Tea Health Benefits: Cutting Hype While Boosting Sales

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LAS VEGAS, Nev.

The connection between tea and health has been fundamental in raising consumer awareness and helping the tea industry grow, said Joe Simrany, President, Tea Association of the USA, Inc., during his Using the Health Message to Sell Tea seminar at the 2011 World Tea Expo. But the new challenge is to communicate healthfulness of tea without attracting regulatory attention.

The topic has been particularly important to the retailers in light of the recent crackdown by the Food and Drug Administration on the illegal health claims on tea products. Several retailers have received warning letters from the FDA, asking them to back down on some of the claims and making it difficult for the retailers to market their product when the public who wants to hear that tea can help solve their health issues.

“Health is a very important sales motivator with a large part of the population,” Simrany said, pointing to the baby boomers and also health-conscious younger people, “But you don’t want to turn tea into medicine. That’s the worst thing you can do.”

The Holy Grail for the association remains securing the government-endorsed health claim, but in the meantime, caution is key to communication, Simrany said.

He outlined the two types of claims that are least likely to attract regulatory attention: “structure function” claims and “quantitative nutrient” statements. The first associate a food with a normal or healthy structure or function of the body. For example, “Tea promotes cardiovascular health.” The second states the amount of particular nutrient in the food, without making a reference to the food being “rich” in the particular nutrient. FDA prohibits the use of terms “rich in” and “high in” unless it has created a Referenced Daily Intake (RDI) for that nutrient and it can be calculated in the product.

Nigel Melican, Managing Director of Teacraft Ltd., pointed out that in Europe not just the claims on the packaging or the company’s proprietary site that can get tea retailers in trouble but also statements on social networks and other websites. UK’s Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) and the European Advertising Standards can challenge false claims on commercial websites, including Facebook and Twitter, Melican said. During his session Debunking Tea Myths: Don’t Lie to Your Customers, he stressed the importance of communicating this potential hazard to employees who may be posting online for marketing as well as personal reasons.

What are some of the favorite myths that often end up as false claims? Melican presented compelling evidence that there is no definite way to say whether green tea is healthier than black because the chemical makeup can differ from batch to batch. Caffeine is an issue for many consumers, and the highest concentration is in white tea. On the issue of weight loss, Melican said,“The only way you can lose weight is to exercise and eat less. Tea is not a miracle drug.”

Linda Casul, Marketing Coordinator for Los Angeles-based Art of Tea, constantly faces the challenge of helping her customers understand the true benefits of tea without creating false impressions. The issue has been particularly important for the company because of the launch of their new product line Ayurveda and the need to market its benefits.

“We have been very concerned about the situation with claims,” Casul says. “And it’s hard to tell whether it’s enough to put a disclaimer on the package that the claims are not approved by the FDA or whether we have to reword everything.”

Art of Tea chose to navigate the murky waters by avoiding any mentions of health benefits and tapping into sensory experience instead. “We are focusing on the idea of ‘Happy Tea.’ Casul explained the concept in this way: “tea makes you feel great with implying that it will cure anything. It’s about improving the quality of life.”

When customers ask the employees at their store about specific health benefits, employees encourage them to research the claims on their own and educate themselves. Casul says, “We tell them that we believe is that tea is good for you, and let the tea speak for itself.”