NEW YORK -- “I want a clean cup," interrupted the Hatter. "Let’s all move one place on."
We are familiar with the mad tea party Alice visits during her adventures in Wonderland. Cup after cup of tea, day after day without end? It may sound crazy, but maybe the Mad Hatter wasn’t so mad after all. A daily dose of tea is not far from the norm for many people today. Tea is making a major resurgence in the United States — it is already in full bloom in other countries across the globe — as Americans search for enjoyable ways to create healthier lifestyles.
You probably would not guess it with Starbucks around virtually every corner here in the U.S., but tea is generally preferred to coffee. In fact, tea is the most popular beverage in the world, second only to water. Also interesting to note is that tea was the beverage of choice in traditional coffeehouses back in old England. According to Tomislav Podreka, founder of one of the largest U.S. independent importers of specialty teas, and author of the book SerendipiTea, the name “Coffee House” was acquired simply because coffee was introduced to the country a few years before tea.
People have enjoyed the company of tea for nearly 5,000 years. Tomislav Podreka says in his book that most experts place 2737 B.C. as the year when tea was first drunk, in China. The legend says that the emperor Shen Nung was strolling in his garden drinking his daily cup of boiled water, when a leaf from a nearby bush drifted into his water. He chose not to fish it out. Voila! He had tea.
Tea can be broken down into three basic types: Black, Green and Oolong. All teas come from the same plant, a white-flowered evergreen, called the Camellia sinensis. The method of processing the leaves after picking is what determines the kind of tea it is. There are different strains of the Camellia sinensis, depending on the country in which it grows, which is one of the reasons we have so many varieties of tea within these three categories.
Black Tea is most often grown in and exported from India, Sri Lanka and China. Today, the United States receives a large supply from Argentina as well. Black tea is by far the most popular in the States, and according to Chinamist.com it accounts for eighty percent of tea manufactured worldwide.
The art of making Black tea, briefly, consists of plucking and withering the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant to remove excess moisture, then rolling them to release enzymes that give taste and aroma, and finally oven-drying the leaves. Black tea is a dark brown-red color, and in China is sometimes referred to as red tea because of this. It has a smoky aroma and an intense flavor. Black tea is the most caffeinated of the three types.
Green Tea is mainly from China, Japan and Taiwan. Of the three teas, green tea is highest in antioxidants. The leaves are not fermented at all, but instead steamed immediately after plucking, then rolled and dried. Green tea looks like it sounds; its color is usually a pale green or yellow. It has a fairly mild flavor, and is the least caffeinated of the three.
Oolong Tea almost always comes out of China and Taiwan. The process to make Oolong tea lies somewhere between that of Black and Green. The leaves are only partially fermented, then heated in pans before being dried and rolled. Oolong teas have a rich taste, a lasting aftertaste, and according to Chinamist.com, are the teas most commonly served in Chinese restaurants.
Blended Teas create a fourth category and are made by adding scented or flavored essential oils or spices to a specific kind of tea, or by mixing different teas themselves. Earl Grey, for example, is black tea with a touch of bergamot, and Jasmine is green tea with a sprinkling of jasmine flowers. English Breakfast and Russian Caravan are two other popular blended teas.
The regular consumption of tea may help to prevent throat and stomach infections, and may even help prepare a person’s body against influenza.
Herbal is a fifth kind of tea that people are familiar with, particularly here in the United States. However, Herbal tea is not derived from the Camellia sinensis, but rather from various herbs, spices and wildflowers, and therefore is technically not a tea at all, but a tisane. Chamomile, peppermint, orange spice: they all fall into the tisane category. But do not worry about proper labeling. The word tea is generally accepted, even by manufacturers. Celestial Seasonings has a whole line of herbal “teas.” Check out their site for detailed information on herbs and herb safety.
So, does tea actually provide any major health benefits? Like any food or supplement, it will not do much all by itself. But the consumption of tea in addition to your regular diet can definitely prove to be favorable.
Today, tea is most credited for its preventative health properties, like lowering blood pressure and reducing the numbers of cavities. These properties, by working to maintain good general health, can help cut the risk of certain diseases and illnesses in the long run. Since different teas are rich in different vitamins, minerals and other good stuff, we’ve broken it down for you.
While all teas contain antioxidants, Green tea is the most generous when it comes to them, which are believed to fight cancer and other diseases. Tea has even more naturally occurring antioxidants than vitamin C, according to Tomislav Podreka’s SerendipiTea.
Green tea has also been credited with helping to lower cholesterol levels and the risk or heart diesease. Podreka also claims that green tea it is thought to be good for the skin, protecting it from sun damage and thereby helping to prevent early signs of aging.
Black tea, according to Podreka, is thought to stimulate the nervous system in a way that is good for the heart. And because it is full of flavonoids, vitamin-like compounds found in some fruits and vegetables, black tea is thought to help prevent stroke. Black tea may also inhibit certain cancers that occur in postmenopausal women.
Some general health benefits that all natural teas provide are strong antibacterial and antiviral properties. The regular consumption of tea may help to prevent throat and stomach infections, and may even help prepare a person’s body against influenza. Because it is an organic source of fluoride, tea inhibits tooth decay and plaque.
Tea is also considerably high in levels of zinc, calcium, folic acid and B vitamins. Zinc boosts our immune systems and helps to prevent some cancers and blindness in old age. It also helps fights colds. Calcium maintains strong bones and is important in fighting osteoporosis, arthritis and more. Folic acid is essential to metabolism, and can help prevent diseases like atherosclerosis.
B vitamins are absolutely essential for heart health. The various B vitamins improve mental abilities, control anemia and can help to control diabetes. Vegetarians and vegans especially need to be concerned about getting their daily allowance of B vitamins. Doesn’t drinking tea sound a whole lot better than popping a lot of pills?
Tea is not only good as tea, but as an ingredient for other recipies. Smoothies, herbal shakes, yogurt and seafood chowder are just a few foods and beverages that can be enhanced by tea. So you don’t always have to take it in a tea cup.
When You Should Not Drink Tea
Although tea definitely has its benefits, there are times, Podreka writes in his book, that an individual should not drink tea. The first is right before a meal. Drinking tea before you eat can dilute the gastric juices your body needs for good digestion.
Also, it is better not to drink tea right before you go to bed because of the natural caffeine that occurs in it. Although there is less caffeine than in coffee, it may interfere with sleep. (Some tisanes, on the other hand, may help to induce sleep.)
Finally, you should not drink tea with medication without first checking with your doctor. Tea can inhibit the effectiveness of some medications and contribute to harmful side effects of some others.
If you still have questions about tea, or are just eager to learn more now that you’ve had a little sip, check out these FAQs. at tea.com. Make your day a little more flavorful, and pour yourself a cup of tea. It is more than just a tasty afternoon refreshment.
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*Health Editor Tasche Bryant is trained in journalism, not medicine! If you have questions about your health, make sure you talk to your doctor.