A huge portion of the world begins each day with a warm, caffeinated beverage. While coffee dominates the Americas and continental Europe, tea is preferred in most of Asia and the former Soviet Union, at least according to the Pew Research Center’s interactive map. The playing field is becoming more leveled, with many countries beginning to drink both beverages in almost equal amounts. And this is great news not only for tea and coffee producers, but also for our health in general.
The science on coffee has gone back and forth for decades, from coffee being a heart-harming stimulant to an antioxidant-rich elixir. As for tea, the data have been nothing but encouraging. As of yet, “no solid data exist concerning harmful effects of tea consumption” (ScienceDaily) but you should consult a doctor if you are thinking about drastically increasing your consumption or attempting to use tea to treat or cure any disease and/or symptoms.
Types of Tea
The average person usually considers “tea” to be any type of beverage made by steeping something in warm/hot water. The definition of true tea is any beverage which contains leaves from one particular plant — Camellia sinensis — and includes only four varieties: green, black, white, and oolong. Anything else (like herbal “tea”) is an infusion and isn’t technically tea.
Photo from SeacretSpa website “Green Tea Extract“
The Camellia sinensis is a small evergreen plant but can grow up to 8 feet in the right climate. It needs moist air and mostly warm days with direct sunlight to grow best. The deep shiny green leaves are harvested in the first blush of spring, with the outermost three leaves and bud considered the best tasting for tea. To learn about different ways to prepare tea and more, visit The Tea Spot website.
Photo from the fascinating Tea4U blog.
Tea contains various amounts of caffeine based on how the leaves are prepared.
Herbal infusions are made by steeping fresh or dried herbs, flowers, and/or berries in hot water. These include but are not limited to: spearmint, lemon balm, rose hips, licorice, ginger, rooibois, chamomile, hibiscus, and more.
Generally since they do not contain actual tea leaves they are 100% caffeine-free, though they may offer many health benefits and an array of flavors and scents. Steep infusions for 6-7 minutes in freshly boiled water for the best effect.
This type of tea is the most delicate and subtle of all teas. The leaves are not rolled or processed in any way, and the leaves are generally picked while still tightly enclosed in leaf buds. Those become Silver Needles tea, and if the next two lower leaves are picked and also not processed, they become White Peony white tea.
Caffeine content ranges from 10-15mg per cup. Steep 2-3 minutes in freshly boiled water.
This type of tea is made by gently heating the fresh leaves directly after plucking. This prevents oxidation, and the dried leaves retain their green color. Sometimes charcoal or smoke is used during the heating process to impart extra flavors.
Steep 2-3 minutes in freshly boiled water at 160–190° F. Chinese green teas contain about 30–35 milligrams of caffeine per 8 oz cup, and Japanese green teas contain 25 – 30 milligrams of caffeine per 8 oz cup.
This type of tea is semi-oxidized, putting them halfway between green and black tea. The caffeine level and antioxidant amount are also halfway between black and green, making them healthy yet also palatable. For this reason oolongs are most sought after by tea connoisseurs. All oolongs are grown in either China or Taiwan.
Preparation of oolong teas requires pure water at 190–205° F. They may be infused multiple (3–7) times, each steep lasting 1–3 minutes. The caffeine content of oolong teas decreases dramatically from the first to the third brew, about 30–50 mg/cup in first cup, 15–25 in second, and 5–10 in the third.
This type of tea is made by fully oxidizing tea leaves to produce a rich brown-black or brown-red brew. After the leaves are picked they are crushed or rolled, allowed to oxidize fully, then fired in an oven.
Black tea is the most popular tea in the Western countries, likely due to its caffeine content of 40-60mg per cup. All black teas originate from China, India, or Sri Lanka.
Pronounced “yer-ba mah-tay”, this is an ancient medicinal drink deeply ingrained in many cultures of South America such as Brazil and Argentina. Though not a tea, as it contains no C. sinensis leaves, Yerba Maté is an appetite suppressant and is high in Vitamin C, potassium, magnesium, and manganese.
Mate has 35mg caffeine per cup, and contains many other chemicals which drinkers claim mellow the experience, providing focus and alertness without negative side effects. Yerba Maté should be steeped for 6–7 minutes using hot, but not boiled water. Boiling water can make mate bitter, just like tea.
Health benefits of drinking tea
The claims of health benefits from teas are varied and wide-spread. Tea as herbal medicine is a thousands of years ancient practice. Native Americans, native Asians, middle Easterners, have long regarded tea as a cornerstone of health, happiness and wisdom.
With the rise in power of Western nations and the increasing rigor of scientific study in health, more and more evidence supporting the health benefits of tea is being found. Studies have shown that some teas may help with cancer, heart disease, and diabetes; encourage weight loss; lower cholesterol; reduce risk for Parkinsons and Alzheimers; and bring about mental alertness. Tea also appears to have antimicrobial qualities.
I could write up a huge list of all the ailments tea is said to relieve or cure, but instead I will direct the science-minded to the fact that the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition featured 11 articles from the 5th international scientific symposium on Tea and Human Health concerning the various health benefits of tea.
Various types of tea contain catecholamines, EGCG, antioxidants, and flavonoids; compounds we are terrible at reproducing in a lab, which is a good thing. These delicate molecules are released as the tea leaves are steeped in hot water, and absorbed by our body when we drink it. Although a lot of questions remain about how long tea needs to be steeped for the most benefit, and how much you need to drink, nutritionists agree any tea is good tea. Still, they prefer brewed teas over bottled to avoid the extra calories and sweeteners.
Photo from Examine: “Green Tea Catechins“
For a simpler list, check out the TIME article “13 Reasons Why Tea Is Good For You“. You can find information on the various types of tea and their health benefits at WebMD. While not all the health claims of tea are verified, there are as yet no negative findings. Most teas are benign, but the FDA has issued warnings about so-called ‘dieter’s teas’ that contain senna, aloe, buckthorn, and other plant-derived laxatives. These could be harmful to your health.
The FDA cautions against taking supplements that include:
- Willow bark
If you live in Zone 7-9 in the US and feel inspired to grow your very own tea bush(es), check out Go Organic Gardening for tips and info on how to grow, harvest, prepare, and more.