boxes of white tea vs. green tea

The Health Benefits of White Tea vs. Green Tea

[toc]Whether it’s for antioxidants, anti-aging, weight loss, or some other goal, all of the hype centers around teas that are green. Perhaps it’s the powdered extract in the form of a diet pill. Or just as a healthy caffeinated beverage.

Nothing wrong with those uses, except for the fact that the ivory-colored version may be equally suitable – if not better – for certain things.

What is white tea?

All types of caffeinated tea come from the Camellia sinensis plant. The difference between white, green, and black tea is the amount of processing for the leaves. White tea is the least processed and has the mildest flavor. The leaves are not oxidized or rolled, as they are simply dried and sometimes steamed. Green tea is steamed or fried to stop the oxidation, then rolled and dried. Black is rolled first, to accelerate the oxidation and produce the dark color.

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what white tea looks like compared to black tea

The reason white tea is called white is because the beverage has almost no color. It’s a light yellow hue, which is distinctly different than the light green or dark brown you get with more processed types. While the leaves themselves are not technically white, they are lighter in color since they were harvested prior to maturity. If made using the unopened buds, they really can look like a dirty white.

Silver Needle white tea buds
These are what “Silver Needle” buds look like, which is considered to be the highest grade. Photo by WJ Houtman [CC BY-SA 3.0] via Wikipedia.
Since there is no “official” definition as to how white tea is made, what you get can vary by brand and country of origin. Some use the closed leaf buds, while others use young leaves picked shortly after budding. Whatever the case, the leaves are never rolled or fried like they are with green and black teas.

In order to stop the browning, most farmers will use light steaming to turn off the oxidase enzyme.

That’s the enzyme which makes produce – like apples – turn brown after you cut and expose them to air. By turning off the oxidase right away, the leaves don’t have time to oxidize and change color.

With green tea leaves, the oxidase enzymes are killed off after they have had some time to wither and oxidize.

diagram showing the differences between white, green, and black teas

You can see how more theaflavins and thearubigins (pigments) are produced with green and even more so with black. But here’s the catch… those pigments are antioxidants too!

White will have more of the catechins, a type of antioxidant that research has suggested may reduce body fat, lower LDL or bad cholesterol, and other benefits. Meanwhile the theaflavins, which are only found in black tea, have been found to improve vascular function in a double-blind and placebo controlled trial, among other potential advantages. (1) (2)

The takeaway?

You really can’t say white is always better than black tea or green. Each contains different compounds which science suggests may offer unique benefits. The best type of tea for health and wellness will vary based on goal.

The bad news is that there are very few clinical studies on the white form. Among the nearly 30 million pieces of medical literature in the PubMed database, only 6 trials involve using it and out of those, some are animal-based or used a mixed supplement where multiple ingredients are tested together.

If we combine the relevant clinical studies and the lab research out there, we come to the following list of what white tea is good for. Most of the following health benefits are not proven, as the data is too preliminary at this point. This is merely what the science suggests might be possible or perhaps even likely with this less processed form of the leaf.

8 white tea benefits

1. Won’t stain teeth

Not to say discoloration is impossible, but this is the one perk that you don’t need clinical trials to validate.

All you have to do is look at the almost colorless beverage and contrast it to the intense browns of black tea. It’s obvious as to which is better for preserving the color of your teeth.

2. Easier on the stomach

man on bench with stomach acheEver drink a strong green tea and get a stomach ache afterward?

Even before science knew the cause, it has been common knowledge throughout the history of China and Japan to never drink it on an empty stomach for that very reason.

The scientific explanation is because of the higher tannin content which is in green and black.

These tannins increase how much stomach acid you produce and in turn, you may have side effects of an ache and in more serve cases, feelings of nausea and possibly vomiting. If you have GERD, acid reflux, or peptic ulcers, the increase in acid may exasperate them. (3)

The majority of the tannins in teas are formed when the catechins oxidize and turn into thearubigins and other theaflavins. That means the tannin content of white teas are significantly lower.

3. More caffeine than green tea

The leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant will always contain caffeine. So whether you drink white, green, yellow, Oolong, black, or Pu-erh, all of them will provide a pick-me-up assuming they’re not the decaffeinated (which still contain a little bit, too).

However out of all those types, only the white is made using the early leaf buds. Matcha uses younger leaves than regular green tea but they are not the buds.

Why this matters is because research has found that the younger the leaf, the more caffeine it tends to  have. (4)

Type Caffeine Content (% of dried leaves)
Range Average
Green tea 1.67-3.90% 2.90%
Black tea 2.0-5.4% 3.5%
White tea 3.35-5.74% 4.85%

Those percentages are from a study done at the Department of Food Chemistry of Braunschweig University in Germany. They measured 68 caffeinated teas that could be purchased at local stores. The black samples were from a different test and hence, why only one decimal is given. (5)

How much caffeine there is in white tea can be as high as 7% by weight. That’s for the type known as Silver Needle or white tip, which is considered to be the highest grade of white. Only when grown in the Fujian, Fuding and Zhenghe regions of China is it considered to be authentic Silver Needle white tea.

Despite the facts, there is a widespread belief among the public that white tea is lower in caffeine. Even some major brands use that claim in their marketing. It’s a big myth.

The lower grades are White Peony (Baimudan), Tribute Eyebrow (Gongmei), and Longetivity Eyebrow (Shoumei). It’s true all of those have lower caffeine content than the premium grade, Silver Needle. The big reason why beverages made with these might have less caffeine has more to do with flavor. Because it’s so mild, many brands dilute the leaves with herbal caffeine-free flavorings like peach, orange, and pomegranate.

When you’re talking about white teas that made of pure Silver Needle grade, they’re actually higher in caffeine than green (including matcha) as well as all types of black tea, like English Breakfast, Earl Grey, Assam, Darjeeling, and Ceylon.

Now on a per cup basis, you will still have less caffeine than the average 95 mg per cup of coffee, but that’s because you brew coffee with more grinds – 1 to 2 tablespoons (8.7 to 17.4 grams). Your average tea bag only contains 2 grams of leaves or buds, which is up to 88% less by weight than how much ground coffee beans get used per cup. Which by the way, are not really beans. (6)

So even though all Camellia sinensis teas have a higher concentration of caffeine than coffee beans, the reason you get less per serving is because less is used to brew a cup.

4. More EGCG than black tea

EGCG stands for epigallocatechin gallate. Research suggests that it’s this specific antioxidant in green tea that makes it better for your versus black. While none are proven, here’s are a few things that EGCG is being studied for:

  • Weight loss from green tea supplements is believed to be due to its ability to speed up basal metabolic rate. Most marketing claims about it reducing belly fat are greatly embellished but the science does suggest there really might be something to it.
  • Cancer research has observed antiproliferative effects from EGCG when tested using lab models, such as cultured cancer cells. (7)
  • Memory improvement was seen in a double-blind and placebo controlled South Korean study involving 91 patients with mild cognitive impairment. (8)
  • Anti-inflammatory effects have been seen and it has been proposed that food sources of EGCG may be good for those with rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory joint diseases. (9)
  • Lower LDL cholesterol, which is the bad kind, has been seen in some studies. (10)

That’s just a sampling of the large body for research out there for EGCG.

Type of Tea EGCG Content (mg per 100mL brewed)
Black 9.4
Oolong 34.5
White 42.4
Green 70.2

How much EGCG there is in white tea is about 40% less than green tea, though it’s still over 400% higher than black. Even though it’s not the richest source, for those who get stomach aches or heartburn from tannins, it is the safest way to drink high amounts of EGCG. (11)

5. Anti-stress

Another relevant human study was done by the University of Shizuoka in Japan. They measured the effects of warm water, ordinary green tea, and shaded white tea on mental stress.

On different days, a total of 3 different tests were given to these people. They used what’s called the U-K math test (Uchida-Kraepelin) which is widely used in research as a mental stressor.

They measured stress using:

  • Total Mood Disturbance (TMD) scores
  • Profile of Mood States (POMS) scores
  • Chromogranin A (CgA) in the saliva, which goes up with stress

The results?

Based on these parameters, both types of tea helped their bodies better cope with stress, though it was white tea that had the great anti-stress effect.

graph showing the anti-stress effects of white tea in human study

This graph of CgA levels shows you how they were lowest (a good thing) with the white. (13)

Why did it seem to work better? The scientists suggest it was the higher content of theanine (an essential amino acid) and how it influenced GABA levels in the brain. They also cited the caffeine as being beneficial, because that too hs been shown to improve mood and reduce anxiety in other research.

Speaking of which, this study further reiterates the higher caffeine claim.

Each 250 mL (8.4 oz) serving of white tea used was reported as having an average caffeine amount of 191.60 mg, compared to the 87.47 mg in the same serving size of green tea that was prepared in the same manner.

6. Boosts mental performance

Okay so it may seem kind of obvious that higher caffeinated beverages and supplements tend to correlate with levels of mental performance in tests. You don’t need a clinical trial to know that. All you need is someone to take away your morning cup of coffee to experience that fact yourself!

However in the case of this beverage, there might be more to it than just the caffeine.

The same study discussed in #6 also reported that:

“The Bonferroni multiple comparisons showed that participants tended to perform more calculations after ingesting the shaded white tea than after ingesting warm water”

In plain English, they did better on the math tests.

chart showing how white and green teas affect mental performance in study

This chart compares the number of answers given in each Uchida-Kraepelin (U-K) test. That last one, number 4, was considered to be very statistically significant.

“It may be that the anti-stress effect promotes a more relaxed state that improves sustained attention, thus leading to the improved performance on the U-K tests.”

The catechins and theanine may play a part. Other studies using those compounds on a stand-alone basis have reported boosts in memory and learning ability. (14) (15)

Another amino it contains, glutamic acid, has been found to boost brain activity in rats, specifically in their hippocampus region. (16)

In short, there may be additional compounds in this beverage that make it a better nootropic (brain supplement) than taking the equivalent amount of caffeine in a capsule or cup of coffee.

7. Protects skin against UV damage

dock on calm lake with sunny blue skyOut of the small handful of clinical studies, one that is relevant was done by the Department of Dermatology at Case Medical Center in Cleveland, Ohio.

Participants were split into three groups. One was untreated and used as a control. The other two received topical treatments of either green or white tea extract after being exposed to UV irradiation.

They said both types offer equal amounts of protection, by reducing the radiation-induced oxidative damage to the skin’s DNA and Langerhans cells, which are found in all layers of the epidermis.

This was not because it was blocking the UV, as they made clear that the extracts did not absorb UV or offer sunscreen effects. That would suggest that the protection is happening on the cellular level, by possibly helping the cells respond better to the UV light exposure. (12)

To be clear they were not claiming it can be used topically as a substitute for sunscreen. It might offer complementary benefits if combined in a sunscreen formulation.

8. Lower fluoride than other teas

If you believe that fluoride is good for you, then just ignore this.

If you follow the science though, you may have come to the conclusion that almost everything you learned about it growing up is a lie.

Admittedly it might offer benefits when applied topically to teeth, however ingestion of this neurotoxin is linked to lower IQ in children (that’s from a Harvard study!) and a laundry list of other health problems. (17)

You can read more in our write-up on fluoride-free toothpaste.

As with other trace minerals, its presence in the world is ubiquitous so you can’t avoid it entirely. There will be parts per million (ppm) in literally everything you eat and drink, whether it’s meat or plants. While you can’t avoid it completely, you can avoid the worst sources.

Fluoridated drinking water would be an obvious example. A dangerous source most people are unaware of is tea, particularly when it’s from certain parts of China.

Why does tea have fluoride?

The Camellia sinensis plant has a natural affinity for fluoride and aluminum. Their roots will always “suck up” more of these minerals than the average plant growing in the same soil. Normally the levels are safe, but plantations in southwestern China and other regions with more fluoride in the soil can lead to dangerously high levels in tea.

So which type of tea has the most fluoride?

“…old leaves were the major contributors to the high F [fluoride] and Al [aluminum] contents…”

That’s according to a study done in the Sichuan Province of China. (18)

The older leaves are used to make black, Oolong, Pu-erh, and most green teas. Making matcha using ceremonial grade involves younger leaves. According to the USDA, your average cup of black will be 3.37 ppm. The type that has the least amount of fluoride will be white tea, because it’s made with the youngest leaves or the early leaf buds.

how much fluoride there is in different tea samples from China

As you see, the old leaves can have up to 10x more fluoride than the young leaves. This makes teas of the white variety, like Silver Needle and White Peony, a no-brainer for those wanting to reduce exposure to this harmful mineral. (19)

Where to buy

Even though it may be healthier in many regards, there’s very little demand for this form in the United States and Canada and frankly, any Westernized nation whether it be the United Kingdom, South Africa, or someplace else.

Lipton tried making a run at these markets using fruit-flavored versions, like blueberry-pomegranate and peach-mango, but those have recently been discontinued. Probably due to the lack of demand.

That’s okay though because you can do better than Lipton, which were low quality leaves mixed with a hodge-podge of ingredients.

We checked the inventory at a few major stores in Los Angeles; Whole Foods, a co-op grocer, and Mother’s Market which is a natural grocer. Each carried one or two brands of organic White Peony. None sold the premium Silver Needle. On Amazon, we recommend these organic white teas:

These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. This product is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.