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Health Food of the month - Tea

June 2018

Mature woman drinking tea

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Edible Insects

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The British love their tea...but today there are so many choices

Most of us have been brought up with tea as a normal daily drink. It is the beverage you offer guests when they visit in the daytime and the most popular drink to have in a “tea break” mid morning and mid afternoon. At any time of day or night, a cup of tea can be appropriate.

In fact, the British drink around a total of 165 million cups of tea a day and the country is the second highest tea drinking nation in the world behind Ireland.

It makes you wonder what everyone did before 1615, when Englishman Richard Wickham wrote from his East India Company office in Japan that he wanted the best sort of “chaw”...hence the still in use word char for tea. That was the first mention of tea in English and the phrase “cup of char” will still sound familiar to some of us.

However, the drink soon took a hold. By the end of that century imports of tea were coming in thick and fast and the foundations of our national drink became established.

While plain black tea was the main tea available when we were young, today of course the choice of different teas is tea, peppermint tea, lychee and rose tea, the list goes on.

But an important aspect is that many of these new specifically flavoured teas are not real teas. Even the newly popular Roobos (meaning red bush) tea is not real tea as we traditionally know it. Real tea, whether it is black, green, white or oolong, comes from the same plant, the Carnellia sinensis - in the same way that all wine comes from a grape but in different styles.

Sometimes flavours can be added to these teas such as jasmine or Earl Grey which is traditional black tea flavoured with the addition of bergamot oil.

Teas such as chamomile tea or mint tea comes from herbs and are not associated in any way with the Carnellia sinensis plant. These technically should be called a tisane. It can be confusing!

In real tea, it is the oxidation process that determines whether the tea will become white, green, oolong or black.  Once a tea leaf is picked, enzymes trigger a natural oxidation process. This continues through the production systems which can include drying, steaming, withering, rolling, crushing and heat treatments. It is mainly the variations in this process that produce the different real teas. The process used for black tea means it is fully oxidised which causes it to turn black whereas white tea and green tea have less oxidation.  In the middle is oolong tea, which is partially oxidized.

The levels of oxidation affect the appearance, flavour and chemical composition in the teas. Heavily oxidized tea has an increased level of caffeine and also flavour; but is also believed to have a slight reduction in the levels of antioxidants.

Hence the recent trend for green and white teas where their increased antioxidants can impart more health benefits. However not all researchers agree with this – some researchers believe that drinking black tea offers the same benefits as drinking green tea because the theaflavins present in black tea contain the same antioxidant potency as the catechins in green tea. Generally it is thought that adding milk to the tea won’t greatly impact on the levels of antioxidants absorbed.

But to be realistic, the purpose of drinking tea is not to offer nutritional health benefits. There are much better ways to do this. And tea is also not the best way to slate a real thirst...water is by far the better choice to hydrate your body. Instead, drinking tea should offer moments of calm and peaceful relaxation or be a very acceptable drink to offer to a social gathering.

Today tea is even being grown in the UK - the tea produced by the Tregothnan Estate in Cornwall is a clear example of how lovely tea can be produced in our climate – and an increasing number of British tea growing ventures are being set up.

It seems clear that Britain’s role as one of the leading tea drinking nations in the world isn’t going to change anytime soon.



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