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

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?

5 thoughts on “Interest in Green Tea: Search Traffic and the Health Hype Factor”

  1. There’s too much hype about the green tea benefits.
    People start thinking of green tea more as a medicine, so they place less focus on it’s taste, and then go on to extracts.
    I like tea because of its taste, the health benefits are a bonus. And no, drinking a lot of green tea alone won’t make you lose weight. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a belly right now : )

    1. Yeah…that all makes sense. There are some things that concern me too about supplements. Just because eating/drinking a whole food is good for you doesn’t mean that a supplement or extract of that food is going to be good for you.

      I’ve seen some evidence that antioxidant supplements can actually be harmful, even if the natural dietary antioxidants have positive effects on health.

      I hope to write more about this on the future, possibly in a feature article on RateTea as well as here.

      I also think people lose sense of perspective when considering the health benefits of tea. The strongest evidence I’ve seen for a positive health effect from tea drinking is a 10% or so reduction in the risk of heart disease. There is pretty solid evidence for this effect, and 10% is not a figure to be scoffed at, especially when you look on a broad scale, considering that could protect millions of people…but on the level of individual health, it’s a small impact relative to, say, basic things like regular exercise, reducing your stress level, and eating a diet rich in whole, natural foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

      For example, I’ve seen figures of around 15% reductions of heart disease risk for just a few hours of exercise a week, with moderate exercise having much larger effects. The effect of even heavy tea consumption is not going to reach these sorts of levels. So I think when people fixate on tea as a health miracle, it represents a lack of perspective.

  2. I think that this focus on green tea, health and weight loses explains this New Year’s resolutions thing.
    I agree with you that it is sad that people don’t think of green tea per se but only for its “effects” but if some of these people turn to tea for good after that, it is still a good start.

    1. Yes! I definitely think that good things can come of something like this, at least in some cases, even if the impetus behind it is something I don’t like.

      I do think though that some people’s impression of green tea is soured though by the health association…I see sites like Yahoo answers flooded with questions about how to tolerate the taste of green tea because it tastes so awful, and invariably the people asking are buying low-quality green tea bags and drinking them for health or weight loss reasons.

      While I’m sure that a certain portion of people who try green tea for health reasons would find green tea is relatively easy to appreciate as a beverage…but I think this portion would be much higher if people were trying high-quality loose-leaf tea and putting care into preparing it. And I do think there’s a possibility of people forming a bad impression after trying green tea once, and then being unlikely to try it again, at least for a long time.

      I even see some accounts of people forcing themselves to drink it for the “health benefits” even though they hate the way it tastes (and in some cases, even though they say it makes them feel bad) and I think this is just really sad and backwards…and again, probably a sign of a very low-quality product (which probably isn’t great for health either).

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