The everything guide to tea

I’m a tea drinker. I enjoy it iced or hot, but lately tea has become more than just a regular beverage. It’s becoming the next “chicken soup.” There are now hundreds of studies done annually on this more than 5,000-year-old drink. The interest in tea as a health beverage is founded on observations that populations that drink a lot of tea seem healthier than populations that don’t.

Tea is the most-consumed beverage worldwide next to water. And according to the Tea Association, Americans consumed well over 50 billion servings of tea in 2004, or more than 2.25 billion gallons. About 87 percent was black tea, 12.5 percent green tea, and the small remaining amount was oolong tea. Whether you’re a regular tea drinker or just starting out, here’s what you need to know about tea.

Is it true that tea has more antioxidants than almost any whole fruit or vegetable?
Yes – sort of. Tea is an excellent source of antioxidants. While it’s hard to make a general comparison, a rough estimate suggests that two servings of tea equal one serving of your average antioxidant-packed veggie. So it might seem strange that tea sometimes gets billed over vegetables as an antioxidant powerhouse. Since nearly 95 percent of tea’s polyphenol compounds are flavonoids, tea ranks among the plants with the highest total flavonoid content. Green tea contains more simple flavonoids, called catechins, while black tea contains more complex varieties, called thearubigins and theaflavins. And don’t get discouraged that the Food and Drug Administration refused to allow a health claim for green tea on labels; it simply felt that more studies were needed to justify a claim that green tea has the ability to lower the risk of cancer.

“Dr. Ron Prior of the USDA compared tea to many fruits and vegetables and found it to be higher in antioxidant components,” says Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Association of the USA Inc. “The most studied of all the antioxidants in tea – EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate) – is found in great abundance in green tea. Whether or not this is the most powerful component in tea remains to be seen, but it is the most studied because it is relatively easy to trace this component through the body.”

Do different teas come from different plants?
Tea, by definition, is a leaf that comes from the Camellia sinensis bush. It is then graded depending on the way it is processed, says James A. Kinsinger, Ph.D., corporate director of regulatory compliance of The Hain Celestial Group Inc. Only white tea comes from a different part of the plant than the others (the leaves at the branch tip, the tip of the bud and the leaves just below the bud), while green, black and oolong are made from the upper leaves. To achieve a variety of tastes, manufacturers carefully control whether, and for how long, the tea leaves are exposed to air, a process called fermentation. When fermentation is completely arrested, the tea stays “green” or yellowish brown. When fermentation time is long, the leaves darken and become “black” tea. Somewhere in between these two extremes, “oolong” tea is created. The more intense the fermentation or oxidation, the more intense and robust the flavor.

Are herbal teas really teas?
Hot-water infusions made from herbs are also called “teas,” but they are technically not teas because they are not from the Camellia sinensis plant. Herbal teas were originally brewed for medicinal purposes and are also called “tisanes.” The word “tea” has been used so often to describe them that it is accepted in the vernacular, but as Simrany points out, “All these ‘teas’ must be preceded by the word ‘herbal’ on the label.”

Does tea have more caffeine than coffee?
No. A 6-ounce cup of tea usually contains 25 to 60 milligrams of caffeine, less than the typical 100 milligrams found in 6 ounces of coffee. Rumors of tea’s high levels of caffeine started because, pound for pound, tea does come out ahead of coffee with regard to total caffeine. So in its dry form, tea has more caffeine – but at the point of consumption, coffee is far ahead.

Is green tea the healthiest of all teas?
Green tea is traditionally thought to have the highest amount of antioxidants, and for this reason, it has the best reputation. However, a preliminary study at Oregon State University indicated that white tea may actually have more antioxidant power than green. And a separate study conducted at the Chinese University of Hong Kong suggests that black tea has the same level of antioxidants as green tea.

“Individual compounds in green tea have been tested in more detail than individual compounds in black tea, and there have been more studies on a wide variety of health issues with green tea, including many more on animals and in