“I am not a coffee drinker, but I sure do love tea! Especially on these cold days here in the northeast”
– Ali Anne
Written by Laura Ungar
The (Louisville, Ky.) Courier-Journal
LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Worldwide, tea is the second-most-popular drink, after water. But in this coffee-crazed nation, it’s long been a subordinate brew.
Tea’s popularity is growing across America as scientists and the public learn more about its bountiful health benefits. An ever-growing body of research that includes more than 5,000 studies says tea can help block cholesterol, prevents cardiovascular disease and cancer and burns calories.
“People are more and more conscious that they should be drinking more tea,” said Hazel Forsythe, associate professor in the Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition at the University of Kentucky. “The word is out, and it’s spreading.”
According to the Tea Association of the USA, a New York-based industry group, consumer tea purchases have increased for 20 consecutive years; retail supermarket sales have surpassed $2.2billion; and away-from-home tea consumption has grown by at least 10 percent a year over the past decade.
On any given day, the group says, 160 million Americans drink tea. Tea shops such as Teavana are popping up all over.
On a recent day, longtime tea drinker Peggy Buchanan made her daily visit to the Louisville Tea Co. in Jefferson County. The 47-year-old Louisvillian has high blood pressure and multiple sclerosis and said she drinks tea partly for its healing properties.
“I’ll have a stomachache or a headache, and they’ll brew something up and it helps,” said Buchanan. “I have a friend with breast cancer. She said tea helps her feel better. … The health benefits are wonderful.”
People in other parts of the world — such as India, China and Japan, where much of the world’s tea is grown — have been aware of its benefits for centuries.
In India’s Darjeeling region, tea plants dot the rolling foothills of the Himalayas, and tea shops and stalls are everywhere. Darjeerling tea is famous across the globe; Nick Spears, co-owner of Louisville Tea, called it “the champagne of tea.”
Sundeep Mukherjee, principal adviser to the Darjeeling Tea Association, said three-quarters of the tea from the region is exported, with up to 10 percent going to the United States — a portion that’s been rising as health benefits become more widely known.
“It’s anti-carcinogenic. It modulates your (blood) pressure. It’s good for your heart. It has antioxidants,” he said. “The qualities of nature are retained through tea.”
Steeped in research
Tea is classified into five types — black, white, green, oolong and puerh. All are created from leaves of the same warm-weather evergreen, and all contain polyphenol antioxidants, which work to neutralize damaging free radicals.
Many studies have examined tea’s role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.
“There’s pretty good evidence that tea decreases absorption of cholesterol in the system,” said Todd Porter, associate professor of pharmaceutical sciences at the University of Kentucky and a tea researcher. “This is more true with black tea than green tea. That is counter to common thinking.”
Some recent cardiovascular research was presented at the Fifth International Scientific Symposium on Tea & Human Health, held in September at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.
One Italian study, for example, found that black tea reduced blood pressure in all subjects and counteracted the detrimental effects of high-fat meals in people with high blood pressure. That study bolstered findings of a 2001 analysis of several studies showing an 11 percent lower risk of heart attack among those drinking three cups of tea a day.
Scientists also presented research on other health conditions. One study said caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine in tea may improve mental cognition and clarity, as well as work performance.
A review of studies, published in the Journal of Cancer Research and Clinical Oncology this year, suggested that consuming five cups of green tea each day helps prevent several cancers and protect against the recurrence of colorectal cancer.
Recent studies have also found benefits for the elderly and the weight-conscious.
A Japanese study published this year in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that elderly subjects who drank more tea had a significantly lower risk of functional disability such as stroke, osteoporosis and cognitive impairment.
A 2004 Japanese study found that caffeine, theanine and perhaps other components in green tea powder suppressed weight gain and fat accumulation. Other research concluded that people drinking green tea and caffeine lost an average of almost three pounds in 12 weeks while eating their regular diet.
UK’s Forsythe said the list goes on and on. “Tea drinkers are likely to age much slower than other beverage drinkers,” she said. “Tea reduces inflammation. It increases bone strength.”
Still, experts said it’s not a cure-all, and isn’t the only beneficial beverage.
A study this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example, found those who drank coffee, compared with those who did not, had lower death rates from heart and respiratory diseases, injuries and accidents, diabetes and infections, but not cancer.
Other studies suggest coffee helps protect against Parkinson’s disease and Type 2 diabetes.
“There are some benefits to coffee, surprisingly, but tea and coffee are very different,” Porter said. “Coffee doesn’t have any of the lipid-lowering benefits tea does.”
Art of tea
Experts said relatively low caffeine levels in tea make it possible to drink large amounts; black tea, which has more caffeine than green, oolong or white, still has about half the caffeine of coffee.
Forsythe suggested drinking at least two cups of tea a day, while Porter said five or more cups of black tea daily would be best to lower cholesterol.
Nicolette Boese, who co-owns Louisville Tea Co. with Spears, her fiance, said she drinks 10 or more cups every day, and has loved the beverage since she was a little girl holding tea parties with her stuffed animals.
Boese, who holds classes on tea, said there’s an art to it. For one thing, she said, loose-leaf teas allow for a wide array of tastes, compared with the supermarket tea bags to which most people are accustomed.
Also, ideal water temperatures and steeping times vary for different types of tea. Black tea requires the hottest water, for instance, and certain types of Chinese green tea should be steeped about two minutes.
Boese and Spears said tea can be enjoyed like fine wine and is a similarly social beverage.
“I’ve seen people talk over tea for three hours,” Boese said.
The social aspect of tea has long been part of other cultures. There are tea ceremonies in Japan and “high tea” in England, and Indians share tea several times a day at home, during get-togethers and even during business meetings. At an outdoor tea stall near a sprawling tea garden in Darjeerling, India, recently, customers lingered on benches, sipping small cups of tea and chatting.
Forsythe said a widening “culture of tea” would be good for America, too. Besides making us healthier, she said, it would connect us, since “we make friends over tea.”