The good old cuppa has been used as a 'pick-me-up' for years, but scientific evidence is emerging that it has powerful health-giving properties as well.
What Is Tea?
Tea comes from the dried leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. There are more than 3,000 varieties of the plant, each having its own distinct character and named for the district in which it is grown.
Black and green teas are not varieties per se; the only difference is that, after picking, the leaves are fermented to different degrees. "Herbal" teas are not strictly "teas" in the sense that they don't contain the leaves of the tea plant. Herbal teas are created from collections of herbs and spices such as mint, tropical hibiscus, cinnamon, etc.
Tea and Health
The therapeutic benefits of tea have long been recognised. The Ancient Greeks used tea to treat colds and asthma, while the Chinese have been drinking tea to aid digestion, increase alertness and improve physical and mental performance for thousands of years.
More recently, published scientific research has confirmed that both black and green teas have health promoting properties. Tea is rich in flavonoids, substances with powerful antioxidant properties. The antioxidants are similar to those found in fruit, vegetables and red wine. These appear to help the body fight harmful 'free radicals' which can advance ageing, work against the immune system and play a major role in the development of chronic and degenerative diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
- Studies have shown that flavonoids in tea can reduce blood pressure and cholesterol levels and may halve the risk of heart attack by reducing blood clotting and cholesterol.
- Tea consumption may also have beneficial effects in reducing cancer risk. One study published in the International Journal of Cancer, indicated that men who drink between 2-3 cups of black tea per day reduce their risk of developing prostate cancer by up to 30% compared to non-tea drinkers.
- Drinking tea may have a role to play in dental health.
- Black tea may protect against the development of skin cancers caused by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation according to research with mice at the CSIRO in Adelaide. The latest research with mice found those given tea (with milk) experienced a reduction in the development of skin cancer of 50% and a reduction in the development of papillomas of 70%.
- It is not only the flavonoid content of tea that makes it good for us. Tea is also an excellent source of important nutrients such as manganese (essential for bone growth), potassium (vital for maintaining fluid levels in the body) and zinc (essential for growth and development). Research also suggests that drinking tea produces mild antibiotic actions in the gut, which offer protection against harmful bacteria and possibly cancer of the colon.
Three cups of tea a day drunk with semi-skimmed milk provides:
- 9% of the daily requirement of Vitamin B1
- 25% of the daily requirement of Vitamin B2
- 6% of the daily requirement of Vitamin B6
- 10% of the daily requirement of Folic Acid
What About Caffeine?
Tea contains anywhere from 8 mg to 110 mg per 200ml cup, significantly less than coffee. High levels of caffeine (more than about 6 cups a day) can lead to or exacerbate problems ranging from insomnia, panic attacks, headaches, irritability and depression.
The Perfect Cuppa
According to Sydney's Tea Centre, good quality water and proper brewing times are essential for a flavourful cup of tea.
- Start with a preheated pot or cup (by filling your teapot with hot tap water and letting it stand for a minute).
- Use fresh cold water. In areas with poor tap water, use bottle or filtered water.
- Never use water from the hot water tap. Let the tap water run for a few seconds until it is quite cold. This ensures that the water is aerated (full of oxygen) to release the full flavour of the tea leaves.
- Bring water to a rolling boil. Don't let it boil too long as it will boil away the flavour releasing oxygen and resulting in a flat tasting cup of tea.
- Pour boiling water on tea leaves or tea bag (tea bags are acceptable to tea purists!)
- Brew for 3 to 5 minutes (for green teas, water should be a bit cooler and only steep for one to three minutes).
The History Of Tea
There are two competing legends relating to the origin of tea. The most popular legend has it that tea originated in China and that it was an accidental discovery. In about 2700 B.C., King Shen Nung was drinking a pot of boiling water when a gust of wind blew some tea leaves into the pot. The result was tea! (The phrase "a cup of cha" originated from the Tang Dynasty (6818-906 BC) when tea became China's national drink and the word ch'a was used to describe it.)
According to a competing legend (accepted in India and Japan), tea was discovered by Bodhidharma (the devout Buddhist priest who founded Zen Buddhism). Both the Indians and the Japanese believe this legend. This legend tells how in the fifth year of a seven year sleepless contemplation of Buddha, Bodhidharma began to feel drowsy. He immediately plucked a few leaves from a nearby bush and chewed them which dispelled his tiredness. The bush was a wild tea tree.
It is the Portuguese and Dutch who claim the credit of bringing tea and tea drinking to Europe. England entered the trade via the East India Company, or the John Company as it was known, in the mid to late 17th century.