There seems to be a myth circulating on the internet that black teas contain no antioxidants because they have been oxidized, but the truth is a bit more complex than that. Let’s take a look at the antioxidants in green and black teas, their capacity to neutralize free radicals, and their bioavailability.
While both teas are rich in polyphenols, a group of antioxidants, ultimately it’s the synergistic action that contributes to the total antioxidant capacity, not individual antioxidants.
Antioxidants in Green vs. Black Teas
If you’re familiar with green tea, you’ve probably heard about EGCG. This catechin is unique to C. sinensis, and is abundantly found in green tea, but it’s not alone. There are many catechins in green tea, but their content is greatly reduced in black tea.
The amount of antioxidants in green tea are far too many to detail here (a quick list though of the heavy-hitters would include catechins, including EGCG, flavonoids such as thearubigins, and epicatechins, poyphenols, and L-theanine).
And while the levels of antioxidants found in black teas are decreased, they aren’t non-existent! In fact, the oxidation process causes certain antioxidants to change form - creating some of the compounds unique to black tea: theaflavins. (Other antioxidants in black tea include thearubigins and catechins).
Antioxidant Benefits of Green vs Black Tea
Because both teas contain different types of antioxidants, their health benefits differ. Green tea is considered protective and preventative against things such as various cancers, and Alzheimer’s disease. It’s also liver-protective, and antimicrobial. Finally, EGCG is responsible for the calming and energizing effects of green tea.
Black tea, with its theaflavin content has an affinity for cardiac protection. Theaflavins may exert a protective effect on the heart and blood vessels, contribute to fat breakdown, and may even help the body with its natural antioxidant production.
This being said, it’s clear that green tea contains higher levels of antioxidants, and the antioxidant content measured in the human body was higher with green tea catechins than with black tea theaflavins (however, the authors do indicate that this may be underestimated due to inability to detect certain modified theaflavins).
Does Caffeine Affect Antioxidant Levels in Tea? Are Antioxidant Levels like in Decaf and Pre-Bottled Teas?
While caffeine levels do not influence antioxidant count (so a caffeine-rich tea or a naturally de-caf tisane could easily have the same levels), the process of removing caffeine (which may involve chemical solvents, carbon dioxide, or simply water) will decrease antioxidant content, particularly flavonols. Decaffeinated teas are shown to have fewer cancer-protective properties than caffeinated teas.
According to the USDA’s evaluation of ORAC levels in various foods and beverages, the antioxidant content of pre-bottled teas drops drastically, even to the point of near non-presence. If you are looking for antioxidant benefits, choose freshly dried tea leaves for home brewing.
It is also important to remember that antioxidants degrade over time, so drinking tea that is several hours old will provide far fewer antioxidants than a freshly brewed mug.
Green tea's ORAC (antioxidant) level is ~1283, black tea's ORAC is ~1128, and matcha's ~1384. Green tea is a third the price of matcha, so is better value antioxidant-wise, and half the caffeine, useful for all-day drinking.
Does Adding Milk to Tea Ruin the Antioxidant Benefits?
The jury is divided in regard to milk causing lower antioxidant bioavailability (the fancy way of saying how many antioxidants our bodies can access). While we know that milk protein binds antioxidants in the cup, some research suggests that the digestive process breaks these down into accessible components. However, findings are inconclusive. In my opinion, if you’re looking for the best antioxidant yield, play it safe and avoid adding dairy to your tea.
Bioavailability can vary greatly between antioxidants. As such, there isn’t much solid information on the matter, but what we do know is that many polyphenols rely on the action of intestinal enzymes and gut microbiota (the beneficial bacteria in the colon called probiotics or “live cultures” when found in foods) to alter the polyphenols into a form accessible to the body.
So, to allow the polyphenols in green tea to work their best, eat plenty of fresh foods for the enzymes, fermented foods like kombucha or Greek yogurt, for the live cultures, and high fiber foods called prebiotics, because they provide food for the probiotics in your gut.
A Note From The Herbalist...
The debate as to which tea is better has been ongoing, and it all depends on what you’re looking for. Green tea is great for its medium-caffeine levels, well-studied (and powerful!) antioxidants and variety of flavors, without needing milk or sugar to make it taste good.
Black tea is popular for its caffeine, rich taste, and versatility. It also happens to taste delicious with milk and sugar, and blends well with a wide range of ingredients. My personal favorite is a black tea called Earl Grey, but I do appreciate the flavor subtleties in green teas. However, I have to admit that herbal teas are my first choice!
The best news though, is that by drinking a balance of all teas (herbal, black, green, white, and so on), you’ll be ingesting many types of antioxidants that you wouldn't get from just drinking one type of tea, and reaping the wide array of benefits!
If you want to dig deeper on this subject, read our
and our Introduction to antioxidants
Explore our Posts & Teas
To learn more about our teas, check out our introductory Spotlight series
Roasted Ginger Chai Yerba Mate - More antioxidants than matcha, with the caffeine hit of coffee, black tea blended in, and plenty of spices.
How is this an alternative to matcha? Its ORAC is ~1700 vs matcha's 1384, meaning you'd need to spend ~4x more on Matcha for the same antioxidant hit! It also has a third more caffeine than matcha, and the theoflavins of black tea.
Ingredients: Roasted mate, Black tea, Chopped and powdered ginger, Cardamom, Coriander, Cinnamon, Cloves, Black pepper, All natural flavors
Delicate Fuji Sencha Organic Green Tea - A delicate seaweed nose, with a round, slightly floral, slightly salty, and lightly grassy liquor.
How is this an alternative to matcha? The same type of antioxidants as matcha (EGCG), less caffeine making it better for all-day drinking, with easier brewing and a sweeter taste.
Ingredients: Certified Organic Green tea (Japanese Sencha)
All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.
Antioxidants in Black & Green Tea References and Further Reading
Kosinska, A & Andlauer, W. (2014). Antioxidant Capacity of Tea: Effect of Processing and Storage. Elsevier Inc. Processing and Impact on Antioxidants in Beverages. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/132/4/785/4687401
Antioxidant Capacity of Tea: Effect of Processing and Storage Agnieszka Kosińska, Wilfried Andlauer, Division of Food Sciences, Institute of Animal Reproduction and Food Research of the Polish Academy of Sciences, Olsztyn, Poland, Institute of Life Technologies, University of Applied Sciences Valais, Sion, Switzerland. https://www.hevs.ch/media/document/0/antioxidantcapacityoftea.pdf
Food Chemistry, 2014. https://www.compoundchem.com/2014/02/01/polyphenols-antioxidants-the-chemistry-of-tea/
Anton Rietveld, Sheila Wiseman, Antioxidant Effects of Tea: Evidence from Human Clinical Trials, The Journal of Nutrition, Volume 133, Issue 10, October 2003, Pages 3285S–3292S, https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/133.10.3285S. https://academic.oup.com/jn/article/133/10/3285S/4687618
Pandey, K. B., & Rizvi, S. I. (2009). Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in human health and disease. Oxidative medicine and cellular longevity, 2(5), 270–278. doi:10.4161/oxim.2.5.9498 https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400525/Data/Flav/Flav02-1.pdf