Tea. How many times do we sit down to have a nice cup of tea? A cup of tea to wake us up, to soothe a shock, to settle the tummy, to help us sleep. There’s a type of tea for nearly everything but how much do we know about the humble cuppa and on its nutritional, historical and economical, impact?
Tea feels as old as time, it is probably older than this but tea can be traced back to Ancient China as long ago as 2737 BC. With a 5000 year history tea has some fascinating facts here’s just a few of them:
10 Tea Facts
In Britain we drink 165 million cups of tea a day. That’s enough to fill about 20 Olympic swimming pools.
The first tea bags were made of silk and used by New York tea merchant Thomas Sullivan to send samples to his clients in 1908.
Tea breaks are a tradition that have been with us for approximately 200 years.
There are approximately 1,500 different varieties of tea
Today, tea is grown on a commercial scale in approximately 36 countries
Tea is grown from China to Argentina, Nepal to South Africa, and, next to water, tea is the worlds most consumed drink.
98% of people take their tea with milk, but only 30% take sugar in tea.
Iced tea became popular after it was served at the World Fair in 1904 during a heat wave. Around 85 per cent of the tea drunk in the USA is iced tea.
Tea arrived in North America before England.
Thanks to the marriage of Catharine of Braganza to Monarch, Charles II, tea finally reached the drawing rooms and court of England where it was still an expensive indulgence of the upper-classes
Tea History & Health
Tea certainly has a rich history full including the great tea road, piracy and of course the Boston Tea Party the spark that caused the American War of independence! To read up on it’s fascinating history take a look at https://www.twinings.co.uk/about-tea/history-of-tea. I could carry on, but I am meant to be linking tea with our health!
Now all tea is made from the processed leaves and buds of the evergreen ‘Camellia sinensis’ bush, that said there are over 1500 varieties so which do we drink, what are the healthiest teas and why?
In the UK Black tea remains the most consistent choice of tea and 98% of us have tea with milk (thankfully only 30% with sugar!). Herbal tea is the second highest followed by green tea. PG Tips is the most common brand of tea bags and tea bags (98% of us use these) are definitely more popular than loose tea.
Source – Statista Research Department 2019
Link with health
There may be a reason why we reach for the kettle in a time of crisis – tea has a combination of two ingredients which are both a boost to our brain (more on that in a moment) and have a calming effect on the body. Those ingredients are the amino acid L-Theanine (calming) and Caffeine (boosting).
L-Theanine is a non-essential amino acid meaning we can’t make it ourselves and it isn’t essential for our health. Black and Green tea contain this (as do mushrooms but we’ll not discuss them now!). Amino acids can have a big impact on our mood and help to alter our brain chemistry, in the case of L-Theanine, the effect on the body is to increase the production of serotonin (a mood stabilising neurotransmitter, which does indeed make us feel calmer and content). It also boosts production of dopamine, dopamine is both a hormone and a neurotransmitter and is linked with feelings of pleasure and reward (so we feel happier!). L-Theanine may also alter the levels of cortisol in the body.
Cortisol is the stress hormone so it is often referred to in a negative way; too much cortisol and prolonged levels of cortisol are not healthy for our health, but as a hormone cortisol is incredibly important and has multiple functions including memory formation. Linking all of that biology it kind of makes sense that we turn to a cup of tea in a crisis?
The link with cortisol and memory formation leads us on to discuss the role of caffeine in tea and its link with our brain function; Caffeine is probably the best-known brain-boosting element of tea. Its’ effects are immediate and include increased alertness and attention. We all know that we can overdo caffeine but it’s worth noting that tea has significantly less caffeine than coffee once brewed (in its’ original tea leaves form it actually contains more!).
What about the other brain-boosting elements of our cuppa?
Tea contains many nutritional properties which support our health there’s those outlined above, linked to brain function and then there’s the Tannins. Tannins belong to a phytochemical group (which also includes red wine and coffee).
Phytochemicals these are compounds naturally present in plants, they are not vitamins or minerals but are biologically active in the body and provide a whole host of health benefits: -
· Antioxidant properties
· Antibacterial properties
· Antiviral actions
(Note of caution, before you drink several gallons of tea, coffee and wine, please don’t over do the tannins as when consumed in excess, may cause stomach irritation).
In terms of the phytochemical Tannins they have all of those properties above hence are incredibly supportive for our health but let’s go back to pinpointing how tea may benefit our brain!
Green tea is rich in catechins. Catechins are a natural antioxidant and phenol (phytochemical) belonging to the flavanols group. The flavanols group are a type of polyphenol, basically natural plant compounds which are beneficial for our health. Several epidemiological studies have shown the association between drinking Green tea and the beneficial effects on cognitive function. The study referenced stated “daily ingestion of one or two cups of green tea significantly reduced cognitive impairment. In another clinical study, the consumption of green tea for 3 months significantly improved cognitive function and also reduced the progression of cognitive dysfunction”
Article title Function of Green Tea Catechins in the Brain: Epigallocatechin Gallate and its Metabolites
Reference - Tea Science Center, Graduate School of Integrated Pharmaceutical and Nutritional Sciences, University of Shizuoka, Shizuoka 422-8526, Japan
Of all the teas, Green tea has always been the one referenced as being the healthiest, in terms of its’ health credentials it has a fairly impressive CV. We looked at its’ link with brain function above but what else is it about green tea?
It’s green! Green tea remains unprocessed hence retaining its colour (black tea goes through a process of fermentation). Matcha tea is made from tea leaves in the shade, this tea has a higher chlorophyll content making it very green! This form of green tea has a milder and sweeter taste so can be added to smoothies and desserts.
Remember the caffeine and the flavanols? These are linked to increased metabolic rate, better insulin activity and elimination of excess body fat
Rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals, you will see claims that these are ‘anti-cancer’ no food should make that claim, but a plentiful supply of anti-oxidants is certainly advantageous for combatting any free radical activity in your body.
Catechins for cognitive function (see above).
As you can see there is rather a lot to our daily cup of tea! If tea with milk is your thing then that’s fine but for optimal health benefits try to introduce some additional ones too!
Early Years Nutrition Consultant
Food & Health Writer
Presenter on Early Years TV Food