Coffee, tea or milk? According to scientists at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), tea is definitely the best choice for the 17 million Americans currently affected with diabetes, a disease so prevalent in minority populations that it is one of the six target areas of the Department of Health and Human Services’ Initiative to Eliminate Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Health.

Common tea can be an effective weapon in the fight against diabetes because it boosts insulin activity in the body by more than 15-fold, reports Richard Anderson, a biochemist at the USDA’s Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center in Maryland. “Tea wasn’t the only factor we looked at [in our research],” he says, “but it was the best.”

In a report published online by the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in October 2002, Anderson and his team identified a chemical called epigallocatechin gallate as tea’s most insulin-enhancing ingredient. Based on their research with laboratory rats, the USDA scientists believe tea increases the body’s sensitivity to insulin by setting off a chain reaction which causes the body to attach chemicals to insulin-binding proteins that enhance their activity.

These findings are hardly surprising when you consider that tea has a long history as a traditional folk remedy for diabetes in cultures such as China, the West Indies and central Africa. Western scientists are also beginning to discover that drinking tea may help prevent high blood pressure and heart disease, two other serious health threats for many Americans of color.

What kind of tea is best for fighting diabetes? The USDA researchers found that black, green and oolong teas, with or without caffeine, have the strongest insulin-boosting properties. Herbal teas, however, are not effective, because they don’t contain leaves from tea bushes. And instead of adding milk or creamer, which can reduce the diabetes-busting effect, patients should try flavoring their tea with cinnamon, which the researchers also found to have insulin-enhancing power.
 

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