Maria Uspenski won the award for Best Tea Health Advocate at the World Tea Expo in Las Vegas in June. Her book, Cancer Hates Tea (Page Street Publishing, 2016), gives tips for lifestyle changes people can make to decrease their risk of getting cancer. She owns The Tea Spot in Boulder, Colorado, which provides tea to cafes, grocery stores and directly to consumers. World Tea News talked with her about how promoting tea’s health benefits can help tea retailers.
You were an engineer at IBM for 11 years, why did you decide to become a tea health advocate?
There were a few steps in-between there. I started my own tech business, which I had for eight years and sold. Shortly after, a lot of things changed in my life. My dad died of heart disease, and my mom and I both came down with ovarian cancer. Me first, actually. She passed from it and I got better. I’ve been deemed officially cancer free for 13 years. If I’d been young enough, I would have retrained to be a cancer researcher. The things I learned about in getting better are in my Cancer Hates Tea book. There are so many things you can do, and I literally turned my life upside down to live an anti-cancer lifestyle. I felt that I was living a pretty healthy lifestyle before then: I’d never been a smoker; I’d never been much of a drinker; I was always pretty active. But there are always improvements you can make in your nutrition and stress-management routines. So, honestly, I stumbled into it. I think it’s a “once and entrepreneur, always an entrepreneur” problem. I still remember one night just lying in bed awake thinking, “How did this happen? I have employees again.” The business almost started in spite of myself. I’m so happy that it did.
What is your book’s takeaway for tea retailers?
The takeaway is pretty simple: It’s what the National Institutes of Health (or National Cancer Institute, which is part of the National Institutes of Health) says about tea, and that tea is likely a good inhibitor to certain kinds of cancers. It definitely can provide an immune system boost. Three to five cups of tea per day are likely safe to drink. The last thing the NIH said at its final get-together on this topic about five years ago was that it recommends that people drink tea daily.
I always make the caveat—in my book it’s front and center: Tea is not going to save your life. Tea is not going to annihilate your cancer. But as part of a regimen, it could provide some added boost, especially once you hit the tipping point of five cups a day. I started with, “Well, why not?” And if you look at a lot of the studies—there was actually a study specific to ovarian cancer that came out a few years after I got better that showed that it was beneficial. But when I started drinking it, it was simply that you’ll take any added insurance that’s out there and it appeared to me quantitatively at least that I could reduce my risks of recurrence by between 25 percent and 33 percent just by drinking tea. It’s cheap; it’s easy. Who in the world is not going to do that? In combination with avoiding certain foods, exercising daily, managing stress, sleeping well, not putting yourself in an unhappy place, being with friends, being positive and all those good things, hopefully you’re improving your chances by better than 50 percent than what the baseline would be ultimately. It was an easy choice for me.
And you built a business out of it, too.
When I started sourcing tea for myself, at that point there weren’t a lot of really great, fresh whole leaf teas available in the States. Now, of course, there are so many great options. But, I wanted to make it easy and accessible, not have the most expensive, connoisseur-type teas. I wanted to have teas I knew people would enjoy—both from a flavor profile and from a price perspective—so that they would become daily drinkers. I also wanted to provide the steeping tools that made it easy for them to brew that tea, because that was a big barrier to going with the freshest, healthiest teas available.
Tell me about your book, Cancer Hates Tea.
I really had free rein. It was not my idea to write a book. The publisher approached me to do a tea cookbook, and I said, “I’m not your person for that. But if you want to do the tea cookbook with a bit of a health bent on it, I’d be interested.” They came back to me a couple of weeks later and said, “We’ve stalked your bio a bit, we see that you’re a cancer survivor, would you be willing to do a kind of anti-cancer tea book?” At first I said, “I don’t really talk about that.” Then, when I told my employees what I had told the publisher, they said, “You need to do this for us. It’s going to help the business.” So, I called them back and went through that interesting process of getting a proposal to a publisher. I had five months to write it. It’s really an amalgamation of everything I’ve learned about the health benefits of tea and in the same order, essentially, that I learned it on my journey. The first chapter is a primer on how cancer works and how tea can work, too, for some of the processes that promote cancer.
The rest of the tea section is why it’s important to drink a good-quality tea, why it’s important to drink it regularly and throughout the day, and how much we should drink to ensure that we’re getting possible health benefits from it.
The next section is all the other things that are important to an anti-cancer lifestyle, such as maintaining a healthy heart, maintaining your level of fitness. There’s a chapter called “Cancer Hates Om Time,” so things like yoga and meditation and why they’re important. And “Cancer Hates a Party” is the chapter about why it’s important to be with friends. And all chapters address how tea helps each of those things.
The last part of the book is Tea 101: how do you pick your tea, what are the different teas. Then a chapter on tea drinks, and a chapter on cooking with tea. The cooking with tea is all with matcha because to get a therapeutic dose from your tea food, it has to be something that is as concentrated as matcha so you’re ingesting the leaf and not just a whiff or an infusion.
Are there any misconceptions that you believe are out there about tea?
The tea weight loss message is so silly. Surely, if you drink tea instead of a frappuccino, that’s a good choice, but there are a lot of people who believe that if they guzzle a half gallon of green tea that they will either offset their alcoholism or their obesity. That’s not going to happen. Unfortunately, the tea health message is often abused. It’s is important to us, of course, to be very true to not only the product but our customers and to represent it correctly to people we want to educate. We’re always learning new things and there are things that are contradictory in the research, but overall, taken in ensemble tea has a very positive health message.
How can retailers and the public discern good from bad information?
Do their own research. It’s always more homework. Ask questions of the purveyors. Dig deeper, always. Make sure you’re satisfied that it makes sense and that it can be supported with real research.
Both on our website and in my book, we have a load of medical references. We actually make very few health claims on our site just because it’s too dangerous. Anyone can pick that up and misinterpret it. A lot of the bad information that is out there is not the fault of the researcher. It scares me to put information out on the internet because people can take bits and pieces and reconstruct it in a way that misrepresents it.
Is the book a business tool for training staff?
It definitely is a tool for helping retailers sell more tea. We have one 40-store customer who is getting it to all store managers.
There’s a great list of references, which can give people more places to go dig. Part Four, “Let’s Tell Cancer Off Now,” starts with “It’s Your Tea Time,” and then a quiz to help you pick your tea. So it can help retailers sell more tea, and try to help people find the teas that interest them. It’s a very basic and, we’ve been told by our customers, good training tool for employees.
How can we incorporate health education into our businesses?
Drinking tea for health is the reason that many people in the U.S. come to tea to begin with and that has, I think, been responsible for a lot of the growth in tea in the last decade. This can, in particular, explain why the green tea category has grown so much faster than others. It’s not necessarily because green tea tastes five times better than black tea. It’s because people are drinking it because they believe it’s going to make them thin and beautiful or cancer free or live to be 100.
What impact do you want The Tea Spot to make on consumers?
The impact on consumers is to enlighten them as to the beauty of the tea leaf and steeping it yourself, how that can change your perception of tea as a beverage and your everyday feeling of wellness.
What kind of example do you hope to set for tea retailers?
Quality and responsibility. I love so many of my industry colleagues. That’s the best thing about going to World Tea Expo, is that I get to see a lot of people who are very like-minded. So I feel there is a lot of that out there.
What are your goals for The Tea Spot for the future?
I absolutely hope that The Tea Spot outlasts me. I want my employees to take this way into the future, and I’m not going to give up until we’re doing $1 million per year in donations, which is hopefully a year or two off. Then, after that point, if we can make a difference in even one person’s health, we’ve done our job. Tea is a fabulous substance and getting people to recognize and understand quality tea is a job that still has many decades of work to be done in this country and elsewhere. Of course, we want to be able to provide people those teas and the tools to make them that will make that seductively tasty and simple.
Can you tell me more about your donations?
We are a for-profit philanthropic company. Ten percent of everything we sell, we donate in kind for cancer and community wellness. We work with a lot of cancer wellness centers. I love to work with survivors and survivor events. For instance, we just sponsored a trek in Crested Butte, Colorado. They’re a great partner of ours. We work with groups that have cancer comfort kits for families of people who are going through treatment as well. That is what fuels and motivates. It has been such a positive business decision, it turns out, because it motivates employees way beyond just producing tea products and getting them to customers.
How does it feel to be the winner of this award?
Though I may not have felt that I was the ideal choice, it was certainly the perfect thing for the team—very motivating for them. That’s really what my business is about. I want this place to be a place where everyone feels respected and safe, and that they feel as though they’re doing the best job they’ve ever done. If I’m going to take eight-plus hours of people’s days, for years, I owe them that. This has to be rewarding, and that they feel that they’re contributing and progressing and making a change in the world because that it what we’re all about. As a company, we’re very health-focused. It is all about changing people’s habits for the healthier through tea. So, yes, as a company I suppose we deserved it.