A cup of coffee is the hot drink of choice for over half of the adult population in the U.S. who desires a caffeine boost. Although the morning brew delivers a temporary jolt of energy that fights fatigue and mental fogginess, this is only an illusion of energy that could be sending many to an early grave. According to recent study presented at 2014 European Society of Cardiology Congress (ESC) in Barcelona, Spain, drinking at least a cup of tea a day can be a healthier and warm alternative to coffee, cutting the risk of premature death by a quarter.

The ongoing debate between which caffeinated beverage is better — coffee of tea — is fueled by both coffee and tea drinkers alike. Although coffee can be a metabolic burden on the body, offering no nutritional value, there are reports that tout the health benefits of coffee, suggesting regular consumption can reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes, among many others. Alongside these health reports are studies that find the popular “health drink” can cause negative effects to the body, such as short-term memory.

Tea, on the other hand, has been deemed a “healthier” drink than water, as drinking three or more cups of tea a day is considered as good for you as drinking plenty of water, and may even have extra health benefits. The health benefits of tea have been linked to its polyphenol content. The four primary polyphenols found in fresh tea leaves are epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), epigallocatechin, epicatechin gallate, and epicatechin.

Professor Nicolas Danchin at the Paris Descartes University in Paris, France, believes these polyphenols may be responsible for cutting the risk of early death among tea drinkers. In a large study, Danchin sought to determine the effects of coffee and tea on cardiovascular (CV) mortality and non-CV mortality in a French population at low risk for CV diseases. Over 130,000 people aged 18 to 95 years who had a health checkup at the Paris IPC Preventive Medicine Center between January 2001 and December 2008 were included in the study.

Coffee or tea consumption was assessed by a self-administered questionnaire as one of the three classes: none, 1 to 4, or more than 4 cups per day. The type of tea, or whether milk and sugar was added, was not analyzed in the study. The differences in blood pressure — systolic blood pressure (SBP) and higher diastolic blood pressure (DBP) — were measured among coffee and tea drinkers. During a 3.5-year follow up, there were 95 CV deaths and 362 deaths from non-CV causes.

The findings revealed coffee drinkers had a higher CV risk profile than non-drinkers, especially for smoking. The percentage of current smokers was 17 percent for non-drinkers compared with 31 percent in those who drank 1 to 4 cups per day, and 57 percent in those who drank more than 4 cups per day, according to the ESC press release. Unlike coffee drinkers, tea drinkers had a better CV risk profile than non-consumers. One-third of the non-drinkers of tea were current smokers compared to 24 percent of those who drank 1 to 4 cups per day, and 29 percent of those who drank more than 4 cups.

In regard to blood pressure, tea had a greater effect, with a 4-5 mmHg decrease in SBP and 3 mmHg decrease in DBP in the heavy tea drinkers, compared to non-drinkers, when adjusted for age. "Overall we tend to have a higher risk profile for coffee drinkers and a lower risk profile for tea drinkers,” Danchin said in the press release. “We also found big differences with gender. Men tend to drink coffee much more than women, while women tend to drink more tea than men."

Physical activity was also measured and seen as highly significant among coffee and tea drinkers. Non-coffee drinkers were more physically active at 45 percent, compared to 41 percent of heavy coffee drinkers. For tea drinkers, physical activity increased with tea consumption from 43 percent in moderate tea drinkers to 46 percent in heavy drinkers.

Although not significant, coffee had a trend for increasing CV mortality in the heavy drinkers compared to non-drinkers. Moreover, coffee increased the risk of non-CV mortality, but it disappeared after Danchin adjusted for smoking. This high mortality trend among coffee drinkers was explained by the fact that there are more smokers in the group who drink the most coffee.

Drinking tea reduced non-CV mortality by 24 percent. Surprisingly, most of tea’s effect on non-CV mortality was found in current or ex-smokers, while tea has a neutral effect in non-smokers. Danchin suspects the antioxidants in tea could stimulate survival benefits. Since most tea drinkers tend to have healthier lifestyles, Danchin ponders whether tea drinking reflects a particular person's profile or if it's tea that improves health outcomes.

Tea's medicinal properties are still being studied year after year. There are a variety of teas that can provide different preventive health benefits. All in all, drinking tea may be more beneficial than drinking coffee, and even better than not drinking anything at all.

Source: Danchin N. 2014 European Society of Cardiology Congress in Barcelona, Spain.