Friday, June 17, 2011

Green Tea as Health Product: Branding and Consumerism

Numerous tea bloggers have written about their frustration with the incessant focus of the public and the mainstream on the "health benefits" of tea, at the expense of focusing on flavor, aroma, and the traditions associated with tea production and tea drinking. I will not do justice to the full community of bloggers, so I apologize in advance for recent posts I've missed, but I was prodded to write this post by Nicole's post Health Benefits Schmealth Benefits.

Simplistic Thinking and Branding:

One thing that I strongly dislike about mainstream consumerist society is the focus on simple associations, a fact which is utilized and heavily exploited in branding and marketing by corporations. There is a famous book titled The 22 Immutable Laws of Branding and a companion book The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing, both co-authored by Al Ries, the first co-authored by Laura Ries and the second by Jack Trout.

These books outline a highly effective method for marketing that relies on the phenomenon by which our culture tends to form very simple associations and then to stick with them, even when they are not true. While the laws in these books are not universally true (a clever person can come up with numerous counterexamples), the books certainly capture powerful trends and, on a coarse scale, when it comes to brands and consumer products, the laws in the book are true far more often than not.

What is interesting about these books is that they demonstrate that this phenomenon of simple associations appears in our society not just for brands and consumer products, but for ideas, concepts, history, and other things as well.

Green Tea & Health:

For reasons (largely historical and accidental), green tea has developed a reputation in the mainstream as being a "healthy" drink. Green tea has become associated with health, and particularly, certain claims about weight loss, skin, and other things. Associated with this construct are many general claims, the most common of which are:

  • Green tea is "good for you". This view is so pervasive that outside of people I meet who have actually researched the topic, virtually everyone I meet seems to believe that green tea is "healthier than black tea". I can't even count how many people have told me that they've switched to drinking green tea even though they do not like it as much, because they believe it to be healthier.

  • Green tea is "good for your skin". -- a claim which is used both for drinking tea, and using green tea extract in various skin-care products. Ironically, in my shower right now I have green tea soap (although I swear, it's just because I like the smell.)

  • (The big one) Green tea will "help you lose weight" by "burning fat" or "burning calories" or "speeding your metabolism".

  • Green tea is "good for" your heart, liver, teeth, stomach, (insert random body part here) etc.

  • Green tea is "lower in caffeine than black tea", and of course "caffeine is bad for you" (which leads to the sale of decaf green tea, most of which tastes, in my opinion, pretty awful)

Are these claims true? Some, to an extent, but they are misleading. I have conducted my own research, with the help of some others, and compiled a collection of pages on RateTea on the health benefits of tea. I uncovered some outright myths (green tea is not necessarily lower in caffeine than black tea), lots of inconclusive research with some suggestive evidence from animal studies or epidemiological studies, and a few topics (like tea and heart disease) where there is stronger evidence of a mild (key, mild) positive effect on health associated with drinking tea.

Interestingly though, I found several core truths that are not at all in the mainstream. If I could sum up these "unknown" truths, they would be:

  • All types of tea (from the Camellia sinensis plant) are healthy, and there is no strong evidence that any one type, green, black, oolong, white, Pu-erh, or any other, is healthier than the others.

  • Tea is healthy, but, besides containing the drug caffeine and a few other substances like L-theanine, it is not a medicine; it is healthy primarily in the way that fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, and other natural foods are. It's generally good for you but it's no magic bullet, and it's best to combine with a balanced overall approach to health.

  • The health benefits of tea are heavily over-hyped, and the companies that are selling tea with health-oriented marketing often sell a low-quality product at high prices. Even if you're going for health and not taste, it's probably healthier for you to focus on taste, because you'll get a fresher product and pay a fairer price for it.

So yes, I think about health and will continue to write about health, as it relates to tea. But I think it's important to build up some healthier associations in the public consciousness. Tea in general is healthy; green tea does not have a monopoly on health. And it's also healthy to enjoy tea, to relax with it, rather than treating it as a medicine. If you don't like the taste, don't drink it. Drink what tastes good to you and what makes you feel good. In the end, that will be much better for your health anyway.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent post, Alex. As a dietitian, I especially appreciate your point that tea is healthful in the same way that certain foods are. I would love to see the hype disappear because consumers are dreadfully confused and becoming very mistrustful (rightfully so). You might enjoy my brief post along the same lines: