Black, green, or white tea: which packs the most health benefits?
By Blayne Andrews
Chinese, Japanese, and Indian cultures have been cultivating and drinking tea for thousands of years. In fact, one Chinese legend states that Emperor Shen Nong first accidentally discovered tea in 2737 BC.
And while tea-drinkers have long observed tea’s health benefits, Western science has only begun to study these benefits in the last few decades. As new controlled studies continue to confirm tea’s benefits, more and more people are incorporating it into their daily lives with it being the most popular consumed beverage next to water.
In this post, we’ll be discussing how black, green, and white teas are made, their antioxidant levels, and their possible roles in weight loss and heart health.
What is Camellia sinensis?
Camellia sinensis (the tea plant) is a small tree whose leaves and leaf buds are used to make tea. Almost every non-herbal tea enjoyed today comes from this specific species of plant, including black, green, and white tea.
Although black, green, and white tea come from the same plant, the only difference between them is how they’re processed.
How are black, green, and white tea processed?
This tea is fully oxidized after the leaves are picked, meaning that it is left out to dry and chemically combines with oxygen (similar to apples browning when they are left out in the air open). The leaves are then left as such, or are heated or crushed. The result is a dark black color and intense earthy flavor.
After the leaves are harvested, they are quickly steamed or cooked for the first few hours to prevent oxidation and give them that light green color and oceanic, grassy taste.
White tea has the most delicate flavor of these three. Like green tea, this is very delicate tea that does not undergo oxidation, but white tea is made only from new buds and young leaves.
As the Camellia sinensis plant is growing for white tea, it needs to be protected from the sun because it can increase the bitterness and ruin the sweeter flavor.
Science terms to know
Free radicals: Unstable atoms that can cause damage to cells and are considered the harbingers of disease
Antioxidants: Substances that inhibit oxidation and prevent cellular damage from free radicals
Polyphenols: Naturally-occurring chemicals found in plants that act as antioxidants and offer various health benefits.
Oxidation: The loss of electrons during a reaction with a molecule or atom
Which tea has the highest antioxidant properties?
A study done in 2012 compared the antioxidant levels of black, green, and white tea. This study found that green tea scored the highest followed by white and then black tea.
ORAC or Oxygen Radical Absorbance Capacity is a lab test used to try and quantify the Total Antioxidant Capacity or TAC. This allows researchers to see how effectively different foods can prevent free radical damage.
This is important because free radicals are necessary at a low level and occur naturally as a by-product of turning food into energy our cells can utilize and inflammation. But a high level of free radicals can disrupt every tissue in the body at a cellular level by damaging parts of a cell like DNA and cell membranes.
We are constantly inundated with an immense exposure to free radicals due to the slew of toxic chemicals sprayed on our crops as well as air and water pollution. As a byproduct, this can cause damage to the body.
Consuming adequate antioxidants helps combat these free radicals. Consuming tea is one way to boost that antioxidant intake.
Tea drinking and weight loss?
Tea has been long boasted for its fat burning and weight loss effects, but what does the science have to say about it?
As the most studied tea for weight loss, green tea has had promising research showing its benefits.
In one 2008 study, 60 obese subjects following a standardized diet regularly drank green tea or were placed in the placebo group. In the group that regularly drank tea, those individuals lost 7.3 pounds more weight than the placebo group.
In another 2012 review, researchers looked at over 14 randomized control trials relating to green tea consumption and weight loss. They found that in 8 of those randomized control trials those who regularly drank green tea lost on average 0.2 to 3.5 kg more than those in the control group over 12 weeks.
Black tea’s polyphenols have been shown to be effective in weight loss through two mechanisms. The first is by inhibiting fat and sugar digestion, absorption and intake, thus reducing calorie intake. The second is by promoting fat breakdown and metabolism.
Very few studies have shown benefit to white tea and weight loss. One test-tube study showed its consumption inhibited fat cell creation and the increased the breakdown of fat cells, but test-tube studies do not necessarily translate to human benefits. More human studies are needed.
The takeaway? Green tea shows to be the most beneficial for weight loss. It has the most clinical trials and also is the tea highest in EGCG. EGCG is a plant catechin (compound) which among other various benefits, increases stored fatty acids to be used for fuel and increases calorie expenditure throughout the day.
That said, weight loss should take a whole lifestyle approach—tea may be good for you, but it’s not the whole picture.
Can tea improve heart health?
All three green, white, and black tea contain some overlapping and some different polyphenols in varying amounts that have numerous benefits to human health. These benefits include modulating the microbiome, helping with hormonal balance, and improving heart health.
Polyphenols are believed to benefit heart health in multiple ways, one being by preventing LDL or “bad” cholesterol from oxidizing, which is a risk factor for heart disease.
They have also been shown to act as antioxidants and combat the negative effects of oxidative stress or inflammation in the body, which has been linked to a wide variety of diseases including heart disease.
We also have research showing that tea consumption may reduce the risk of high blood cholesterol concentrations and high blood pressure. Studies have also shown that these polyphenols have a preventative effect against atherosclerosis.
Atherosclerosis is a disease in which plaque, cholesterol, and other material deposits in and on the artery walls. This is problematic as it causes constriction of blood flow and can lead to heart attack or stroke. Atherosclerosis is even the underlying cause of about 50% of deaths in westernized societies.  
Although all three teas have varying types of polyphenols and amounts, green tea has been studied to have the highest concentration of something called EGCG, which has benefits for cancer prevention, cognitive function, and mental health. And of all the varieties of green tea, matcha seems to be highest in EGCG.
Although tea consumption is popular, this beneficial drink is finally in recent years getting the Western scientific recognition it deserves.
With its benefits being vast, it can be hard to decide what tea packs the most bang for your buck, with green tea being the most researched and studied tea. Green tea has clinically the most benefits and ranks higher than the other two in antioxidants and EGCG content which have various cancer preventative, brain, heart and mental health benefits.
This is not to say that green tea should be put above black or white tea because more studies need to be done on both of these teas. They both still pack antioxidants and have higher levels of different polyphenols that green tea doesn’t.
Practicing moderation and consuming a variety of these teas is your best bet. So next time you’re reaching for a drink, make it an antioxidant rich tea to reap the benefits of both weight management and heart health.
Blayne Andrews is a future functional medicine registered dietitian. Armed with a passion for helping people claim bodily autonomy and take their health into their own hands, Blayne hopes to teach people the evidence-based science to alternative care and a root-cause approach to wellness.