A cup of hot tea is said to "warm the heart and soul". We've all experienced that feeling when we wrap our hands around the curved sides of our favourite mug and we instantly feel comfortable, safe and relaxed.
In fact, a retired ER nurse told me that the single most effective way to calm the families of patients coming into the hospital was to put a cup of tea into their hands. She noted that it "grounded" them almost immediately.
Tea is an ancient beverage and is said to be the second most popular beverage consumed in the world today. Besides being comforting, tea has been touted as a "wonder drink"... a "magic bullet" for a healthy life. But is it?
To understand the benefits of drinking tea, we need to understand what tea is and the differing options available.
One plant to rule them all...
Six main categories...
The tea process for the four most popular kinds of tea is illustrated below: White, Green, Oolong and Black.
Benefits & research...
But it is only within the past decade or so that scientists have begun to investigate tea and its benefits.
We've heard broad claims about the benefits of tea - suggesting that regular consumption may protect against a range of diseases including heart disease, allergies, inflammatory issues, cancer and diabetes.
But why? And is there any actual proof for these claims?
Tea's potential benefits are likely due to a high concentration of antioxidants found in tea called polyphenols.
Polyphenols are most commonly found in fruit and vegetables, green tea, black tea, red wine, coffee, chocolate, olives, and extra virgin olive oil. Interestingly, high levels of polyphenols in some woods can explain their natural preservation against rot.
Research shows that tea, is uniquely rich in a particular type of polyphenols called catechins... and these may be the most powerful polyphenols of all.
Some of the best circumstantial evidence on tea and health comes from the Harvard School of Public Health and their large, long-term studies of doctors and nurses: the female Nurses’ Health Study and the male Health Professionals Follow-up Study. These two groups are followed for long periods and researchers have so far determined that tea drinkers are less likely over time to develop diabetes, compared with people who drink less tea. Given that polyphenols can help regulate blood sugar (glucose) this conclusion would make sense.
Relaxation and Concentration
Drinking tea can contribute to both relaxation and concentration due to an amino acid, L-theanine, naturally occurring in the tea plant. This powerful amino acid is said to boost alpha wave production in our brains, which promotes a state of relaxed concentration - a calm alertness. One recent study funded by Unilever found that smaller doses of L-theanine, typical of those found in a cup of tea, did in fact induce changes in alpha waves as shown by an EEG.
The calming effects of L-theanine could counteract the extreme highs and jitteriness that can result from excessive caffeine intake. A high quality loose leaf tea will contain the most L-theanine, and the very highest levels are usually found in green and white teas.
Comparing Different Categories of Tea: Black, Green, Oolong & White
Black tea is the most common variety, accounting for about 75 percent of global tea consumption. Black tea contains the most caffeine of all the teas — about 40 mg per cup. Black tea has high concentrations of polyphenols, specifically theaflavins and thearubigins, which have been linked to lower levels of cholesterol (as documented in a small clinical trial conducted by U.S. Department of Agriculture researchers).
Green tea, however, is most commonly referenced when talking about health benefits. Green tea contains about 25 mg of caffeine per cup. Green tea is packed with antioxidants (polyphenols) - catechins to be precise, which are also found in red wine and chocolate. Some studies suggest that the polyphenols in tea, especially green tea, may play an important role in the prevention of cancer. Some researchers also believe that polyphenols help kill cancerous cells and stop them from growing. More research is needed to conclude this with certainty.
Oolong is similar to black tea, but fermented for less time. It contains about 30 mg of caffeine per cup. Oolong may aid in weight loss as it may activate an enzyme responsible for dissolving stored fat (triglycerides). The research in this regard is not conclusive, but is ongoing.
White tea is produced from very young tea leaves. It has much less caffeine than the others detailed above - about 15 milligrams per cup. It is thought to have similar health benefits to green tea and possibly even more. White tea is less common than green tea. As a result, less research has been conducted on white tea.
What Can We Conclude?
There doesn't appear to be much, if any, evidence that drinking tea is bad for you. In fact, the research is leaning towards a number of powerful health benefits associated with tea. Research is on-going and will continue to emerge.
Tea does have caffeine, which affects everyone differently, so it is important to moderate your intake accordingly.
For now, I'm going to sit back, relax and enjoy my warm mug of tea.
Making a perfect cup...
Making "amazing" tea, however, does require a few basic essentials:
- Good-quality tea (preferably loose-leaf)
- A measuring spoon (teaspoon)
- Infuser (to hold the loose leaf tea, in the mug or pot)
- Water (preferably filtered - a Brita-type filter is fine)
- A kettle (preferably one with a temperature gauge)
- A temperature gauge or thermometer (if kettle doesn't have one)
- A timer
Most higher-end, loose-leaf teas will provide instructions with respect to ratio of tea to water (a typical mug holds about 8 oz), as well as the perfect temperature for the water, and the time needed to steep the tea. Typically a mug holds 8 oz of water (you may want to measure the size of your mug to be sure). My suggested tea to water ratio is 1 & 1/4 teaspoons of tea to 8 oz of water. You can adjust this over time to find your perfect tea-water ratio.
The illustration below is an excellent guide for preparing different kinds of tea. To get the temperature right - and this is particularly important with green tea to avoid any bitterness, you will need a kettle with a temperature gauge or a separate thermometer. In the absence a temperature gauge or thermometer, I've also boiled the kettle to maximum and then let it rest for 5-7 minutes before pouring the water over the tea leaves. Good quality loose-leaf tea and filtered water will also make a big difference in the taste of the resulting tea.
Where to buy amazing teas...
A. C. Perch's Tea Shop, Copenhagen, Denmark: A. C. Perch's is the oldest tea shop in Europe, opening in 1835. It hasn't changed since. It is an incredibly personable shop, with very knowledgable staff. Their tea is of some of the highest quality I've ever had - particularly their Milky Oolong and Sencha green teas. The staff still use the old weights and measures system to weigh the tea. If you are ever in Copenhagen, you must go. I was lucky enough to visit A. C. Perch's in June and have included some photos below. Perch's also has an online shop.
Kusmi Tea, Paris, France & Worldwide: Kusmi is a Parisian tea brand that is distributed worldwide. They offer over 70 different varieties of high quality black tea, green tea, and infusions. I first discovered them in Paris on the banks of the Seine. Kusmi has shops around the world as well as an efficient online shop.
Løv Organic, Paris, France & Worldwide: Løv Organic is a relatively new kid on the block, opening in 2010. The brand offers, with some particularly unique blends. In Scandinavian countries 'løv' means 'leaf'. Løv Organic is heavily inspired Scandinavian culture and themed on environmental respect. They offer all their teas in bright coloured reusable tins - that make pretty collectables for your kitchen. They now have a number of shops as well as a great online shop.
David's Tea, Canada & Worldwide: David's Tea came onto the scene in 2008, with its first store opening in Toronto, Canada. Expansion has been progressive and shops have opened across Canada and in the United States. Admittedly, I frequent David's tea weekly and I am always impressed by the quality and range of their teas and blends. They offer premium "straight up" green teas and the staff are knowledgeable about their offerings. They also carry a line of innovative tea accessories from spoons and infusers, to tea sets and travel mugs. In addition to the physical shops, David's Tea also have a great on-line shop.
If you have other great tea shop recommendations, please don't hesitate to add to the comments section. I am always happy to explore new options.