By Monique Richard MS, RDN, LDN
Second to water as the most consumed beverage is tea.1 The variety of tea available today makes finding a favorite easy—and the nutritional benefits are a potent added bonus.
Tea has a remarkable history and is renowned for its taste, variety, and healing properties all over the world. China, India, Egypt, and the United Kingdom are just a few of the countries where tea is a deep part of their cultural heritage, and they take pride in the specific flavors and varieties indigenous to their region. The United States has its own history with tea. After all, the infamous Boston Tea Party was so aptly named, clearly not for a rebellious act involving milk or soda.
Just to clarify, we are strictly talking about the type of tea that is brewed or steeped, as in loose leaf or teabags, not “sweet tea” served in a Styrofoam cup from the nearest drive-thru window at your favorite fast food joint or the ones made at home by mixing powder, sugar, and water. Brewed tea is virtually calorie-free while a cup of sweet tea or bottled iced tea can have over 150 calories per serving and anywhere from 5-12 teaspoons or more of sugar. The key in reaping the benefits from the flavonoids, or natural antioxidants, in tea, also known as polyphenols, is in brewing it and drinking it au natural; of course, for added flavor you can always infuse it with citrus, herbs or fruit juice.
The polyphenolic compounds found in tea protect our bodies from the breakdown and damage caused by cell turnover, known as oxidation, hence their role as “anti-oxidants.” This is important in terms of cell health related to cancer prevention and inflammation-causing diseases, such as arthritis, autoimmune diseases, and allergies. Tea can also potentially protect our heart, as well as possibly decrease levels of low-density lipoproteins (LDL), or “bad” cholesterol.2,3
Another property unique to tea is an amino acid (the building blocks of protein) called theanine. Theanine may promote relaxation by crossing the blood-brain barrier and working on calming or enhancing neurotransmitter activity. An especially researched compound found in green and black tea, a catechin, is called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), and it is recognized for its ability to prevent tumor growth in cells.3, 4
Along with these better known compounds, there are hundreds of others found in tea, that contribute to the many benefits associated with tea, which include:
• Delaying aging and damage to cells
• Regulating blood pressure
• Protecting against bacterial and viral infections
• Promoting digestive health and function.
A study published in the 2013 issue of the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition observed a reduction in blood pressure but also the impact of a high-fat meal on blood pressure and blood flow in the arteries was decreased.3
Types of Tea
The main varieties of tea include black, green, white, and oolong and each varies in the amount of processing. They are all made from leaves from an evergreen tree known as Camellia sinensis. White tea and green tea are least processed, and darker teas, like oolong and black teas, are processed more. Whether you choose white, green, black, or oolong, sometimes the bitterness or pungency, mostly coming from the EGCG, is a bit of a turn off for folks. Typically the lighter or less oxidized the tea leaves, as in white or green, the smoother the taste. The wide variety of flavors available on the market in each of these tea groups easily offers something for everyone; it may just take a little taste testing to find the right fit.
Depending on the variety of tea, per 8-ounce cup, it can range from 5-70 mg of caffeine, compared to coffee at about 85-150+ mg per cup.5 A nice way to ease up on caffeine intake—especially in the afternoon when you may need a “pick me up” but still want to rest easily at bedtime—would be to enjoy a cup of tea. Two to four cups of tea daily is recommended to yield the benefits, but even replacing one or two cups of your typical cup of ‘Joe,’ sweet tea, soda, or juice may do the body good.
Herbal teas are a bit different and can be made with herbs, roots, flowers, and other ingredients infused, technically called “tisane;” these may not have the same type of compounds.
Allow your tea to steep (soak) in hot water 3-5 minutes. Enjoy in your favorite mug, avoiding cream and sugar, if possible, to enhance the ability for your body to absorb the antioxidants. Look for the fair-trade seal, eco-friendly packaging, and where or how the tea is harvested and processed for the most benefits for your body and the earth. Loose-leaf tea may be less convenient but can be more flavorful and save on paper waste and processing. There are so many fun tools and ways to prepare your tea, from the specialty shops to your grandmother’s old standby ceramic teapot.
Not interested in sipping tea? Try steeping a flavored black or green tea (apple-spice, cinnamon, vanilla) and use the water to make oatmeal, grits, or hot cereal, or chill and add to a smoothie or make ice cubes for a refreshing twist to your water.
Relax into the positive benefits of teatime, anytime.
Need more tips and ideas to enhance your nutrient intake or improve health? Schedule an appointment with me, your registered dietitian nutritionist today.
1. Dini, J. Fact or Fiction? Chemicals in Tea: http://www.pfonline.com/articles/fact-or-fiction-chemicals-in-tea.
2. Tsang,G. Health Benefits of Tea: http://www.healthcastle.com/tea.shtml
3. Grassi D, Desideri G, Di Giosia P, De Feo M, Fellini E, Cheli P, Ferri L, Ferri C. Am J Clin Nutr. 2013 Dec;98(6 Suppl):1660S-1666S. [Epub 2013 Oct 30]. Review.