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The Benefits of Tea

Posted On May 5, 2017

Could this slightly exotic beverage be better than your morning cup of Joe?

By EDNA COX RICE, RD, CSG, LDN

No matter the season, iced or hot, a tall glass or soothing cup of tea is a flavorful beverage and it might be good for you.

According to the U.S. Tea Association, 158 million Americans drink tea on a daily basis.  That’s about half of the U.S. population.  This trend of increased tea consumption is expected to continue to grow during the next five years.

Tea is a name given to lots of brews, but only green tea, black tea, white tea, and oolong tea are the real thing.  They are all derived from the Camellia sinensis plant, a shrub native to China and India.  Chinese legend says that in 2737 B.C., leaves from an overhanging Camellia sinensis plant fell into Emperor Shenning’s cup of boiling water.  Tea has been recognized by cultures around the world for its capacity to soothe, restore and refresh.  

Tea has been lauded for an array of potential health benefits – from reducing cancer and risk of heart disease to improving dental health and boosting weight loss.  These health benefits are attributed to the unique antioxidants found in tea called flavonoids.  Although many questions remain about how long tea needs to be steeped for the most benefit, and how much you need to drink, nutritionists agree any tea is good tea.  Brewed tea is preferred over bottled to avoid extra calories and sweeteners.

Your Heart on Tea 

The strongest evidence is on the side of heart health, attributed to the antioxidant effects in tea.  Studies show a relationship between drinking black tea and a decreased incidence of heart attacks.  Green tea intake was associated with lower total cholesterol, LDL and triglycerides, and higher HDL levels.  A 2013 review of several studies found green tea helped a range of heart-related issues, from high blood pressure to congestive heart failure.  Oolong tea has also been associated with lowering LDL cholesterol levels.

Brain Health

What’s good for your heart is usually good for your brain; your brain needs healthy blood vessels for optimal function.  Green tea has also been shown to help block the formation of plaque that is linked to Alzheimer’s disease.

Cancer Prevention

Studies in this area are mixed, but more research than not suggests that tea has cancer-fighting benefits.  Tea may help protect against breast, colon, skin, lung, stomach, small intestine, pancreas, liver, ovarian, and prostate cancers.  Damage from free radicals has been linked to cancer.  The antioxidants in tea help to fight free radicals and protect against certain cancers.

Dental Health

In 2010, Japanese researchers reported drinking at least one cup of green tea per day was associated with decreased tooth loss.  Other studies suggested tea may lower the pH of the tooth surface, suppressing the growth of periodontal bacteria and preventing cavities.  Tea does not appear to erode tooth enamel unlike many other beverages.  This may be linked to the fluoride content of tea.  Tea is usually brewed with fluoridated water and the tea plant naturally accumulates fluoride from the soil.

The Fountain of Youth

White tea has a very high polyphenol count.  A recent study demonstrated that extracts in white tea inhibited wrinkle production by strengthening elastin and collagen―two important factors in developing fine lines and wrinkles.  This study also found white tea can keep your joints young.

Weight Loss

Tea could keep waist circumference in check.  In one study, participants who regularly consumed hot tea had lower waist circumference and lower BMI than participants not consuming a daily cup.  Findings of a 2011 study suggest that green tea extracts may actually interfere with fat formation in the body.  (Green tea extracts should not be confused with bottled green tea drinks that may be full of added sugar).  For green tea extracts, opt for the real deal―boil water with a good old-fashioned teabag or loose tea.

A cup of tea only contains a couple of calories. Iced or hot tea is a smart swap for sugary drinks.  If you sub 1-2 cups of tea for one can of soda, over the next year you would save over 50,000 calories.  That’s more than 15 pounds a year. 

Herbal Teas

Herbal teas have no caffeine, while traditional teas have less than 50 percent of what is found in coffee.  Herbal teas, such as chamomile, can be good for the digestive system and conditions like irritable bowel syndrome because it is an antispasmodic.  Ginger tea can calm nausea.  There are many flavorful and soothing variations of herbal teas available.

Carolina Sweet Tea

In 1795, South Carolina was the only colony in America producing tea plants.  The plant was brought to Charleston planters by a French explorer and botanist, Andre Michaux.  Summerville was home of the first big U.S. tea plantation.  Today, Charleston Tea Plantation, on Wadmalaw island, near Charleston, is again the only tea producer in North America.

Accounts of the first versions of iced tea used green tea, not black as iced tea is made today.  The green tea was used in cold punches, heavily spiked with alcohol.  Versions of iced tea as we know it today were not printed until 1879.   Recipes called for green tea to be boiled and steeped throughout the day, poured over a goblet of ice and add two teaspoonfuls of granulated sugar.

Many historians believe iced tea was invented in 1904, at the World’s Fair in St. Louis.  Richard Blechynden realized that an iced version of his free hot tea would be more refreshing on a summer day.  The popularity of iced tea skyrocketed and iced tea became a hit throughout the country.

Sweet tea is primarily a southern tradition.  In many states, you’ll get iced tea when you ask for “tea” any month of the year.  Sweetened tea can be loaded with extra calories, adding 200 calories or more per cup.  The health benefits of tea consumption can be completely offset by adding sugar.

Good for You

Tea has a long and rich history.  For centuries, the health benefits of tea have been recognized.  Tea consumption, especially green tea, is not a magic bullet, but it can be incorporated in an overall healthy diet.  It’s a healthy alternative.  Move over Joe!

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