Republic of Tea’s Caffeine-Supplemented Teas: No Thanks

I’ve recently seen a few promotional items about a new line of “high-caffeine” teas from Republic of Tea.  But be warned, these are not teas that have been chosen to be naturally high in caffeine, they are teas that have been supplemented with isolated, pure caffeine.  These teas have been gathered together under the HiCAF label, a (currently unregistered) trademark of the company.  These teas also contain green tea extract, an ingredient which I am cautious and skeptical of including in any product.

Screenshot of Republic of Tea's website, showing their new line of HiCAF teas
Republic of Tea’s HiCAF Teas

These teas are marketed as having a whopping 110mg of caffeine per serving, which the company compares to 50mg a cup for “premium black tea”.  This is not a hugely excessive amount of caffeine; it’s a lot less than some of the stronger coffee drinks you can order in a typical coffee shop.  But it’s the fact that this tea has been supplemented, rather than being made with whole ingredients, that makes me a bit uneasy, and would keep me from buying or drinking a product like this.

I also think it’s a little misleading that Republic of Tea is marketing these as “High Caffeine Teas” rather than “Caffeine Supplemented Teas”.  There are lots of naturally-occurring teas that are high in caffeine, and when I first saw the headlines being put out by the company, I was not sure whether or not they were referring to naturally high-caffeine teas, or supplemented ones.  I had to read the fine print to find this out.  I think that because supplements are a bit unnatural and have some health concerns, it would be important to very openly market the teas like this.

The Case For Whole Foods and Against Supplementation or Extracts

Over the past few years, I’ve developed a pretty strong conviction that it is much healthier to eat whole foods, rather than processed foods that have been supplemented with refined ingredients.  There is a growing body of scientific evidence supporting this conviction, with a pretty strong consensus now that green tea supplements are harmful.  This article in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives explains how there is evidence that while heavy consumption of tea itself (a whole food), as much as 10 cups a day, shows no evidence of harmful effects, there is significant concern about potential negative health impacts from the consumption of green tea supplements.  Even Vitamin supplementation is now beginning to be considered unnecessary and harmful; this Op-Ed in the NY Times, Don’t Take Your Vitamins, explores these issues.

With supplementation with pure caffeine, there are more concerns.  Caffeine is a drug, but in high doses, it is also a poison.  There is at least one documented death associated with caffeinated mints (in someone with impaired liver function), and there are also some nasty interplays between caffeine and other drugs, like how caffeinated alcoholic drinks can lead people to stay awake past when they would normally pass out, and be more likely to die of alcohol poisoning.  This 2009 journal article in Drug and Alcohol Dependency explores this issue in more depth.

Caffeine pills
Caffeine pills are widely known to be dangerous and warrant caution.  Supplementing food or drink with caffeine seems to me to be moving in the direction of these pills.  Photo by Ragesoss, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

There are no such known risks associated with consumption of tea or coffee, even in large quantities.  The more dire health risks appear only in the case of supplementation.  I think this is in large part because coffee and tea are strong-tasting foods which have many other substances, and are naturally bitter.  I think it would be hard for people, even people with impaired liver function like the man in the study above, to drink a lethal dose of caffeine using tea or coffee.

I’m not saying that these teas, which are supplemented with both caffeine and green tea extract  are necessarily dangerous…just that I think that supplementation is something that can become dangerous, and that I think is best avoided.

What About High-Grade Teas?

There is another reason that I’m not a big fan of this newly-launched line of teas is that they’re unnecessary–and they are a bit distracting from what I think is one of the best ways to experience a high-caffeine kick from tea, which is to drink high-grade tea and brew it very strongly.

High grade tea, which contains a higher portion of tips or leaf buds, is naturally higher in caffeine than lower-grade tea.  It also tastes milder and smoother, which means that you can brew it much more strongly, using more leaf and longer steeping times, if you desire more caffeine.

Loose-leaf, high grade black tea
High grade black tea, like this SFTGFOP1, is naturally higher in caffeine.

If you’re looking for a caffeine kick it’s pretty easy to get it from tea.  I’m actually feeling pretty wired right now, as I write this; I just drank two rather strong cups of the Ceylon Estate from Octavia Tea.  This tea is pretty outstanding and I recommend it highly–it’s a very complex, rich black tea.  And to get back to Republic of Tea, I currently have one of their teas in my cupboard right now, Temi SFTGFOP1 First Flush Black Tea, which is quite high is caffeine, and which is mild and smooth enough to brew very strongly if you want a real caffeine kick.  I also recommend that tea.

Not The Only Example Of Such Teas

Lastly I want to point out that, for better or worse, Republic of Tea is not the first tea company to try supplementing their teas with additional, refined caffeine.  Celestial Seasonings Fast Lane tea is a black tea supplemented with caffeine, also 110mg per serving, and it’s been around for quite some time.

What do you think?

  • What do you think of this new line of HiCAF teas?
  • Have you ever tried any caffeine-supplemented tea?  How did you feel after drinking it?
  • Are you skeptical of supplementing teas or other food or drink with pure, isolated caffeine?  Do you think this may pose any health risks, relative to consuming tea as a whole ingredient in food  or drink?
  • Would you, like me, prefer people to focus on high-grade teas that are naturally high in caffeine, rather than caffeine-supplemented tea?

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:

google-trends-green-tea

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?