THE humble cup of tea is one of the most popular beverages in Australia (after water, milk and coffee), with people drinking on average 9.5 cups of the stuff a week nationally.
While it’s not as much of a cultural tradition here compared to other places such as China, India or the UK, thanks to the modern wellbeing movement more people are now opting for tea as a healthier alternative to other drinks.
But before you go rushing to put the kettle on, is tea really as healthy as it’s made out to be?
According to naturopath Lisa Guy, who is ambassador for the Natural Health Company and founder of Bodhi Organic Tea; it depends on what type of tea you’re having and how you’re drinking it.
“When you brew black, green or white tea using boiling water and steep it for too long, tannins are released which not only gives it a bitter taste, but can cause digestive issues in sensitive people if drinking large quantities. So for these people, herbal teas are probably a better option as they don’t contain tannins,” Ms Guy says.
Other reported health issues which can occur from tea include:
- LOW IRON ABSORPTION: Caffeine and tannins found in tea can decrease the body’s ability to absorb non-haeme (plant-based) iron, which can be an issue if you’re anaemic or have low iron levels. This would be the case for any caffeinated drink.
- OESOPHAGEAL CANCER: Drinking any very hot beverage, including tea (anything above 65°C), can irritate the lining of the oesophagus and potentially increase the risk of cancer. If you drink alcohol and smoke your risk is also increased if you also drink tea at hot temperatures.
- MISCARRIAGE: While this isn’t limited to tea, women drinking large quantities of caffeinated tea could have an increased risk of miscarriage or a low birth weight.
- RHEUMATOID ARTHRITIS: A US study of women aged 50-79 found that those who drank black tea were 40 per cent more likely to develop rheumatoid arthritis than those who didn’t, with women drinking more than four cups a day 78 per cent more at risk.
- KIDNEY PROBLEMS: A man from Arkansas drank 16 cups of iced tea daily and as a result developed kidney failure most likely due to the excessive amount of oxalates (a natural compound found in non-herbal tea and other foods) he was consuming.
- LIVER TOXICITY: A weight loss product with green tea extracts sold in France and Spain in 2003 was associated with causing acute liver injury due to the high levels of catechins (type of antioxidant found in green tea). This only refers to green tea extract however.
- BRITTLE BONES AND TEETH LOSS: A woman from Michigan drank a pitcher of tea every day for 17 years made from a whopping 100 tea bags and as a result developed a rare bone disease called skeletal fluorosis where her bones became brittle and she lost teeth from consuming high levels of fluoride (a mineral found in brewed tea).
Additionally, Ms Guy says that the tea plant ‘camellia sinensis’ and herbs absorb pesticides easily, with tea bags often made from materials such as bleached paper and other chemicals which are held together by staples or adhesive. So there’s a good chance that once you’ve poured on your hot water you’ll also unknowingly release harmful toxins into your ‘healthy’ brew.
If you’re now slowly crying into your cup of tea as you’re reading this don’t worry as it’s not all bad news. There are still many proven health benefits of drinking both herbal and non-herbal tea (in moderation).
For example, the antioxidants found in green and white tea in particular are said to help protect against cancer and cardiovascular diseases, lower cholesterol, reduce the risk of Parkinson’s disease and dementia, encourage weight loss, promote healthy skin and aid oral health and liver function. Studies on black tea have also shown a reduced risk of type-2 diabetes, while herbal teas have a wide range of benefits such as helping with insomnia, stress, anxiety, depression, nausea, digestion issues and immunity from colds and flu.
The key to reaping these benefits, says Ms Guy, really lies in how you’re going about your tea. Here are some tips to make sure your ‘healthy cuppa’ doesn’t take a nasty turn:
- USE LOOSE LEAF TEA: Tea bags often contain lower grade tea ‘dust’ or ‘fannings’ and are made from materials containing chemicals. Brewing whole tea leaves and herbs also gives a richer, full-bodied flavour.
- BUY QUALITY ORGANIC: Less chance of nasties and you can actually reuse good quality tea for more value and to bring out different flavours.
- FAVOUR THE POWER TEAS: Green and white tea is less processed than black tea and therefore has more antioxidants. Herbal teas also have many health properties with little side effects.
- WATCH SUGAR INTAKE: If you drink a lot of tea with sugar it could increase your risk of heart disease or obesity. Try a natural additive or swap it for herbal tea.
- DON’T MAKE IT TOO HOT: More flavour is released at lower temperatures and less tannins so either stop the kettle just before it boils or pour boiling water in first to allow it to cool a little. White and green teas should be brewed at around 80°C and 85°C for black tea.
- DON’T INFUSE TOO LONG: Stewing your tea will release more tannins. White tea should be steeped for 1-3 minutes, green for 1-2 minutes and black for 45-60 seconds (or 2-3 minutes if having with milk). About 3-4 minutes is good for herbal teas, longer for blends like chai.
- WATCH WHEN YOU DRINK: Don’t drink caffeinated tea with or straight after meals, or with food high in oxalates (e.g. spinach, nuts and chocolate).
- LIMIT YOUR INTAKE: Like with anything moderation is the key so stick to only 3-4 cups a day (particularly for caffeinated teas).
"Drinking tea with mindfulness will also help you to feel more calm and relaxed, and will allow you to reconnect with yourself, your body and those around you," Ms Guy says.
Well that’s a relief! So basically you can still enjoy a good cup of tea and maximise the health benefits — if you’re drinking it the right way.
OK, now you can go and put the kettle on.