More than seven billion thirsty souls can’t be wrong: Tea is the second-most-popular drink on the planet. Tea does a body good.
Humans have cultivated, harvested and brewed the leaves of the evergreen Camellia sinensis shrub for thousands of years. Originally, it was considered medicinal. Although many drinks may be called “tea,” there’s only one true tea. Granted, tea may be green, black, or white. Color depends on when and how the leaves were harvested and handled before making their way to your teacup.
Many different plants and plant parts can be steeped in hot water to produce a drinkable beverage. But only the leaves of Camellia sinensis possess the time-honored qualities that have made real tea the world’s most popular beverage. And what are those qualities? For one, tea is refreshing. It’s invigorating, in much the way coffee is. At the same time, though, tea has a reputation for instilling calm and focusing the mind. Too much caffeine from coffee can leave a drinker feeling jittery. But tea seldom has a similar effect, despite a modest of amount of natural caffeine.
The reason has to do with an amino acid called theanine. Present in significant amounts, especially in green tea (the form most common throughout Asia, where the devotion to tea began thousands of years ago), theanine is a unique amino acid with reported anti-anxiety effects. Tea is not just about calming theanine and energizing caffeine, though.
It also contains a unique, potent polyphenol antioxidant compound, known as epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG). EGCG is credited with many of the remarkable health effects tea drinkers enjoy. It is believed to exert beneficial effects in the body, including possible anti-inflammatory and anti-carcinogen activity. For instance, some evidence suggests that tea drinkers may enjoy some protection against the harmful effects of ultraviolet radiation when out in the sun.
Green, Black or White Tea
Green tea is made from the dried leaves of the Camellia Sinensis shrub. Leaves undergo minimal processing. They are steeped in water that’s ideally just below the boiling point, for scant minutes. The leaves are then removed (no squeezing!) and your lightly green, delicately scented brew is ready for drinking. In Asia it is unthinkable to add sugar, or heaven forbid, milk. Westerners would do well to adopt this pattern: sugar in any beverage is unhealthful, and milk may make some of tea’s most beneficial compounds unavailable to you.
Black tea is made from tea leaves that have been fermented. The fermentation process enhances and deepens color and flavor, and many Westerners are most familiar with this form of slightly more processed tea. But black tea possesses far less theanine than green tea, and thus may not deliver the full spectrum of benefits available from drinking green tea, unadulterated. Black tea’s caffeine content tends to be slightly higher, too.
White tea is a variant made from emerging buds in spring. These unopened leaf buds are harvested and dried to make the lightest, most delicate brew of all. Some of tea’s more beneficial compounds may be even more concentrated in white tea.
Get your perfect cup. Many Americans do not realize that green tea should be brewed only briefly, to avoid extracting potentially bitter tannins. High quality green tea leaves should be steeped in water ranging from about 140 to 190 F for 30 seconds to three minutes. Do not squeeze leaves and do not soak for longer than three minutes.
Many studies have observed that Asians, who drink up to six cups of green tea per day, enjoy lower rates of certain diseases, such as breast and prostate cancers. While the link between the two is merely inferred, some laboratory evidence suggests that drinking tea may help prevent the development of cancer cells.