Is tea good for you? The health benefits of tea

The actor Pinero once said, “Where there’s tea, there’s hope.” A good cup of tea is perhaps, the only thing that is relaxing and reviving all at once! From English tea to masala chai, from the fragrant oriental jasmine to the healthy roobios, tea is varied and takes on a different personality and purpose with each variant. 

The history of tea

The story of tea began in China. The UK Tea & Infusions Association says, “According to legend, in 2727 BC, Chinese emperor Shen Nung was sitting beneath a tree while his servant boiled drinking water when some leaves from the tree blew into the water. Shen Nung, a renowned herbalist, decided to try the infusion that his servant had accidentally created. 

The tree was a Camellia sinensis, and the resulting drink was what we now call tea.” Now, this legend may or may not be true, but certainly, China has been the origin of tea, being introduced to Japan only in the late 8th century by Buddhist monks, spreading from there to countries like Korea and Vietnam. 

While the Portuguese started dabbling in small amounts of tea exports after establishing a trading port in Macau in 1557, it was the Dutch who actually took tea to Europe and the rest of the world, after the Dutch East India company was established. India, now one of the most formidable tea producers and exporters the world over, has to actually credit the British for its thriving tea industry. 

During the British rule, tea plantations were set up to combat the Chinese monopoly over tea, and since then, there’s been no looking back. Often dissed for its caffeine content, tea can actually provide many health benefits, and when consumed in moderation, the right way and in the right quantities can help you greatly. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of tea. 

Prevents and treats cancer

Says Dr Dharini Krishnan, Dietician, “The key benefit of tea is that it is rich in antioxidants. There are two kinds of teas, roasted and unroasted. Roasted teas are basically the dust teas, while unroasted are the leaf teas. Of these, the latter tends to be richer in antioxidants and phytonutrients. At a visit to Kettering Sloane in the US, herbal teas like jasmine and hibiscus were highly advocated for cancer prevention and to aid treatment.” The high antioxidant content of teas also ensures cell health, which makes for healthier and more youthful skin, preventing premature ageing.

Helps eliminate transfats

Says Daphnee DK, Senior Clinical Dietician and Head, Dept of Diabetics, Apollo Hospitals, “Eliminating transfats is the key to protecting the health and saving lives from the cardiovascular disease. In India, researchers have found high concentrations of trans-fats in street food, processed and packaged snacks. Regular consumption of these even in smaller amounts increases bad cholesterol in the blood. 

WHO experts say, removing trans-fats from food products is the easiest way to reduce the prevalence of heart disease and the deaths related to it.  Some American and European countries have stopped using trans-fats, but the use of trans-fats is still common in the Middle East, India, Pakistan and in Asian countries. 

Black or green, hot or iced, tea is gaining in popularity as tea drinkers seem less likely to have cardiovascular disease. Tea is a good source of plant chemicals called flavonoids (catechins and epicatechins), which are thought to be responsible for its beneficial health effects. Research suggests that flavonoids help quell inflammation and that in turn may reduce plaque buildup inside arteries. Green tea has slightly higher amounts of these chemicals than black tea.” 

Aids cholesterol control and heart health

Says Dr Daphnee, “Short-term studies have shown that drinking tea may improve vascular reactivity—a measure of how well the blood vessels respond to physical or emotional stress. There's also evidence that drinking either black or green tea may lower harmful LDL cholesterol levels and blood pressure may also dip slightly, but results from these studies have been mixed. Several large, population-based studies show that people who regularly drink black or green tea may be less likely to have heart attacks and strokes. However, people who drink tea tend to be different from people who don't drink tea. We can't quite disentangle whether it's their tea drinking or something else those people are doing that lowers their risk of cardiovascular disease.” 

Improves cognitive health, makes you ‘feel good’ 

Studies reveal that drinking tea in moderation can help improve cognitive health, by keeping you alert, keeping your mind agile, and helping keep diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s at bay. Green teas can also reduce the risk of strokes and other related impairments. Says Dr Dharini Krishnan, “Teas contain tannins that keep you awake, act as anti-depressants and create a good feeling. Since people in hotter climates tend to have lesser teas, it’s okay to go with a strong cup; those in cooler climates tend to sip on more cups a day for the warmth, so a lighter tea will be better.” Teas are also beneficial to cure coughs and colds, especially when infused with traditional spices like ginger and honey.

Tea vs Tisanes: What's the difference? 

Says Dr Daphnee, “Regular black and green teas come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, an evergreen shrub that grows in mountainous areas in China, India, and other countries. The differences between them stem from what happens after the leaves are harvested and allowed to wilt. Black tea has slightly lower amounts of flavonoids than green tea due to the additional processing steps which degrade some of the flavonoids.” Herbal teas, which are more appropriately characterised as tisanes, usually refer to a caffeine-free blend of spices, fruits and botanicals, which are prepared and served like tea, but cannot actually be classified as tea, since they don’t contain tea leaves! 

These infusions can be made from a variety of ingredients. Dr Daphnee lists out common varieties as “mint, cinnamon, liquorice, ginger and rose hips. While these brews may contain beneficial chemicals similar to those found in regular tea, there isn't enough research to support any guesses about the potential health benefits of herbal tea.”

Different tea varieties

The most common tea varieties include white tea (wilted and unoxidised), yellow tea (unwilted, unoxidised but yellowed), green tea (unwilted and unoxidised), oolong (wilted, bruised and partially oxidised), black tea (wilted and fully oxidised) and post-fermented green tea (unwilted and unoxidised, but allowed to ferment). 

In India, most households prefer to opt for black loose leaf or dust tea, packaged in a carton or canister, vacuum packed for freshness. There are also compressed teas like Pu-erh, which can be stored longer and is mostly restricted to the orient and Himalayan and Mongolian slopes. Instant tea is also catching up, where creamers, tea and sugar are powdered and pre-mixed in proportion, and then added to boiling water and allowed to steep. These are popular with travellers, those on-the-go, and those with limited kitchen abilities! Bottled and canned teas are also available, however, these are mainly iced varieties, which can be refrigerated and served chilled – just like most cold beverages. 

Finally, there is the most common form of tea worldwide – the teabag. Teabags are as recent a discovery as 1907 when American tea merchant Thomas Sullivan began distributing samples of tea in tiny bags of Chinese silk tied up with a drawstring. Consumers realised that they could just allow the tea to steep in hot water while it was in the bag, and even reuse the same bag twice. Thus the teabag came into being. In 1996, the ‘pyramid’ shaped teabag was introduced, to allow for more room for tea leaves to expand while steeping, making the teabag popular among tea snobs who had, until then, preferred loose leaf teas.

Be adventurous and try out different tea cultures from across the world! In Morocco, for instance, green tea with mint is the traditional blend, served three times to each guest. In Tibet on the other hand, traditional black tea, mixed with milk, salt and yak’s butter is the norm.

When to drink tea, and how much?

Says Dr Dharini Krishnan, “Too much tea can upset the iron balance in your body. The Tea Council recommends drinking tea only between meals, never with or immediately after. Restrict your tea intake to not more than 3-5 cups a day, two of which should ideally be unroasted. Among the leaf teas, Darjeeling tea is the best. Tea by itself is a zero calorie drink. It is only the milk and sugar, which contribute an average of 30 calories per 125ml cup. Restrict your intake to a 125ml cup. Do not fill up a 400ml mug and drink up!” Says Dr Daphnee, “Moderation is the key. Don't be tempted by green tea extracts or supplements that promise an easy way to get a concentrated dose of flavonoids. The evidence about their effectiveness and safety is limited. Drink tea if you enjoy it, in moderation, and not because you're taking it as a medicine.” 


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