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Last week, we began our look at tea and learned that some conventional teas can infuse some heavy duty pesticides to your otherwise healthful cup of tea. Thankfully, organic options guarantee you a toxin-free cup of tea. I took a long (like, awkwardly long) walk around the grocery store tea aisle this week, made some notes, and did a little research in toxins in tea.
Here’s the scoop:
If you want a toxin-free cup of tea, there are more factors to consider besides organic or conventional tea leaves.
The Tea Itself and Its Not-So-Natural Flavorings
I went tea shopping this week. Thanks to last week’s research, I knew I only wanted to consider organic teas (because of the whole pesticide thing). Don’t have organic options in your store? 1. Ask for some. 2. Use this info anyways, it’s not unique to organic teas. However, don’t overlook organic options assuming they’re more expensive than conventional teas – they aren’t. In fact, the cheapest tea I found in my store ($2.96 for 20 tea bags) was certified organic. Some of the most expensive teas were conventional.
As I read every stinkin’ label in that aisle, I noticed that most teas have other ingredients besides tea leaves. The most common non-tea ingredients were: other herbs, essential oils, and synthetic (natural or artificial) flavorings. Flavorings were incredibly common in almost every brand of tea, even the organic ones! Larger tea companies were the most likely to contain flavorings. I assume that’s to develop their proprietary “brand” flavor.
[Throughout past research and articles, we’ve touched on “natural flavors”, but after going through all our previous articles, I realize we’ve never devoted an in-depth look at natural flavors. Let’s add that to the to-do list! What have you heard or learned about natural flavorings?]
In short, “natural flavors” are compounds that are extracted or derived from a natural source. That source can be a fruit or veggie, plant, tree, bark, fungus, root, or an animal. You may have seen some stories about how some vanilla, raspberry, or strawberry “natural flavors” are actually extracted from the anal glands of beavers. (Sorry. I know that’s an image that you’ll never be able to forget.) Just because it comes from something natural does not mean we want to drink it with our tea.
Personally, I want to know what’s in my food, and when a company chooses to hide its ingredients as “natural flavors”, I’m suspicious.
The FDA defines natural flavorings as
“the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional.”
Under that definition, forms of MSG (yeast extract, hydrolyzed soy protein, etc.) can be considered “natural flavors” and do not have to be specifically disclosed. For that reason, I choose to avoid “natural” flavors as much as artificial flavors. What are your thoughts?
The Tea Bag: Paper or Plastic?
I’ve seen tea sold three ways: standard paper tea bags, fancy sachets, or loose with no bags. An article I read during this research mentioned the potential chemicals hiding in the tea bag itself. Are there toxic chemicals in all tea bags? Certain kinds?
Paper Tea Bags
Paper tea bags are the standard, old-school tea bags. They are a thin, whitish, papery material that hold the tea leaves. Until now, I’ve never thought twice about them. Fact 1: they’re not paper; paper would dissolve in water. Fact 2: they’re treated in some way to resist disintegration, and/or they are not paper at all. So, what’s coating these tea bags?
Honestly, I couldn’t find a super-clear answer. What I did find was a lot of talk about the most common bag-coating compound, epichlorohydrin. This chemical is considered a likely carcinogen on its own, but when it hits water, it changes to 3-MCPD, a compound that is linked to cancer and reproductive disorders in lab studies. Thanks to recent public awareness, many tea companies have been very open about the composition of their tea bags, and there are several brands who do not use epichlorohydrin to treat their products. Instead, some companies are using other plant-based materials for their tea bags. Some bags are corn-based, which sounds fine, but it makes me wonder if GMO’s are an issue with that product. Other bags are made from manila, hemp, or bamboo fibers and are strong enough to work well without any resin coatings.
Curious about your tea bag? Email the company and politely ask about their bag composition and treatments. Clean Plates has done a bit of research to get you started. These organic brands do not use epichlorohydrin: Stash Organic, Choice, Numi, Eden Organic, Organic Yogi, and Organic Tazo.
Sachet Tea Bags
Fancy, pyramid-shaped mesh tea bags or sachets are fairly new. Their larger size, unique shape, and fabric construction supposedly brew a better cup than paper tea bags. Have you tried them? These bags are commonly made from food grade nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET).
(Shown: Tea Forté’s tea infuser bag, made with PET)
“Food grade” sounds safe, right? Well, it is up to a certain temperature. Although PET and nylon have high melting temperatures, the glass transition temp (which doesn’t have anything to do with actual glass) is pretty low, 117º F for nylon and 158º F for PET. This is the temperature where a compound begins breaking down and changing – where leaching can begin. Most teas are brewed at 170º F or higher.
Leaching can begin at the glass transition temp and longer exposure means more leaching. My concern is the total lack of research. There aren’t any studies to show just how much leaching, if any, happens when you use a plastic tea bag.
The concept of plastic leaching into our food is not new. BPA-free plastics are supposed to be safer, but research is showing that any plastic can leach harmful, endocrine-disrupting chemicals into your foods, especially when heated. That’s enough information for me to put plastic-based tea bags on my “avoid” list.
Loose Leaf Tea
Tea is also available in a loose leaf form with no bag at all. Loose leaf tea typically has larger tea leaves and may take a little longer to brew, but tea experts firmly believe it makes a better cup of tea. Bonus: it’s also the cheapest option. Drawback: it is less convenient than tea bags. You need a tea strainer or infuser to remove the tea leaves from your cup or pot. I’ve seen lots of different tea infusers: plastic, silicone, stainless steel, traditional, or whimsical. I picked up a stainless steel mesh tea infuser at Ikea for $1, and it works well.
If you don’t mind the extra step of straining your tea leaves, I think loose leaf tea is your best bet. It’s priced well, and you don’t have to worry about any chemicals leaching from the tea bag. I think it would be fun to get creative and make up your own blends.
Now that we know which teas to select, are there any special tools to consider? I asked my tea-drinking friends what their must-have tea accessories are and here are a few things that sounded pretty cool.
1. Electric Tea Kettles – can range from basic water boiling kettles ($20) to high end, fully automated kettles that heat the water to the appropriate temp, steep your tea, and remove it at the perfect time ($250). As you shop for a kettle, watch out for kettles with plastic components or non-stick coatings to avoid the risk of leaching chemicals into the water. I found a nice mid-range option that I will probably add to my wishlist. This kettle by Breville has a stainless steel interior, no plastic components, and heats the water to different temps based on the type of tea you are brewing. It holds the temp for up to 20 minutes and has an auto shut off if you forget about it or the water level gets too low. Bonus: it’s not just for tea. It will also boil water, a great time saver for quickly cooking pasta, rice, or veggies.
2. DIY Tea Bags – if you love your loose tea and want to enjoy it on the go, you can buy reusable or disposable tea bags to fill with your favorite teas. You can use cotton muslin bags ($3 for 4) or manila fiber paper bags ($6.50 for 100). The paper tea bags seem like a great option, and I liked how they are available in different sizes from 1 cup – 4 cup capacities. You can even buy tea bag clips ($3) to keep your bag sealed. Want to make your own reusable tea bags? Easy. Pick up some organic, unbleached cotton muslin fabric and 100% cotton thread to sew your own reusable tea bags (and then sell a bunch more on Etsy).
3. Tea Infusers – hold your loose tea and submerge it into your cup or teapot. Once your tea is ready, you remove the infuser. There is an endless variety of tea infusers available…classic, steel, silicone, fun, kid-friendly. Here are a few highlights:
Basic Mesh Ball, $1.60 – classic, affordable, and can also be used as a spice ball
Infuser with Dish, $12.50 – includes a porcelain resting plate to hold your used infuser
Infuser Ball with Handle, $15 – doubles as measuring spoon and stirrer
Manatea, $11 – silicone construction, cute little manatee holds your tea leaves for you
4. Tea Strainers – remove the tea leaves as you pour or drink your tea. You brew the loose tea in a teapot and place the strainer over your tea cup as you pour the tea. The strainer catches the leaves and keeps them out of your tea.
5. Travel Mugs for Tea – will brew your tea on the go. Some have a built in strainer to hold back tea leaves as you drink. Others have a removable infuser. The one’s I’ve linked to are glass, completely plastic-free. There are many options available, but most of them are made with some sort of plastic.
6. Tea Storage Tins – are the best way to store loose leaf teas. You want an airtight container that’s just the right size and not too large. I found a 3-pack of metal tea tins for $13 that are functional and affordable, but if you want something special, check a specialty tea store for some downright pretty containers.
What other tools or accessories would you recommend?
Shopping for Tea, How I Got Duped
Earlier this week, I went tea shopping with my five year old in tow. I knew I wanted to try an organic tea, and I thought I would look for a white tea, since I hadn’t tried one before. Even knowing what I wanted, I was still overwhelmed and spent 5-10 minutes comparing options. My child then spilled a water bottle all over the aisle, so I had to clean it up, grab a box of tea, and keep moving. I bought an organic white citrus tea, got home, brewed a cup, and then read the ingredients: organic Chinese white tea, organic lemon myrtle, natural tangerine flavor with other natural flavors. Oops. That’s when I learned my lesson and started reading the ingredients list on teas, even the organic ones.
Added flavors are everywhere. In the cheap brands, in the expensive boutique brands. If you want to avoid artificial or “natural” flavors, read the labels. Several brands were flavoring-free (yay!) and some brands used essential oils instead of flavorings. My advice: know what you want, know what you don’t want, always read labels!
Buying in Bulk
This week, I discovered that my favorite spice company, Frontier, also sells organic loose leaf teas in bulk. If you want to save money and still drink a great cup of organic tea, buying in bulk is the way to go! (Note: these are Amazon’s prices, which always change. There are also several “subscribe and save” deals that can save you an extra 5-20%.)
Organic Earl Grey, $15/lb
Organic English Breakfast, $20/lb
Organic Jasmine Green Tea, $19.75/lb
You can also buy several herbal teas in bulk including: chamomile, mint, red raspberry leaf, elderberry, etc.
Am I missing any other great tea deals? I’m new to the tea world, so share your wisdom!
What about your water?
During the past couple weeks, I’ve given a lot of thought to what’s in the tea and how it’s manufactured. I think it’s time to take a look at our water. Next week, we’ll take a look at tap water. What’s in it, what’s removed from it, and is it something you should worry about? We’ll go on to learn about different types of water filters, types of bottled water, and if there really is a “best” option for your water.