A Tour of Tea Part 1:
Copyright 2013 by Mark Walters
Tracker Book LLC
About 15 years ago, a relative of mine gave me a tin of loose-leaf green tea as a gift, and ever since that day I've been hooked. From the very first spoonful of beautiful leaves dancing in my cup and infusing the water with a taste like no other, I've continually been intrigued by the many varieties and blends of tea available. The satisfying taste that loose-leaf tea provided, pure and without any added creamers or sweeteners, provided the alertness and caffeine pick-me-up I desired in a zero-calorie beverage. So too did it help keep me away from drinking all the less healthful beverages when I sought a drink other than water.
I knew from common knowledge that drinking tea was healthy, but all these years I've been sipping away, transported by the flavor and not fully looking into tea's health benefits in detail. I thought it was about time to do some research on tea's positive effects upon health, for one, so that I would feel even better about drinking all those flavorful cups of tea.
The paragraphs that follow discuss tea's primary health benefits, including comparing tea's caffeine content to other beverages and comparing tea to coffee. There is a lot of information to sort through, and research is continually being done on tea's health properties. I tried to present the information in as clear and concise a way as possible, because some of it can get a little confusing. Before we look closely at the health benefits, we need to quickly discuss how tea is processed, because how a tea leaf is processed affects its beneficial properties.
Cultivation and Processing of Tea
All kinds of tea, whether green, black, white, oolong, or pu-erh, come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, and its hybrids. Camellia sinensis grows best in an acidic (not alkaline) soil and in a climate that receives 45-50 inches of rain a year, making regions of China, India, Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, Burma, Malaysia, and Indonesia prime habitat for growing and producing tea. Tea harvesting machines have been tried, but humans remain the best tea harvesters, with different portions of the plant and specific harvesting times producing the choicest grades.
Tea processing involves four main steps: withering, rolling, fermentation, and drying. Unless one is devising plans to set up a tea processing facility, these steps can be quite involved, with specific changes to the procedure depending on which type of tea you are producing. But it is during the fermentation stage when the leaf will become either a green, black, white, oolong, or pu-erh variety.
One may note the similarities between wine and tea culture in the different varieties and sophisticated tastings, but really the term “fermentation” is a bit of a misnomer, for it is actually the process of oxidation that produces these different varieties. Black teas are allowed to fully ferment (or oxidize), oolong are said to be semi-fermented, and in green and white tea, the oxidation process is stopped by the application of heat, thereby allowing the leaf to retain its naturally green color.
The Health Benefits of Tea
The process of oxidation is also thought to be linked to tea’s healthful properties. The less oxidization a tea undergoes, the more it retains its catechins, a type of antioxidant that attacks free radicals, which damage cells and cause mutations. Because green and white teas undergo less oxidation, they contain more catechins, and therefore have traditionally been thought to be most healthful. When oolong and black teas undergo oxidation, the catechins are transformed into theaflavins and thearubigins. These might sound like substances from a distant planet, but they are actually types of antioxidants, and like catechins are polyphenols. So despite the common perception that green and white teas provide the greatest health benefits, a tea drinker really receives a powerful pour of antioxidants in every cup no matter which type of tea consumed, no matter how bizarre the antioxidant name.
Tea’s antioxidant properties are arguably its strongest health benefit, because it helps prevent cancer and other diseases that involve cell damage. But tea has a number of other benefits as well. According to The Positive Effects of Tea on Human Health, studies show that tea counteracts arteriosclerosis (hardening of the arteries), cardiovascular disease, pulmonary ailments, and the flu. Tea contains a number of additional beneficial compounds, including proteins, lipids, carbohydrates, polysaccharides, theanine (a substance unique to tea), and vitamin C. Drinking tea is also thought to be beneficial for oral hygiene. While it’s important not to make overzealous claims about the therapeutic effects of tea, it is evident that much research has been done and continues to be done in this area.
Tea’s health benefits are noticeable when compared to coffee. Now we’re not here to brew up any tensions between coffee and tea drinkers, nor calling for a complete conversion to tea. For despite some rallying cries from avid tea drinkers that coffee is unhealthy, recent studies actually make the case that coffee helps protect against Parkinson’s disease, type 2 diabetes, and liver cancer, according to the Mayo Clinic. But tea does seem to weigh higher on the health scale in a few key areas. First, tea has a lower amount of caffeine than coffee, and too much caffeine can lead to a number of adverse health effects, including caffeine dependence, interfering with a restful sleep, elevated stress levels, and dehydration, as well as a “crash” of energy. Second, although tea and coffee are both bitter drinks, tea is less acidic than coffee and, therefore, easier on the stomach. Third, because of its less bitter taste, tea doesn’t require as much or any sweetener or creamer, both of which can lead to unintentional weight gain. Even if there turns out to be no magic ingredient in tea that causes weight loss, there is a behavioral link: by replacing an afternoon snack with a satisfying zero-calorie cup of tea, it will indeed cut down on the calories. Finally, unlike coffee, teas can be mixed with other beneficial herbs, such as mint, ginseng, ginger, or a variety of different fruit pieces, which all provide additional health benefits to the sipper.
Caffeine Content of Tea and Other Popular Beverages
The caffeine level of tea has been traditionally tied to the amount of processing. Black teas are generally considered to have the most amount of caffeine, going down the line to oolong, green, and white. Although, according to some sources, measuring the caffeine level of tea is not so straightforward, as significant variations can occur between different blends as well as across types. In addition, the amount of tea leaves used and duration of steep time will also affect the final caffeine amount. Intake of about 200-300 mg of caffeine a day (the equivalent of 2-4 cups of coffee) is generally considered safe, but levels of more than 500-600 mg can lead to health problems, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Cambridge World History of Food. “Tea.” Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
Encyclopædia Britannica Online Academic Edition. “Tea.” “Tea production.” Encyclopædia Britannica Inc., 2013.
Encyclopedia of World Trade From Ancient Times to the Present. “Tea.” Armonk, NY: M.E. Sharpe, 2005.
Mayo Clinic. www.mayoclinic.com
Protective Effects of Tea on Human Health. Ed. Narender K. Jain, et al. Trowbridge, UK: Cromwell Press, 2006.
Wikipedia.com. “Pu-erh Tea.” “Tea.” “Tea Production.”
The information presented in this newsletter is meant for general purposes only and is not meant to diagnose or treat any ailments. If you have a question about exercise or nutrition that pertains to your specific condition, please consult your physician before beginning an exercise program or changing your diet.
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