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What Makes Tea Healthy

The process of tea production has been around for centuries. Different types of this healthy, flavorful drink are made in specific ways.

Although the Chinese have enjoyed drinking tea for thousands of years, the first European reference to tea dates back to the year 1555, where it was found in the writings of an Italian traveler named Giovanni Battista Ramusio. By the 1600s, tea was becoming a popular beverage in English coffeehouses. Sometime later, the British introduced tea to India, hoping to mass produce this valued commodity, and end the Chinese monopoly on tea. Over the course of decades, the plant adapted to India’s warm, humid climate.

In time, the tea plant, Camellia sinensis, developed into two distinct varieties:

  • the Chinese tea plant, Camellia sinensis sinensis (which requires cool temperatures)

  • the Indian tea plant, Camellia sinensis assamica (which requires warm temperatures)

All teas derived from the Camellia plant, are considered to be true teas. Green tea, oolong, black tea, white tea, and pu’erh tea are all true teas. Fruit tea and herbal tea fall into a different category.

The Camellia plant belongs to the evergreen family. Its leaves are shiny green with a serrated edge. Once mature, it can produce leaves for hundreds of years. Although it commonly exists as a bush, it can occasionally grow to be over 30 feet in height.

Tea leaves are loaded with polyphenols, which are a type of antioxidant. Wet tea bags (especially black tea bags) can be cooled and placed against canker sores in the mouth to reduce pain and inflammation. Used tea bags can also be used to reduce eye puffiness. The tea bags can be first used to make tea, and then set inside the refrigerator to cool. Once cool, they can be positioned against the eyes for five minutes. Tea bags can also be used for certain insect stings and minor skin irritations.

The process of making tea

The polyphenols (especially the flavonoids) are the chemicals inside the leaves that make tea flavorful and delicious to drink. After young tea leaves are harvested, it is the oxidation process (sometimes called fermentation), and amount of bruising on each leaf that creates the different types of teas. The oxidation process converts the polyphenols into new compounds. By controlling the timing and degree of oxidation, tea-producers can bring out specific flavors from the leaves. Also during oxidation, the natural green color of tea (from chlorophyll) degrades to darker pigments (pheophytins and pheophorbides).

In a nutshell: Light colored teas (such as white and green tea) require their leaves to be heated almost immediately. This provides little time for oxidation to occur. Whereas other types of tea call for a lengthier oxidation process prior to heating.

Types of tea, in order from lowest level of oxidation to highest level of oxidation

  • White Tea: This pale colored tea is the least oxidized. Because of this, it generally has a mild flavor. White teas are the least processed, and have the least amount of caffeine.

  • Green Tea: Green tea can be either unoxidized, or very slightly oxidized. The heating process can involve being rotated inside an oven, or stirred on a cooking vessel similar to a wok. This slightly more complicated heating process preserves its green color and brings out its unique flavor.

  • Oolong Tea: Because the level of oxidation of oolong tea is part way between green tea and black tea, oolong tea is considered to be semi-oxidized. The leaves are rolled (either by hand or in a machine) to gently bruise the leaves prior to heating. The tea manufacturer may roll the leaves into tiny balls, or twist them into distinctive shapes. Oolong tea is sometimes thought of as “the connoisseurs’ tea” due to its large variety of colors, aromas, and flavors. Depending upon processing methods, it can have a range of flavors including: honey, butter, cream, coconut, nut, orchid, and mineral.

  • Black Tea: Black tea is the most oxidized variety of tea. It is also the most common tea type found in the Western world. The process of making black tea involves several steps which can include: withering (which softens the leaves), sifting, conditioning, maceration (a rolling process which tears or bruises the leaves in order to quicken oxidation), CTC (this stands for cutting, tearing, curling), oxidation, and drying. Black tea usually has the highest caffeine content when compared with other teas.

  • Pu’erh Tea: This tea (pronounced poo-air) is the most oxidized type of tea. Pu’erh tea is named after a city in China’s southern Yunnan Province, where this specialty tea's production and aging process was a closely guarded secret for hundreds of years. After oxidation, this type of tea undergoes a lengthy aging process under high humidity. Teas which have been aged for over one hundred years are expensive and difficult to obtain. Pu’erh teas typically do not have Western language on their packaging. After being purchased, they are brewed in the same way as black or oolong tea. This tea may cost thousands of dollars per ounce. Beware of counterfeits and imitations.

Health benefits

According to various health studies, drinking tea may be able to help in the following ways:

  • Heighten mental alertness

  • Reduce risk of heart / cardiovascular disease

  • Help protect against free radicals that contribute to causing cancer

  • Improve cholesterol levels

  • Reduce risk of Type 2 Diabetes

  • Help with weight loss

  • Reduce risk of neurological disorders (i.e. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s)

  • Decrease risk of tooth loss

  • Reduce inflammation

Drinking tea is relaxing, and is linked to numerous health benefits. Instead of overloading with sugar, try adding a few drops of honey or natural maple syrup. Experiment with different varieties of tea to find types and flavors that you enjoy.

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