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The Wonderful World of Tea

by Brandy McIntosh BSc, Certified Interactive Reflexologist

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Next to water, tea is the world’s most popular beverage. With its classic taste and inexplicable ability to revitalize both spirit and body, for many, tea is the perfect diversion from the pressures associated with today’s hectic lifestyle. Until recently, in North America tea consumption was mostly limited to Orange Pekoe, English Breakfast or Earl Grey black teas. Of course, herbal teas have been gaining popularity for a number of years, and green tea has been enjoyed for some time in circles of tea connoisseurs. Now, as the natural health movement continues to flourish, people everywhere are discovering a whole new world of taste sensations - and reaping innumerable health benefits in the process.

For those people new to the world of tea, the plethora of options may seem a little confusing. But not to worry, the many varieties of tea can be simplified into five main categories. After choosing which type of tea is most appropriate for you, it is only a matter of finding the perfect flavour.

Types of Tea

Tea can be divided into five main categories: herbal, black, green, oolong, and white. All varieties except herbal tea are infusions created by steeping leaves from the shrub Camellia sinensis in hot water. They differ in colour, aroma and taste, mostly due to changes in their chemical composition during processing.

Herbal Tea is a blanket term covering all types of tea which are not derived from the Camellia sinensis plant, but rather from one or a combination of the many varieties of plants or herbs. Herbal teas are most often caffeine free, and may impart health benefits specific to the herb from which the tea is brewed. Many herbs have medicinal properties, so it is always wise to consult the package for contraindications and proper brewing instructions.

Black Tea, the variety most commonly used in North America, is the most processed of the teas brewed from the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. After the leaves are harvested, they undergo fermentation; this step gives black tea its brown colour and distinctive, slightly bitter aftertaste. This process also results in a dramatic reduction in the antioxidant chemicals called catechins - the component in green tea that is being studied for its anti-cancer activity - replacing them with other polyphenol compounds which are less researched but may be just as good for us. Some of tea’s health benefits, such as increased blood flow to the brain, have been attributed to its caffeine content. Tea has less caffeine than coffee and does not appear to have the negative influence on circulation and heart health normally associated with caffeine consumption. Black tea contains more caffeine than any other tea variety. When preparing tea, it is best to use water that is free of calcium as it interferes with the taste, especially in green tea. It is also a good idea to pre-heat the teapot or cup by rinsing it with a little boiled water. Black teas should be steeped for a minimum of three minutes to release all the caffeine and some of the beneficial polyphenols into the water. Allowing it to steep for five minutes should ensure that all of the polyphenols have been dissolved.

Green Tea is becoming more and more popular as the beverage of choice for health-conscious North Americans. This is largely due to the increased media attention it has recently received. New research results illustrating the various health benefits associated with its consumption are published on a continual basis. Many are inspired by statistics from Japan, where green tea is consumed in large quantities, a fact which perhaps contributes to their long life expectancy and relatively low rates of cancer and heart disease. Japan produces only green teas, because they are thought to be the most potent. The leaves of green tea are harvested and withered in a similar process as with black and oolong teas, but in green tea they are not allowed to ferment. This preserves a very high quantity of catechins - powerful antioxidant chemicals. To ensure maximum health benefits green teas should be steeped for one to three minutes, depending on the quality of the tea. Lower quality teas only need to steep for one minute, whereas good quality teas should be left for three. Allowing green tea to steep for more than three minutes results in a stronger, but more bitter taste with a less stimulating effect. If using tea bags more than once, only steep for half the time on the second and third brewing. Green tea brews to a green or yellowish colour with a fresh, grassy taste.

Oolong Tea is partially fermented, giving it a yellowish or light brown colour with catechin/polyphenol content ranging somewhere between that of green tea and that of black tea, depending on the exact level of fermentation achieved.

White Tea is the least processed, and often the most expensive, variety. When brewed, white tea appears pale yellow or light red in colour. It derives its name from the whitish appearance of the Camellia sinensis plant in spring, when the leaves for white tea are harvested. At this time of year the proportion of buds - which are covered in a coat of fine silvery white hairs - is greater, and the leaves are more tender. As a result, preparations of white tea contain more buds than other varieties. After harvesting, the leaves and buds are quickly steamed and then dried to preserve the high content of catechins and other healthy polyphenols, as well as ensuring that the tea retains the light, sweet taste for which it is known. Beware of advertisements boasting that white tea is much lower in caffeine than green and black teas; most preparations contain slightly less caffeine than black tea, but significantly more than green teas. There is much conflicting information on the brewing of white tea: some sources indicate that it should be steeped for a maximum of two minutes, to prevent bitterness, while others indicating that a minimum of six minutes are required to ensure that the buds have opened to release important nutrients and polyphenols. When in doubt, consult the package of the particular tea being brewed for steeping times and other useful information.

The Many Health Benefits of Tea (Camellia sinensis varieties)

The use of tea for healing purposes is not a new concept. Although its application as a preventative tool is only now gaining recognition in North America, tea has been used for thousands of years in both traditional Chinese and Japanese medicine. Most research has focused on green tea for its high catechin content, but recent research studies conducted with black tea seem to indicate that it shares many of the same healing attributes as the non-fermented variety.

The research seems to suggest that tea has healing/preventative properties which help in virtually every condition studied, including, but not limited to, liver damage, arthritis, osteoporosis, dental health, digestive complaints, heart disease, high cholesterol, obesity, kidney problems, lowering blood sugar levels, increasing the activity of insulin, and cancer. After two weeks of drinking black tea the amount of interferon produced by our immune system T-cells increases tenfold. Interferon is used by the immune system to fight off cold and flu viruses, food poisoning, infections from cuts, and to ward off other infections, such as athlete’s foot, tuberculosis, and even malaria. Interferon also slows the growth of tumor cells.

Drinking tea can promote the growth of healthy intestinal micro-flora and decrease the presence of bad bacteria in the stomach. This leads to better digestion, enabling our bodies to properly extract and use the nutrients present in our food. The nutrients we ingest are an integral component of the many cellular processes our bodies must perform in order to function properly. A healthy digestive tract is the first step to a healthy body and mind. Tea may also be useful in preventing bad breath and tooth decay. In laboratory tests, the polyphenols normally present in tea were shown to kill the bacteria that cause bad breath. Studies also suggest that tea may prevent the adhesion of plaque to the teeth, thereby preventing cavities. Unlike other caffeinated beverages such as coffee and colas, tea has a low acid composition, making it an ideal substitute for preventing dental erosion.

Although some benefits may be derived by drinking small quantities of tea, most research has been conducted using quantities in the range of 5-10 cups a day. To ensure maximum benefits from the positive chemicals in tea, it is advisable (not to mention enjoyable!) to drink as much as possible.

Due to likely contamination of tea products by pesticides and other dangerous chemicals, it may be worthwhile to invest in organic brands when available. Whichever type of tea you decide to use, and however you decide to brew it, the most important thing to remember is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the experience.

Brandy McIntosh resides in Halifax and can be reached at bmacupuncture@hotmail.com

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