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updated 11/7/2003 4:46:19 PM ET 2003-11-07T21:46:19

What you drink can affect your oral health. So before you take another sip of your coffee or diet soda, you may want to consider white tea. Dr. Christine Dumas discusses the unexpected health benefits as well as the hidden dangers of some of your favorite beverages.

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WHAT HAS NEW RESEARCH FOUND ABOUT THE HEALTH BENEFITS OF WHITE TEA?

New research shows that white tea provides more antioxidant and protection than any other type of tea. We know that tea is helpful in preventing cancers, heart disease, but what many people don’t realize is its benefits to oral health.

Here are some of the overall benefits of tea:

-Studies from the Netherlands have shown an inverse correlation between polyphenol intake from tea and heart disease.

-A Boston area study showed that women and men who drank one cup or more of tea daily had a 44 percent reduction in their risk of having a heart attack.

-As an antioxidant, tea is 20 times more potent than Vitamin E and 200 times more potent that Vitamin C.

-Polyphenols in tea provide protection against free radical damage that can lead to cancer and can interrupt growth factors that stimulate cancer.

-People who drink tea have a lower risk of stomach and bladder cancers.

-A study in Canada showed a 20 percent reduction in the risk of prostate cancer for tea drinkers.

-Polyphenolic benefit of tea is the blocking of enzymes and blood components that contribute to blocking arteries.

-Extracts of tea can block LDL oxidation.

-Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world after water.

BESIDES ITS APPEARANCE, WHAT MAKES WHITE TEA DIFFERENT FROM GREEN TEA OR BLACK TEA?

White teas comes from the same plant, Camellia sinesis, as green and other true teas. With green tea and black tea, the leaves are rolled after picking. Black tea is fermented for as much as an hour and a half before heat is used to dry it to halt the fermentation process. Green teas are steamed without any fermentation, which make it more healthful than black tea. By contrast, white tea is minimally processed. The tiny buds are merely withered and dried in natural sunlight; no rolling or fermenting. This minimal processing is what distinguishes it from other types of tea, and preserves its powerful health-promoting benefits.

In fact, studies reveal that it has extraordinarily high levels of polyphenols — at least three times higher than those in green tea. Polyphenols are potent antioxidants that are widely acclaimed to help improve the body’s defenses and suppress free radical activity.

According to experts at the U.S.D.A. Human Nutrition Research Center, because of its concentration of polyphenols, one cup of tea has the antioxidant equivalent of four glasses of orange juice. So, using this equation, a cup of white tea would theoretically have the antioxidant equivalent of 12 glasses of orange juice! That’s powerful.

HOW WOULD YOU DESCRIBE THE FLAVOR?

White tea is mellow, with a round, slightly sweet and subtle flavor that contains hints of honey. Unlike other types of tea, it is also delicious at room temperature due to its lack of astringency. By contrast most teas taste best when served at very hot or very cold temperatures.

As beneficial as white tea is, it is time consuming to brew. Now in a ready-to-drink format, it makes it easy to do something that’s good for you — and it tastes good.

HOW CAN DRINKING TEA IMPROVE YOUR ORAL HEALTH?

Researchers have found that tea can significantly improve oral health. Drinking a cup or two between meals can prevent cavities and periodontal disease.

Researchers found that tea suppressed the growth of cavity causing microbes and interfered with the bacterias ability to stick to teeth.

WHAT SPECIFIC ELEMENT IN TEA IS AT WORK?

A specific element of tea called polyphenols killed or suppressed cavity causing bacteria from either growing or producing acid. Tea also affected the bacterial enzymes and prevented the formation of the sticky-like material that binds plaque to teeth.

When drinking tea, plaque bacteria stopped growing and producing acid, which breaks down the teeth and causes cavities.

In another study, people rinsed with tea for one minute 10 times per day. In that study, the more people rinsed, the more their plaque and bacteria levels fell.

Drinking tea was associated with lower levels of dental cavities in a study of 6,014 secondary school children in England.

AND THERE’S EVEN GOOD NEWS WHEN IT COMES TO FIGHTING PRE-CANCEROUS LESIONS. WHAT IS IT?

In a placebo-controlled trial in patients with oral mucosa leukoplakia, a pre-cancerous lesion, oral and topical administration with a black and green tea mixture resulted in a partial regression of this lesion in 37.9 percent of the treated patients. Patients just had to drink the tea slowly.

NOW THAT WE’VE HEARD FROM THE TEETOTALERS, WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED FROM THE DRINKING HABITS OF OUR GROWN TODDLERS?

Kids are using huge sizes of big gulp drinks and drinking them all day long. Even the diet brands, have carbonation and acid that is bad for teeth. Same with sports drinks. And teens are drinking coffee drinks almost as frequently as adults now. Better choice — white tea.

They need to use portable power brushing during the day to help minimize oral erosion. It’s a big problem for today’s kids that we never had.

HOW ABOUT DRINKING SOFT DRINKS? CAN DIET ONES BE HARMFUL, TOO?

There is some new research with guidelines that your dentist never told you. If you rush to brush your teeth right after drinking soda, think again. Doing so may actually do more harm than good. It’s better to wait 30 or 60 minutes before brushing, according to new research. Because carbonated drinks are highly acidic and have the potential to damage a tooth’s enamel. Researchers conducted a study to determine the best time to brush after drinking such beverages. They found that later — rather than immediate — brushing is between three and five times more effective at protecting enamel from the erosive effects of carbonated drinks.

Researchers say that tooth enamel appears to suffer less damage when brushing occurs after the tooth has had time to mount its own defense against acidic erosion.

Acidic substances attack tooth enamel, and upper layers of the tooth can even be dissolved in some acidic drinks. However, protective agents in saliva may help repair and rebuild damaged tooth enamel. Waiting for a while seems to give the teeth a chance to rebuild, the researchers said, while immediate cleaning of such teeth can increase the damage by literally brushing off the affected layers.

AND THERE’S EVEN A HIDDEN DANGER FROM COFFEE DRINKS. WHAT IS IT?

Adults come in with multiple cavities and they don’t understand why. We often ask about their Starbucks consumption. Even if you don’t put sugar in, drinking a coffee drink with milk is like bathing your teeth in sugar all day long (milk carbs). Using a straw is somewhat helpful. You need to brush at work between meals if you are drinking coffee drinks.

Dr. Christine Dumas is a regular contributor to “Today.”

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