Interest in Green Tea: Search Traffic and the Health Hype Factor

 - by Alex Zorach

In this post I want to show a peculiar pattern that is strongly evident in the statistics of Google searches related to green tea, which I think demonstrates a cultural association between green tea and health.  This association is one that I am not a fan of–which is why I refer to it here as the “health hype factor”.

Researching Online Search Trends

I periodically do research on trends on search traffic.  One of the tools I use is Google Trends, which allows you to graph seasonal and long-term changes in search traffic.  For the searches below, I have limited the searches to the United States, in part because I want to focus on a phenomenon that I think is more evident in the US, and in part because I want to exclude Tropical and Southern Hemisphere countries that have different seasonal patterns of tea drinking.

Here is a screenshot of a graph generated by Google Trends for the search term green tea in the US:


This graph has a peculiar shape.  Rather than a gradual seasonality, this graph shows a sharp jump followed by a general decline.  Every year, the graph is at its lowest in November and December, and then jumps up to its highest in January; the decline is often steep but continues even through the fall as the weather is getting colder.  Contrast the shape of the graph above with the graph of the general US search tea:

google-trends-teaThis graph, besides showing an upward trajectory (good news for people in the tea industry, probably reflecting growing interest in tea) shows a mild seasonality.  The peak isn’t always exactly the same, but it tends to peak in December.  Furthermore, the increase consistently starts about when the weather starts getting cold, with the graph tending to increase from September through December or January.

What is going on here? My theory, and how I reached it

When I first saw this graph, it was completely unintuitive to me.  Why would green tea peak in January, not December, and why would it be lowest in December, a time when general interest in tea is peaking?  The answer actually came to me in part through talking to my girlfriend’s cousin Amanda, who works at a gym.  Amanda was talking with us about how at the beginning of each new year, in January, their gym is always flooded with new memberships–people who have pledged to “get in shape” as part of their new year’s resolutions.  She also said that these people don’t tend to stick around at the gym very long–after a few months their membership levels are back to normal.

Then the lightbulb went off in my head–the green tea peak is probably associated with new years resolutions to “be more healthy”, and possibly lose weight.  Just like these people don’t stick around at the gym, they don’t seem to stick to green tea either (at least to searching about it online), as the graph shows a really steep decline in February, well before the weather has begun to warm up in most of the US.

Google Trends’ info about “related searches” also echoes this explanation; here are the top 5 terms:

  • green tea benefits
  • green tea caffeine
  • caffeine
  • green tea diet
  • green tea extract

The association between green tea and health

On some level, I feel a little sad making the connection between the search trends about green tea and new year’s resolutions–I really want people to be interested in green tea for its own sake, as a beverage, but it seems that the data suggests the interpretation that most people in the U.S. are primarily interested in it due to its health effects (and primarily in response to New Year’s resolutions), at least most people who search for info about green tea online.

I also think that there’s a large degree to which the association between green tea and health is a cultural myth, promoted in large part by marketing hype. This is not to say that green tea isn’t healthy: there’s a lot of evidence that tea is healthy, but not much evidence that green tea (or any other type) is universally much healthier than black tea (or any other type).  There is also not much solid evidence that tea alone (whether green or otherwise) provides an effective tool to lose weight, although there is some preliminary evidence that it might have some positive effect.  I trust what the Linus Pauling Institute’s page on tea says on this matter.  They conclude:

It is currently unclear whether tea or tea extracts promote weight loss

The NIH’s Medline Plus pages on green tea and black tea both report Insufficient evidence to rate effectiveness for weight loss.

It may seem like an uphill battle to challenge the association between green tea and health or weight loss, but it’s an ongoing cause that I’m interested in working with.  In part I want to do it by actively challenging the scientific reasoning of this association, but I also want to do it by promoting the idea of approaching green tea as a beverage, getting people to focus on how it tastes, and on the different types, and getting people to seek out high-quality green teas and enjoy them for their own sake.  I think that problems like this are most effectively tackled from multiple angles, and I think it’s important to build something up (the idea of green tea as an enjoyable drink) rather than just breaking something down.

What do you think?

  • Do you think the explanation of new year’s resolutions explains the shape of the green tea graph shown above?
  • Do you think this association is obvious?  Do you think you would have realized it a little sooner than I did?
  • What do you think about the widespread cultural association in the U.S. between green tea, health, and weight loss?  Do you think it’s backed by much scientific fact or truth?  Or do you think it’s mostly hype?  Is it an association that you like, tolerate, or actively want/try to change?

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