A cup of tea for your health

Tea: Whether it’s in a china cup, our favourite mug or part of a cultural ritual, there’s no denying the appeal of this soothing, hot beverage. Many of us start our day with a cup, enjoy a second in the afternoon and a third in the evening. It’s part of our lifestyle. In fact, Canadians drink over 9 billion cups of it a year — a number which some predict will jump by 40 per cent over the next decade.

There’s more to it than just great taste. More people are becoming wise to the health benefits of enjoying a few cups of tea a day and are working it into their daily routine. Tea continues to be in the news as more studies reveal positive results.

So just what is tea good for, and how can you make the perfect cup? We’ve got the details.

Types of tea

First, a clarification: We tend to think of “tea” as anything that gets steeped in hot water. However, there are many different varieties of tea. Research into health benefits mainly focuses on tea that come from one source, Camellia sinensis. Black, oolong, green and white teas all come from this particular plant, but what’s different is the parts and the processing.

Black tea is made from mature, large leaves and undergoes a process which oxidizes the leaves. The process is known as fermentation, though no actual fermentation takes place.

This fermentation process is stopped halfway in the making of Oolong tea . The tea is classified as being “semi-fermented” and is said to have characteristics of both green and black teas.

Green tea doesn’t undergo fermentation, so there’s no oxidation in the processing. The tea is chemically different from black tea, and therefore offers some different benefits.

White tea is similar to green because it isn’t fermented, but it incorporates young leaves and buds — which could have less caffeine and more beneficial compounds. Though there isn’t as much research done on white tea as its black and green counterparts, green and white tea blends are hitting the shelves here in North America.

The benefits

Like chocolate and wine, tea contains a type of flavonoids called catechins. Less-processed teas like green and white are thought to have more catechins than black tea (though there is still some debate amongst experts). The catechins and other components of tea offer many perks, including:

– Catechins can reduce blood clotting and inflammation. They can also improve blood vessel function by increasing the production of nitrous oxide (which lets the vessels relax and dilate) and blocking chemicals that cause constriction.

– Numerous studies have shown that three cups of tea a day can lower your risk of developing heart disease. Some studies also point to drinking green or black tea as a way to reduce the risk of a heart attack or stroke.

– Some studies suggest that the catechins in tea can reduce the risk of certain kinds of cancer, such as lung breast or stomach cancer. However, more research is needed to determine if green tea is beneficial for therapeutic use. However, one recent study shows that it actually blocks the cancer drug bortezomib. (See The Globe and Mail for details).

– A recent study out of the University of California (supported by the Lipton Institute of Tea) found that drinking three cups of black or green tea a day reduced the risk of Ischemic stroke by 21 per cent. (Read the study published in Stroke here). Further research will be required, but there is hope that tea can be used to reduce risk, especially in people who have already had a stroke.

– Green tea, and potentially white tea as well, is thought to boost the metabolism and help with weight loss by burning more calories. The latest buzz is that when combined with exercise, green tea can help reduce that tough-to-get-rid-of belly fat (the type of fat most dangerous to our health).

– In addition to catechins, tea contains some zinc and folic acid, as well as manganese (which promotes healthy bones) and potassium.

– Tea is a natural source of fluoride, which the plant accumulates from the soil.

– Despite what you’ve heard, drinking tea does count towards your eight glasses of fluid a day. According to the UK Tea Council, tea doesn’t act as a diuretic — unless there’s more than 300 mg per cup or you’re particularly sensitive to the caffeine. Regular tea drinkers often build up a tolerance. However, only herbal teas still get the nod from doctors.

– The caffeine in tea, like that in coffee, may help ward off Alzheimer’s disease and long term memory loss in women.

– In order to maximize the benefits, you’ll have to take it “black”. Some research has found that adding milk can block the healthy effects of tea. (Green and white teas are typically enjoyed without milk anyway).

While the results are promising, many of these claims still warrant further investigation. People have said for centuries that drinking tea is good for you, but science may take a while to catch up.

Other types of tea, like rooibos, yerba mate and herbal teas (properly known as tisanes ), don’t actually contain the tea leaf and therefore don’t have the same health benefits. However, depending on their ingredients, they offer many perks of their own.

For a list of recent news, see the UK Tea Council’s Tea 4 Health website.

The cautions

The news isn’t all good. Drinking excessive amounts of tea can actually be harmful. A few studies have pointed to damage from some chemicals in tea. For example, Oxalate could cause kidney damage and soak up important minerals in the body, like calcium. However, there’s very little of it in tea, so drinking massive amounts would be required.

Some have even noted that tea bags themselves can be harmful because they contain epichlorohydrin — a known carcinogen. (In which case, loose tea dodges that risk). There’s also some debate about the safety of the fluoride, particularly in children and others who are at risk.

And while tea does have less caffeine than coffee, multiple cups still aren’t good for people who are sensitive to the chemical or who shouldn’t have caffeine due to medications or health conditions.

Brew the perfect cup

Boil the water, pour it over the tea bag and wait — you know the drill. Or do you? Just as not all teas are alike, the method of making them is different too. Here’s what you need to know to brew the perfect pot:

Start with the right water. The best tea is made with the best water — in other words, it’s free of chemicals. You might want to use a filter if you have hard water, but cold tap water will usually do the trick. Don’t try to hurry the process by using warm or hot tap water as it will have a higher concentration of chemicals and minerals. Also, start fresh each time you fill the kettle and don’t reheat leftover water.

Keep it loose. Tea enthusiasts rave about the benefits of loose tea. Why? Loose tea is more likely to be whole leaves rather than smaller, broken up pieces. Whole leaves are thought to have better flavour and won’t go stale as quickly. Many people argue that loose teas are better quality than those bags you find in the grocery store.

On a more practical note, loose teas have other advantages. You’re free to blend them yourself, and you can use them for other purposes like cooking. For instance, take the edge off a strong ginger tea by adding some lemon or orange tea. Toss any leftover liquid into an oriental stir fry.

Watch the boiling point. Water that’s too hot can turn the tea bitter, but get the right temperature and you’ll enhance the subtle flavours in the blend. Tea experts recommend:

– A roaring boil is the standard for black tea, rooibos tea and most tisanes. You won’t need to closely watch the kettle with those choices.

– Oolong tea and white tea infuse best when the water is heated until it is steaming briskly, just before the boiling point.

– When making green tea, heat the water until steam gently rises. Boiling water will make the tea bitter, so true enthusiasts might want to avoid this choice in restaurants or coffee shops.

Steep to perfection. Some herbs are more forgiving than others and will simply become stronger the longer they steep — but others will become bitter if they’re left too long. Read the directions to make sure. Rooibos tea and tisanes can sit up to seven to ten minutes, but you’ll want to take the leaves out after two minutes for white, green and oolong teas.

If you’re using loose tea, make sure you know how much to use for the size of your cup or pot. Tea that floats loose in the cup has better circulation, but can be a little messier.

Try it again. Many teas like green and white varieties are good for multiple infusions. In other words, you can get a second or even third cup out of the same leaves if you keep to the ideal steeping times. If you want to vary the flavour, add a little tisane to the tea ball. Reusing the tea leaves also cuts down on cost.

If you’re a fan of fruit tisanes, sprinkle the used tea on yoghurt or granola, or toss in salad. Otherwise, used tea leaves of all sorts can go in the composter or garden.

Watch your additions. Tea on it’s own has no calories, but adding partially skimmed milk adds roughly 13 calories per cup, while a teaspoon of honey adds about 20 calories, and a packet of sugar adds about 15. For a low-cal flavouring, try a wedge of lemon — it has only one calorie.

When in doubt, ask questions. If there’s a good tea shop in your area, stop in and ask about the different kinds of tea. Staff members can even make recommendations about how to make it, store it and cook with it. Alternatively, look for tea vendors at the local market or craft fair. People who are passionate about tea are eager to share their expertise.

Preparing and pouring tea is an art form in many cultures, but most of us in North America don’t stand on ceremony. Still, there are many good reasons to make a good cup of tea a part of your day.


Heart Healthy Eating for Life by Leslie Beck

Distinctly Tea Inc.

Tea Association of Canada

UK Tea Council

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ YinYang


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