In the debate between coffee and tea, coffee wins the popularity contest in the U.S. But is it good for you? Some evidence would suggest that, yes, it is.

Meanwhile, tea lovers stand by their hot beverage of choice, citing its many healthful properties. And they would be right, too. 

Your preference for coffee or tea is influenced by your location on the planet. Whether you prefer the bean or the leaves, they each have health benefits. For the next few minutes, let’s look at the history and medical evidence for your hot morning beverage of choice.

First, the numbers…

People drink more water than any other liquid on the planet. Our bodies need it to survive, we crave it, and would die in a matter of days without it. Second to water, in global consumption, is tea. Next, (surprise!) is beer, but unless you live in a fraternity house, it is probably not your favorite breakfast drink. Coffee is the next-most-consumed beverage behind brew-skis. Worldwide “three cups of tea are consumed for every one cup of coffee.”

Given America’s obsession with a cuppa, you need a global view to appreciate how coffee manages to come in fourth in the global liquid consumption sweepstakes. 

A little history lesson . . . 

Coffee was introduced to Europe by the Dutch shortly after the Battle of Vienna, where a  pile of grounds had been left behind by the fleeing Turks as the Christians drove back the attacking Ottoman Empire from Europe in the 17th Century. Coffee quickly became a dominant favorite across Continental Europe and, from there, it made its way to the Americas. Tea, on the other hand, is preferred across Asia, Russia, and its historical territories. 

While both beverages have been around for a long time, tea definitely has the longer history. 

Legend has it that tea was first discovered by a Chinese emperor around 2700 BCE when, while boiling water over an open fire in a grove of trees, some leaves fell in. When he returned to the water, he discovered that the water was now more pleasant — the “steeped” flavor, no doubt. 

Like many legends, this is a cute story but somehow I don’t think it was the emperor doing the boiling and discovering, but I digress . . .

Regardless, humans have been making tea for over 4000 years. Soon after its “discovery by the emperor”, tea made its way across Asia carried by scholars and priests who quickly popularized tea across China and Japan. And, to this day, the consumption of tea remains a sign of civility, spirituality, and wellness.

Coffee, on the other hand, has less aristocratic beginnings.  Legend has it that a goat herder tending his herd in the Ethiopian Highlands noticed that his goats seemed to get energized after eating little red berries. Well, by the 11th century, Middle Easterners were steeping the berries in Sufi monasteries across Yemen and Persia. Soon, the custom made its way across the Arabian Peninsula. I find this history interesting, because caffeine is mostly avoided in strict Islamic countries today; they largely opt for lots of mint tea instead. 

Eventually, coffee beans arrived in Turkey where coffee was considered a ‘secret weapon’ that the Sultans used in battle. Which leads us to coffee’s arrival in Continental Europe during the 17th century Battle of Vienna.  The Turkish troops were surprise-attacked by the Christian army of the Holy Roman Empire led by the Habsburg Monarchy and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Turks fled so fast that they left mountains of ground coffee behind.  At first, the Christian soldiers thought that the grinds were gunpowder, but soon they discovered that the Sultan’s army would drink coffee for a burst of energy during marches and prior to attacks. And that, dear friends, is how Viennese coffee culture began. 

Now that we’re all caught up on history, let’s examine the medical evidence for the pros and cons of each, shall we?

DEBATE: Is tea a healthy drink? 

PROS in favor of tea

According to the Journal of Chinese Medicine (2010), tea catechins fight high-fat, diet-induced obesity and type 2 diabetes, and may lower the risk of coronary disease. This seems to confirm traditional Chinese wisdom. “Real” Chinese restaurants serve green-style oolong bitter teas with their greasier dishes to boost the nutritional value of the meal.  

You probably already know that the high levels of antioxidants in tea are important for lowering systemic inflammation, and even help prevent hardening of the blood vessels themselves and atherosclerosis. I found one study that makes the case that tea has anti-cancer properties, while other studies I link to here say it significantly lowers risk of stroke, fights age-related memory loss, and even seems capable of producing higher bone density levels.  No wonder tea is associated with longevity and anti-aging!

CONS against the consumption of tea

Yes, you tea lovers, your favorite drink has (at least!) one drawback.  A 1982 study found that drinking tea with a meal resulted in a 62% reduction in iron absorption. By comparison, coffee limited iron absorption by 35% while orange juice increased iron absorption by 85%. If you know that you are iron deficient, choose your drink carefully.




DEBATE: Is coffee a healthy drink? 

PROS in favor of coffee

According to a 2015 Harvard University Public Health Study, whether subjects drank decaf or regular coffee, those who drank 3-5 cups a day were less likely to die prematurely from some illnesses. Coffee lowered the risk of death from cardiovascular disease, neurological diseases, type 2 diabetes, and (of all things) suicide. Studies also have shown that regular coffee drinking decreases the risk of Parkinson’s disease by 25%. Why? Well, it’s high in antioxidants.  Coffee may also help you lose weight because it contains magnesium and potassium.  Magnesium and potassium together regulate insulin and blood sugar levels.  So, coffee may work as a sort of natural appetite suppressant. Coffee’s caffeine levels and compounds also flood the body with oxytocin, the feel-good, loving-and-bonding chemical; oxytocin is the reason that you often feel that happy-go-lucky caffeinated lift. Maybe that is linked to lower suicide rates? Makes me wonder. 

CONS against the consumption of coffee

Your coffee brewing method can affect your health. Unfiltered coffee, such as boiled or French-pressed,  strongly raised very low density lipids (VLDL) and low density lipids (LDL) – also known as the bad  cholesterol –  and slightly reduced high density lipids  (HDL) – also known as the good cholesterol – in humans. If you are one of the more than 90 million Americans with high cholesterol, you might want to choose your coffee maker carefully.

For now, I’m going back to the kitchen for another cup of . . .