Is Milk in Tea Bad for You? Here's Why & Why Not

Posted by Stephany Morgan on

We all love a milky mug of tea, but there's bad news - it ruins the antioxidants in your cup. However, we won't give up on our tea lattes that easily!

With the help of a little tea science, you'll discover ...

  • How dairy milk destroys the health benefits of your tea
  • Practical hacks to still enjoy a milky cuppa while minimizing the damage
  • Milk alternatives that won't obliterate your antioxidants

Read on to find out how to keep your milky tea healthy!

What Does Adding Milk to Tea Do?

Milk often goes side-by-side with tea, but researchers have raised concerns that milk might actually decrease the nutritional value of your cuppa. The studies we found (referenced at the end) suggest that dairy decreases or blocks the bioavailability of certain antioxidants in tea - bioavailability being the degree to which our bodies absorb and utilize an agent, specifically foods or supplements.

Of course, we want to absorb as many antioxidants as possible, so does that mean we have to forego that creamy goodness in our tea for the sake of our health?

Glass container of iced milk teaFor a lot of people, the idea of separating dairy from tea is absolutely unthinkable. Many cultures have a rich history of drinking tea with milk. For example, construction workers in Britain who didn’t have much time to brew their tea invented “Builder’s Tea,” which is so strong that it needs milk to prevent it from tasting horrible! In Germany, a popular dairy-laden tea beverage is “East Frisian Cream Tea”, which is made from espresso-strength Assam black tea, cream, and rock sugar (1) (if you want to make your own version of this, we’ve got the perfect golden rock sugar for you!). Lunchtime in Hong Kong often comes with a side of seriously strong black tea mixed with condensed milk, and in many other places, you’d be hard-pressed to find a coffee shop that doesn’t serve some kind of tea latte with heapings of steamed milk. Many people think there’s nothing better than a splash of dairy goodness in their chai or black tea blend (for example, we think our Roasted Ginger Chai Yerba Mate blend makes for a great latte - recipe here!). Clearly, even if milk in tea is bad for you, it’s not that easy to say “Just stop putting milk in your tea!”

Luckily, with a little knowledge of tea science, we can find ways to work around milk’s shortcomings. If you’re drinking tea for the enjoyment of taste, but you still want to maximize the health benefits, worry no more - your creamy, milky beverage is safe!

    What About Milk and Antioxidants?

    First, let’s analyze exactly how milk decreases the nutritional value of your tea. To date, studies have only looked at what happens when you add milk to green and black teas (2). The study that began all this concern about milk and antioxidants was relatively small, but it did demonstrate that milk proteins could bind to flavonoids in tea and reduce their biological benefits. A milk-tea blend containing only 10% milk dramatically reduced the catechin levels in the tea, the researchers noted (3).

    Since catechins are an important antioxidant which helps form new blood vessels, regulate cell death, and even prevent cancer, this didn’t make things look good for the practice of putting milk in tea (For more info about catechins and what they do, check out our post about the health benefits of teas and tisanes).

    However, another small study found that milk did not affect the levels of catechins in tea - a completely different conclusion to the study mentioned above. So what’s going on here?

    Well, the researchers concluded that brewing time was a factor, with a longer brewing time correlated with higher levels of catechins. In the first study, where the tea wasn’t brewed as long, the milk protein bound the catechins and removed their antioxidant properties - catechins the tea couldn't afford to lose, since there was a lower overall catechin content. For more info on how important antioxidants like catechins are, check out our recent blog on antioxidants, which starts with a useful summary.

    It’s not a stretch to hypothesize that the higher antioxidant levels associated with longer brewing times end up being too much for the milk protein to handle (4). After all, a set amount of milk protein can only bind so many antioxidants, meaning that if your tea contains a high level of antioxidants, there will be plenty of goodness left over to pass the intestinal barrier into the body, even after the milk protein has wreaked its havoc.

    Lesson learned: If you want to have your milk tea and drink it for the antioxidants too, make sure to over-brew! However, you can get even more antioxidants if you switch out your regular milk for something different altogether.

    Different kinds of milk in bottles

    What About Fat Levels? A Dairy Loophole?

    This seems like an odd question, but higher-fat dairy products may actually be a solution to allow you to enjoy your tea with dairy and still get most of those lovely antioxidants. As the studies above indicate, it’s milk protein which binds the antioxidants. This means that if you choose a high-fat dairy product which has lower protein content, such as heavy whipping cream, you’d probably reap more antioxidant action than you would by choosing any ol’ milk.

    Heavy cream contains less than five grams of protein per cup, and, due to its richness, you’d need far less of it to make your tea as creamy as you usually take it. This means there would theoretically be far fewer proteins around to bind to antioxidants (5). It isn’t a fail-safe, but it’s helpful if you want the antioxidants but are craving that rich flavor dairy brings to the table.

    Note that heavy cream is a very high-fat, unhealthy food, so it should be used only sparingly! Of course, there are always plant-based milk alternatives to try that can give you an even greater benefit.

     

    Math equations written on a chalkboard

      Which Milk (or Milk Alternative) Should I Choose? 

      Okay! So now that we know the mechanism for the loss of antioxidants, what are the solutions? Let’s get into the milks that will treat your tea’s antioxidants right, and help you decide which milk alternative is best for your tea. In general, choosing any dairy alternative is a good bet because they lack those pesky dairy proteins.

       

      Milk

      Protein level

      Contains gluten?

      Binds to antioxidants?

      Cow’s milk

      High

      No

      Yes

      Heavy cream

      Middling

      No

      Yes; not as much as regular milk

      Oat milk

      Middling

      Sometimes; choose brand carefully

      No

      Nut milks

      Low

      No

      No

      Soy milk

      High

      Sometimes; choose brand carefully

      No

      Pea milk

      High

      No

      No

      Rice milk

      Low

      Occasionally; choose brand carefully

      No

      Goat’s milk

      High

      No

      Yes

      Oat Milk

      Fairly new to the show, oat milk is the most neutral tasting of the dairy alternatives. It also packs a creamy punch and yet doesn’t contain casein or whey - those annoying milk proteins we’re worried about!

      Be wary, though; if you have troubles with gluten, be sure to find a brand that is gluten free. While oats themselves don’t contain gluten, they’re often processed alongside wheat and other grains that do, so choose your oat milk wisely.

      Nut Milks

      Creamy and nutty, these milks add subtle flavors to the tea and can be quite pleasant! Since they contain no dairy protein, these choices will also leave your antioxidants unharmed.

      Hazelnut, walnut, and peanut milks, albeit high in fat, contain more protein than most nut milks - and not the antioxidant-blasting kind of protein! Unsweetened cashew or almond milks contain less protein but are blessedly low in calories.

       

      Soy and Almond Milk Jars

       

      Soy Milk

      Which milk alternative has the same protein load as dairy milk, yet leaves antioxidants alone? Yep, soy milk (6)! It may have an odd aftertaste if you aren’t used to it, but I’ve been drinking it for years, and it tastes so close to regular milk to me that I’m sometimes worried that the barista accidentally gave me dairy! Basically, the taste soon neutralizes, and all that’s left is the creamy, antioxidant-friendly goodness.

      As with oat milk, be sure to choose a gluten-free brand, as soybeans can sometimes get cross-contaminated with grains.

      Pea Milk

      Not everyone can drink soy milk safely, but if you still want that dairy-free protein, what options are there? Pea milk has the same protein profile as soy milk (6), and it’s safe for most allergies and diets. Give it a try for a slightly different but still great protein-laden taste!

      Rice Milk

      This mild-tasting milk is considered to be one of the most hypoallergenic milk alternatives out there. While soy and nut milks are off-limits for a large portion of the population, rice allergies are extremely rare, meaning that milky tea is achievable for just about everyone!

      Just be sure to research which brands of rice milk are truly gluten-free if you have a gluten allergy, since some popular varieties of rice milk have been found to contain barley enzymes.

      Goat's Milk: A Milk to Avoid!

      Goat’s milk is often a popular alternative for people with a mild lactose intolerance, since it contains less lactose than cow’s milk. However, if you’re looking to keep your tea’s antioxidants, steer clear of goat’s milk! It may be lower in fat, but it contains an even higher amount of milk proteins than cow’s milk, meaning you’d be much better off trying one of the alternatives mentioned above.

       Moringa lattes can be made with plant-based milks

      Note from the Herbalist

      Nobody wants to be told they can’t enjoy their favorite treat, but sadly it seems that milky tea has a dark side that can rob you of valuable antioxidants. Luckily, by employing a few tricks, you can still enjoy your favorite tea without accidentally blasting all those catechins away!

      Regular milk tastes great when added to brewed tea or frothed into a tea latte, but it can still rob you of catechins. Depending on how you brew your tea, you can employ the hack we previously discussed and replace your usual generous splash of milk with just a tiny dollop of heavy cream (but only a little! Too much fat in the diet isn’t good for you, either).

      However, by researching which plant milks are best for your tea, you can retain even more of that antioxidant goodness without breaking out an extremely fatty ingredient. You might just discover a delicious non-dairy alternative that you never thought to try before!

      So what to drink then!? I've done the work for you - try these:

      Roasted Ginger Chai Mate - Matcha Alternatives

      Roasted Ginger Chai Yerba Mate

      Perfect with a splash of your desired milk!

      More antioxidants than matcha, with the caffeine hit of coffee, black tea blended in, and plenty of spices. Try our Mate Latte recipe here if you're unsure :-)

      Golden rock sugar for tea

      Golden rock sugar

      You suddenly won't miss your milk ;-)

      Do away with boring manufactured sugar cubes and their standard flavor, and add a little gold to your tea or favorite drink. Simply stir in once brewed and enjoy!

      Superior organic moringa tea powder

      Superior Organic Moringa Tea Powder

      Ideal in a latte to try your new favorite milk

      More antioxidants than matcha, and tastes sweet and grassy, smooth and not at all bitter or dusty

      Artisan Cold Brew Iced Tea Bundle

      Artisan Cold Brew Iced Tea Bundle (our newest set)

      Elevate your iced tea - with or without milk

      Five Teas: Keep Calm Lavender Rose Rooibos, Zing in Your Step Lemon Yerba Mate, Pretty in Purple Lavender Chamomile, Deep Breath Rooibos Tulsi and “The Purist” Rare Purple tea

       

      MatchaAlternatives.com

      Discover Matcha Alternatives' Tea Science Series here Shop all Matcha Alternatives' Teas here Subscribe to the MA Blog so you never miss another!
       

       

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      FeelGood Musical Notes

       

      Disclaimer

      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.

      References and Further Reading on Dairy in Tea 

      Goodwin, Lindsey. “The Best Teas for Adding Milk and Sugar.” The Spruce Eats, Jan. 20, 2020. Accessed May 14, 2020. https://www.thespruceeats.com/which-teas-take-milk-and-sugar-766328

      Streit, Lizzie. “What are the Benefits of Drinking Tea With Milk?” Healthline, Dec. 23, 2019. Accessed May 15, 2020. https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/the-benefits-of-tea-with-milk#types-of-tea

      Lorenz, Mario, et.al. “Addition of milk prevents vascular protective effects of tea.” European Heart Journal, Volume 28, Issue 2, January 2007, Pages 219–223, https://doi.org/10.1093/eurheartj/ehl442

      Kyle, Janet, et. al. “Effects of Infusion Time and Addition of Milk on Content and Absorption of Polyphenols From Black Tea.” J. Agric. Food Chem, May 10, 2007. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17489604

      “Original Dairy-Free Plant Milk.” Ripple Foods. Accessed May 14, 2020. https://www.ripplefoods.com/original-plant-milk/

       

      Matcha Alternatives Resources About Dairy in Tea

      The Health Benefits of Teas and Tisanes https://matchaalternatives.com/blogs/the-ma-blog/health-benefits-of-teas-tisanes

      Antioxidants in Rooibos, Honeybush & Chamomile: What Do They Actually Do? Part 5 https://matchaalternatives.com/blogs/the-ma-blog/antioxidants-rooibos-honeybush-chamomile

      Yerba Mate Latte - MA Recipes https://matchaalternatives.com/blogs/the-ma-blog/yerba-mate-latte

      What Are Antioxidants and How Do They Work? https://matchaalternatives.com/blogs/the-ma-blog/what-are-antioxidants-and-how-do-they-work

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      2 comments

      • I’ve been really trying to reduce dairy from my diet recently because I feel it has negative impacts on my digestion. It’s so interesting to hear about the impact it has on the nutrients in teas! I’d love some recipes with your teas using alternative milks/vegan tea recipes!

        Celeste on

      • The information about non-dairy milk is helpful and informative. I am trying to cut down on dairy and it is good to realize how many possibilities are out there.

        Alison Harada on


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