Saturday, December 18

Food Spotlight: Tea

Balancing six mugs in my arms, I tentatively descended the staircase into the kitchen.

Michael, hearing my entry, turned toward me and noticing my burden asked, “What are those?”

“Dirty mugs from our bedroom,” I responded. “They’re from my nighttime hot tea habit.”

“Good God! You’ve got almost every cup we own up there,” he exclaimed.

“I know,” I said sheepishly, “I think I have a problem.”

I do have a tea problem, but unlike my raw cookie dough obsession, this one is actually good for me.

Defining “tea”

Real tea—green, black and oolong tea—is derived from the Camellia sinensis plant.

Herbal teas, like chamomile, jasmine and mint are not tea at all because they don’t come from this plant. They are labeled tea because they are prepared in the same way as real tea.

Since herbal teas are not derived from the Camellia sinensis plant, they do not have the same nutritional properties as green, black or oolong tea.

For the purpose of this article, I’ve chosen to focus solely on green, black and oolong tea. Herbal “teas” are not part of the discussion.

So, why is tea good for me?

It’s the antioxidants baby! Antioxidants are important because they neutralize free radicals, those nasty compounds that damage our cells and which many scientists believe, contribute to aging, cancer and heart disease.

Antioxidants are found in many fruits and vegetables, but according to John Weisburger, PhD, senior researcher at the Institute for Cancer Prevention in Valhalla, N.Y, "Whether it's green or black, tea has about eight to ten times the polyphenols [a type of antioxidant] found in fruits and vegetables."

Which tea should I drink, green or black?

The difference between green, black and oolong tea is in the processing. Green tea is minimally processed, the leaves are withered and steamed after being dried. Black and oolong teas are more heavily processed, the leaves are crushed and fermented after being dried.

While the teas all start from the same plant, the extra fermenting of black and oolong teas changes the antioxidant profile. All three types of tea have antioxidants, but green tea has more EGCG, an antioxidant that is thought to play a key role in preventing cancer and heart disease. Thus, green tea is widely regarded as the better choice.

A word of caution, there are many health claims in the media about the benefits of green tea, but the bulk of the research is based on animal studies. Human studies, thus far, have been inconclusive, leading the FDA to strike down a proposal from green tea manufacturers allowing them to link green tea consumption to a reduced risk of breast and prostrate cancer. The FDA not only refused to allow this health claim, but further stated that:

“… existing evidence does not support qualified health claims for green tea consumption and a reduced risk of any other type of cancer.”

Okay, so now what?

While the research is still pending on tea’s cancer-preventing properties, the fact remains that it is loaded with antioxidants which makes it a healthy choice as a daily beverage—much better than a soda.

To get the most from a cup of tea, you need to drink brewed hot tea.  Bottled tea from a vending machine or ordering iced tea at a restaurant doesn’t count. Those preparations are so diluted that the antioxidant level is virtually zero. Plus, many of the bottled teas are loaded with sugar.

With cold weather upon us, brew a cup, sit back and enjoy the warmth. Oh, and the antioxidants too.

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