By Ruth Underwood
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(CNN) -- Can you drink your vegetables? We're not talking smoothies here. We're talking tea. It might seem an exaggeration to compare a cup of tea to a serving of veggies, but there are some similarities.
Tea is "a plant-based beverage," says Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., a Tufts University professor of nutrition. "You put those leaves in water and you heat them up and what you're doing is extracting these phytonutrients that are very similar to those that you find in fruits and vegetables.
"It doesn't have some of the vitamins and minerals and the fiber that you find in fruits and vegetables, so it's not quite equivalent, but if we're looking at those phytochemicals, then boy, there's actually a fair amount in tea." (Caffeine may have benefits, too. )
Phytochemicals are natural substances found in fruits and vegetables that are believed to benefit health and reduce the risk of disease.
When you hear about the health benefits of tea, it's often those phytochemicals that get the credit. Tea has been linked to everything from lower risk for osteoporosis to lower incidence of halitosis (bad breath), but more research is needed for definitive proof.
Blumberg says substantial data do exist on tea's effectiveness in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease. For cancer, the evidence "is strong but mixed," he says. "It's a very difficult area. The animal-model data on tea and cancer are remarkable, and I would tell you absolutely if you were a rat you should be drinking lots of tea. It's a little harder, though, when you look at the human data, where again, it's mixed."
Whatever additional benefits may be discovered, Blumberg says, tea already has plenty of positive points that make it a great choice as a drink. "Number One, it's a zero-calorie beverage. So, without naming any particular sodas out there, if you think, 'Hmm, should I have a can of soda or a cup of tea?' I can tell you from a very professional nutrition science point of view, pick the tea."
Before you put the teakettle on, here's something else to stew over: Leave the dairy in the fridge. A study this month in the European Heart Journal found that diluting your tea with milk also dilutes the benefits. Black tea significantly improved blood flow compared with drinking water but adding milk decreased the effect of the tea. So, to get the full benefits, according to researchers, you have to take your tea black.
So, how much tea should we be drinking, and what kind? Real tea -- including varieties such as black, green, oolong and white, all come from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal teas are made from various leaves, roots, bark or flowers. Because they can come from so many sources, there's not as much information on their possible benefits.
But when it comes to Camellia sinensis, Blumberg says drink up. "I tell people...if you don't drink tea, try it. Have a cup. I find it an aromatic and delicious drink. If you already drink a cup a day, consider having two. And so if you drink it frequently and consistently, that's where the benefits are seen."