News & Perspectives

What's Brewing: Healthy New Tea Choices

Every year, the list of health benefits for "traditional" tea--the black, green, and oolong types brewed from the leaves of the Camillia sinensis bush--stretches ever longer.

Simply by sipping one to four cups of tea a day, it's been shown, can lower your cholesterol and blood pressure, lessen your risk of blood clots, and protect you against stroke and heart attack. In addition, regular tea drinkers are less likely to get certain types of cancer (mouth, stomach, colon, skin, among others). Tea even fights germs and oral bacteria, and staves off the bone-thinning that comes with age.

"There's more research on tea than on probably any other food around," explains Joseph Simrany, president of the New York City-based Tea Council of the United States. Nearly 300 tea studies were done in 2002 alone. Tea sales have surged, and articles have proliferated celebrating the explosion of tea rooms across the country.

Even if you're a diehard coffee aficionado, you may want to "take tea and see." Its health benefits are now available in ways you probably never imagined. Think tea served with bubbles or made dazzling with Indian spices like cardamom. Imagine tea as a sparkling soda pop or even tea you can eat, sprinkled on food or cooked into sauces. And there's even the healthy essence of tea distilled into a supplement you pop once a day.

Comparing these new products with traditionally brewed teas, Simrany says, "You'll still derive the same health benefits of tea flavonoids as long as the base of tea is there, straight from the Camellia sinensis bush." And many of these wild new brews and enticing forms are actually good for you.

What You Get in a Cuppa

The seemingly limitless health powers attributed to black, green, and oolong teas are based largely on their abundant natural stores of polyphenols, plant chemicals that can act as antioxidants in the body. Tea is particularly rich in a subclass of polyphenols known as flavonoids. Experts say that approximately two cups of tea provide the same number of antioxidant flavonoids as one serving of fruits or vegetables. In contrast, "herbal" infusions made from plants other than C. sinensis don't contain such antioxidant stores. They may be very healthful, but generally much less is known about them.

The antioxidants in tea are beneficial because they can counteract DNA damage to cells that is caused by rogue oxygen molecules called free radicals. Damaged DNA can lead to cancer and is associated with heart disease. By fighting inflammation, antioxidants also keep blood vessels supple and promote healthy blood flow.

The concentration of antioxidant compounds, the color, and the taste of tea vary based on how long the leaves are fermented (dried) before being packed and shipped. This process determines whether it becomes black, green, or oolong tea. Most Americans drink black tea--it accounts for 90% of tea consumed domestically--and most of it is consumed as iced tea. Over the past few years, however, green tea, with its pale color and subtle nutty flavor has been gaining in popularity in the U.S.

Green tea has been touted for its health benefits because it contains such large amounts of antioxidant flavonoids called catechins. (The major polyphenol in green tea is epigallocatechin 3-gallate: EGCG.) Its stats are impressive: Green tea provides antioxidant power 200 times more potent than vitamin C, and 20 times more powerful than vitamin E, in protecting cells from damage linked to cancer, heart disease, and other ills, studies show.

Black tea, worldwide research is now starting to reveal, is also a powerhouse. It supplies flavonoids, just as green tea does, but in a form that's already converted into more complex varieties called theaflavins and therubigins, both of which are known to provide myriad heart-healthy benefits. Some experts say that the number of antioxidants in black tea may actually be higher than those found in green tea.

Studying the Tea Leaf

Numerous clinical trials have shown that drinking tea can promote health. For example, a recent Japanese study found that an after-dinner cup of tea can apparently undo some of the harmful effects of a fatty meal on arteries. Because tea plants naturally extract fluoride from the soil as they grow and are germ-fighters to boot, tea gargled or drunk "black" between meals (without sugar and other typical additives) can fight cavities and gum disease.

According to Joseph Simrany, the tea industry is currently working to develop a standardized system for labeling tea's antioxidant content. This will mean you'll really be able to identify what you're getting in terms of health benefits. Interestingly, the highest C. sinensis antioxidant boost is found in white tea. This form can be brewed only if very young buds are picked when they're still covered with silvery white hairs, and that happens only a few weeks each year. As a result, white tea is not readily available in the U.S., and its superpower antioxidant content is often offset by its high cost.

That said, some consumers really enjoy white tea's delicate flavor and relatively low caffeine content: 15 mg of caffeine per serving, compared to 20 mg for green tea and 40 mg for black. Enterprising cosmetics companies are also hoping to develop a white tea extract to use in a topical product that they can show will boost the skin's immune function and protect against skin cancer.

What's Brewing?

Today there's a plethora of enticing new takes on traditional tea. Some concoctions mask the tea taste with milk, spices, and sweeteners such as sugar. While this can up the calorie count, it may be worth it for the dose of healthy antioxidants delivered.

"If the sweetness or novelty get you to drink tea over a soda or some other sugary drink, then it’s still doing yourself some good," Simrany points out. And the latest findings indicate that the sugar and milk don't interfere with the healing potency of the tea's antioxidants. Many of these tantalizing new brews can be found in specialty tea houses or as new menu additions at established high-end coffee shops. Most can even be brewed at home with a little help from mixes available at these shops, grocery stores, or on the Internet. Some of the more interesting varieties include:

 Bubble tea. For the sheer fun of it, you can't beat bubble tea. Served hot or cold, in crazy flavors like honeydew, lichee, milk chocolate, taro, and papaya, this new brew from Asia is sipped through a gigantic colorful straw that accommodates big, black, chewy tapioca balls, or "bubbles," that float in the drink. Bubble tea is also sold as Pearl Tea, Tapioca Tea, Milk Tea and Booboo (Japanese slang for female breasts).

Bubble tea first appeared in Taiwan some 30 years ago and quickly took off in other parts of Asia. About a decade ago it got a foothold in Asian communities in the United States, then in college communities, and now it's available in major metropolitan areas across the country. The tea is sweet-tasting, fun, and a little bit weird. And, along with a considerable dose of other ingredients, "you'll still be getting a healthy helping of antioxidants," reassures Simrany, "because traditional tea serves as its base."

 Chai tea. Another sweet concoction built around a healthful traditional tea (usually rich black tea) is Chai, which is literally the word for tea in many parts of the world and refers to the way it is prepared. To make it, loose tea is brewed with water and spices such as clove, ginger, pepper, and cardamom; then it's strained and served with milk (and often sugar too). It can also be iced.

"Again, with Chai tea, that base of healthful tea is there no matter what you add to it," notes Simrany. This ancient beverage from India helped to introduce Americans to other ways of drinking tea. Many specialty coffee houses now offer Chai teas, often referring to them as "Tea Lattes."

Very Cool: Tea in a Bottle

When most Americans have tea, they drink it in iced form. This can be a healthy concoction, but only if it's brewed from Camillia sinensis tea leaves. Tests show that instant (powdered) iced tea mixes are usually devoid of antioxidants and other beneficial tea compounds.

You can also get some good flavonoids in bottled waters enhanced with green tea. A couple of companies "intend to give bottled water products a run for their money,'' says Simraney, with the message that there's no reason to drink "plain" water all the time if you can drink a water you like and get antioxidants as well.

 One major water bottling company, Crystal Geyser, now sells an iced tea product called Tejava, which contains high-quality Indonesian tea and no sweetener.

 The largest purveyor of green tea in Japan, Ito En, sells several variations in the U.S. as well; their bottled teas contain no sugar or sweeteners and are made with pure water and premium loose leaves, such as green, oolong, and white teas.

 In the latest twist on tea in a bottle, a small Pennsylvania company has introduced an organic green tea soda called Steap. It's carbonated and comes in flavors such as cola, orange, and raspberry.

Cook It, Eat It, Pop it

Some folks just aren’t destined to be tea sippers. For them, cooking with the milder green tea leaves is a reasonable option. Tea-featured recipes can be found in cookbooks and on the world wide web; they use the leaf whole or powered or brewed in myriad ways. Fish, for example, can be roasted in a salt crust with green tea leaf. Powered green tea leaf can be sprinkled over toasted tofu, whisked into salad vinaigrettes, or used as a coating for chocolates. The possibilities are endless.

Finally, green tea can be consumed in capsule form. Most contain the equivalent of 500 mg of tea extract. A pill has one drawback, though: You don't get to slurp up chewy tapioca bubbles. Or gather among new friends to bask in the social give-and-take that has marked the drinking of tea for centuries.

Date Posted: 04/29/2003

Date Published: 04/28/2003
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