There have been many great rivalries throughout history, but nothing gets folks more fired up than a food-focused debate. To be honest, I still shutter thinking about the drama that unfolded after a recent strawberry jam versus grape jelly “discussion.”
Today, we’re turning our attention to what is arguably the most famous of them all: coffee versus tea. It’s a debate as old as time. We’ll leave the brands, add-ins, brewing methods, and hot versus cold smackdowns for another time—here, we want to focus on comparing each beverage’s health benefits. Is one really more nutritionally sound? Does one offer more lasting benefits than the other? We encourage you to leave preconceived notions and biases at the table as we seek to settle this (ahem) heated debate.
A nutritional breakdown of coffee versus tea, according to a registered dietitian
1. Antioxidants and longevity
“Both coffee and tea are known to contain antioxidant-rich polyphenols with anti-inflammatory benefits,” says nutritionist Keri Gans, MS, RDN, and author of The Small Change Diet. “With that said, tea has been associated more with lower risks of cancer and heart disease, along with stronger immune systems.” Green tea in particular contains powerful polyphenols and antioxidants that support cognitive function. This is due to the catechins found in tea, which are a type of antioxidant connected to brain health. Black tea is another rich source of antioxidants.
But coffee packs an antioxidant rich punch, too. “Coffee has been linked to reduced incidence of Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, scarring of the liver, colorectal cancer, and also heart disease,” Gans explains. Studies show that coffee is rich in the antioxidants hydrocinnamic acids and polyphenols, among others. These specific antioxidants are especially efficient at neutralizing free radicals and preventing oxidative stress, which means they help fight inflammation in the body.
A 2018 study of 500,000 people also showed that drinking coffee is associated with a lower risk of death—and that, surprisingly, the biggest reduction in mortality was found in people who drank six to seven cups per day. (Considerably more than the four-cup-per-day cutoff that doctors often recommend.) Since this was true for both caffeinated and decaf coffee drinkers, other coffee compounds seem to be responsible for lengthening lifespan—likely, this means the antioxidants.
When it comes to longevity, quick reminder that tea is sipped daily by people in Blue Zones, aka regions of the world where it’s normal to live to be over 100 in good health. Coffee is also one of the drinks of choice for those in the Blue Zones, but isn’t as prevalent as tea.
Bottom line? When it comes to antioxidants and healthy aging, tea and coffee are both winners.
Jitters are more common with high caffeine content, and coffee generally has much more caffeine than tea. (Tea contains about 20-60 milligrams of caffeine per cup, while coffee contains 100-300 milligrams, Gans says.)
That said, if you are very sensitive to caffeine, even the small amount in tea could cause jitters. Green tea specifically has a leg up in this category: “Green tea has a compound called l-theanine which helps caffeine to be absorbed more slowly in the body leading to a less jittery effect for many,” Gans says. Caffeine also stimulates your heart rate and breathing, which can make people feel jumpy. If you’re in that camp, tea could be a good option for you.
Conversely, if you’re searching for more of a jolt or even a pre-workout beverage, coffee may be the better fit (unless you have a sensitive stomach, of course). Coffee also increases epinephrine, also known as adrenaline, which may help you run or cycle faster. Just remember that drinking too much coffee or caffeine of any kind (more than four cups per day) can cause unpleasant and potentially dangerous side effects, like elevated blood pressure, headaches, muscle tremors, and insomnia.
Speaking of which. Caffeine can make your intestines contract, which is one of the reasons why coffee makes you poop, Kelly Jones, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN, previously told Well+Good. Both coffee and tea can stimulate the production of acid in your stomach, particularly when you drink them on an empty stomach. This can cause stomach discomfort, but can also stimulate your digestion and help you poop.
“If you experience these symptoms on an empty stomach, try to see if there is a difference when you have food. If symptoms continue even with food, you may try and purchase a lower-acid coffee or tea brand or perhaps try decaf to see if that alleviates the symptoms,” Gans adds.
To boost the gut health benefits of either coffee or tea, try adding a pinch of turmeric, ginger, or cinnamon (gastroenterologists recommend it)!
4. Mental health and cognition
Remember that l-theanine from before? That plus the caffeine in tea has been shown to improve cognitive function, says Gans. She adds that “research solely on L-theanine revealed that it may have also have a calming effect.” The increased alertness you feel after drinking caffeine can happen with both coffee and tea.
“Caffeine increases the stimulant norepinephrine and the laser-focus chemical dopamine in your brain,” Tracy Lockwood Beckerman, MS, RD previously told Well+Good. This means caffeinated versions of both beverages can help you feel more alert and ready to tackle your to-do list.
Learn more about the health benefits of coffee from Lockwood Beckerman in this video:
5. Oral health
There is some indication that tea may be able to help prevent cavities because it contains fluoride, says Gans. She adds that surprisingly, coffee stains teeth less that dark teas.
Final answer? They’re both superstars in the nutrition department, and we’re here to inform (read: not sway) you about your morning beverage of choice. Drink the one that sparks joy—or, better yet, drink both.
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