By Jacqui Frasca
While there will always be those who need coffee to start the day, for many tea lovers, their hot beverage of choice is more than just a cup full of comfort. Tea has been a ritualistic part of many cultures for centuries, and its benefits are numerous and diverse, as tea is able to deliver relaxation, energy, vitamins and everything in between. A popular alternative to coffee and sugary soft drinks, tea has been instrumental for those looking to lose weight, improve their complexion or harness the powers of an antioxidant boost. Because of its nutritional benefits, tea is a unique and customizable way to achieve mindful eating and improve mental well-being.
Tea distributors are growing with the drink’s popularity. In 2012, Teavana, a specialty retailer offering more than 100 varieties of premium loose-leaf teas and authentic artisan teawares, bought out Teaopia in Canada and was then bought by Starbucks. According to the International Business Times, Starbucks plans to open 1,500 locations over the next five years, which will offer Teavana products. Howard Schultz, the newly re-appointed CEO of Starbucks, hopes that stand-alone Teavana shops across the country will “do for tea what [Starbucks] did for coffee.”
Tea’s long history spreads across many cultures, with the first recorded tea-drinking occurring in China at least as far back as the Zhou Dynasty (1046−256 BC), meaning that tea has been an integral part of Chinese culture for around 3,000 years. Each country, whether their traditional tea is from the camellia sinensis plant or from an herbal bush, has their own culture surrounding tea. Eric Michael Dale, Ph.D., professor of philosophy and religion at Emerson and Fisher colleges in Boston, notes that Chinese culture is deeply associated with tea. This is in part because the Chinese people consider themselves to be descendants of the legendary discoverer of tea in China, Yan Di, as well as Huang Di, the “Yellow Emperor,” a figure associated with traditional Chinese medicine. “Yan Di is also popularly revered as the immortal of medicine, and his mythical discovery of tea was a result of his personally ingesting countless herbs, roots, minerals and toxins to learn the use and properties of each,” Dale says.
In addition to its physical properties, tea also transcended class divisions. “In the Zhou [dynasty], tea was used for medicine as well as pleasure by both commoner and nobility alike,” says Dale. “The peasants valued the calming effects of tea after a long day of work; the nobility and scholars came to use tea as a stimulant, for extended evenings of friendly discussions or as an aid on long nights of study. And everyone used tea as a medicine, since tea has caffeine, amino acids and vitamins.”
Reverence for tea echoes throughout other cultures as well. Though Japanese culture is known for its intricate tea ceremonies, the plants are not native to the country. “In Japan, tea has always been closely associated with Buddhism,” explains Dale. “Saicho, the founder of Tendai Buddhism in Japan, is traditionally held to have been the first to introduce tea to Japan when he returned from China in 805 AD. Green tea was traditionally brought to Japan by Eisai in 1191 AD for use by monks during long periods of meditation.” Dale notes that the traditional Japanese tea ceremony developed as a form of ritual meditation within Zen Buddhism, and became even more important in the 1500s with the rise of the samurai class and the adoption of Confucian norms and values in Japan. “Tea became a central aspect of feudal life in Japan,” he says. “Lords would serve tea in elaborate ceremonies designed to show their cultivation, as well as focus everyone’s minds on the important matters at hand. Appreciation of tea’s aesthetic qualities also became a central aspect of samurai culture’s ‘peaceful arts,’ along with calligraphy, flower arranging and writing poetry.”
Teas come in all shapes and sizes, and different types of tea call for different methods of brewing to brew the perfect cup. Many people may be surprised to learn that white, green, oolong and black teas all come from the same plant, the camellia sinensis. Through processes such as drying, withering and pan-frying, the different tea types are born. White tea is the purest of the camellia sinensis leaves and is simply dried, resulting in the highest amount of antioxidants, low caffeine content and a silkier, lighter brew. These teas are particularly ideal for those who are sensitive to caffeine and who want to avoid tannins, astringent plant compounds that can be bitter.
Green tea can be creamy, sweet, vegetal and even a little nutty, and it contains less caffeine than decaf coffee and pairs beautifully with a slice of citrus fruit. Produced primarily in China and Japan, the leaves are picked, dried and heat-treated to stop fermentation of the loose-leaf green tea. Numerous studies, such as one in the Global Journal of Pharmacology, have shown that green tea is effective in regulating blood sugar, so it may be helpful for those with diabetes or hypoglycemia. It also makes a great pre-workout drink. The catechin EGCG, a powerful water-soluble antioxidant, mimics insulin, decreasing the activity of genes that enhance glucose production and lowering glucose production in the liver.
Oolong, a partially fermented tea often celebrated for its digestive properties, contains between 10 and 15 percent of the caffeine found in a cup of coffee. Lighter oolongs are very floral, while roasted oolongs can be nutty and strong. These teas are great to drink alongside meals. Black tea, with 20 percent of the caffeine of coffee, is the type used to make sweet tea and is a very popular breakfast tea. An earthy black tea from China’s Yunnan province, called pu-erh, or diet tea, has been receiving more media attention recently due to recommendations from TV’s Dr. Oz and bestselling author Dr. Weil. Because it is fully oxidized, pu-erh has lower antioxidants than white or green tea, but is specifically aged to help target and promote weight loss.
Herbal teas like yerba mate (YER-bah MAH-tay) and rooibos (ROY-bos) come from entirely different plants. Rooibos, which can have a medicinal taste to some, is known for boosting the immune system and naturally has no caffeine. Pure, green rooibos from the South African red bush is an ideal base for herbal infusions such as chamomile for a bedtime tea or citrus for a mood-lifter. Yerba mate is on the other end of the caffeine spectrum entirely, containing 100 percent of the caffeine of coffee, though unlike coffee, yerba mate is rich in vitamins, minerals and amino acids. Sourced from rainforest areas in South America, mate is traditionally used to help people adjust to higher altitudes.
Lisa Richardson, a tea expert and one of the first 15 people in the world to achieve the title of Certified Tea Specialist from the Specialty Tea Institute, has dedicated her life to educating others about tea through her books “Tea with a Twist: Entertaining and Cooking with Tea” and “The World in Your Teacup: Celebrating Tea Traditions Near and Far.” Over the past 12 years, she has been excited to see the shift in appreciation for teas. “It’s really interesting to see, because we didn’t know that tea would come into a different kind of popularity that it has, and we’re thrilled for it,” she says. “People want to know about it, which just enthralls me.”
Richardson had her first cup of tea (cinnamon spice tea, to be exact) in the early 1990s and was hooked. “It’s sort of a love affair that started with a really great cup of tea,” she recalls. Richardson had time during her first pregnancy to really delve into the tea world and read as much as she could about the drink, its mythology and the lifestyle surrounding it. “It’s a never-ending process for me. I’m always learning something new, something interesting, something different. I just don’t think you will ever know all there is to know about tea.”
While there have been countless studies showing that certain teas are better for things like weight loss or complexion, Richardson is unconvinced. In the case of antioxidants, for example, “All teas have antioxidants in them because they all derive from the same type of plant,” she says. “There are two different varieties: the camellia sinensis sinensis, which is the Chinese variety, and the camellia sinensis assamica, which is the Indian variety. From those there are hundreds of different cultivars that research facilities all around the world try to grow and cultivate for what will work best in their environment, be the most disease-resistant and have the best output and flavor.”
Extensive tea studies have been done for decades and are still being done, and Richardson says no one can be entirely sure one tea is better than another, health-wise. She recently attended the 5th International Tea and Health Symposium in Washington, D.C. Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., who is in charge of the symposium, is an antioxidant researcher at Tufts University. “He’s one of the biggest antioxidant researchers in the U.S. and he says what I have been taught and read and figured out—you can’t say one tea is better than another for certain things,” says Richardson. “All tea is good for you and there are some teas that have been studied that help certain areas. That’s not to say that it’s the only tea—just the tea that’s been tested.”
Despite the back-and-forth of what tea can and cannot do for you, what we know about tea makes it a great addition to your daily life. “It’s part of a healthy lifestyle—tea is not a medicine. And the more you drink and the different varieties that you can consume throughout the day is really probably the best. But drink what you love,” Richardson advises. “If you don’t love green tea but you’ve heard all this research suggesting that green tea is good for you, you’re not going to drink very much of it, and it’s not going to be pleasurable. Part of the health benefit of tea is that it slows down your relaxing. It’s an enjoyable event for you.”
Whether you’re already fully immersed in your own tea routine or you’ve yet to find that perfect cup, there’s plenty in the tea world to explore and taste. Adding a few cups of tea to your daily routine will help you slip into healthier habits and improve your overall wellness and well-being. A transition to tea over coffee or sodas adds a little “me time” to your busy schedule and results in delicious benefits.