When it comes to drinks that improve health, the first thing that usually comes to mind is tea. Sure, some drinks help us hydrate; some drinks help us stay awake and focused, and some drinks supply us with certain helpful bacteria we need, but only one drink comes to mind when it comes to improving our overall health.
While tea takes a backseat to coffee when it comes to popularity, beer when it comes to hanging out with friends, and even wine when it comes to celebrating events, tea is not one drink you should put aside lightly.
For a good reason, man has been drinking tea for thousands of years. Before understanding why tea is good for you, let’s learn how tea drinking began. Like many great discoveries, it was the result of an accident.
Origins of tea
When you hear the word tea, the first image that might come to mind is Englishmen drinking tea and eating crumpets in the afternoon. Do you think tea is British in origin?
Think again. People had been drinking tea in China for centuries before it became popular in Britain.
When did tea first come about? As the legend goes, it was in 2737 BC when an emperor discovered tea, specifically Emperor Shen Nung.
One version of the legend goes that the emperor was sitting under a camellia sinensis tree while his servants boiled Water for him to drink. Some trees’ leaves allegedly fell into the boiling Water, giving off a pleasant smell.
Intrigued by the resulting mixture Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, allegedly decided to try drinking the Water. Thus, tea was discovered.
We say legend because while this story persists, there is no way to tell or prove that was what exactly happened. We know that from then, drinking tea became a custom among the Chinese. However, it would not be until much later in the Tang dynasty (618-906 AD) that tea would become what is considered the national drink.
The first book devoted solely to tea, the Ch’a Ching (yes, the sound often associated with money), or Tea Classic, was written by a man named Lu Yu sometime in the late eighth century.
It was also around this time when tea was first introduced to Japan by Japanese Buddhist monks who traveled to China to study. Tea drinking would also become prominent in Japan, eventually finding its way into ritual ceremonies.
On the other side of the world, mentions of tea drinking in Europe first surfaced in the latter half of the sixteenth century. The earliest entries describe these European tea drinkers as Portuguese living in the East as traders and missionaries.
While the Portuguese may have been the first Europeans to taste tea, they weren’t the first Europeans to import it to Europe. This honor goes to the Dutch, who, in the last years of the sixteenth century, started taking over Portuguese trading routes in the East.
It was only a short time before the Dutch established a trading post on Java, from where the first consignment of tea was shipped from China to Holland in 1606.
Tea soon became popular among the Dutch, and from there, it spread to other countries in continental western Europe, but at the time, only the wealthy could afford to steep tea because of the steep price.
So how did the tea becoming all the rage in continental Europe cross the English Channel?
Records going back to 1600 also mention Englishmen drinking tea. These were likely brought back as gifts by sailors working in the East India Company, which monopolized importing goods outside Europe. However, it was still not available as a commercial commodity.
The first coffee house in London was established in 1652. However, tea drinking seemed slow to have caught on at first, with many curious customers treating it as mere curiosity.
In September 1658, a London newspaper, the Mercurius Politicus, advertised the availability of that “China Drink, called by the Chinese, Tcha, by other Nations Tay alias Tee” at a coffee house in Sweeting’s Rents in London. This was the first ad promoting tea.
Tea would not have become popular among the English were it not for Catherine of Braganza, a Portuguese princess who married Charles II. She was a tea enthusiast and brought the tea to court, where it soon became fashionable. The rage spread to English high society and eventually began to trickle down among the other social classes.
The first import order for tea was placed in 1664; after that, the East India Company began to import tea into Britain regularly.
When we talk about tea and American history, most likely, the first image that comes to mind is patriots throwing boxes of it from a ship in Boston to spite the Crown.
This happened in 1773 during the Boston Tea Party, after which drinking tea came to be considered “unpatriotic.” While some may see this as a drawback, it had quite the opposite effect as many began experimenting with herbal teas infused with peppermint, sage, and dandelion.
Americans would continue to drink tea through the centuries; an American would later make the innovation that would profoundly transform how tea is prepared.
In 1908 New York tea importer Thomas Sullivan sent tea samples to clients in small silk bags to cut costs, but the clients thought the bags were part of the package and dipped them whole in hot Water.
Sullivan later increased the size of the silk bags, only to face complaints that they were hard to steep. He only realized his clients had dipped tea bags in hot Water to make their tea.
Realizing he had stumbled onto something big, Sullivan decided to distribute tea in what we now call the teabag. However, he would later switch to gauze because silk was too expensive for simple disposal.
In 1946 Nestle USA introduced the first instant tea, which we now know as Nestea. From then on, tea became readily available to the public without the steeping needed to make a cup of tea.
Before we tackle how they make tea, it should be mentioned that all teas come from the same plant, the camellia sinensis. Let’s get to know more about this plant.
Camellia sinensis is of the genus Camellia, a branch of flowing plants in the family Theaceae. It is a species of evergreen shrub, but those shrubs can also grow into small trees with the proper tending.
There are two primary varieties of this plant; camellia sinensis var. sinensis for Chinese teas and Camellia sinensis var. assamica for Indian Assam teas.
Tea is made from the leaves or buds of the plant known as Camellia sinensis. However, the twigs and stems of the same plant are also harvested to make the special tea Kukicha (twig tea).
Camellia sinensis should not be confused with Melaleuca alternifolia, the source of tea tree oil, or Leptospermum scoparium, the New Zealand tea tree.
Camellia sinensis can be grown in most moderate zones in the United States. It can also be grown in greenhouses or colder climate zones, protected from severe freezes.
How tea is made
All tea undergoes the following general processes, but to make certain teas, some of these processes are refined, repeated, done in another order, done differently, and sometimes even skipped altogether.
The process of making tea begins with the plucking process. Workers select leaves to be processed into tea. The first few leaves on a twig are particularly prized because these are considered prime leaves.
What follows next is withering and steaming. After picking, the leaves are laid out to dry. Traditionally this was done on bamboo trays, but as tea making got more sophisticated, these started to be done in large indoor areas where heated air was used. This technique is also used where the climate makes the natural drying process difficult.
This process reduces the water content in the leaves and makes them pliable enough for the next step in the process, rolling.
The rolling process (sometimes called the forming process) gives tea leaves their scrunched-up look. Before modern machines, this was traditionally done manually by workers who rolled and shaped the leaves. The leaf structure is broken down during this process, and juices and oils are released from the leaves.
Next is the oxidation process, or exposing the leaves to oxygen. Oxidation is a chemical reaction that alters the flavor of the leaves and determines the ultimate appearance and color of the processed tea. How long the tea leaves are allowed to oxidize, if at all, depends on what type of tea is being processed.
You can tell how oxidized tea leaves are; the greener the leaf, the less oxidized.
The final process is the drying or firing process. This is when the tea leaves are dried evenly in large ovens or machines to halt oxidation and completely lock in the final flavor. Great care is taken not to burn them.
Different kinds of tea
How is one tea different from another? We already mentioned that they all come from the same plant.
The differences in tea lie in how the leaves are harvested and processed. Think of it as making wine. All wine comes from grapes, but not all wines are the same.
The process of wilting, bruising, oxidation, shaping, and drying the tea leaves is generally the same for all kinds of teas. Still, many variations within each process step lead to differences in the teas.
Considering all the different kinds of tea worldwide, there are about 1,500. However, according to web developer and tea enthusiast Kevin McGillivray, there are only six main types: Black tea, Green tea, White tea, Yellow tea, Oolong tea, and Dark tea (also known as pu’erh tea).
Black teas have a robust flavor. They tend to be a rich, dark brown color, but sometimes also take on the appearance of a dark red, which is why Chinese sometimes refer to it as red tea.
Black teas are often named after the region where they are grown, such as Assam and Darjeeling in India and Yunnan, Yingteh, Tanyang, and Keemun in China.
Much care is taken during the withering process for black teas. Black teas are also fully oxidized during the production process.
This means the tea leaves are crushed and torn before oxidizing in a humid environment, making the oxidation process rapid, usually for 1 to 3 hours.
Sometimes black tea is mixed with other ingredients to make exceptional tea like Masala Chai, an Indian black tea mixed with spices. Sometimes even different kinds of black teas are blended to create new flavors, such as English Breakfast and Earl Grey, which is black tea scented with bergamot oil.
You can take your tea “black” like your coffee black. However, black tea mixed with milk and sugar can be a delight. Plus, the two enhance the fragrance and taste of good black teas.
We have mentioned Keemun above; this variety is especially notable as it takes on an almost pink hue when mixed with a small amount of milk.
Black tea contains thearubigins and theaflavins, two types of antioxidants that have been linked to lower cholesterol levels. If you drink three or more cups of black tea daily, you can cut your risk of stroke by 21 percent.
Green teas generally have a light, delicate flavor compared to darker teas. Green teas undergo very little withering; they are often steamed, baked, or pan-fired instead immediately after to stop the natural fermentation and growing process; this technique is called kill-green or fixing.
Green teas are the least oxidized (this gives the tea its green color). After plucking, they are quickly put through the heating process to stop oxidation. From there, they go on to the drying and rolling processes.
The natural history of green tea dates back to the 8th century when the method of steaming the leaves to inhibit oxidation was first discovered. Another breakthrough happened in the 12th century when a new method of fixing leaves was introduced. Both processes resulted in the green teas we know today, with the green tint and unoxidized taste.
Kinds of green tea include Sencha, the most common green tea in Japan; Dragonwell, one of the most popular green teas in China; and Jasmine tea, a green tea with jasmine flowers. However, green tea wasn’t always as flavorful or scented.
Before the Wei Jin Northern and Southern Dynasties (220-589), green tea tasted bitter, and people drank it out of necessity. A simple basic drying process removed the bitterness from the taste, and people began drinking green tea not just for the health benefits but for the sheer pleasure of it.
The taste in flavor and introduction of scents also made the drink more appealing to the public.
Green tea is an excellent source of catechins, another type of antioxidant. Scientists are now focusing on a subgroup of this compound known as EGCG for its potential role in preventing cancer and heart disease.
Another study showed that drinking one cup of green tea daily reduces cardiovascular disease risk by 10 percent.
White tea has a very delicate flavor. Unlike other teas, white tea tends to be minimally processed and is made from the young leaves of the tea plant.
The key to making excellent White tea lies in the withering process. Unlike other teas, the withering process in making white tea is divided into outdoor and indoor steps.
The best combination is the outdoor withering of the leaves on a mild summer day, followed by further withering done indoors.
The stems and the natural waxy film coating are removed from the leaves, which are then slow-fire baked until dry.
The leaves then undergo the kill-green process using steam or hand pressing in a hot pan before going through the rolling and forming process and the final drying process.
White tea is said to have been first brewed in 600 in China when tea drinking and tea culture flourished across the country. During that time, citizens were customary to pay the emperor a yearly tribute in the form of the rarest and finest teas. As a result, it became proper to offer tea made from the youngest and most delicate buds from the finest tea plants.
However, the white tea we drink today was developed in the Song Dynasty (960–1297) when growers plucked young tea buds in the spring, steamed them, stripped their outer leaf, meticulously rinsed them with spring water, air dried them, and then ground them into a silvery white powder.
A typical example of white tea is Silver Needle, produced in Fujian Province in China.
Like green tea, white tea contains catechins which may help fight cancer and cardiovascular disease. According to the American Cancer Society, drinking white tea might also reduce the risk of cancer recurrence for breast cancer survivors.
Yellow tea is considered the rarest of the six types of tea because they are made from buds, not leaves. The tea is called that because of its distinctive yellow color (somewhat like the color of a straw). Making yellow tea follows a similar production process to green tea.
Varieties of yellow tea include the Mo Gan Huang Ya, produced in the Zhejiang Province; the Meng Ding Huang Ya, produced in the Sichuan Province; and the Jun Shan Yin Zhen was produced in the Hunan Province.
The Jun Shan variety is said to have been the favorite tea of Chairman Mao Tse-Tung. The buds used to produce yellow tea are only grown on the mist-covered mountain of Jun Shan Island, producing only 500 kilograms annually.
The bud is picked from the stem by twisting, not pulling. It said it takes 60,000 of these carefully harvested buds to yield just one kilogram of Jun Shan Yin Zhen.
Because production was complex and time-intensive, locals primarily consumed yellow tea. Higher demand for tea from local and national consumers has also led growers to switch to green tea, which was easier to make.
There are now few masters who know how to make yellow tea left in China.
The benefits of yellow tea include promoting weight loss, promoting liver health, treating inflammatory, healing bowel disorders, preventing diabetes, and treating atherosclerosis.
If you find the taste of black tea too strong and green tea too weak, you can go for oolong tea. Oolong tea has the most variations in taste among the types of teas, from slightly stronger than green tea, to almost as robust as black tea.
To allow for this wide variation in taste, oolong tea also has the most variations in processing techniques.
During the withering process, the freshly picked tea leaves are intentionally bruised by tossing or shaking them. This is an integral part of the oolong tea process because it helps initiate the oxidation process, giving the leaves their ultimate flavor. The more robust flavor of oolong tea is sought, the more bruising it gets.
The oxidation process for oolong tea is equally vital in determining the flavor. Oolong teas vary in oxidation levels, from 8 percent to 80 percent.
Why the funny name? There are two possible reasons for this.
First, the word oolong is the English adoption of the Chinese word wūlóng chá, which means “black dragon tea.” In Chinese, oolong teas are known as qing cha or “dark green teas.”
Another story tells us that one of the first to make this kind of tea was a man named Wulong, and over the centuries, his name got corrupted to oolong.
There are many types of oolong tea, one being Tie Guan Yin, or Iron Goddess of Mercy.
Drinking oolong tea is good if you want to burn fat. Oolong tea activates enzymes that cut down triglycerides, a type of fat in the blood. One study showed that women who consumed oolong tea burned slightly more fat than those who drank only Water.
Aside from that, oolong tea also contains niacin which helps detoxify the body and antioxidants that help prevent tooth decay.
Yellow tea may be rarer, but pu’erh tea is the most expensive. Pu’erh teas are unique in that they are not only dried and oxidized but are also fermented, giving the tea a rich, earthy flavor.
Pu’erh tea starts as green tea during production, but fermentation gives it its dark color.
Like the wines from different regions of the world, only aged tea from Yunnan Province can be called Pu’erh tea. The production of this tea is highly regulated to ensure the highest quality and authenticity.
Pu’erh tea leaves are grown and harvested in counties along the Lancang River. Each estate produces its particular type of leaves.
Some growers choose to carefully cultivate their plants in controlled conditions, while others are content to let them grow wild on the hillsides. Some of these tea trees are said to be over a thousand years old.
The leaves are harvested and sent to Pu’erh City, where each manufacturer blends them according to their unique recipe.
Pu’erh comes in green (sheng) and black (shou). Both green and black varieties follow the same processing steps, but the black variety has the additional step of cooking (also called piling or heaping), where the leaves are heaped in a pile to let them ferment.
The funny thing is that in Yunnan, natives always considered pu’erh tea an export commodity and rarely consumed it for themselves. However, that is slowly changing.
While the process used to make pu’erh tea causes it to have lower antioxidant content than white or green tea, Chinese people credit it with many health benefits, like aiding in weight loss, reducing serum cholesterol, and promoting cardiovascular health.
Other benefits of tea
We have already mentioned the specific benefits of drinking each type of tea. Here are more reasons to drink tea.
Scientists have found that the catechins in tea extract make it easier for the body to use fat as fuel, which makes muscles last longer when they work out.
Tea provides protection from ultraviolet rays – Going to the beach? Pack your sunglasses, hat, sunscreen…and tea. Green tea may act as a backup sunscreen. According to a study published in NCBI, skin treated with green tea extracts reduced the number of sunburn cells and protected epidermal Langerhans cells from U.V. damage.
To aid in recovery from radiation therapy, drink some tea. According to one study, tea helps protect against cellular degeneration caused by exposure to radiation. In contrast, another study found that tea can help skin bounce back from damage caused by the same.
Tea helps fight free radicals – Not everything radical, primarily free radicals, is good. Free radicals attack stable molecules, stealing their electrons and beginning a chain reaction that disrupts living cells. Free radicals have been linked to cancer, heart disease, and neurological degeneration.
Our bodies are built to combat free radicals independently, but they could be better. Tea can get rid of free radicals because it can absorb a lot of oxygen radicals.
Tea is hydrating to the body – Yes, some teas contain caffeine (especially black tea), which technically promotes dehydration. However, a strong cup of tea introduces more Water to your body than it may remove.
“Drinking tea is better for you than drinking water,” says Dr. Carrie Ruxton, a nutritionist and the lead author of a study into tea and rehydration, “Water is serving as a substitute for fluid. Tea has two benefits: it can be used as a fluid replacement and has antioxidants.”
Tea lowers the risk of Parkinson’s disease. Another study published in NCBI found that regular tea drinking is linked to a lowered risk of Parkinson’s disease in both genders when considering other factors like smoking, physical activity, age, and body mass index.
Tea might also effectively prevent and treat neurological diseases, especially degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s. Researchers found that polyphenols in tea help maintain the parts of the brain that regulate learning and memory.
Beware, not all “tea” is tea.
Now that you know the benefits of tea don’t rush to buy anything labeled as tea. Just because a product is advertised as tea doesn’t necessarily mean it’s healthy. A case in point is the iced tea served in restaurants, and many fast food joints and the instant drinks readily available in the supermarket.
Pick up a container of instant tea on the grocery shelf and check the label. Chances are you will find ingredients like citric acid, maltodextrin, instant tea, corn syrup solids, aspartame, magnesium oxide, acesulfame potassium, and BHA.
In case you haven’t figured it out, it’s essentially a list of artificial sweeteners, artificial dyes, and preservatives.
BHA, a very effective preservative, is listed as a chemical of potential concern because of its toxicity and ability to remain in your body and accumulate there over many years. It has also been liked to liver, thyroid, and kidney problems in lab tests.
School of Medicine researchers have also found dangerously high fluoride levels in an instant and iced tea mixes. While the EPA sets the limit for fluoride consumption at four parts per million, some commercial tea mixes have been found to contain as much as 6.5 ppm.
Make no mistake; fluoride is good for teeth and bones, but only in small amounts. In 2005, fluoride in iced tea made U.S. news headlines after a middle-aged woman suffered from severe spine pain. Frequently drinking commercial iced tea caused her spine to become too dense.