Caffeine and tea: it’s complicated

Every so often, I think that I should cut back on caffeine. The Food and Drug Administration recommends a limit of 400 milligrams a day. The problem for tea drinkers is difficulty figuring out how many milligrams of caffeine we consume. Counting milligrams of caffeine in tea is not as simple as consulting the label on a package to count calories.

I drink black tea, hot and iced, throughout the day. I could count the number of cups on an average day, but translating that number into milligrams of caffeine is tricky. A cup of black tea can have between 40 and 120 milligrams of caffeine, according to thespruceeats.com. The amount varies with the variety and grade of tea, the age of the tea leaves, where and how the tea was grown and processed, how long it is steeped, and how hot the water is. Plus, I drink loose-leaf tea, which releases caffeine more slowly than bagged tea, and I reuse the tea leaves. (More on that below.) 

Considering that a tablespoon of loose-leaf black tea averages 50 milligrams of caffeine, and that’s all I add to the pot on any one day, it seems I’m well under the recommended limit. The answer about whether I’m overdosing on caffeine may be whether I feel any side effects. I can drink tea before bed and fall asleep readily. When I’m irritated or nervous, caffeine isn’t the reason.

Every time I’ve looked into the risks of caffeine, I’ve concluded that it’s not something to worry about. Yet I haven’t been able to shed the thought that it’s a bad habit. Caffeine is a stimulant, a drug, to which I’m addicted. Don’t the healthiest people drink only herbal teas, fruit juices, and water? The best I can tell myself is that it’s one vice I don’t have to cut out. 

Maybe I could try to think of caffeine as healthy. Some studies have found benefits beyond improving cognition and alertness and relieving fatigue. According to Medical News, these include protection against cataracts, kidney stones, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, stroke, and certain kinds of cancers. 

However, there are also arguments for cutting out caffeine. Medline lists more efficient absorption of some vitamins and minerals, better balance of hormones and brain chemistry, healthier digestion, whiter and healthier teeth, and better skin, along with lower blood pressure, less anxiety, and better sleep.

It’s a wash. I’ve been mixing a loose-leaf herbal tea into black tea, but I don’t expect to give up caffeine entirely.

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Of course, caffeine isn’t only in tea. If you’re a coffee drinker, you’re likely consuming more caffeine than a tea drinker. Caffeine is also in chocolate, cola, and a growing number of other products such as energy drinks and snacks. 

Scientific American has reported that the increasing number of products with caffeine, and the increasingly large doses of caffeine in those products, has the FDA considering whether it should regulate the drug. 

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I learned a few new things about tea in my latest look into caffeine:

• Loose tea leaves can be reused up to a half-dozen times. I thought it was a cheapskate’s habit of mine, but Asians have reused loose tea for centuries, and restaurants do it. There are differences of opinion about reusing teabags, but frequent tea drinkers who don’t let bags dry out should be able to use a bag two or three times.

• When all types of real tea — tea from the tea plant – are brewed under similar conditions, they generally extract similar amounts of caffeine. The reason green and white teas are thought to have less caffeine than black is that ideally they are not brewed in boiling water, and black tea is. 

• It’s largely a myth that you can decaffeinate tea by throwing away the first brew after 30 seconds. That technique is particularly ineffective for loose tea, which releases caffeine more slowly than bagged tea. True, there is less caffeine (and less flavor) with each steeping, so each subsequent cup or pot should be steeped longer. I read the suggestion to steep the first pot five minutes and subsequent pots two to three minutes longer than the previous one, but as with all things related to tea, judge by your own taste preferences.

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