On Your Health

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The Basics of Tea

People across the globe from a variety of different cultures have celebrated the artistry and trade of tea for thousands of years. Tea is native to Asia but has been harvested around the world for centuries. It is a keystone tradition in China, India, England and more. So why have people been crazy about tea for so long? It turns out teas were originally used for medicinal purposes, and are still highly acclaimed for a wide array of health benefits that have withstood the test of time.

The Basics

With so many kinds of tea on the market today, it’s hard to believe that all tea actually comes from one plant, camellia sinensis. Once harvested, the camellia sinensis leaves are oxidized, or exposed to oxygen. The length and timing of the oxidation process determines the darkness, flavor and aroma of the tea. That’s why there are five main types of tea, all of which have very specific harvesting and oxidation processes that give them their unique color and flavor.
  • White – hand-processed, delicate tea with a distinctly light color; characterized by its subtlety and natural sweetness
  • Green– slightly oxidized tea with a light green color and low caffeine content
  • Oolong – a semi-oxidized tea that falls somewhere between black tea and green tea in color and flavor; characterized by its unique fruity or floral aroma
  • Black– a fully oxidized tea with dark color and robust flavor; typically has a higher caffeine content compared to lighter teas
  • Puer – an aged black Chinese tea highly coveted for its medicinal properties and earthy flavor
There are two modern beverages that are commonly referred to as tea. One is flavored tea, which combines traditional tea with non-traditional elements to bring out new aromas and flavors. The second is herbal tea, which isn’t actually tea at all, but is packed with unique flavors and health benefits of its own.
  • Flavored – a blend of true tea and added natural flavors like spices, floral, citrus and fruity flavors. Chai tea is a popular flavored tea that originated in India.
  • Herbal - herbal tea is actually a misnomer because it is not derived from the camellia sinensis plant. Instead, herbal teas are infusions of leaves, herbs, roots, spices and flowers steeped in boiling water. Unlike true teas, herbal teas have very specific remedial qualities and health benefits. For example, chamomile tea is used to reduce stress and aid in digestion, peppermint tea can reduce nausea, and lemon ginger tea helps fight bacterial infections.

The Benefits

Because all teas stem from the camellia sinensis plant, their health benefits are derived from the same nutrients. Camellia sinensis is packed with micronutrients call polyphenols. According to the USDA, these microscopic powerhouses can boost the immune system, improve heart health and lower cholesterol. The process of oxidation can affect the polyphenols found in tea, so health benefits can vary depending on the brew. However, in general, polyphenols can provide the following benefits:
  • Anti-inflammatory - Inflammation is at the heart of many chronic illnesses like arthritis and heart disease. Natural anti-inflammatories help reduce inflammation in the body, which can decrease pain or discomfort caused by inflammation.
  • Antioxidant - Free radicals are naturally produced by the body and can cause serious damage when unchecked.  Antioxidants keep free radicals at bay, which may help prevent signs of aging and a variety of common diseases.
  • Anti-carcinogen - A carcinogen is any substance that is capable of causing cancer in living tissue. Anti-carcinogens counteract the effects of carcinogens and can prevent the onset of cancer.

The Extras

If you like your tea with milk and sugar but are looking for a healthier alternative, try these tasty substitutes:
  • Dairy – Common milk substitutes like almond, soy, or coconut milk tend to taste a little odd in tea. If you are dairy-free, try adding lemon, which can cut the astringency of bitter tea. If you do consume dairy, organic whole milk is an excellent source of healthy fat, protein and calcium when consumed in moderation.
  • Sweetener – If you typically sweeten your tea with cane sugar, try stevia instead. This plant-based sugar substitute is more potent and has fewer calories than cane sugar. Another option is raw local honey, which contains bee pollen that is commonly extracted from regular store-bought honey. Bee pollen is a great source of protein, amino acids and vitamins, which can reduce inflammation and boost the immune system.
Tea offers a diverse list of health benefits and has been used around the world for thousands of years. Because there are so many kinds of tea that offer different levels of health benefits and caffeine, it is best to consult a dietitian with any questions you may have regarding your personal nutrition and caffeine intake.

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