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True Teas: Reap the Benefits

By H.K. Jones

If you've heard it once, you've heard it a million times: Soda bad, water good. But summer’s here, the heat is on, and frankly all but the most disciplined Zen masters among us will be unable to resist a drink with a little bit of flavor. So instead of reaching for a calorie-dense soda or sugar-packed fruit juice blended concoction, why not try a glass of antioxidant-rich tea, either iced or brewed hot? After all, tea is the second most popular beverage in the world after water, and studies have shown that tea has numerous health benefits. Could billions of people from cultures all over the world really be wrong?

Tea Defined: True Versus Tisanes
First, the basics: True tea is made from the infusion of water and the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. All true teas come from this same plant; the way the raw leaves are processed (steamed, fermented, oxidized, dried, or bruised) gives them their distinct colors (black, green, oolong [red], and white) and tastes.

Tisanes, or herbal teas, on the other hand, do not derive from the true tea plant. They’re infusions of edible flowers, herbs, leaves, roots, bark, or berries of other plants, and while many are delicious, they don’t offer the same health benefits that true teas do.

True Teas: Great Taste, Big Benefits
That’s because the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant that true teas come from contain high amounts of chemicals called polyphenols—these chemicals gives tea antioxidant properties that work to neutralize harmful free radicals. Over time free radicals can damage cells and contribute to chronic and age-related diseases. Lucky for you, an average cup of brewed green or black tea provides 150 to 200 mg of these immune-boosting, disease-fighting flavonoids, and research links increased tea consumption (a mere one cup a day) with many health benefits, including the following:

  1. Lower cancer risk: Because of its abundant antioxidants, tea—and especially green tea—has been shown to be a potentially helpful component of an optimal anti-cancer diet.
  2. A healthier heart: Jack Bukowski, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and expert on tea’s health properties, says “there are strong suggestions that tea enhances heart health.” For example, studies have shown tea may lower cholesterol levels and help prevent blood clotting.
  3. A thinner waist: More good tea news: Some preliminary research suggests that drinking tea may have positive effects on body weight and insulin activity. And if nothing else, drinking unsweetened tea is a calorie-free option that helps you stave off hunger pangs for less-healthy, sugar-packed options.
So just how much tea should you drink? “The more the better, but anything more than 10 cups a day may be overkill,” says Bukowski. Of course, keep in mind that tea contains caffeine, albeit a lot less caffeine than coffee. In other words, listen to your body so don't overdo it.

True Tea Tips
Get started with these simple tips for choosing your tea:
  1. Go green: When given a choice, remember that cup for cup, “green tea has more antioxidant activity and immune boosting activity than any other tea,” says Bukowski.
  2. Stay loose: Many mass-market tea bags contain a lot of tea dust—tiny dry particles that fall to the floor during the creation of tea. Whenever possible brew you tea from loose-leaf teas; it’s a bit more difficult to brew, but it's healthier and tastes much better. You can find loose-leaf teas at most health-food stores as well as better tea and coffee shops.
  3. Know your caffeine content: Of the four types of true teas, black teas contain the most caffeine; but keep in mind that even a strong cup of black tea contains only 50 to 60 percent of the caffeine found in coffee. The lowest dosages of caffeine are found in green and white teas, making them ideal afternoon drinks.
  4. Skip the sugar: When you go to a Starbucks this summer, they're going to offer you a delicious antioxidant-packed iced white tea—pumped full of several squirts of flavored sugar that make it a completely unhealthy drink. Take your tea without sugar, and, if you absolutely can't stand it without the sweet, flavor it with a small amount of healthier honey instead.
About H.K. Jones: H. K. Jones is a registered dietitian, freelance writer, and nutrition professional based in Washington, D.C.