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Milk in Tea: A Bum Steer?

Jeremy Warner, MDMay 12th, 2009 by Jeremy Warner, MD

I’m a tea drinker who enjoys tea with a little bit of milk.  Not only does it add a nice creamy texture to the tea, it also seems to take the bitter edge off, even without adding any sugar.  And I’m certainly not alone – by one estimate, 98% of British tea drinkers top off with the white stuff.

In my previous post I looked into some of the health benefits of green tea, and found the evidence to be somewhat limited. This isn’t so surprising, given the difficulty of determining the effects of one small part of a large, complex diet. So is it folly to try to understand how the combination of two foods, milk and tea, might affect health? Maybe so, but there is some evidence out there, and the news isn’t so good.

In 2007, Verena Stangl and colleagues published an article in the prestigious European Heart Journal entitled “ACowsddition of milk prevents vascular protective effects of tea.” This study was based on a legitimate observation – if the British drink so much tea, why is cardiovascular disease still so prevalent? The researchers knew that tea causes relaxation of the aorta, a physiological mechanism associated with health (stiff blood vessels cause all sorts of problems).

They then devised a simple experiment – have subjects drink 1) straight tea, 2) a combination of 90% tea and 10% milk, or 3) hot water. By poBlack teapping on an ultrasound probe on the subjects, they could then see what happened to the aorta. The experiment was small but the results were not – the folks who had milk in their tea had an aorta just as stiff as those who drank hot water. Those who had straight tea enjoyed a very relaxed aorta.

Sort of odd, don’t you think? Why would the simple act of adding milk to tea possibly annihilate the beneficial effects? Remember those catechins, especially the star player, epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG)? It would seem that EGCG is pretty promiscuous – it likes to hook up with whatever protein might be around. It especially likes proline, one of the amino acids.

Wouldn’t you know, one of the most abundant proteins in milk, β-casein, is studded with proline. Indeed, when Stangl looked at the various polyphenols in the tea, the EGCG level in the milk/tea combo was only 20% of the plain tea level.

Ok, so easy solution – just switch from cow milk to soy milk, right? Not so fast – glycinin and β-conglycinin, the flash-intro-3major proteins in soy, also have a surplus of proline. Look for Stangl’s newest article, coming out soon in Atherosclerosis, showing that soy milk chomps those catechins every bit as much as cow milk.

Bottom Line: There’s a reason tea tastes less bitter after adding milk – all the catechins just got bound up! If you want to enjoy all the catechins you possibly can, best to have the tea like nature made it – straight up.

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8 Responses to “Milk in Tea: A Bum Steer?”

  1. Matt says:

    I am not particularly happy hearing this! I like to have milk with my tea quite a bit but I have heard that the milk cancels out the health benefits of tea. I guess I will be looking out for Stangl’s newest article next further discussing this. So is there anything that could replace milk or would someone need to refine milk to remove the protein B-caseine? I’m curious to find out as I just started drinking red espresso and like the red espresso lattes (so this really is not as healthy as they claim?)

  2. Thanks for the comment, I was less than thrilled too! Unfortunately, milk micelles (the globules that make it white) are made primarily out of casein. So if you remove the casein the milk won’t be white anymore and would approximate adding canola oil to your tea. Rice milk has no protein to speak of, so that might be a reasonable substitute. Almond milk does have protein but I don’t know if it’s the kind to interfere with the catechins. Non-dairy creamers, which are out in my book (sort of anathema to my whole “Basic Eating” manifesto) are made out of artificial casein. Will get back to you with more info on milks impact on rooibos in red espresso

  3. You are quite right. The majority of Brits. take their black tea with milk. That is our culture.
    I would never put milk in flavored or green teas, not that I drink either very much.

    If you plan to have milk with your tea and want it to taste good, please do not use 1% milk, this makes tea taste terrible, and gives it a blue appearance. Use two per cent milk.
    Milk does not cancel out the health benefits of tea – who told you that?? Nature did not make tea. Humans processed the tea plant in a variety of ways to make different teas. I drink tea with milk because I enjoy it that way.

  4. Anne Marie says:

    No milk in my tea??? It’s my only vice. I suppose I can drink more green tea :(

  5. Mary says:

    I only drink milk with Earl Grey or just regular ol’ black tea. I have been drinking tea like this since I was a very young child. My Grandma was frrom Ireland so I always assumed that it was an Irish thing. She would have a saucer with tea, more like a very small bowl(very small) and to cool it off she would dump part of her tea in the small bowl. We all drank our tea this way and never thought anything weird about it. I drink many other teas but cannot fathom putting milk or sugar in them.
    Oh well, thats just my take on Milk in Tea..and it must be whole milk.

  6. Pat Canella says:

    personally I only drink tea “straight,” finding that milk can get rid of a lot of the subtle flavor you can find in teas such as Darjeeling or Oolong teas. Though many do enjoy milk in their teas, I have read that it takes away a lot of the antioxidant properties native to straight tea. Just one man’s opinion :)

  7. Tea says:

    I personally think it depends on the tea which tastes better with or without milk. For example, rooibos should not have milk!

    Interesting read!

  8. Klute says:

    Tea with milk is actually really good for you too.


    Also adding milk to your tea stops your teeth from staining and it can also protect against damage to teeth due to any added sugar or even the hot temperature of the tea. Many fruit teas to which milk cannot be added are very bad for your teeth.

    Also drinking hot tea without milk has been linked to cancer:


    I myself drink green and herb teas without milk and black tea with milk.

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