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Health & Wellness News: Teas
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by Amanda Biederman, Health & Wellness Staff
Tea is one of the healthiest beverages in the world! The familiarity of a cup of tea makes it hard to imagine that hidden away inside every sip are substances capable of bolstering our bodies defenses to help fight chronic diseases such as heart disease or cancer. Tea is full of polyphenols and flavanoids, which rank high in levels of antioxidant activity and fight off free radicals that can cause health problems. For 3,000 years, before it became a social and recreational beverage, tea was used as a medicine. The tea plant, Camellia sinensis, is said to be a powerhouse with an array of cancer-fighting phytochemicals (non-nutrient plant chemicals). The most promising of these is catachin, a tannin derivative that gives tea its astringency and is common to many plants such as grapes, berries, and ferns.
Tea has been around for thousands of years, first being discovered in China where the tea tree ‘Camellia Evergreen’ grows, then becoming popular in India, Japan, and Korea. The origin of all tea-leaves is the Camellia Evergreen tree, with a majority of high-grown teas harvested from the variety known as Camellia sinensis. The other variety is called Camellia assamica, and is known for its broad leaf type. The Camellia sinensis evergreen thrives in cooler climates of high mountain regions, while Camellia assamica is more prominent in humid tropical climates.
There are seven main classes of tea: green tea, white tea, yellow tea, oolong tea, black tea, pu-erh tea, and flower scented tea. Often times an herbal blend is considered a type of tea, but these blends of herbs do not usually contain actual tealeaves. The processing methods used during harvest, the geographical location of where the tealeaves are picked, and the breed of the tea plant are what determine what category the tea falls into. After the tealeaves are picked, they may go through a process of drying known as “firing” (either through pan firing, baking, half baking or half baking/half panfiring), sun drying or steaming. When heat is used to dry or ‘ferment’ the tealeaves, the enzymatic oxidation of the leaves is deactivated, and the tea loses some of its nutritional value.
Green tea is the most common tea produced and consumed in all of China’s major tea cultivation zones as well as Japan, Korea, and many other Eastern Asian nations. Historical record reveals that green tea is the earliest type of tea produced in China and was later introduced to Korea and Japan. Green tea is considered lightly or non-fermented because heat is applied quickly after harvest to inhibit oxidation and maintain the tealeaves’ natural green color.
White tea is lightly oxidized and goes through the least amount of processing when compared to other teas. After the tealeaves are picked, they are put through a unique withering process that raises silvery hairs on the tealeaves and buds. Considered a rare treasure, white tea can only be produced in China in a small area on Northern Fujian where proper conditions and the authentic white tea bush varieties are found. White teas have a subtle to mildly sweet flavor, and contain more caffeine than green tea. Recent research in the US reports that white teas have the same, if not more, of the healthy attributes found in green tea.
Yellow tea is a rare, non-fermented tea made from carefully picked buds and leaves that are minimally processed. The leaves are stacked into piles where the internal heat generated from their decomposition slowly stops the oxidation process. Yellow teas have more caffeine than green teas and yield light colored infusions and a delicate taste and aroma. This tea was traditionally made in Anhui Province, in southeastern China, and is now almost a lost art.
Oolong tea is a kind of semi-fermented tea with a wide range of flavors and varieties. Oolong teas can be divided into many categories based on the geographic region, tea plant variety, the harvest season, and the degree of fermentation. Additionally, the picking standard and the subtle controls practiced during processing impact the categorization of an oolong tea. The production of authentic oolong teas is restricted to a few geographic regions of China and Taiwan, where the proper tea plants and artisan techniques can be found. Oolong tea has been said to be reparative to the skin and is known for its body slimming, blood sugar reducing and digestive aid functions, as well as its great flavor. Green-style oolongs are also believed to help repair the lungs of damage from air pollution and smoking.
Black tea, also referred to as red tea in China, is one of the best selling teas in the US. Black teas can be categorized into grades based on the method of harvest, the style of production, and the leaf size of the finished product. Black tea is highly fermented but has numerous health benefits. Black tea has been shown to be great for the heart, and could help prevent heart attacks. It also helps prevent plaque build-up in the arteries, increases bone density, and kills bacteria in the mouth that causes cavities and bad breath. As if that were not enough, black tea has also been shown to increase blood flow and lower bad cholesterol.
Pu-erh refers to a series of teas from China’s Southwestern Yunnan province. Authentic Pu-erh can only be made with sun-dried tealeaves picked from the specific variety of a broad-leaf tea tree known as “Yunnan Da Ye.” According to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Pu-erh tea has a warm and potent property. It is known to dispel grease and toxins from a person whose diet is rich in beef or other meats. Pu-erh is also known to lower the alcohol level in the blood, making it a great remedy for a hangover! Researchers in China showed that it is the best amongst all teas for body slimming and cholesterol reduction. Although Pu-erh betters with age, some younger varieties can be found and are quite tasty.
Flower-scented teas are usually a blend of green or black tea mixed with flowers such as jasmine, orchid, chamomile, or hibiscus. These tend to be the most popular although many types of flowers or herbs could be used. Once the tea is picked, the flowers are added for flavor and scent, but are then removed from the higher quality teas for a milder flavor of flower and stronger flavor of tea. Numerous herbal blends are sold as teas as well, and although they do not usually contain actual tealeaves, they can still be medicinal for the healing herbal properties.
Switching from being a soda or coffee drinker to a tea drinker could have numerous benefits for your health. If drinking tea isn’t your thing, try a supplement like New Chapter’s green and white tea supplement, on sale in September and located in the Wellness Department of the Co-op. If you want more energy, better digestion, higher mental clarity, or any of the other health benefits associated with higher levels of antioxidants, then the Co-op has a huge selection of bulk and pre-packed teas for your enjoyment. Whoever thought that being healthy could taste so good?