiting a shop and hanging out with tea friends.  Yesterday I stopped by Best Tea House to see some old friends, and I know I drank a little too much as I started feeling uncomfortable.  Like a person who is getting tipsy but who doesn’t want to get drunk, I stopped.

I know I’m going to get people here who will poo-poo the idea that too much tea can be bad for you, or that drinking only greens or young puerhs exclusively will yield anything other than pure bliss.  I’m not saying that everyone will get the same reaction — some people may have much higher tolerance for such things, but at some point, you can, in fact, overconsume tea, and at that point it will no longer be a health benefit, but a health hazard.  Tea and health is mostly a marketing hype, as I’m pretty sure that drinking pesticide laced CTC brewed bottled iced black tea flavoured with artificial flavouring agents and lots of sugar is not going to give you any health benefit whatsoever.  Drink in moderation.

Health benefits

I’m ready to kill somebody if I see another tea website with a big section on “health benefits of tea” and why you should drink more tea.  I saw a blog post today (to which I will not link — sorry, I really have no desire to link to such rubbish) that has the title “Infusing tea could cream HIV”, makes suggestive comments about how drinking more tea is good for you, and then linked to this article.  If you read the whole thing… in fact, if you read the first two paragraphs, you’ll see that this is all about how EGCG, the polyphenol that we’ve all heard about, can aid in blocking HIV infections through vaginal intercourse from the semen to the woman’s cell.  Adding EGCG to a vaginal GEL or something similar may help slow HIV infections.  That is, of course, great news, if it works.

Except that it has NOTHING whatsoever to do with DRINKING tea.  Sorry for all the cap letters, but I’m annoyed.  Pretty soon we’re going to be hearing that drinking tea raises the dead, cures cancer, solves global warming, and lead to everlasting world peace.  The fact is that this study, from the excerpt provided in that little WebMD article anyway, has nothing to do with EGCG in your body and everything to do with EGCG acting as a chemical that helps destroy a compound that makes HIV more effective in infecting cells.  So please, stop trying to sell tea because it provides health benefits.  We drink it because it tastes great, because it’s interesting, because it’s a good conveyer of caffeine.  Sure, some people drink it for health benefits, and that’s fine.  But surely, you must be able to sell tea, good tea anyway, without having to resort to “this is good for you” and “drink this and it will make you live longer”?  Or maybe, the tea you’re selling is so terrible (or terribly overpriced), that’s the only way to sell it.  If that’s the case, I’m sorry.

Tea and physiology

I’ve been drinking some cooked puerh recently, not wanting to kill my stash of aged baozhong too quickly. It was fine for a few days, but I’ve noticed something — my body’s not reacting to it kindly with some digestive issues. At first I thought it was something else causing it (bad food?). I drank some of my aged baozhong today…. and I realized just now that the issue is gone.

This is like me having trouble with black tea and headache…

So, maybe like Chinese medicine, we should think of tea drinking as something that needs to suit your body, and not just randomly picking up any kind of tea and drink to your heart’s content. Some teas, at least for me, just seem to work better than others.

Subsistence

The past two weeks were mostly spent drinking bad tea. Aside from one or two chances to drink decent tea, the rest of it was consumed by travel, last minute planning, etc, and had no time to drink much that’s good. Much black was consumed, and in between, some aged oolongs and some other random teas I had with me. Drinking my way across little teashops was an interesting experience, because talking to some of the owners or shopkeepers, you really get a sense of what people actually order. For example, talking to a person who works at Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, I found out that aside from a few people, the vast majority simply order what’s on the “simple” tea menu, which is not surprising, but the end result is that the “better” teas are often not very fresh, and in the case of the Assam which I wanted, was adulterated with the smell of some other herbal stuff and thus brewed a cup that had a strong hint of peach or some other fruit. The people who work there have no clue what an Assam is supposed to taste like (ditto Darjeeling), so they really have no way of telling if anything’s wrong with the tea.

I think it is safe to say that despite the hulabaloo about tea becoming more popular, etc, the “tea” that is really becoming popular is the “RICH IN ANTIOXIDANTS! SLIMMING TEA!!” variety. People drink tea for the perceived health benefits, and unfortunately are probably drinking low grade, pesticide soaked leaves, instead of what might actually be good for them. The few stores I went to that sells decent teas also show the other kind of tea that is popular with your average tea crowd — the “Vanilla butterscotch mint cinnamon rooibus” kind. One store, called Lupicia, has a wonderful looking store with very nice packaging, and basically every flavour you can find under the sun. I think one out of every twenty of their teas was actually unflavoured, and if you are willing to shell out $1 for two grams of tea, you can buy some ok looking Taiwanese oolong, overpriced, to say the least.

What I feel is very much lacking in all this is any sort of real education going on. You can’t fault somebody for selling tea — they have to make a living, after all. It doesn’t mean that we should just leave it at that. I feel that there is often no effort being made to try to show the average consumer what a wonderful drink tea is. It’s not a spiritual thing, it’s not Eastern mysticism, it’s not some hollowed age old tradition — on the most fundamental level, tea is simply a beverage to be consumed and appreciated. Nothing is wrong with flavoured teas, mind you (I drink my occasional Earl Grey), but so much more is out there. Unfortunately, they are either not available, or marketed as some rare, exotic, Oriental, mysterious, or even sacred, with the attendant price tag that goes along with such labels. I am continually amazed at the kind of markup some people get away with simply with a nice back story and pretty salesgirls (or boys, or website). The “Monkey Picked” stuff comes to mind…

Anyway, I’m rambling, so I’m obviously too sleepy to write anything more that’s coherent. Maybe to be continued.

Switching teas

My body seems to be protesting my drinking of young raw puerh. Today for dinner there was some (crappy) longjing that I drank, and I felt really unwell. I think until my body gets better and the weather gets warmer, it’ll be mostly Wuyi teas and high fired oolongs, plus a bit of cooked puerh for me for now.

In the spirit of that, I had some cooked puerh today, along with a Hong Kong style milk tea, which is basically super-boiled black tea plus some heavy evaporated milk. Good stuff.