It’s an age-old dilemma: To drink coffee, or tea? For centuries it has maintained its status as a duke-out for the world’s history books, both in commerce and consumption. And there’s often no clear winner in any of these categories.
But there is a lot to consider.
Origins of Coffee vs. Tea
Coffee and tea are steeped in history.
In the United States, tea famously never quite endured the way coffee has because of—you guessed it—the tea tax and the aftermath of the Boston Tea Party. Today, Americans drink three times more coffee than they do tea.
Beyond just U.S. history, Europeans initially adopted coffee because trade routes from Africa and the Near East were shorter than those for retrieving tea from Southeast Asia. Eventually, trade conflict and considerations of cost-effectiveness of sending ships to and from Southeast Asia led the English to increase the amount of tea they received per shipment. Amusingly, this rise in tea imports coincided with the Enlightenment and the rise of coffee in other parts of Europe.
Thus, coffee had a widespread effect on cultures throughout the Western world in the 19th century while tea became a notoriously British beverage of choice, spreading as the British too spread their reach in regions around the world. Yet, today, as noted by Pew Research Center, the split of coffee versus tea cultures is almost evenly split worldwide with a slight edge to coffee: Asian and many African cultures are dominated by tea, while North American, South American, and Western European cultures are largely coffee-drinking countries. Much of this is a product of trade patterns and, again, the cultural exports of Great Britain during its colonial era.
The coffee vs. tea brawl is one that, centuries later, still rages on.
Caffeine Content in Coffee vs. Tea
Coffee will, almost always, contain more caffeine per cup than even the most caffeine-packed black teas. While it might take only three 8-ounce coffees to reach the 320-400 mg daily recommended limit of caffeine, a person could feasibly drink six or seven black teas before reaching that barrier, or even a dozen cups of green tea. At about 95 mg of caffeine per 8-ounce cup of coffee, that single cup of Joe eats up quite a bit of the daily limit all on its own.
Here’s the caffeine in tea vs. coffee:
Caffeine in Black Tea vs. Coffee
Measured as an 8-ounce cup, black tea has approximately 25 to 48 mg of caffeine. As decaffeinated tea, black tea will have a nearly nonexistent amount of caffeine, with 2 to 5 mg.
Caffeine in Green Tea vs. Coffee
Measured as an 8-ounce cup, green tea can have anywhere from 5 to 40 mg of caffeine. Matcha tea, a relative of green tea, can contain as much as 72 mg of caffeine in an 8-ounce cup, but is metabolized by the body in a way that sustains that caffeine over a longer period of time thanks to a particular antioxidant it contains. This is why matcha green tea notoriously does not lead to the caffeine “crash” associated with coffee and some black teas.
Is Coffee or Tea Better for You?
Here’s the good news: Both are, on their own, well-tolerated if not healthy for you. They each boast antioxidants thought to prevent Alzheimer’s disease and boost immune health.
Whether coffee or tea is healthier—again, that tea vs. coffee battle—remains a point of debate. Each pack a wallop with antioxidants, to be sure, but they also have effects that researchers have yet to fully understand. It’s difficult to study these drinks and control for elements like diet and exercise over a sustained length of time.
But one distinction with quite a bit of weight is the effect of caffeine from tea versus coffee.
A major difference between tea and coffee is that tea tends to have less caffeine per cup, producing less of a “wired,” stimulated feeling all at once. Tea drinkers often report a more productive psychoactive effect from its caffeine, versus coffee, which can lead to a more mentally distracted caffeine high. The trade-off, then, is that the heavier punch of caffeine from coffee might be well-suited for physical activity while tea lends itself to a mental task.
There are also fewer theophyllines and theobromines in tea than coffee, two organic compounds which boast some of the physiological effects from caffeine that increase heart rate, for example, or stimulate the GI tract while simultaneously lowering blood pressure. Where the debate gets head-scratching, of course, is deciding whether it’s worth feeling diuretic effects and increased heart rate for the sake of lowered blood pressure. (Though, notably, researchers have so far found that coffee has a neutral effect on heart health, despite large belief that it’s not heart healthy.)
So, to the point: Which is healthier, tea or coffee? The simple truth is that there is no conclusion yet on whether coffee or tea is healthier to drink—coffee is preliminarily thought to reduce the risk of acquiring Type-2 diabetes, on the one hand, while on the other, tea is thought to reduce the risk of several forms of cancer. It’s frankly too soon to tell.
One heartening truth, however: Neither are bad for you; just try to steer away from the added sugar and dairy.