Tea & Health: Key Factors to Consider

Tea & Health: Key Factors to Consider

Lately, there seem to be as many features on the benefits of tea as varieties of the stuff. And the sheer number of studies supporting tea’s positive effects on heart, lung, immune, metabolic, digestive, and mental health can be bewildering. If you’d like a flavor, we’ve listed a few resources at the end of this piece.

But there’s a danger of missing the forest for the trees here. The chances are you are not a lab scientist, an oncologist, or even a physician (great, if you are!). Frequent mentions of polyphenolic compounds, EGCG, catechins, and theaflavins are liable to leave you googling even while your cup turns cold.

So rather than simply list all the ways tea might support your health, let’s look at the ways you can choose, prepare and drink your tea to enhance those properties.

But first, we really do need to get down to basics. Like what is…‘tea’?

1. What's Tea?
Yes, that’s right. We’re not taking anything for granted here. Because depending on who you ask (or whom - it’s a pedantic topic), tea is not simply a warm or cold beverage made from steeped herbs, fruits, seeds, or roots. It’s rather more exclusive than that. And that’s a factor.

Purists define ‘true’ tea as being brewed from the leaves of the Camellia Sinensis plant, an evergreen shrub native to China and India. To be even more particular, there are only five (or is it six?) kinds of true tea: White tea / Yellow tea, Green tea, Oolong tea, Black tea, and Pu’er tea. It’s these teas that have been subject to the most scientific inquiry. which is not to say that herbal teas such as Chamomile, Rooibos, Jasmine or Echinacea don’t have health benefits. Quite a few studies suggest they do, but it’s the varieties derived from Camellia Sinensis that have excited the most interest. Now let’s consider why...

2. Variety Counts
If true teas are all made with leaves from the same common plant, then why should there be any difference between the health benefits of a White or a Black or a Green tea? It really comes down to the treatment of those leaves.

White tea is the least treated of traditional teas - it’s neither fermented nor cured, but made with young leaves quickly dried or heated to stop oxidation. This means it retains a high proportion of organic compounds, including antioxidants known as polyphenols.These can counter inflammation in various tissues, including in the heart and arteries.

Green tea is also minimally oxidized, but made with steamed leaves that retain their color. And here too a high proportion of antioxidants are retained, particularly Epigallocatechin gallate (a mouthful shortened to EGCG) whose anti-inflammatory, anti-cancer, and even weight loss promoting properties are the subject of ongoing study.

Oolong tea comes somewhere between Green and Black tea in terms of oxidation. It has been less studied than these other two, but it is likely to share some of their health benefits, especially those derived from antioxidants.

Black tea is made with withered leaves, allowed to oxidize to a shade of brown before being fired. Along with Pu’er tea, it typically has the highest caffeine levels of any of the five major tea types (but that, too, can vary). While caffeine is sometimes viewed as a negative, Black tea still contains much less than a standard black coffee. In fact, the combination of moderate caffeine levels and the amino acid L-theanine is believed to aid alertness and concentration.

Pu’er tea is unusual among tea types in being made from fermented leaves. In addition to sharing some of the antioxidants of Black and Green tea, its fermentation may also contribute probiotics beneficial to gut health.

While the precise benefits of this or that kind of tea still remain the subject of discovery and debate (and frequent studies), things become clearer when it comes to how those leaves are packaged.

3. Loose Leaf All the Way
Quite simply, loose leaf teas retain more of the natural oils, and therefore the antioxidants of the leaf, than tea bags. With all that additional breaking, grinding, and pulverizing, the contents of your average tea bag may be a shadow of the original leaf. In fact, there might not be many antioxidants left, but the caffeine could be more concentrated. And tiny fragments from leaf twigs won’t do it any favors either.

Chances are that the quality of those loose leaves will be superior too, with greater care taken in harvesting and selection. And you won’t have to worry about the presence of either bleach or microplastics leaching from modern tea bags into your cup or into the environment.

A glass tea infuser lets you capture all this rainbow of flavors and your taste buds will thank you for that.

4. Storage
How you keep your tea can determine how it ages and whether it spoils. Tea kept for any length of time will age - especially the ‘fresher’ kinds like White and Green teas - and this may affect the levels of active organic compounds remaining.

Excessive light, heat, air, and moisture can all act to degrade the integrity and flavor of tea. While refrigeration can extend the freshness of some green teas, condensation can do a great deal of harm - so be wary. To prolong the life of your tea, consider either sealing it in a foiled bag or storing it in an airtight tea canister or caddy. While your mileage may vary, the shelf life of most loose teas is reckoned to be between 18 and 24 months.

5. Habit
Perhaps the most important factor when it comes to health and tea is that you drink it regularly and often. Tea is not a pill to be taken for a passing ill. Its health benefits - beyond enhanced focus and relaxation - are reckoned to take place over time.

A study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology in 2020 - analyzing 100,902 participants of the China-PAR project2 - found that habitual tea consumption was associated with lower risks of cardiovascular disease and longer life expectancy. ‘Habitual’ was defined as three or more times a week, and the results appeared to be strongest for long-term tea drinkers, and those choosing Green tea.

One reason that frequent consumption might be especially beneficial is that polyphenols are not stored in the body for long, and ought to be topped up. And that’s something that comes very naturally to seasoned tea drinkers. So keep pouring.