With so many health benefits, tea has become one of the most widely consumed drinks in the world. Nutrition Expert Meredith Yorkin helps us take a closer look at why tea is more than just a way to get your caffeine kick!
Native to China and India, tea leaves are derived from the Camellia sinensis plant which has been cultivated and steeped dating back to the 3rd century AD. One of tea’s most unique properties is its natural source of L-theanine, a compound shown to alter alertness and arousal in the brain for improved concentration and focus. It also provides relaxation effects without drowsiness and is a contrast to the effects of caffeine, which can cause alertness with increased anxiety.
One of the most talked-about health benefits is tea’s high content of unique antioxidants called flavonoids. Polyphenols, specifically catechins and epicatechins, are flavonoids that provide each tea with its characteristic mouthfeel and help fight free radicals that contribute to cancer, heart disease, and neurodegenerative diseases.
While tea varieties have distinct differences in processing, caffeine content, antioxidant compounds, and taste, they all have substantial health benefits. Let’s take a closer look at the 5 main varieties:
Made from fully fermented tea leaves, black tea has the highest caffeine content of all the varieties and arguably the strongest flavor of all varieties. Overall, black tea makes up around 80% of global tea production, with the majority of varieties coming from China and others coming from India, South Africa, Taiwan, Sri Lanka, and Nepal.
Copper, zinc, and iron are present in black tea leaves, however research shows that the region of origin plays a significant role in the concentration of these trace elements, with Indian black tea having the highest. In addition, black tea may help reduce blood pressure and prevent a spike in postprandial insulin release.
Black tea is commonly mixed with various other plants and oils to obtain different specialty flavors, such as Earl Grey, which is a blend of multiple black teas mixed with bergamot oil and Irish breakfast tea, usually a blend of multiple black Assam teas.
Green tea, made from unfermented steamed tea leaves, has received the largest focus in research because of its high concentration of epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), a polyphenol shown to have anti-cancer effects, as well as cardiovascular and metabolic benefits. Studies have shown that regular consumption of 5-6 cups of green tea per day may have benefits in boosting metabolism and regulating blood sugar.
One of the more popular forms of green tea is matcha, which simply means “powdered tea”, which is largely what differentiates it from green tea. In fact, the entire tea leaf is dried and then stone-ground into a fine powder that gets dissolved in less than boiling water.
The tea plants used for matcha are grown under shade cloths that induce a better flavor and texture making matcha a higher-quality tea with more potent concentrations of those polyphenols. Like green tea, matcha contains caffeine but may be upwards of 3 times higher (about the amount in a cup of coffee) because you are consuming the entire tea leaf.
White tea is the most unique of all the varieties because its leaves are virtually unfermented and uncured. It goes through a two-step withering and drying process that retains large quantities of catechins and contributes to its high antioxidant levels. Benefits of white tea have been shown through animal studies for antioxidant-protective effects of the heart and male reproductive tissues.
Despite growing in popularity for its delicate flavor, white tea still isn’t as as highly drank as green and black tea varieties. It is important to note that the grade and storage time can alter white tea’s characteristics.
Pu-erh tea, named after Pu’er City where the tea was first produced, is made from exposing tea leaves to humidity and oxygen causing microbial fermentation and oxidation, which at this stage is called maocha, or “raw” Sheng Cha. The leaves are then sold as “raw”, or go on through a more intricate fermentation process averaging 2-3 years to create a more mature “ripened” version. Animal studies have shown its potential benefits in protecting against diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.
Oolong tea has become one of the most popularly-consumed teas in Taiwan because of its unique taste and aroma. The leaves are partially oxidized to activate unique organic compounds, contributing to its floral aroma, color, and taste. One of oolong tea’s unique compounds, teaghrelin, is being researched for a possible role in activity growth hormone secretion and increased hunger signals.
Overall, research studies have shown regular tea consumption leads to increased life expectancy in tea-drinking populations, so its health benefits are clear. Despite the convenience factor, avoid ready-to-drink bottled sweetened teas and consume in its freshly brewed form to maintain all of its protective benefits.
Blow, sip, and enjoy!
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Meredith Yorkin, RD is a New Jersey-based Registered Dietitian who understands that eating healthy is more than just the next health food fad. Meredith helps individuals focus on making the extra effort to decode the meaning behind how we eat healthy to ensure that we are doing our best for our everyday health.