Note: This article was originally published in the April 2007 issue of the Denver publication Community News.
You may have seen intriguing ads for "wu-long" tea, touted as an effective weight-loss aid. Please don't be fooled into paying some absurdly high price for what is actually common oolong tea with the name spelled differently. One on-line seller has the audacity to charge almost $40 for 60 teabags, a few ounces in all, claiming that their brand has special slimming properties. By contrast, at Little Saigon, an Asian market here in Denver in the Far East Center (at Federal and Alameda), we purchased a huge 5-lb. sack of loose oolong tea for only $10. The store also sells oolong tea in teabags. Asian markets tend to offer the largest variety of teas at the best prices. Stored in a cool, dry place, tea keeps for a very long time, so don't be afraid of over-buying.
If you have a drip coffeepot (such as Mr. Coffee) that you can reserve for the brewing of tea, so the flavor does not clash with that of coffee, you will find that any loose tea can be brewed quickly and easily. In the summer, brew up a big pot at breakfast time and store the leftover tea in the refrigerator for a healthful drink of iced tea any time of day. Alternatively, you can brew a cup or a pot of loose tea by using a metal tea ball.
Please note: Bottled and powdered teas have virtually no antioxidants left, so avoid those. Also, there is now strong evidence that adding milk blunts or even eliminates the health benefits of tea, so avoid that as well. Use lemon if desired. If you want a sweetener, but wish to avoid sugar, try 1-2 drops of liquid stevia, available at health food stores.
Oolong (or wu-long) tea has a lovely amber color and distinctive flavor. It's now my favorite tea, and I drink two big mugs of it every morning. Its caffeine level is lower than that of black or green tea, so if you are seeking a way to cut back on caffeine while not eliminating it entirely, try oolong tea. I can even drink a cup of it in the evening without it later disturbing my sleep.
A 2003 Japanese study found that while oolong tea has about half the cancer-killing compound EGCG that is found in green tea, oolong tea contains more polymerized polyphenols, which increase energy expenditure and help burn fat. Therefore, a cup of oolong tea after a meal may indeed help you lose weight.
Green tea is now widely available. Its many varieties have subtle but quite distinct flavors. One that we particularly like is Chinese green tea with jasmine. At an Asian market, look for the pale orange box marked Jasmine Tea, imported by Fujian Tea Import and Export Co. You'll get 100 teabags for just a few dollars. Another favorite of ours is TAZO'S "Zen" blend. TAZO teas are widely available.
Our aging population should take special note of the health benefits of green tea. Numerous studies suggest that it helps protect against some cancers, cognitive impairment, dental plaque, rheumatoid arthritis, and heart disease, and that it can help lower bad LDL cholesterol and increase bone density. Green tea is high in catechin polyphenols, particularly EGCG, mentioned above, which is an antioxidant. Black and oolong teas are made from fermented leaves, but green tea leaves are first air-dried and then gently steamed, which prevents the EGCG compounds from being oxidized.
A 1997 University of Kansas study showed EGCG to be twice as powerful as resveratrol, a polyphenol found in red wine, which limits the negative effects of smoking and a fatty diet. The Japanese drink a great deal of green tea. Even though about 75% of Japanese men smoke, their rate of heart disease is relatively low.
White tea is the least processed of all teas. It's quite pale, and it has a very delicate flavor - so delicate that some say it's virtually flavorless. It's also more expensive than green tea. But do try at least a couple of brands to see if you like it - perhaps sampling it first at a tea shop or a friend's home before you buy - because it's even higher in polyphenols (antioxidants) than green tea. Some brands have other flavors added, such as those of various fruits.
All tea leaves come from the Camilla Sinensis tea bush, but whether those leaves wind up producing black, oolong, green, or white tea depends on how the leaves are processed. White tea is made from immature tea leaves that are picked shortly before the buds have fully opened. The unwithered leaves are not air-dried, pan-fried, or fermented, but are merely steamed. This leaves them closer to their natural state.
I very much enjoyed researching tea. I hope that my two articles have convinced you of the health benefits of the various sorts of real tea, and that you'll try a few of the brands I've recommended. Your body will thank you!