Is Tea Medicine? The Truth Behind Health Claims in the Tea Industry

Tea has a marketing problem. When Googling “tea,” the first query that comes up under the “People also ask” section is “What is the best tea to drink for your body?” Narrow the search further and enter “tea benefits” and a whole host of conditions tea is purported to help show up along the top of the results page—cancer, diabetes, heart health, weight loss, and more.

It can be confusing to navigate all these health claims as a tea consumer, and it’s even more confusing — and possibly perilous — to decide what you can use in marketing as a tea seller. After all, are any of these health claims about tea actually true?

World Tea News spoke to industry experts and tea sellers as well as conducted a survey to find out more about the link between tea, health, and wellness claims.


Why Are Tea and Health Claims So Popular Right Now?

Despite the recent increase in interest and marketing surrounding wellness and tea, the association is nothing new. From the earliest points in its 5,000-year history, there are records of the Camellia sinensis plant being used for medicinal purposes. Whether it had any real medicinal effect remains to be seen—then and now.

The reason for today’s resurgence of interest in “healthy” teas could be due to a greater interest in overall health and wellness among consumers, which was first spurred on by the pandemic. This theory is supported by statistics on the growth of wellness products.

In fact, according to a recent report by DataHorizzon, the functional tea market, which refers to teas offering specific health benefits or functionalities, is set to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 6.1% through 2032 to become a $12.2 billion market. “The functional tea market has been growing steadily in recent years, driven by increasing consumer interest in health and wellness, as well as the popularity of natural and organic products,” says the report. “Functional teas appeal to health-conscious consumers, particularly millennials and gen Z, who seek natural remedies and preventive health measures.”

However, some in the tea industry warn that “functional” has become a catchall term for anything even remotely related to health. “The term ‘functional’—whether it be functional beverage, functional food— has now become very embedded in our society. Sometimes, when a term has been around that long and used so much, it almost takes on its own meaning,” says Nada Milosavljevic, MD, JD, founder of The Guild, Chief Medical Officer of Safe Health, and Certified Tea Specialist. “Many of these terms came about in advance of certain industry guidelines to form the guardrails of what was needed.

“Unfortunately, there are just some bad actors that are overusing those terms and putting them in areas where they shouldn't be, as far as saying it will cure or treat or diagnose," she continues.

Still, in the tea industry, there remains a strong belief in the health benefits of tea. In a World Tea News survey on tea and health in which nearly 170 respondents weighed in, it was found that an overwhelming majority (80.36%) said they believe that consuming tea provides significant health benefits. 10.71% said they were unsure, and only 8.93% said they don’t believe tea provides health benefits. 

The survey also found that the marketing of health benefits plays a role. When asked, “how much do health claims influence your decision to purchase tea products,” nearly 60% of respondents said that health claims do play some role in their purchasing decisions.

tea and wellness
From World Tea News' Tea and Health and Wellness Survey

We asked our survey respondents if they believe that marketing tactics heavily influence public perception of the health benefits of tea, and the response was overwhelmingly yes, with only a little over 3% saying no.

tea and health claims
From World Tea News' Tea and Health and Wellness Survey

Of the survey respondents who sell tea, we asked if they were likely to use health and wellness claims in the marketing of their teas. 58.16% said they were either very or somewhat likely to use the claims, while 41.84% said they were not likely. When asked if the health claims made about tea products significantly contribute to sales, the results broke out along the exact same lines—with the 58.16% of those using health claims believing they are effective sales tools.

tea and health claims
From World Tea News' Tea and Health and Wellness Survey

On the heels of this data, the increased interest in tea health claims from sellers and others in the industry is no surprise. Jeni Dodd, founder/owner of Jeni Dodd Tea, Certified Tea Specialist, and attorney, confirms she’s observed an uptick in interest from conference goers and those in the industry, “I've been doing the legal component of the Tea Incubator workshop for people at the World Tea Expo for several years now. What I think has been interesting is that, initially, there were a lot of questions about customs and partnership agreements. But increasingly, I could spend all my time talking about health claims with people now. Because that's what everybody wants information on.”

Brook 37 The Atelier, which sells a line of wellness teas, finds sales of these products to be popular because they are in line with consumer wants.  “Consumers are increasingly mindful of health and wellness, leading to a decline in alcohol consumption,” says Mou Dasgupta, CEO and Founder of Brook37. “As a result, beverages offering both flavor and health benefits are becoming preferred options.”


What Are the Rules & Regulations Surrounding Tea & Health Claims?

Now that we’ve covered the “why” of the increased use of health claims to support tea sales, let’s look at the “how.” There are a series of questions to consider around the convoluted issue of teas and health claims.

Are the health claims about tea valid?

Perhaps the biggest question of all is whether the health claims made about tea are even true.

First, let’s break down some of the compounds in Camillia sinensis that are the reason for many of the health claims out there today:

Polyphenols: Micronutrients that naturally occur in plants. Many work as antioxidants.

L-theanine: An amino acid that may affect certain chemicals in the brain.

Caffeine: A stimulant.

Alkaloids: Chemical compounds that have diverse and important physiological effects.

While these compounds exist in tea and have their own benefits, it all comes down to the wording of the claims and marketing pitches that sellers use.

“We specifically trained our staff at my stores to say we're not allowed to talk about health benefits. What we can talk about are factual things. That Camillia sinensis has polyphenols, antioxidants, all these different chemical compounds that have been shown to be beneficial,” says Don Ho, an attorney and founder of BDH Consultants. “You can make those claims because those are factual things that have been researched. But you cannot say it cures cancer, cures your inflammation, etc.”

Dr. Milosavljevic agrees, “Without question, there are health benefits—the antioxidants, the polyphenols, those exist. But to what degree using that product every day is it going to give you a specific health outcome that you're looking for, in a curative sense, that's the kind of stuff we can’t do.”

Dodd says because of the individual nature of each person—each person’s specific health history, diet, environment, and other factors that may come into play—it makes it incredibly difficult to make any health or curative claims. “Making these claims means you have to know that it's actually because of the tea, and not because of some of these other factors, and that is difficult to do,” she says.

Dodd says that generalized statements relating to phrases like “healthy routine” are a safer bet. “I don't think it's particularly helpful to talk about tea as medicine. Nobody likes to take medicine, and tea is an enjoyable drink,” says Dodd. “You can say things like, ‘tea is part of a healthy lifestyle,’ which it is. And I think that a healthy lifestyle includes the fact that tea helps you slow down for a moment in your day.”

Ho points out that the way tea is prepared can also affect how much of a certain compound a tea drinker may get, “The way you brew or steep your tea also makes a difference,” he says. “Because there are so many different ways to prepare tea, it's hard—I would argue almost impossible—to make blanket statements.”

“Unless you're testing each cup, it is impossible to provide, with reasonable precision, the exact amount of every compound contained inside,” says Dr. Milosavljevic. “I understand that we would like absolutes. But, when you're dealing with a compound that has extensive human intervention, the way we handle and treat any plant is going to affect the end product.”

World Tea News’ survey found that 91% of respondents agree and believe that the health benefits of tea vary depending on factors like quality, origin, and processing methods.

tea and wellness
In a World Tea News survey on tea and health, 80.36% of respondents said they believe that consuming tea provides significant health benefits. (Photo: Pornpimon Rodchua, iStock / Getty Images Plus)

What are tea sellers legally allowed to say about health claims?

Aside from the convoluted and difficult nature of actually proving the validity of health claims related to tea, it is also illegal to make unsubstantiated claims on food labels and in marketing in the US. What constitutes an unsubstantiated claim? Anything not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

The FDA’s approval is broken down into two types: Authorized Health Claims and Qualified Health Claims.

Authorized Health Claims

According to the FDA, an authorized health claim is only approved when there is “significant scientific agreement (SSA) among qualified experts that the claim is supported by the totality of publicly available scientific evidence for a substance/disease relationship.” There have been only 12 authorized health claims since 1990, and tea is not one of them.

Qualified Health Claims

The rules are less strict when it comes to qualified health claims, which the FDA says “are supported by some scientific evidence, but do not meet the significant scientific agreement standard. To ensure that they are not false or misleading to consumers, qualified health claims must be accompanied by a disclaimer or other qualifying language to accurately communicate the level of scientific evidence supporting the claim.”

In qualified claims, phrases are used like, “scientific evidence suggests, but does not prove,” and, “X may reduce the risk of Y although the FDA has concluded that there is very little scientific evidence for this claim.”

There has been one qualified claim related to green tea and cancer, which was brought forward by a green tea manufacturer over 10 years ago. It says, “Green tea may reduce the risk of breast or prostate cancer although the FDA has concluded that there is very little scientific evidence for this claim.”

Dodd says the standards the FDA holds health claims to is higher than the average consumer’s—and this is intentional. The FDA is ensuring that consumers aren’t misled by claims. “Do I believe that there are significant health benefits to tea? Yes, I think it has helped. And I think it's good for you. But the standards that those kinds of statements are evaluated on through the FDA are completely different than what the layman's understanding of it is,” explains Dodd. “And it's not enough to just have a study that shows that it's good for you. To make a health claim, there has to be significant scientific agreement, and the FDA is the one who gets to say when there has been significant scientific agreement—an individual or company cannot just do it unilaterally.”

What are the consequences for making health claims that aren't FDA approved?

There are real consequences if the FDA goes after a company for making unsubstantiated health claims. It starts with a warning letter and progresses into civil penalties, including fines. “Even more importantly is once the FDA has identified you, you're now on their radar,” says Dodd. “So they're going to watch everything you do, and maybe health claims is not your only issue.”

tea and health claims
The FDA has only authorized 12 health claims since 1990. (Photo: Olivier Le Moal, iStock / Getty Images Plus)

The industry experts we interviewed for this piece warned companies not to get complacent because they think they will escape notice.

“I know that a lot of people seem to think that it's okay because the FDA doesn't have a huge enforcement mechanism and that they're just going to fly under the radar, which is a fine strategy until it's not,” says Dodd. “Then it's a huge problem, and it costs you a lot of money. Or it could mean you'd have to close your business because you can't afford to defend yourself against these claims.”

Dodd also warns that the more false claims that are being made, the more likely it is that the FDA is going to focus on the tea industry, “There starts to be this crescendo of infractions, and then the governing body has to make an example of somebody. Maybe we're not entirely there yet, but we are well on our way to getting the focus on us.”

The FDA going after the tea industry is not without precedent. For example, in 2022, they sued a New York-based marketer of herbal tea that claimed its product was proven to treat, cure, and prevent COVID-19.

World Tea News’ survey asked tea sellers if they’ve faced any scrutiny from regulatory agencies, and only 13% said they had. However, nearly 30% said that while they haven’t been subject to any crackdowns, they worry about possible future scrutiny.

Tea and health claims
From World Tea News' Tea and Health and Wellness Survey

Aside from the FDA’s penalties, there is also the consumer to think about. “If you're making health claims and you sell your tea to somebody, and they don't reap the benefits that you told them that they would get, they could want their money back and damages,” says Dodd.

In the worst-case scenario, a company could even be responsible for causing harm. “I think people will take it seriously when they realize they can be held personally liable if someone is harmed based on something they've said or something they've given someone,” says Dr. Milosavljevic.

Dodd sums it up as a risk assessment, “How much benefit am I getting for the risk that I'm taking?”

What are a tea seller’s responsibilities to its customers?

Many of our experts brought up the term caveat emptor or “buyer beware,” which basically refers to the onus being on the buyer to do their due diligence before a purchase. The same could be said of tea consumers facing a market of health claims. However, our experts think tea sellers need to go further.

“I feel like we also want some credibility in our industry, we want consumers to see we can be trusted,” says Dodd.

Dr. Milosavljevic agrees. “You are all considered experts in the industry. This is your field, whether you're importers, buyers, sellers, lenders, whatever it is, the onus is on you to do your homework. That is how you build trust,” she says.

Part of that “homework” is in ensuring claims made about teas are not misleading. According to our survey, 86% of respondents want to see clearer labeling or guidelines regarding health claims on tea products.

floral mint tea brook37 wellness tea
Floral Mint tea is part of Brook37's "wellness bundle." (Photo: Brook37)

As for tea sellers themselves, they too see the importance of making factual claims. In our survey, over 82% of tea sellers said they believe it is “very important” for sellers to ensure that health claims about their products are supported by scientific evidence.

Tea seller Dasgupta feels the same way. “Similar to other food products, it's essential to be cautious about the health benefits we assert. While we can discuss the ingredients and their structural properties, we must refrain from implying that our product will definitively cure a disease without FDA approval,” she says.

In the end, perhaps the best marketing for tea isn’t focused on health and wellness but is something that goes back to the basics. “In the industry, there's been this momentum to try to make it seem like the real benefit to drinking tea is purely medicinal. And that, to me, is problematic,” says Dodd. “I think the better message is that here's this amazing beverage that has this amazing history, and it connects you throughout the world with different cultures and different peoples in different times. And in addition to all that, it can be part of your healthy lifestyle.”


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