Its health powers may be hyped, but it still has strong selling points, advocates say
- JAMES HEFLIN
Oliver Rich, president of Tea Guys, fills glasses with matcha powder.
Not so fast.
Turns out that getting antioxidants from tea is a complicated matter. And those much-touted antioxidants? Found as well in fruits and vegetables or supplement pills, their usefulness is also more controversial than a fad-happy food industry leads us to believe.
Ingesting too many actually could be harmful.
“Oxygen is life-giving as well as life-taking,” said nutritionist Bruce Homstead of Easthampton. “It helps you age your cells in the same way a piece of exposed iron ages with rust. Your body is rusting (oxidizing) all the time.”
Antioxidants — there are hundreds — are chemicals which help cells avoid that rusting. But Homstead says these substances can be double-edged. “They’re pretty powerful. ... you can take too much of the stuff, actually allowing the damage to the cell to occur. And who knows what the exact balance point is?”
When it comes to tea, some studies have turned up positive effects from the antioxidants it contains, chiefly one called apigallocatechin gallate, or ECGC. Other research has shown less of a benefit. The University of Maryland Medical Center’s Medical Reference Guide says that, based on at least one large study, green tea lowers total cholesterol and raises levels of HDL, or so-called “good” cholesterol.
Other research has shown that antioxidants in both green and black tea may help kill cancerous cells and stop them from growing, but the studies may not have factored in the cultural context of the tea drinkers — for example, the rest of their diets. Therefore, says U.M., the jury is out: “It is not possible to know for sure from these studies whether green tea actually prevents cancer in people.”Even the National Cancer Institute seems stumped, calling the evidence regarding tea and cancer “inconclusive at present.”
So why has the idea gained such prominence?
Thank the food industry’s marketing machine. Based on such promising, but inconclusive studies it’s been busily promoting the benefits of antioxidants for years.
A cautious stance
Local tea purveyors have taken a more cautious stance all along, though they say tea’s relaxing effects are healthy regardless of the more sweeping claims.
“We’ve never really promoted drinking tea for health benefits,” said Robert Heiss, who runs Northampton-based Teatrekker.com with his wife, Mary Lou Heiss. “Our focus is on drinking tea because it’s a delicious beverage. Anything you get beyond that is a bonus.” For many years, the couple ran a shop in Northampton, which recently closed, and have traveled widely to study and write about tea.
But if you are seeking an antioxidant rich beverage, Heiss says, the green tea in grocery store tea bags isn’t going to do much for you, health or flavorwise. “Cheap tea is cheap tea — it tends to be old,” and from parts of the world that aren’t traditional tea-growing regions.
Tea should reach consumers soon after harvest or whatever antioxidants it might have contained will have diminished, Heiss says.
He believes that green tea’s health benefits may be real, but says that most studies don’t consider cultural factors. In Japan, for instance, where green tea is widely consumed, other aspects of Japanese diet and habit are also different from Western lifestyles, and may have as much or more to do with good health than the beverage, he says.
Oliver Rich, president of Tea Guys in Whately, echoes Heiss’ ambivalence. There are, he says, too many variables in the processing and preparation of tea to really know exactly what chemicals you’re consuming. “How it’s treated by people (who handle it) will impact health benefits and flavors.” he said. “Even when you add milk, it affects absorption of minerals. You’re adding something, so you’re changing the chemistry.”
Still, there are some broad guidelines that hold true: Green tea has more ECGC and less caffeine than black tea.
Guide to green
Drinking green tea, if you aren’t used to it, can be an alien experience. It tastes nothing like black tea. It tends to be herbaceous, grassy and subtle. It’s hard to imagine that such starkly different flavors could come from the same plant, but all tea is made from the tea plant, camellia senensis. Herbal “tea” is another matter, and its proper name isn’t really “tea,” but “tisane.”
It’s only differences in processing that create the bold bitterness of English Breakfast style and the buttered-grass umami of Japanese green tea.
The broad category of green tea also includes a surprisingly large variety of tastes, though the processing is often little more than an application of heat to dry the leaves.
If you’re bent on finding the most antioxidant-rich green, Heiss offers additional guidance. “If one is going to add green tea to the diet in the hope it will have some health benefits, there are two distinctively different types of green tea to focus on — spring greens and country greens. Just like what happens with any plant, whether it’s basil, marijuana, whatever — the stuff that emerges in the spring has more of whatever you want.”
Spring green teas are the product of the first post-winter leaves. “The tender leaves that come out are highly regarded for flavor,” Heiss said. “There’s a limited amount of that available.”
That first harvest, or “flush,” is followed by a second that’s much larger. The product of that harvest is country green. “Because of rain, and because it’s getting warmer, these leaves are not as tender,” Heiss said. “They have a more pronounced flavor.”
Rich points out another tea style that’s particularly high in antioxidants: Japanese matcha, or powdered green tea. Because the leaves have been ground into powder, hot water extracts more of the tea’s compounds, from caffeine to ECGC.
At Tea Guys’ Whately storefront, Rich offers customers the chance to taste the many varieties to find what they like.
The way to brew
The brewing process is where tea aficionados really bristle at a medicinal approach to tea. That’s because flavor and antioxidant release are at odds. The health community advises that green tea should be steeped for a long time in order to release the most antioxidants.
“I certainly don’t buy into people like Dr. Oz and Dr. Weil,” Heiss said. Steeping green tea in hot water for a long time essentially makes medicine out of it, he says. “If you do that, it’s gonna taste like dreck. You’re gonna hate it. But it’s going to have more of these compounds you theoretically need.”
So what does he suggest?
“For good green tea, you want to have the water at a boil, then let it sit for maybe three minutes. Then it’s at 170 or 180 degrees.” That’s when you pour it over the tea. “You want a steep time of no more than two minutes.”
Rich offers similar guidance, and points out another option. “You can also cold-brew,” he said. That’s a simple process — just let it sit in cold water. “It will start steeping right away.” Steeping times vary according to tea and taste, and the result can be drunk cold or heated.
Green tea comes with another perk: You don’t have to throw it out after you’ve used it once. In China and Japan, green tea is often steeped several times. “In China,” Rich said, “each (successive) cup has a name.”
Usually, a third or even fourth infusion is possible. That all adds up, Heiss points out, to the equivalent time in the water that health-centric antioxidant-seekers recommend. But you get more tea, and the flavor is much better, says Rich. “If you pay attention to the steeping time, and do one and a half or two minutes at 165 to 180 degrees, when you take the tea out, you get a much sweeter cup.”
Green tea usually has less caffeine than black tea. But if you’d like to avoid caffeine altogether, the repeat steepings offer another benefit, he adds. “Most of the caffeine is generally removed in the first 30 seconds of steeping.”
So, steep once, pour off, and steep again, and you’ll have a cup with far less caffeine.
The research on tea isn’t conclusive, and the world of tea is complex. But in the end, Heiss, Rich and Homstead offer the same advice — just sit and enjoy.
“The way I look at tea,” Homstead said, “it’s got two properties. Not only does it have natural plant chemicals that are good for all kinds of things, but it’s also a soothing drink, a calming drink.”
Heiss offers a similar view. “Buy some good green tea, steep it properly, then drink it. What you’re going to get out of it really is positive. Take the time during one or two points in your day — make tea, drink it out of a (nice) cup, and take a break from the frenetic part of life. That’s going to have as much benefit as whatever’s in that cup.”
James Heflin can be reached at email@example.com.
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