Tea - the most popular beverage

November 20, 2004

by Laura Dolson

Tea is the most widely-consumed beverage in the world, aside from water. Legend has it that the practice of tea-drinking began in China around 4500 years ago.

Where does tea come from? True tea comes from the tea plant - Camellia sinensis. It is grown all over the world, and grows best in warm areas at altitudes of 2000-7000 feet with moderate rainfall. Some top tea-growing areas are India, China, Sri Lanka, and East Africa. Each tea area produces teas with different flavor characteristics.

Is tea good for you? Tea is high in at least two groups of phytonutrients (which we will learn more about in our next lesson). There have been studies linking it with healthy bones, hearts, immune systems, mouths, and digestive systems. It also seems to have a protective effect against some cancers.

But what about the caffeine? Tea does have caffeine, and this is important to keep in mind when drinking it. It also contains a similar substance called theophylline which is also a stimulant and has other effects in the body such as opening up the airways. (Caffeine article)

Are there alternatives to tea that have the health benefits with less or no caffeine? Yes.

1) In general, green teas come from species of tea plants with somewhat less caffeine, although you can't always depend upon this. Also, green tea is generally brewed with cooler water than black tea, which also lowers the caffeine content. Green tea has an average of 20 mg of caffeine per cup, as opposed to an average of 40 grams for black tea.
2) You can get decaffeinated versions of both green and black teas.
3) You can dunk your tea bag in water for about 20 seconds and then throw that tea away and start over with fresh water. If you are using loose tea, brew for 30-45 seconds, then toss the water and start over. You can get rid of about 80% of the caffeine this way.
4) Try "bush tea" (see below).

What's the difference between green and black teas? Green teas are steamed right away to stop the oxidation process. Then the leaves are dried. The flavor, when brewed correctly, is more light and delicate. Black teas are allowed to oxidize for a few hours before drying, which turns the leaves brown. Oolong tea is allowed to oxidize part-way. But all these teas come from the tea plant.

How to brew tea. Ideally, use boiling water for black tea, and slightly cooler water for green - when you hear the bubbles inside the kettle but before it whistles, or you see small bubbles around the outside of a pot of water, that's just about right for green tea. Tea bags tend to produce tea that is more bitter after three minutes or so. With loose tea, brew 2-3 minutes for green, and 3-5 minutes for black tea. Info on brewing loose teas

"Bush tea" - also called red bush tea, or rooibos tea, is from a different kind of plant, but it has some of the same healthful properties of regular tea, and no caffeine. It is very popular in southern parts of Africa, and almost all rooibos is grown in the country of South Africa.

Herbal "teas" - There are many herbal teas that are not from the tea plant at all, most of which have no caffeine. Most do not have the same level of antioxidants as are in "real tea", but many have healthful properties of their own.

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