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Last week, we discussed about refined and unrefined salt. Before I dive into comparing organic vs. conventional tea, I’m starting with the basics and the health benefits of tea (and some concerns) so I can [hopefully] understand tea a little better.
Are you a tea drinker? Hot or iced? Black, fruity, or light?
I’m not a tea drinker. There. I said it. My whole family enjoys tea, my best friend loves tea, and I only drink it a few times a year. I guess I just haven’t found one I like, but I am curious about tea.
If you’re a total tea novice like me, you walk into the tea aisle and feel totally overwhelmed. I see several different types of tea, countless flavors, and all sorts of packaging (and prices). If you are new to the tea world, here are a few of the basics.
There are 5 different types of tea: black tea, white tea, green tea, oolong tea, and pu’erh tea. The differences lie in the content (tea bud vs. leaves) and oxidation (0%-100%).
White tea comes from the young, unopened bud of the tea plant. It’s picked before the bud ever opens and is lightly oxidized through a 1-3 day withering process. White teas have the highest concentration of polyphenols.
Green tea is a combination of a bud and a leaf from the tea plant. It is picked at varying times during the season, air dried, and then heated with steam or heated. Green tea undergoes the least amount of oxidation. There are thousands of varieties of green tea available. In some higher quality green teas, the leaves and bud are hand rolled into pearl-sized spheres before heating. Another variety of green tea is scented with jasmine in an amazingly laborious way: night-blooming jasmine flowers are picked during the day and placed upon the dried tea leaves, the flowers open during the night, and the tea absorbs their scent. The scenting process is repeated 3-5 times and the whole process takes about one month.
Oolong Tea is made from the bud and upto 3 tea leaves or just the leaf itself. Oolong tea is only partially oxidized and then stopped for final shaping (spheres, rolls, etc.) and firing. The flavor of oolong tea varies by the amount of oxidation (ranging from 5-70%) and firing of the tea.
Black Tea consists of the bud plus 1-2 leaves or sometimes just leaves. It is 100% oxidized. The process begins with bruising, macerating, cutting, crushing, or rolling the leaves to release enzymes to accelerate oxidation (and create tannins). After reaching full oxidation, the tea is dried. Different varieties of black tea vary based on the bud:leaf ratio, the method of oxidation, and the origin of the tea (country, region, etc).
Pu’erh Tea is the only variety of tea that is fermented. The tea is packed tightly, moistened, and then allowed to ferment for 60 days. It is then dried and packed into bricks or left loose for bagged tea. The flavor is described as having a hint of malt, and the tea is reported to have additional health benefits.
Do you have a favorite tea? Any recommendations?
Wait. What about Herbal Tea?
Technically, “tea” can only come from ONE plant, the Camellia Sinensis. If it doesn’t come from that plant, it cannot be considered tea…at least not officially, it’s actually called a “teasan”. Today, the term “tea” encompsses a myriad of herbal ingredients, flavors, and doesn’t even have to include the Camelia Sinensis leaves at all. I even saw one tea flavor with chocolate chips added (I don’t think that can be considered a teasan or a tea). We’ll talk more about herbal teas in a couple weeks.
You may have seen these beautiful teas and wondered what exactly they were. Flowering or blooming teas are hand crafted in China. They begin with dried tea leaves, arrange them into intricate bundles, add a dried flower (jasmine, hibiscus, chrysanthemum, chamomile) in the middle, and then hand tie them into tight little bundles. The bundle is then rolled into a ball. To use, you place the ball in a teapot (clear glass, so you can watch the magic happen), steep, and watch as the ball opens, unfurls, and blooms. Pots can be re-brewed up to three times. Pricing varies based on the type of tea used, type of flower, and construction. I saw boxes for $4 – $85, ranging from $1.35 – $2.80 per blossom. (photo by Numi teas)
Health Benefits of Tea
Tea is good for you, right? Sure. But why? It contains a host of good-for-you compounds including: polyphenols, alkaloids, amino acids, carbs, protein, chlorophyll, minerals, and trace elements.
Polyphenols are naturally occurring antioxidants that have been linked to preventing cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis, and cancer.
EGCG is a type of polyphenol found in tea with highest concentrations in green teas. Studies have shown that 2-3 cups of green tea a day increases energy consumption (calorie-burning) about 4%, that’s about an extra 80 calories burned, just by drinking tea. The benefits don’t stop there. EGCG also seeks out and destroys free radicals in our bodies, those nasty little chemicals that lead to cell damage and are a gateway to cancer.
Vitamins and Minerals – tea naturally contains vitamins C, P, K, and B in addition to other minerals.
Immune-boosting. Tea drinkers were shown to have higher counts of antibacterial proteins in their blood, a marker for a stronger immune system.
Cancer prevention and cancer fighting. The power-house compounds in tea have also been shown to both prevent cancer and down-right fight it, causing some cancer cells to just burst. For more information about tea’s cancer-fighting powers, read Cancer.gov’s detailed report.
What other benefits have you heard of or experienced yourself?
Health Concerns of Tea
Are there any health concerns associated with drinking tea? Well, with all those good-for-you compounds, there are also some compounds that may do you harm.
Toxicity – All plants grown in soil will have some level of toxic elements like lead, aluminum, and fluoride. The tea plant is a little special, though, because it is considering a “hyperaccumulator” for aluminum and fluoride, meaning it will suck up and hold on to more of those elements than other plants. Studies have shown that teas can have different levels of aluminum, lead, and fluoride, ranging from benign to completely toxic.
Caffeine – In sensitive individuals, the caffeine found in tea may cause heart palpitations and insomnia. On the other end of the spectrum, decaffeinated teas can go through a chemical-laden decaffeination process and lose a lot of their health benefits.
Digestive Stress – Tannins are naturally-occurring compounds found in tea, particularly black tea, that can cause intestinal distress if you consume too much.
Pesticides – although tea is as old as civilization itself, modern farming practices have taken over, bringing pesticides and fertilizers along with it. Tea is picked and wilted and the dried…as far as I can tell, it doesn’t get washed. That means whatever pesticides are applied to the plant will end up in your cup.
Recently, controversy erupted when a firm ordered independent lab testing and found dangerously high (illegally high) pesticide levels in many popular tea brands. (For the full report, read here. Lab test results begin on page 29.) Some teas tested positive for 23 unique pesticides. Many of the pesticides are registered carcinogens.
Although the firm ordering the research had a financial stake in the results, the independent lab did not.
Some tea brands, like Celestial Seasonings, then decided to order their own independent tests to disprove this condemning report. Guess what. They never released their findings, calling them “proprietary information”. Sounds like their findings weren’t any better.
Choosing a Good Tea
Feeling all informed, I’m ready to start shopping around for some tea. Based on what I’ve learned so far, here are some factors I will take into consideration when I buy a tea:
I want to drink tea, not pesticides. I’ll choose an organic tea, thanks.
If you can’t find an organic tea, choosing a white or green tea means you’re brewing younger leaves. Younger leaves = less pesticide exposure. The older, more mature leaves in black tea have had more pesticide exposure.
Can’t find a tea you love? There are endless options. Keep sampling different brands and trying different varieties. There is a tea out there that you may love…or at least like.
What factors will affect your tea purchase?
It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you start hearing about all the health benefits/drawbacks to a food or beverage. Yesterday, I spoke with a nice employee at one of my favorite health food stores. An avid tea drinker and enthusiast, she impressed upon me the emotional benefits of stopping your busy day, brewing a pot of tea, and enjoying a few moments of rest or conversation with a friend. In many parts of the world, “tea” is a time of day (which all you Downton Abbey fans already know). A time to stop and rest, not work. If you can enjoy this down time with an organic cup of tea, great. More importantly, just make the time to stop and rest.
Next week…more tea!
We’re moving on to the next step in tea production. What happens once those carefully crafted tea leaves make it to the manufacturer? Are there gmo’s in your tea? Chemical flavorings? Phthalates? Probably. I cleaned out my pantry and found some surprising ingredients in my tea. We’ll talk tea, tea bags, and tea tools…all next week!
The following is part of an Organic Living Journey Guest Post Series now written by Mariana who has a mother’s heart and scientist’s brain.