Tea has a well established reputation as a healthy beverage. Thanks to modern marketing, in fact, almost any discussion of tea includes some mention of health benefits. The humble Camellia sinensis tea plant is often presented as downright miraculous, with claims that it will clear skin, halt cancer, or melt body fat. For the most part, these claims aren’t true.
But tea is good for your health, especially when it is fresh and naturally grown. In this article, we’ll cover the reasons tea has historically been adopted as part of a healthy lifestyle, and how to see through the miraculous marketing in order to choose healthy teas today.
Tea & Herbal Medicine
Between the mythological discovery of tea by the Emperor God Shennong and the first written guide to tea, the information about how and why people drank tea is sparse. A recent discovery of entombed tea cakes confirms that people were, in fact, drinking tea in China at least 500 years before the first written record. But for the most part, tea was long considered to be medicine, rather than an enjoyable beverage.
Shennong himself was the father of Chinese herbalism, and the stories of his first tea experience often tell of the plant’s healing effects. Tea became an integral part of the herbalist’s tool kit - reputedly effective for cooling or warming, as needed, to balance the patient’s qi.
Tea & Nutrition
Among populations on the Asian steppe, tea played an even more vital role. During the winter, when the cold, harsh landscape made it impossible to grow vegetables, tea imported from southern China offered important nutritional benefits. Compressed tea cakes, carried north over unforgiving trade routes, were stewed with yak’s milk as a key part of the steppe diet. The nutritional value of the preserved vegetable matter helped to prevent malnutrition and related disease like scurvy.
Tea & Water
Mostly though, tea developed a worldwide reputation for being healthy thanks to the necessary step of boiling water. When the beverage became popular in Europe during the 17th century, drinking fresh water was risky business. Cities struggled to manage sewage, and communal wells often carried harmful bacteria that caused dangerous diseases like dysentery. Boiling water to brew tea killed off these microbes.
Prior to the introduction of tea, the preferred “safe” beverages were beer and wine, but this was an inherently flawed solution. Tea was an antidote to both contaminated water and ubiquitous drunkenness, embraced first by aristocratic women and temperance advocates.
Choosing Healthy Tea
Today, tea is still a nutritious and hydrating beverage, though it may not be quite as important to everyday survival. Modern scientific research has proven that tea contains many healthy compounds, including antioxidants, L-theanine, and essential minerals like potassium. Moreover, tea crafting techniques developed over the past thousand years have produced a huge variety of styles and flavors that are just as tasty as they are healthy.
While research generally supports the idea that tea is good for you, results on specific health benefits are less conclusive. Often, researchers study the effects of chemical compounds found in tea, but use distilled supplements in much higher doses than a typical tea drinker would consume.
In other cases, research may be skewed to present results that benefit financial backers. Notably, many of the studies proving health benefits of green tea are done in Japan, where green teas make up the majority of domestic production. Many an unscrupulous tea vendor will claim that each category of tea has completely different healing properties. But the truth is that all color-coded tea categories come from the same Camellia sinensis species, and remain fundamentally similar, despite variations in crafting processes.
With this in mind, our recommendation is simple. The most beneficial tea is one that you like to drink often, ideally without milk and sugar. This is particularly helpful if it replaces a less healthy beverage habit, like soda, or increases your water intake overall. For maximum antioxidant content, look for fresh harvests of whole leaves, without artificial flavor or color. Then, make sure you’re brewing multiple infusions to get the most from your tea, or even try eating your brewed leaves!
Sign up for our newsletter to get blog updates in your inbox!