The Benefits of Tea (Part One)

© 2007 Leonore H. Dvorkin

Note: This article was originally published in the March 2007 issue of the Denver publication Community News.

picture of teas
Photograph © 2007 Leonore H. Dvorkin

For Part Two, click here.

This is the first in a series of articles on mainly foods and beverages that have particular health benefits. Because my British-born husband and I have long been avid tea drinkers, it seemed natural for me to start this series with two or three articles on the impressive benefits of tea.

First of all, I need to stress that I'm writing about the benefits of real teas: black, green, white, and oolong (or wu-long) teas. So-called "herb teas," such as peppermint or chamomile, while delicious and often beneficial in their own right, are not really teas. Instead, they are herbal brews, or tisanes. Herb teas have gained enormous popularity in the last few decades, and I enjoy many varieties myself. However, after having researched the benefits of genuine teas, I'm now finding myself reaching for those much more often.

All types of teas contain polyphenols, which give them their impressive antioxidant properties. Teas actually contain more antioxidants than some fruits and vegetables!

Among the many benefits of tea are a possible lowering of the risk of cancer, some protection against rheumatoid arthritis, an increase in bone density, protection against heart disease and stroke, the lowering of bad (LDL) cholesterol, blood pressure control, protection against tooth decay and dental plaque, a possible anti-diabetes effect, a boosting of the immune system, protection against a wide range of allergens (pollen, pet dander, and dust), a lowering of stress hormone levels, a lessening of the chances of cognitive impairment as one ages, and an increase in the metabolic rate. This last benefit makes tea, especially the green and oolong (wu-long) varieties, useful for weight loss.

Be sure to drink your tea freshly brewed, using either a teabag or loose tea. Bottled and powdered varieties are far less effective and healthful. Brewed loose tea has the highest levels of antioxidants and decaffeinated tea is only slightly less healthful.

Black tea, such as orange pekoe, has long been the most familiar type here in America, as well as in Europe. If you like black tea, but have never drunk anything other than an inexpensive brand such as Lipton, you owe it to yourself to try some finer, more flavorful varieties. The House of Windsor, a charming British tea shop at Wadsworth and Mississippi here in Denver, serves and sells a wonderful brand called PG Tips. Another excellent brand is Ty-Phoo. Many of the House of Windsor teas are available either loose or packed in tea bags.

To brew loose tea, use a metal tea ball immersed in a teapot full of very hot water or an ordinary drip coffeepot. We get excellent results from a Mr. Coffee coffeepot that we reserve for the brewing of tea, plus the inexpensive but very tasty Kroger Loose Tea, which is specially blended for use in drip coffee makers. You can buy that at King Soopers. The many Asian supermarkets here in Denver sell a vast array of teas at remarkably low prices. Experiment to find your favorite brands and blends.

We also enjoy the black teas produced by Twining's. Their English Breakfast and Irish Breakfast blends are both robust and good. For a real caffeine kick with the health benefits of black tea, try "Awake" by TAZO. TAZO teas are at Starbucks and health food stores, such as Vitamin Cottage.

While the special benefits of white, green, and oolong teas have received a lot of press lately, black tea has its own virtues. It's the best at lowering stress hormones. It may also be best at killing or suppressing cavity-causing bacteria. And drinking black tea can even help prevent sunburn.

Recent evidence strongly suggests that you should not use milk in black tea. Instead, drink tea plain or with lemon. Black tea significantly increases the ability of the arteries to relax and expand to accommodate increased blood flow, improving cardiovascular health. But researchers have found that the beneficial effects are totally wiped out by the addition of milk. The culprit is a group of proteins in milk called caseins, which bind to the molecules in tea that cause the arteries to relax, thus blocking that effect. This helps explain why there is less cardiac disease among tea-drinkers vs. non-tea-drinkers in Asia, but not in England, where tea is most often consumed with milk.

Further studies are being conducted to see whether the addition of milk blunts the other health benefits of black tea as well. For now, the strong advice is: Learn to drink black tea without milk, or switch to green, white, or oolong teas, all of which are usually drunk without milk.