tea guide

There are a lot of articles online about health benefits of tea. Some of them state that by drinking enough of this beverage you can significantly prolong your life, cure most of the diseases you have and you might even become immortal. The truth is that there is not enough scientific evidence that tea (green, black, white or oolong), is as beneficial to your health as the articles online would lead you to believe.

It is very hard to conduct research on health benefits of tea because it is hard to separate the influence of other things in your life that can affect your health, like exercise, diet, amount of stress, etc. People who drink tea tend to live healthier lives, so you see where the problem comes from. Now, that being said I am not about to tell you not to drink tea you enjoy. I just want to stress that it is not a magic bullet. It will not cure you, this beverage can even harm you if drink too much of it. Although, in its defense, even drinking too much water can harm, so I am just trying to say that moderation is the key. Scientific research does say that there are benefits in drinking tea. So lets find out a little bit more about this beverage.

Tea

Tea (Camellia sinensis) has been a part of the human diet for some 5000 years. Originating from China, where it has been regarded as a key to wisdom, good health and happiness for thousands of years, it is the most consumed beverage in the world, second only to water. It is generally considered that there are four types of tea: green, black, oolong and white. They all come from the same plant, the only difference between them is the way they are processed. There are more types of tea then the original four, however tea purists consider only these four the real thing.

Green tea

green tea leaves

This tea is made from the leaves that have been processed with minimal oxidation. It is a part of the culture in China and Japan, although people drink it all over the world. Brewing time may vary from 30 seconds to 3 minutes, and the temperature of water 142 – 189°F (61-87°C), depending on the quality of tea (lower quality teas are brewed on higher temperatures and for longer periods of time). If you brew green tea for too long it will release too much tannins and become bitter, regardless of the tea quality.

The biggest green tea benefits come from antioxidants called catechins, that fight and may prevent cell damage. Although, if you add milk to the tea it will be harder to absorb them.

For better catechin absorption from green tea add a little lemon.

If you do not like the taste of the tea and need it to be a little sweeter, opt for honey instead of sugar, but not more that one teaspoon.

There is limited evidence that it might help in lowering the risks of esophageal cancer, lung cancer and oral cancer, but it can also interfere with some chemotherapy drugs, so it’s best avoided by the people receiving such therapy (or at least seek advice from your physician).

Green tea can also be linked to reducing the risk of stroke, and can slightly lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure. It can also lower blood sugar and total cholesterol. Due to the content of caffeine and tannins (which can decrease the absorption of iron and folic acid) in green tea it is best avoided by pregnant women.

China is the biggest producer of this type of tea. Also, there are many flavored versions of this tea where various herbs and plants (like jasmine, ginger, cinnamon, etc.) that have positive health effects themselves are added to the tea, and can change the taste of the tea so this might be a good solution for those that can not stomach the taste.

Black tea

Black tea leaves

This is the most widespread variety of tea. It is made from the leaves that have been fully oxidized. Unlike green tea, which usually loses its flavor within a year, black tea can retain its flavor for several years. This tea is produced all over the world, and it is the hot beverage of choice in North Africa, Middle East, Russia, Central Asia and some parts of Europe. Some blends are made in such a way to go well with milk and sugar, although adding milk to it reduces its health benefits. Like with green tea, it is better to use a limited amount of honey instead of sugar to sweeten it. Unlike green tea that becomes bitter if brewed at higher temperatures, black tea should be brewed in boiling water (or in water just below its boiling point). More delicate teas should be brewed for 3 to 4 minutes, while others might need 4 to 5 minutes. If brewed for too long it will become bitter.

Black tea contains less antioxidants than green tea, although it does contain them. That is one of the reasons it is brewed at higher temperatures.

Antioxidants in black tea are significantly more released at higher temperatures in boiling water.

It can help with oral health as it reduces plaque formation and helps in limiting growth of bacteria. It may also help in reducing the risk of ovarian cancer in women, lowers systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and is associated with reducing the risk of stroke. Long-term black tea consumption can lower LDL cholesterol and due to its high caffeine content, can also reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Although, caffeine content is the main cause for the risks related to black tea consumption if you drink more than four, or five cups a day. It can also interfere with certain drugs, or supplements, so consult with your physician before introducing it to your diet extensively.

Similar to green tea, there are also many flavored versions of black tea. If you do not like the taste, try it with some herbs and plants added, you might change your mind.

Oolong tea

oolong tea leaves

This tea falls somewhere between green and black tea, with taste more similar to the latter, and character to the former. It is partially oxidized, although the degree of oxidation may vary from 8 to 85%. China and Taiwan are the places where this tea is mostly produced and consumed. Depending on the variety of  oolong tea, it should be brewed with water at 200 to 205°F (93 to 96°C) for 3 to 10 minutes. Leaves of oolong teas that have higher quality can be used several times, and such tea improves with re brewing.

The oxidation process lowers the levels of catechins in oolong tea, as well as in black tea, but the same process elevates the levels of theaflavins and thearubigins. These two substances have anti-inflammatory, anti-allergy, and anti-cancer properties. Some studies show that oolong tea is better in helping weight loss than green tea. However, claims that you will lose 30 pounds (13 kilos) in one month just by adding two cups of oolong tea in your daily diet are more than over exaggerated. Although, adding oolong tea to your diet if you are trying to lose weight can be beneficial.

Some studies also suggest that drinking oolong tea may help in controlling eczema and similar skin diseases. It will help with your mental alertness because of its caffeine content, and might help in prevention of ovarian cancer. Some research suggest that it might lower blood sugar in people with type 2 diabetes, and other that it can prevent high blood pressure. Although more evidence needs to be assessed to prove the effectiveness of oolong tea for these purposes.

Due to its high caffeine content if consumed excessively it can also have some side effects, like headache, nausea, sleep problems, dizziness, vomiting, etc.

White tea

white tea leaves

White tea is the rarest type of tea. Until several decades ago the world outside of China did not know much about it. Originating from Fujian province of China, it is called white tea not for the color of the beverage (which is pale yellow), but for the color of the silvery hairs of the unopened buds, that turn white once they are processed into tea. Unlike other types, this one is made from unopened buds of the tea plant, either entirely (those rarest and most expensive), or in combination with mature leaves. Buds are exposed to low-level warmth immediately after being plucked to reduce water content, and then dried either by sun or hot air. During this process it gets slightly oxidized. Although it is thought to be very high in antioxidants and low in caffeine, this is not always the case. For those white teas that come from the Fujian province in China this is true, however, white tea is now produced in places like Sri Lanka, India, Taiwan, and the plants used there differ from those in Fujian province. Also, the way you brew your tea might increase caffeine content to the point that white tea may have more caffeine than black. If you are caffeine sensitive you should keep this in mind.

White tea from The Fujian province in China is high in antioxidants and low in caffeine.

Brewing of white tea depends on its type, however mineral water is preferred for brewing all types. It should be heated from 158 to 176°F (70 to 80°C), and brewed for 2 to 5 minutes. When it comes to brewing times, white tea is more flexible than green tea, and you may reuse it several times.

Since all types of tea come from the same plant, there are many overlapping health benefits. White tea is the least processed of all so it levels of antioxidants are the highest (bear in mind that we are talking about white teas produced in Fujian province, China, since they are the ones that were researched). It protects against cancer, heart disease and stroke, it kills bacteria that cause plaque, tooth decay, and bad breath, lowers cholesterol and blood pressure. It has very low caffeine content, 6 to 25 mg per cup, so it might be a good choice for those caffeine sensitive among us. Studies are not conclusive when it comes to weight loss, so oolong tea might be a better choice if this is your goal (with proper diet and exercise, of course).

How to sweeten your tea

There are many of those who can not stomach the taste of tea. However this beverage can become tastier if it is a little sweetened. Honey is the best choice, but never add it to boiling water since it reduces the beneficial health effects of honey. Wait for your tea to cool down, then add it, and do not be afraid to use a metal spoon. Honey is acidic, but it will not corrode the spoon in several seconds you need to scoop the honey. It is also sweeter than sugar so you will not need to use more than one tea spoon. As for the artificial sweeteners, I am not partial to them. However, consult with your physician before introducing any of these to your diet.

When it comes to the loose leaf vs. tea bags debate, always opt for loose leaf, if possible. Majority of tea bags contain more dust than leaf, release more tannins, which means more bitter taste, and the quality of leaves used is altogether lower. Good, high quality loose leaf tea will cost you more money than tea bags (even significantly more in some instances), however, it has more beneficial properties and better taste on its side, so extra money is worth it.

As for bottled teas, if you read the label you will find more sugar than tea there, so those are best avoided. Scientific research does not definitely tell us what properties, or what combination of properties makes tea beneficial to our health. Furthermore, the same research says that it is hard to tell to what extent tea is beneficial to our health. In light of that, it seems unlikely that someone is able to extract healthy substances from tea, when science is not yet sure what amount, in what combination, and to what extent is beneficial. I think it is always better to go for the real thing.

Which kind of tea do you like best?

Photo credit: Four GreenTeas in White Bowls, Grand Yunnan Imperial, Milk Oolong,Tea by ned