The Big Idea

The Green Teaing of America

A drink to save our souls.

For centuries, man has searched for the elixir of life—a distillation that could bestow vitality, happiness, and immortality. But it took American marketing specialists to discover the brew that eluded medieval alchemists, Arab mystics, and the Ming emperors. It turns out that there is indeed an essence that ensures health, spiritual harmony, and moral merit. It is called green tea.

In China and Japan, green tea is a hot drink usually served in a small ceramic cup. But to American commercial culture, green tea is yoga in a bottle—or in a can, candy bar, candle, lotion, soap, perfume, pill, or extract. Described as soothing and gentle, it sits paradoxically at the red-hot intersection of New Age health mania and industrial chemistry. Green tea the flavor is rapidly becoming   ubiquitous both upscale and down-market, available in a martini glass at trendy L.A. lounges and in a Styrofoam cup at Dunkin Donuts. In the United States, “Eastern” tends to blur together Hinduism, Buddhism, and hucksterism. It inevitably involves something to buy and usually something to eat as well. Only this harmonic-entrepreneurial convergence can explain the invention of New Zen Green Tea Truffles and Green Tea Gummy Pandas, snacks that transform a foggy idea of virtue into morsels of vice.

Beginning in the 1990s, various studies suggested that green tea might lower the risk of various cancers, reduce heart disease, slow aging, lower cholesterol, boost the immune system, improve diabetes and arthritis, help people lose weight, and produce cold fusion. Under the Food and Drug Administration’s policy of permitting “qualified health claims” for which there is some evidence—often based on industry-funded research—marketers can make all sorts of improbable boasts (see under pomegranate juice). Even when it rejects such assertions, as it has for green tea and all cancers as well as heart disease, the FDA seldom does anything to stop them.

Meanwhile, “studies” indicating a pattern of weight loss—and the fact that Japanese people do seem pretty darn thin—allow green tea to be sold as a psychic cancellation stamp on essences we love and know to be bad for us in excess, such as fat and sugar. And so, experiencing the whiplash that befalls health-food fads, green tea is getting synthesized, super-sized, and turned simultaneously into a fat vector and a diet food. The new Koots Green Tea chain in Seattle, whose proprietor is actually Japanese, sells Matcha Chocolat, a hot-cocoa drink made with white-chocolate chips and organic whipped cream. This follows on the success of Starbucks’ Tazo Green Tea Frappuccino, which also uses matcha, green tea in pulverized form. A “venti” has 560 calories if you hold the whipped cream. (The unappreciated business genius of Starbucks is not charging $4 for a latte but rather giving adults permission to drink milkshakes, on the pretext that they are merely tea or coffee.) This is exceeded by the 640 calories in the “power” version of the Matcha Green Tea Blast from Jamba Juice, a franchise chain chasing Howard Schultz’s caffeinated footsteps.

One feels these drinks cleansing the arteries and imprisoning free radicals with every sip. Of course, you can grow fat consuming too many  life-affirming antioxidants, which creates another business opportunity. Dr. Nicholas Perricone, a cosmetologist and diet-book author, made a mint after he told Oprah she would lose 10 pounds in six weeks if she switched from coffee to green tea. (This might actually happen to some people, but from cutting out the cream and sugar, not the coffee.) Coke and Nestlé are in the midst of introducing Enviga, a drink that purports to have negative calories thanks to green tea extracts known as EGCGs and caffeine. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has filed a lawsuit challenging the claim that drinking three cans of Enviga a day burns up to 106 calories, and Richard Blumenthal, the tireless attorney general of Connecticut is, as usual, investigating. Other tea-based dieting schemes seem even more improbable. Should you dislike the taste of Enviga, you can try “Asian wisdom for healthy weight loss” and apply green tea patches directly to your body.

If snacks like the Think Green line of “superfood” nutrition bars assure vibrant health, green tea beauty products promise external radiance and inner peace. Oneness with the universe is more or less guaranteed if you begin your day washing with Dove’s calming cucumber and green tea soap and spritzing with Elizabeth Arden’s Green Tea Scent, which “imparts a feeling of well-being, revitalizing both body and spirit.”   Origins “Perfect World” products are made with increasingly fashionable white tea, which is sort of baby green tea (think baby arugula). According to the company, white tea is “among the most potent antioxidants, anti-agers, anti-stress, anti-smoke, anti-pollution antidotes.” How is it that tea becomes more medically potent as it loses color and flavor? Next in this progression will be an invisible ghost tea with the regenerative properties of fetal stem cells. Scientists may also one day discover that drinking hot water is good for you.

Green tea brings tranquillity through sniffing as well as slurping and soaking. Omni uses scent machines to waft its signature aroma of green tea and lemongrass through the lobbies of its upscale hotels. L’Occitane’s Green Tea and Mint Scented Candle creates “a sense of peaceful well-being.” Another candle promises “[a] zen like quality for peace and relaxation” and “balance to the spirit.”  Tranquillity and transcendence arrive still more predictably with the consumption of green tea vodka, beer, and liqueur.

The implicit bargain in buying these products is that green tea will make you not just spiritually complete, but morally superior. This is partly because green tea had the good sense to have the word green as part of its name. It is not entirely clear how drinking tea resists climate change, but it is evident that serene, grounded green tea sippers—unlike those aggressive, overcharged coffee-heads—emit only minuscule quantities of carbon. With “one sip” of Tazo green tea, whose logo is expressed in what looks like ancient runes, “you reincarnate the original spirit of enlightenment that may have inspired the Japanese tea ceremony.” After a second sip, it seems unlikely that you will invade a Middle Eastern country. The canister on my desk says the tea bags it contains embody “a wisdom beyond wisdom, capable of enlightening both mind and body.” I just drank several cups and I do believe it’s working.