A cup of warm tea after a long day at work sounds like a comforting way to unwind, and for many, it is a daily ritual. In certain countries, this ritual involves a specific preparation process that could be considered an art. Drinking tea comes with many benefits, but also a number of questions. What are those healthy compounds in our tea? How many cups is too many? What about caffeine? Which tea should we choose to get the maximum benefit out of it? What about herbal teas? Does it matter if its organic? Lets answer some of these questions!
WHAT IS TEA?
Drinking tea has a long history, especially in countries like China and Japan, and it was used as medicine long before anyone knew what antioxidants actually are. When we talk about tea in general, we include tea leaves, rooibos needles, and even dried herbs, but the real tea is actually only harvested from one specific plant. For the purpose of this post, lets exclude herbal teas and other non-tea beverages and focus just on the tea leaves of Camellia Sinensis.
White, green, and black tea do not come from different plants; it is a difference in the process of preparation that gives the tea leaves of the same plant this variety of color and flavor. This gentle processing is called oxidation unlike the bad oxidation we know is associated with oils for example, this process is not harmful to the leaves at all and even very oxidized tea have a lot of health benefits. The most common types of tea we can choose from (from the mildest to the boldest in color and flavor) are white, green, oolong, black, and pue-hr. Green and black teas are the most popular teas around the world and it is green tea that is most often discussed for its health benefits.
Tea is rich in antioxidants called flavonoids. A flavonoid called catechin, present in all types of tea in various amounts, is the one green tea is most known for. It is very easy to get a good amount of antioxidants from drinking tea and it is important especially for those who do not eat enough vegetables (another great source of antioxidants). You can get as much as 240 mg of flavonoids from just one cup of tea (8 ounces). In white tea, oolong tea, and pu-erh, all present flavonoids are catechins, while green and black tea contain various amounts of other antioxidants.
The bottom line is that all teas are rich in antioxidants, so whether you choose green or black tea is only a question of preference in taste. Black tea can give you as much catechins as green tea, sometimes even more. The amount of these beneficial compounds in your teacup depends on many different factors, including climate, preparation or age, and also steeping time or temperature of water you use to brew it. Choosing loose leaf tea over bagged tea also makes a difference. No tea wins over the other in antioxidant game, rather the source is what matters, but we will cover that later.
Caffeine itself deserves a separate post, but it is fair to mention at least a few facts about it. Caffeine is a mild stimulant and in some cases, it is exactly why we drink tea. But there are many people out there who should avoid it for the exact same reason. Too much can be very unhealthy, but caffeine in reasonable amounts is actually very helpful as an antioxidant and moderate consumption of caffeine rich tea (and coffee) is not harmful for some people. (This of course does not include caffeine and sugar laden energy drinks like RedBull, or people who experience an allergic reaction to caffeine). The question here is not whether caffeine is healthy or not; the question is who it is healthy for and in what context. Be sure to check out the caffeine post to learn more, especially if you are a coffee lover.
If we talk about the amount of caffeine in tea, we can apply the same rules as we did for flavonoids. We are often told that black tea contains a higher amount of caffeine (could it be that the darker color is similar to coffee and that makes people think so?), but again: all teas contain varying amount of caffeine, depending on all the factors we mentioned earlier, like growing climate, oxidation level, preparation method, and steeping time. Different brands of black tea have different caffeine levels, and you can even find green tea that contains more caffeine than black tea. In general, it is surprisingly white tea that contains the highest amount of caffeine.
Caffeine in tea works in a synergy with other compounds. Tea contains theanine, which is an amino acid that balances the pick-me-up effect of caffeine consumption. Theanine prevents you from getting that wired up feeling you might experience with caffeine itself. For this reason, switching from coffee to tea might be a good idea for those who do not like that high feeling after their morning coffee, but still want to have all the benefits of caffeine as an antioxidant.
IS THERE A DOWNSIDE?
Chances are you have read some studies or materials about tea containing heavy metals. Here is the honest truth: tea, especially when grown in China, can contain some trace amounts of fluoride, lead, aluminum, and even mercury. But before your freak out and pour the rest of your cup in the sink, keep reading. There was a study that compared several different types of tea and then compared the results to California toxic limits standards (the most strict standards in the world) and they found out that levels of heavy metals in all teas (both organically grown and regular) were so low that there is no reason to be concerned, even if you drink more than a liter of tea every day.
Tea from China is more toxic, while tea from Japan and India had lower levels of toxins, but even the Chinese tea is safe for daily consumption. This study showed that the longer you let your tea steep, the more toxins are present in the resulting beverage, so the only thing you might want to be aware of is how long you steep it. If you let your tea steep for longer than 15 minutes, it gets bitter anyway, so watch your time for the sake of a more pleasant taste too. To put worries to sleep the study did not show any results that should make us fear our tea mugs.
ONE TEA TO RULE THEM ALL
It seems like there is always some kind of superfood or nutrition powerhouse that everyone is crazy about, and lately it is matcha tea. If you never heard of it or drank it, you might actually want to give it a try after reading this! Matcha tea is a beverage that has its origin in 11th century China, but over the years it became so popular in Japan that it is considered a Japanese tradition today.
Matcha tea is basically a finely milled green tea. The whole leaves are dried and then stone ground into a green powder that is usually mixed with water. Why is this tea so special? A few weeks before harvesting the leaves, they are shaded from the sun, which increases the level of chlorophyll and theanine in the plant. Matcha also contains a very high dose of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), an antioxidant that has a cancer protecting effect. Research shows that matcha contains 137x more EGCG than green tea! Theanine helps to balance the effects of caffeine, making us calm, but not sleepy after drinking, and it also helps to increase focus and concentration by stimulating alpha waves in the brain, making us more mentally sharp and productive. Chlorophyll helps us by removing toxins and heavy metals from the body.
Green tea has a large number of benefits on its own. With classic leaf tea we only drink water infused with tea leaves, but with matcha you actually consume the whole leaf, taking in more nutrients. Matcha is like the superhero of teas, wearing a nice vibrant green suit, being ten times stronger than a regular green tea. One cup of matcha equals 10 cups of regular steeped green tea. That means ten times more antioxidants and ten times more benefit!
Only the best tea bushes are selected, taken care of and later carefully harvested and processed, so with every cup of matcha tea, you can be sure you always get the premium grade tea. With regular loose leaf or bagged green tea, the quality is not always the best, but matcha is always top quality. As little as half a teaspoon of matcha powder gives you the antioxidant boost you need! There is a traditional method of preparation that involves special tools, but if you don't feel like learning the whole Japanese ritual, feel free to just mix it with water and drink. If you are interested in how matcha is prepared by tea enthusiasts, get your equipment here and watch the video below to learn how its made in Japan!
Who knew there is so much behind a single teabag? Something as ordinary as a cup of tea actually has quite a backstory! If you feel overwhelmed with all the information, know this: your tea of choice depends on your preference in taste. Green, white, or black, loose, bagged, or powdered, they all have benefits and they all contain healthy antioxidants. There is a downside, but it is so insignificant it should not make you fear your tea. Organically grown teas are a better choice, because of the growing conditions and overall quality. Teas from non-organic plantations are often grown with a heavy use of pesticides and herbicides (the same applies for a non-organic coffee), and every time we pour hot water over a teabag or loose leaves, we basically drink all those chemicals with the tea! Choosing organic matters, so keep that in mind next time you are shopping for tea.