By Laura Peterson
Whether it’s iced, hot, or chai, apparently people all over the globe love tea. Tea comes second only to water as the most popular beverage worldwide. Considering its very humble beginnings, (tea was discovered by accident in 2737 BC when leaves from a tree dropped into Chinese Emperor Shen Nung’s cup of boiling water) it is quite astonishing to learn that in the U.S. alone consumers purchased over $5 billion worth of tea products in 2004! So what is it exactly that raised this accidental discovery to such heights of popularity?
Crossing the Teas
First of all, let’s get to know tea. Tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, a warm weather evergreen plant that is grown around the world. Like wine, tea has distinctly regional tastes and characteristics and is even named for the district it is grown in. All tea that is sold commercially is grown on estates and “tea gardens” (as seen in the photo below). The tea making process begins when the leaves of the Camellia sinensis are plucked and crushed and then exposed to the air (oxidized), during which time they undergo natural chemical reactions. The amount of oxidation is what gives us our tea varieties with their different tastes and colors. Green tea is not oxidized at all, accounting for its smooth flavor and green color. Black tea is oxidized for two to four hours, and oolong falls somewhere in between. White tea is produced a bit differently. The leaves are plucked before they reach maturity, shortly before the buds have opened. White tea gets its name from the fuzz that covers the buds, which starts off silver and turns white when dried. There is also another, lesser known tea called Pu-erh, which is made in the Yunnan province of China. It is an ancient and rare tea and though quite popular in China it is mostly enjoyed here in the U.S. only by tea connoisseurs. The process for making this tea is considered an ancient “state secret,” though we do know it is fermented, often twice, and then packed into cakes or bricks for easy storage. It is said to have a strong, earthy flavor and is dark red or brown in color.
So where do chamomile and mint teas come in? I hate to break it to you, but those herbal concoctions have been leading an imposter lifestyle all these years! All of the herbal “teas” are technically herbal infusions and not tea at all. I suppose it just appealed to our sense of simplicity to call all of our hot, infused beverages by the same name. Though the herbal infusions definitely have their positive attributes, we’re going to focus only on the real-deal name sake.
Free Radicals – They’re Not Those Kids On Skateboards In Union Square Park!
Now getting back to the question of popularity, why is this simple, humble beverage such a world-wide hit? Well, aside from taste, it may have something to do with the unarguable health benefits tea bestows upon its regular drinkers. Tea contains flavanoids, which are naturally occurring compounds with antioxidant capabilities. Antioxidants combat free radicals, which are responsible for all sorts of havoc in our bodies, including an accelerated aging process. So yes, that means regular tea drinking helps to slow down the aging process.
The antioxidant property of tea (all varieties, though white tea has three times the antioxidants of the others) has also been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer for people who drink 2-3 cups per day. Some studies have shown that tea also promotes something called programmed cell death, which blocks the growth of abnormal cells in the body – a means of keeping cancer from spreading. Tea also contains vitamin C, B2 and carotene, and tea is actually better than fruit for cleansing the system of toxins to beat (or even prevent) that seasonal cold. Green tea has also been shown in numerous studies to be a wonderful weight-loss aid! And the flavonoids in tea may also influence bone mass and reduce the risk of osteoporosis, especially for those that have been drinking tea regularly (2-3 cups per day) for six years or more.
Let’s Talk About Your Tea-Zone
Having been around for so long, tea certainly has been put to some interesting uses externally, as well. I think most of us have tried, at some point, the old trick of putting cooled tea bags on our puffy eyes hoping to erase the visible signs of a sleepless night. The reason it works is not just the coolness of the bags (which helps), or the caffeine (which also helps by drawing excess water from the skin) but also the tannin, another component of tea. Tannin is a natural astringent that helps to make the skin taut and smooth. (It’s been suggested that if you try this, you should remember to wrap the tea bags in tissues to prevent the tea from staining your skin!) White tea has recently become all the rage in top-of-the-line beauty products. Applied externally, usually in creams, white tea invigorates and replenishes distressed skin, reducing the signs of aging. One of the reasons white tea is so expensive as a drink is because this rarer form of tea has been bought up in droves by cosmetic companies, like Origins (“A Perfect World” White Tea Skin Guardian) and Bvlgari (White Tea fragrance). Just imagine the extraordinary benefits of using tea inside and outside for optimal health and beauty!
Now I know a few of you may be thinking, what about the caffeine? Yes, caffeine is another natural component of tea, but the amount of caffeine in one cup of tea is less than half that in an equal sized cup of coffee. When consumed in moderation, (again, 2-3 cups per day) the amount of caffeine is considered safe. If you are restricted from caffeine due to a medical condition, however, please consult your doctor before adding tea to your diet.
Between cancer prevention, assistance in weight-loss and anti-aging properties, it seems the Fountain of Youth can be found in your teapot!
You can find all varieties of teas at most supermarkets, natural food markets, and drugstores. To learn even more about tea, visit the Tea Association of the United States at www.teausa.com.
Origins “A Perfect World” White Tea Skin Guardian can be found at Origins stores, as well as Macy’s and Bloomingdales. Bvlgari White Tea fragrance can be found at Sephora.