Legend says that in 2737 B.C., tea leaves blew into a Chinese emperor’s pot of boiling water and voilà, tea was born! January is National Tea Month (bet you didn’t know that?), and to honor one of our favorite hot — and cold — beverages, we put together a short-and-sweet guide to this 5,000-year-old delight.
We are talking about the real stuff! The four main varieties of tea (black, green, white and oolong) all come from the leaves, stems and buds of the Camellia sinesis plant. They are grown and harvested in different ways to create teas with varied flavors and colors. Like many other plants, teas grown in different parts of the world take on unique characteristics.
Once tea is dried, it is portioned in bags or left loose. Loose leaves can be placed in a variety of brewers such as infusers, strainers and teapots. After you select your favorite preparation method, just add water, steep and sip.
Herbal Teas such as ginger or chamomile are delicious, but they come from the leaves, seeds, flowers and bark of various other plants, not the Camellia plant; they have different health benefits, tastes and are usually not caffeinated. (Look for a piece on why we love herbal teas next week.)
- Fun Facts
- Americans drank 2.5 billion gallons of tea in 2007.
- 80% of American households are stocked with tea.
- Iced tea was invented in 1904, born out of necessity at a very hot world’s fair in St. Louis, Missouri.
- Nutrition Benefits
- Tea contains flavinoids, antioxidants with potential cancer-fighting benefits.
- Bagged tea may be healthier — leaves are ground finer, allowing for more antioxidants to steep into your cup.
- Caffeine content varies but the average for a cup of black tea is about 40 mg (a cup of coffee has about 100 to 120mg).
- Tea is very low in calories and contains theanine, an amino acid which may help strengthen the immune system.
Black, Green or White? Hot or Iced?
Black tea is most popular amongst Americans. The media has hyped the weight-loss benefits of green tea lately, but it turns out that you would have to drink more than 10 cups a day to experience any effect. So enjoy your green tea but don’t rely on it to help with slimming down. White tea is getting a lot of the spotlight these days, too. You might see it listed on bottled tea drinks. There is some info that shows white tea varieties have less caffeine than green and black tea and may retain more antioxidants. Because white tea is more rare, it tends to carry a higher price tag.
Approximately 85% of the tea consumed in America is the iced variety. Though iced tea is always light and refreshing, watch out for those sugar-laden, ready-to-drink iced teas. Some are not even real tea, just a combination of artificial tea extracts and sweeteners.
The healthiest way to enjoy tea’s natural flavor is to add a touch of sugar or honey and a squeeze of lemon, lime or even blood orange. Brewed tea can be used in sauces, smoothies and baked goods. Add tea dried leaves to a spice rub for meat or fish.
When I’m just settling down for a simple, steaming cup, I love Tazo’s “Zen,” a green tea with citrus and lemon grass. Republic of Tea, which is carried by most health food stores and some mainstream grociers, has many varieties to choose from; some of my favorites are Raspberry Quince Black Tea, Pineapple Guava White Tea and Vanilla Coconut White Tea.
- Tea recipes to try:
- Lemon Ginger Iced Tea with Berry Cubes
- Green Tea, Honey and Nutmeg Smoothies
- Tea-Scented Sponge Cake with a Honey Tea Glaze
To learn more about tea, check out Planet Tea.