New Study Points to Benefits of Green Tea

HAIBARA, Japan -- Promising a taste that will linger for a lifetime, Isaku Watanabe fills a small pot with the best new tea of spring. Then he serves the tea by telling his guests not to drink it.

"Lick it,'' he commands. Roll it down the tongue to savor the subtle, even melancholy, blend of sweetness and faint bite, the gentle grassy scent. Then ponder the aesthetic he hails as the "essence of green.''

"If you gulp it down,'' he declares, "you cannot experience green tea.''

Watanabe, president of Kisakuen, a leading producer in Japan's green tea kingdom of Shizuoka prefecture south of Tokyo, has reason to be rhapsodic these days. A new study by U.S. and Chinese researchers shows that drinking green tea reduces the risk of developing stomach cancer by as much as half.

The study of Shanghai residents by the National Cancer Institute and Shanghai Cancer Institute, now under review for publication, follows their 1994 joint study that found green tea consumption cut the risk of developing esophageal cancer by up to 60 percent. The reduced risk was determined after adjusting for diet, smoking habits, alcohol consumption and other factors.

In Japan, the brew's perceived benefits have long been praised if not clearly proven ever since it was introduced from China in the ninth century. Eisai, the founder of Japanese Zen Buddhism, extolled it as the "elixir that creates the mountain-dwelling immortal'' in his 1211 tome, "Drink Tea and Prolong Life.''

For thousands of years, the simple drink has also inspired poetry and philosophy: Chinese aristocrats worshiped this "froth of liquid jade,'' and Japanese masters perfected the fabled tea ceremony of flower and scroll, utensil and charcoal, host and guest in a concert of harmony.

Yet few people outside Japan and China drink it regularly; black tea accounts for 80 percent of world tea consumption although there is no evidence it has the same health benefits. Growers here hope the favorable research will take green tea global.

Since the 1994 Shanghai study, at least three other studies have been conducted on green tea, and they consistently indicate a protective effect, said Joseph McLaughlin, the lead NCI researcher on the two cancer studies who now heads the private International Epidemiology Institute in Rockville, Maryland.

No one yet knows why green tea could protect health. But most research is focused on tea compounds known as polyphenols, which are believed to combat free radicals, a potentially destructive form of oxygen thought to cause cancer by damaging DNA, McLaughlin said.

All of which is prompting tea producers here to scramble for new ideas to ride the research boom. Last year, Watanabe constructed Japan's first green tea wonderland, where visitors can pluck their own leaves and watch them get steamed, rolled, fluffed, dried and packaged in a three-hour process.

The "Greenpia'' site -- short for Green Utopia -- includes a greenhouse of 5,708 tea plants of seven varieties, a two-acre plantation and a factory. A restaurant serves such dishes as green tea noodles, tempura and ice cream.

But Watanabe is ultimately eyeing overseas markets. Aware that Americans are not likely to give up their coffee breaks for green tea, he has developed a fine powdered extract to put in food or in capsules.