By Dina Eliash Robinson
Once upon the year 2737 B.C.E., so the legend goes, a windblown leaf from a then unknown, and centuries later identified as. a wild tea bush, landed in Chinese emperor Shennong’s bowl of hot water, infusing it with a rich color and bitter taste that surprised and pleased the emperor. It remains a mystery whether it was the bitter flavor or a sense of wellbeing after drinking the brew that convinced him of
the plant’s medicinal qualities.
Millennia later, around 760 A.D., written reports were produced, describing the processing of tea leaves as compressing them into dried brick tea or teacake—probably to make them easier to transport, trade, and preserve for long periods. From these ‘bricks,’ portions were shaved or sliced as needed, ground to powder in stone mortars, boiled or simply dissolved in hot water and served as a luxurious beverage to be sipped and savored.
The cultivation, trading and consumption of what came to be known as chá or chai, first became widespread throughout China and, in time, the tea drinking habit crossed borders and expanded into Japan and throughout the British Empire, from the Indian Raj to Europe and the rest of the Commonwealth. Today, both the beverage and its old moniker, chai, are part of the global culture—the name itself having entered various languages, including Russian, Romanian and Stabucks’ international menu boards.
By the 19th century, botanists had identified several different species of tea plants and an entire industry was born, consisting of tasters, healers, blenders (or “product designers”) and promoters who touted each specie’s and blend’s distinctive flavor, nutritional value and medicinal benefits. Tea drinkers became familiar with black, green, white, herbal and blended teas and learned the subtle differences tea plants acquired from the soils, climates and growing methods of their parent locations.
Cultural, Artistic and Social Traditions Lend Importance to Tea Drinking
As clocks began to dictate Teatime throughout the British Empire’s far-flung dominions, it became embedded in every strata of their diverse societies. In today’s United Kingdom especially, that gentle custom provides a breather from daily working class routines with the sharing of a cozy cup’a or spot o’ tea with family and friends; as well as a hospitable gesture to visitors among the middle classes and even as a comforting solitary respite throughout communities around the world.
Tea is a heart- and hands-warmer in Russia and other wintry nations, a widely recognized hydrating agent for colds and flu and Starbucks’ clever marketing of tea as “the other coffee”.” By now, of course tea drinking—to use an Internet expression—has gone viral and became woven into the world’s cultural, social and food-as-art tapestry.
An upscale version of the practice—English High Tea—for example, seems to have evolved as an excuse to display one’s social standing and refinement. Mostly the purview of wealthy homes, stately mansions, embassies and some of the world’s luxury hotels, from London to Hong Kong, New York City (The Plaza in the Big Apple comes to mind) and other venues that cater to the moneyed elite, High Tea is served with special manners and furnishings. The latter include handsome teacarts laden with heirloom china, crystal and silver; assortment of pastries, jam, cucumber sandwiches and fancy teas accompanied by the prerequisite ‘lumps’ of sugar, sweet cream and
Surpassing even the theatrics of High Tea is the precise choreography and meditative Zen aesthetics of the Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Classical versions of it have been elevated to artistic performances that combine the graceful gestures of exquisitely bewigged, kimono-clad women handling beautifully crafted bowls, cups, whisks and other implements to the accompaniment of ancient music played on native instruments. Guests are encouraged to admire all aspects of the ritual, including the serving accessories, music, Tea House décor, surrounding gardens (when available) and the savoring of Macha Tea, a traditional brew made with carefully spooned and vigorously whisked moss-green powder—the strong, somewhat bitter taste of which is, admittedly, an acquired one for most Western palates.
(Like all good things, of course, even tea drinking has some annoying practices—nowhere more than in certain countries’ government offices where services are frequently interrupted by ‘tea breaks’ in full view of grumbling people waiting in lines for the bureaucrats to resume work.)
Teas for Healing and Gourmet Pleasures
As tea cultivation expanded, more strains with special healing and other qualities—from digestive to respiratory, calming and soporific—were discovered and blended. Teas became ‘specialized’ and were touted for their stimulant potencies, botanical flavors and fruit-based vitamin contents. Healers, herbalists, celebrity chefs, home cooks, tea merchants and growers continue to create ‘designer blends’ from various strains, infusing some with berries, fruits, spices, seeds and nuts to obtain medicinal variants, caffeine levels and flavors designed to suit various meals, seasons, personal moods and social occasions.
Today, in the glamorous environments of specialty shops everywhere, consumers are seduced by displays of a mindboggling assortment of teas, blended for gustatory pleasures, mid-day pick-me-ups, bedtime soporifics, sweet-tooth satisfiers, spicy tantalizers and increasingly, for targeted healing properties. There are fruity teas, chai teas, chocolaty teas, mint teas, root teas, dessert teas, jasmine and other floral teas, as well as exotic infusions of even more fanciful ingredients.
Which Tea Is Good For What?
Due to their powerful antioxidant properties white, black and green teas are the mainstays of medicinal infusions that help protect the body from some of the scariest chronic conditions such as cancer, cardiovascular diseases and diabetes.
Various studies have found tea drinkers to have greater bone density and lower risk of developing arthritis or osteoporosis—benefits attributed to the abundance of phytochemicals and other antioxidant components found in tea—as well as stronger immune systems, which get extra support from the remarkable antiviral and anti-microbial clout packed by black, green, white and “twig” teas.
• White Tea, as the least processed and purest, packs the highest level of antioxidants—i.e., the group of special nutrients engaged in a constant ‘search and destroy’ missions to protect the body from cancer-causing, skin- and DNA-damaging, aging-accelerating free radicals.
∞∞ White tea’s antioxidant flavonoids act as cancer cell inhibitors—sometimes as, or even more effectively than prescription drugs, but without the side effects. White tea also has blood-thinning properties that help lower blood pressure and thus decrease the risk of strokes and heart attacks.
∞∞ Catechins, another of white tea’s antioxidant component, prevents arterial buildup of plaque by helping to boost ‘good’ (HDL) cholesterol and lowering ‘bad’ (LDL) cholesterol levels.
∞∞ Perhaps because it is an anti-viral and anti-bacterial protector, white tea has been found to ease HIV symptoms. Also, since it contains small amounts of fluoride and protective nutrients, it helps keep gums healthy, teeth strong and free of plaque and bad breath-causing decay.
∞∞ Still being studied is the effect white tea has on reducing blood sugar and alleviating certain other symptoms of diabetes.
∞∞ Stress reduction and increased energy levels have been experienced by consumers of white tea—which might be due to the tea’s effect on clearing the body of viruses, bacteria and other toxic intruders.
• Black Tea has also been found to help balance the body’s sugar levels and lower the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. While the caffeine in black tea does have a pick-me-up effect and helps concentration by increasing blood flow to the brain, surprisingly, the L-theanine amino acid in it also tends to reduce, for habitual tea drinkers, the stress hormone cortisol, thus turning an early evening cup of black tea into a calming and relaxing refreshment after a busy day. While black tea’s moderate caffeine level still manages to stimulate the metabolism and, as noted above, improve blood flow to the brain, it does not over-stimulate the heart, nor cause any jitters associated with coffee drinking. Other protective ingredients found in black tea include powerful alkylamine antigens and tannins.
• Green Tea, which has been the favorite beverage in Asia for centuries, has soared in recent years to the top of popularity chart in the U.S. and other western countries, due mostly to research findings about its remarkable health-boosting qualities. Proof of the latter is in the proliferation of encapsulated green tea supplements prescribed by health professionals and sold even in pharmacies.
∞∞ Green tea shares many of the health benefits of white tea, including lowering cholesterol, improving blood flow, helping to prevent hypertension and congestive heart failure, fighting bacteria and viruses that cause infections, flu, tooth decay, etc.
∞∞ Blood circulation and heart-health benefits also protect the brain by keeping its blood vessels clear. One Swiss study comparing MRIs of research subjects found that green tea drinkers showed greater activity in the brains’ memory area. Other studies have shown that green tea drinking helps to block the formation Alzhemer- and dementia-linked plaque in the brain, as well as to protect the latter from other aging-related symptoms. Research has also shown some positive results in laboratory tests, such as protective effects on neurons connected to Parkinsons disease.
∞∞ Since both green and white teas contain catechins (which help stabilize diabetics’ sugar levels), the amino acid L-theanine (which can cross the blood-brain barrier and can lead to anti-anxiety treatments), and Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG), which shows promising medicinal properties in the treatment of various diseases now being studied, they can be considered almost interchangeable.
∞∞ Green Tea also contains small amounts of health-promoting essential minerals, as well as powerful antioxidants which help reduce the risk of breast, prostate and colorectal cancers in people who drink it regularly—ranging from 22% lower risk for the first, 48% for the second and, according to the results of a recent major study of 69,710 Chinese women, green tea drinkers had a 57% lower risk of colorectal cancer.
∞∞ Weight loss among green tea drinkers can be attributed to its tendency to boost metabolic rates for short periods. While the weight loss affects body fat in general, it seems to be especially effective in helping to prevent obesity and losing dangerous abdominal fat.
** A note of caution: Do not add milk to your green tea because it will considerably reduce its antioxidant effect. However, if you haven’t yet acquired a taste for it, you could make it more palatable by adding a small amount of stevia or honey.
** For optimum health benefit, flavor and quality, use organic tea and honey.
• Chamomile Tea has been known for ages as a gentle but highly effective remedy for soothing digestive difficulties such as gas and stomach cramps, as well as a wonderful relaxant that helps conquer insomnia. Because of the latter, it is best to drink it before bedtime, since even a small cup could cause drowsiness during driving and other daytime activities.
∞∞ A herbal infusion of the chamomile plant’s flowers, this tea is as richly endowed with antioxidant properties as its leaf-based relatives. The ones found in chamomile tea are known to help slow (or sometimes even stop) the growth of cancer cells and prevent some of the cruelest side-effects of diabetes, such as vision impairment, nerve pain (usually in feet) and kidney damage.
• Lemon Ginger Tea is a double-protector, due to ginger’s active ingredient, zingiber, and lemon’s immune system boosters: pectin,
vitamin-C and limonene—the latter concentrated in citrus fruit peels and used in compounds said to promote weight loss, prevent bacterial infections, as well as in the treatment of respiratory ailments and cancer. One study found that lemon ginger tea was even effective in clearing salmonella bacteria from the system after contamination.
• Herbal Teas—the French call them tisane (you might remember Hercule Poirot, the quirky Belgian detective made famous by mystery books writer Agatha Christie, always requesting tisane)—are divided in three distinct categories: Rooibos Teas, Mate Teas and herbal infusions consisting of pure herbs, fruit, flowers, roots, seeds, leaves and/or bark. All are equally tasty and excellent for hydration whether served hot or iced. Canadian herbalist Marcia Dixon recommends that herbal teas be steeped in a covered teapot to concentrate the medicinal properties of their essential oils until the teas are poured and consumed—rather than squandering their perfume in the air by steeping the teas in open vessels.
∞∞ Rooibos or Red Tea is the product of the South African red bush and is blended into various flavors. The Teavana tea company, for example, features White Chocolate Peppermint Rooibos, Caramel Chai Rooibos, Blueberry Bliss Rooibos, Spiced Apple Cider Rooibos and Zingiber Ginger Coconut Rooibos Teas, among others.
∞∞ Mate Teas, derived from the leaves and twigs of the yerba mate plant—and especially the coffee-flavored “My Morning Mate” blend—is a great favorite among coffee aficionados.
∞∞ Blooming Teas—a fanciful name for artisan or flowering teas—are special treats sought after by connoisseurs for both their aesthetic and gustatory pleasures. They are combined and hand-tied by tea artists who infuse them with their own selection of flavors and scents that enhance the teas’ visual ‘designs’ as they literally “bloom” while steeping. Blooming teas make great romantic gifts to significant others.
∞∞ Peppermint Tea is famous for relieving such digestive discomforts as abdominal gas, bloating and mild nausea. It is also an effective appetite suppressant, decongestant, sinus and muscle spasm remedy and it tends to warm up a chilled body faster than other, non-alcoholic, hot beverages. Adding peppermint infusion to bath water also helps reduce the inflammation and symptoms caused by sunburn and acne—with the added benefit of adjusting the hormonal balance to reduce outbreaks of the latter.
∞∞ Ginger Tea is another great digestive aid, very effective against nausea (both caused by digestion problems and sea sickness) and upset stomach. To access its antibacterial qualities, slice or shred a ginger root and brew it, covered, in plenty of water for 15 minutes. Drink it with fresh lemon juice and honey, if you prefer and don’t forget to inhale deeply its vapors and aroma.
∞∞ Lemon Balm Tea helps to lift the spirits when one is down in the dumps. It also sharpens concentration and, when taken before bedtime, it has been found to prevent nightmares in both adults and children. (Weaker infusions are recommended for younger kids.) Lemon balm tea’s flavonoids, phenolic acids and other ingredients, make it quite effective in the treatment of cold sores and other painful skin lesions. Current studies show some of its potential as an aid in helping to prevent, stop or reverse Alzheimer’s disease. A light and refreshing beverage, lemon balm is ideal as iced tea—on its own or slightly sweetened with honey, stevia or agave syrup. It also lends itself to creative embellishments, such as mixing it with berries or other fruit.
∞∞ Milk Thistle & Dandelion Teas are the go-to liver cleanser brews, which also stimulate bile production to aid the digestive process.
∞∞ Rosehip Tea is supercharged with vitamin-C, an important immune system booster, which also helps support adrenal gland function and skin and other tissue health. Its light, tangy flavor makes rosehip tea a natural summer refreshment with ice and sliced fruit garnish, as well as a perfect remedy for colds and sore throat when served hot, with honey—or perhaps even spiked with a splash of Cognac for a bedtime drink to decongest and rise a sweat.
∞∞ Nettle Tea is an anti-inflammatory powerhouse stocked with B-Vitamins, iron, calcium and other health-promoting substances that make it a good choice for reducing the crippling pain and stiffness of arthritis and treat diabetes and heart disease. Nettle tea has also been found to help increase the milk supply in lactating mothers.
∞∞ Oolong Tea shares many properties with other teas since it is produced from the partially fermented leaves, buds and stems of the same Camellia sinensis plant from which the fully fermented black and unfermented green tea are made. Its caffeine content is further boosted by traces of two caffeine-like components: theophylline and theobromine, which might explain Oolong’s renown as an effective stimulant known to sharpen and accelerate one’s thinking process, while also promoting mental clarity and alertness. According to some researchers, nutritionists and other health professionals, drinking Oolong tea can help prevent cancer, tooth decay, osteoporosis and even heart disease. It is also an accepted treatment aid for obesity, diabetes, atherosclerosis, eczema and other skin problems. The highly regarded Oolong or Black Dragon tea, is said to acquire its refreshing flavor and some of its healing kick from the climate in which the plant is grown and especially by having its leaves sun-dried.
(NOTE: My research, along with years-worth accumulation of anecdotal information and personal experience have convinced me that teas have, indeed, an abundance of health benefits. Still, my journalistic skepticism dictates caution before accepting quite as many claims as are being touted about some of the teas. So, dear reader, my advice is to consult your body while drinking any of these unquestionably beneficial libations, to find out for what and to what degree they can be trusted for their medicinal claims. In other words: Caveat emptor.)