Tea May Be a Recipe for Good Health

Classic teas take their place at the wellness table.


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Above photo by Salvador Farfan/Courtesy World Tea Expo 2019; below photo by Janis Hashe

Historians believe that humans began drinking tea thousands of years ago for medicinal purposes. The oldest cultivated tea tree, in China’s Yunnan province, is thought to be 3,200 years old. As tea drinking spread across Asia, India, Indonesia, and Malaysia, it was considered to part of the “wellness” practices of those cultures.

Western science is just now catching up. In addition to all forms of teas’ growing popularity as a refreshing or energizing beverage, more research is revealing tea’s potential to aid in staying healthy.

American Dietetic Association spokesperson Katherine Tallmadge, a registered dietician, quoted in a WebMD article, said, “It’s pretty well established that the compounds in tea — their flavonoids — are good for the heart and may reduce cancer.” Matt Malek, director of research and development for 21st Century Research Laboratories, noted that green tea, in particular, has a high content of potent antioxidant polyphenols, B vitamins, potassium, and magnesium, among other minerals. It also contains the tongue-twister epigallocatechin-3-gallat, or EGCG, which is under intense study for possible multiple health benefits, some of which may include interfering with the growth of certain cancers, preventing clogging of the arteries, reducing the risk of stroke, and improving cholesterol levels.

But although green tea has been the star of the health show for some time, other forms of camellia sinensis are surging to the forefront for their own potential benefits.

• Black tea, which is made with tea leaves that are allowed to fully oxidize before being heat-processed and dried. Some studies show that consumption can protect lungs and also reduce the risk of stroke.

• White tea is harvested before the tea leaves are fully open and are still covered with tiny white hairs. The leaves are steamed, then dried. At least one study has shown possible potent anticancer properties.

• Oolong tea is allowed to partially oxidize, placing it in-between black and white teas. Its use possibly reduces bad cholesterol levels and it contains the amino acid theanine, known to aid in relaxation.

• Pu-erh tea (multiple spellings include pu’er) is a highly prized, sometimes very expensive tea in its fermented, aged form. Luxury Sino-French cosmetic line Cha Ling is based on pu-erh tea, because, as Elodie Sebag, Cha Ling’s director of development, explained, “[Pu-erh tea] is able to fight against key aging mechanisms also as an anti-aging molecule, due to the very unique process of fermentation used only for [pu-erh]. It has the very unique ability to transform with time like wine.”

• Matcha tea, currently one of the trendiest tea forms, is the powdered version of a particular type of green tea. High in antioxidants, it may help protect liver function and stimulate brain activity.

Additionally, many tea houses offer red and yellow teas and a new entry vying for “flavor of the month,” Kenyan purple tea, all of which are versions of camellia sinensis.

Local retailers, wholesalers and manufacturers have all benefited from the increase in consumption. Manufacturer Numi Organic Tea, headquartered at The Hive in Oakland, has always focused on healthful products. The company has been following the emerging information about “functional” ingredients, and has seen a rise in demand for clean, raw ingredients that enhance health properties.

“Research shows that tea can have amazing health benefits, and consumers are learning more about this,” said Maria Emmer-Aanes, Numi’s senior vice president of marketing. She noted that many people are choosing to drink less alcohol and that festive “tea-tinis” are a fun alternative. “As a tea company that sees wellness becoming more important to consumers, we are launching more products in this vein.” Later this year, Numi will launch a line of Daily Super Shots, which will feature organic teas, including matcha, combined with herbs, fruits, roots, spices, and, in some cases, “super mushrooms.”

Numi’s goal is to encourage consumers to incorporate tea, both hot and cold, into their daily routines as much as possible. “For example, just throw [an iced tea] into a reusable water bottle, and you’ve got a healthy, sustainable drink to go,” said Emmer-Aanes.

Ali Roth is both a wholesaler through Blue Willow Tea Company in Berkeley and a retailer at her Blue Willow Teaspot tea room on 10th Avenue. An expert in Japanese teas, she sees a rise in consumer knowledge about the historical use of tea as a means of staying healthy and managing mood. “[Asian medicine] is more focused on overall health and prevention, as opposed to diagnosis [and treating symptoms],” she said. “Tea as part of a healthy diet helps to center you and focus your attention.”

Customers often ask for teas that will help them cut down on coffee. Roth asks each person a variety of questions: How do you feel first thing in the morning? Are you warm or cold? Do you feel scattered? “For example, I’m always cold, so I start with a warming tea, such as a nice roasted oolong. Green tea, on the other hand, even served hot, will cool you,” she explained. The rich, earthy taste of pu-erh is also a good alternative for those used to morning coffee. “And sencha [a Japanese green tea] gets all your synapses firing,” she said.

Roth agreed that consumers are fast developing an increased appreciation for the many benefits of tea, including, she emphasized, its role in stress reduction. The Japanese tea ceremony, which she regularly performs at Blue Willow Teaspot, is in fact a form of meditation.

This was also emphasized by tea consultant Suzette Hammond, founder of Being Tea, at the recent World Tea Expo. Wrote Hammond in The Next Wave in Tea, a white paper issued at the expo, “… in our endeavor for label claims and better laboratory analysis of components … we’re still missing the deeper side of how tea is enjoyed as a mindfulness practice and has been for centuries. Further, this is something that can actually be trained. It’s not a passive benefit of tea. It is tea.”

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