Tea – One of the Oldest, Healthiest Beverages
Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, CSSD
Is there anything better on a cold day than a delicious steaming cup of tea? Sipping on an aromatic brew not only warms you from the inside out, but tea offers up some pretty nice health benefits, too.
Most tea as we know it is made from leaves of the plant camellia sinensis
– and is one of the world’s oldest beverages. According to legend, the Chinese emperor Shen Nong discovered the delicious flavor of tea by accident more than 5000 years ago, after some leaves fluttered into his pot of boiling water.
When the tea leaves are steamed after picking, the heat stops the activity of natural enzymes in the leaves that would start to darken the leaves, which preserves the bright green color we associate with green tea. This process also preserves important compounds in green tea known as catechins, a group of natural phytonutrients that are believed to be responsible for many of tea’s health benefits.
If the tea leaves aren’t steamed, but instead are allowed to ferment and oxidize, the result is oolong tea and black tea. Even though most of the tea consumed worldwide is black tea, most of the research on the health benefits of tea has focused on green tea.
The catechins in green tea act as antioxidants, which the body can use to reduce the formation of highly reactive molecules, called oxygen free radicals that can damage cells and tissues. Free radicals are formed in the body naturally as a result of everyday metabolic processes, so we can’t stop making them completely, but as long as we have plenty of antioxidants available, the body is able to keep free radical formation to a minimum. Plants are good sources of antioxidants, and tea leaves are no exception.
Compounds in green tea also stimulate a process called thermogenesis, which basically means that the body is burning calories to generate heat. It was once thought that it was the caffeine in tea that stimulated this calorie burn, but now it’s believed that it’s the combination of the natural caffeine and the catechins are responsible for the effect. Keep in mind, though, that the effect is very mild. The extra calorie burn you get from a cup of green tea won’t erase the calories in a double cheeseburger.
You can brew your tea from loose tea leaves, tea bags, or you may prefer the convenience of powdered instant teas. No matter which one you choose, you’ll get the beneficial antioxidants naturally present in the tea. And if you like lemon in your tea, that’s a plus. Lemons contain vitamin C, which helps you absorb the natural antioxidants in the brew.