Green tea is probably more well known for its health benefits than any other food or drink. It has been used for its health-building properties for at least 4,000 years.
Tea is the most popular beverage in the world. Every day, one-and-a-half billion cups are consumed worldwide, 72% of it black tea and 23% green tea.
What is Tea? The word "tea" is used to describe just about any drink made with hot water and leaves, flowers or roots. Real tea is only made from leaves and bud of the Camellia sinensis bush. Herb tea is not really tea at all!
What makes green tea different from black tea or white tea is how much each one is processed. White teas are the least processed of the commercial teas, followed by green teas, then black.
Green tea is harvested when its antioxidant content is at its peak. The leaves are then minimally processed, resulting in tea leaves that are incredibly rich in powerful antioxidant polyphenols (plant chemicals).
Green tea is made by briefly steaming the just-harvested leaves, rendering them soft and pliable and preventing them from fermenting or changing color. After steaming, the leaves are rolled, then spread out and dried until they are crisp. The resulting greenish-yellow tea has a slightly astringent flavor, close to the taste of the fresh leaf.
White tea comes from very young buds or leaves that are harvested before they are fully opened. The name comes from the silver color of the the bud, which turns white after the leaf has dried.
The processing involved for white is tea is the same as for green tea. The result is a sweet, silky brew with full but delicate flavor. White tea has a mild taste, less "grassy" than green tea.
Black tea is the most processed of all, because it's fermented, not just dried. This gives black tea a deeper color and different flavor. Unfortunately, the fermentation process also destroys much of the antioxidant content of the tea leaves.
Most of the tea that is drunk in the western hemisphere is considered black tea. Black teas have that characteristic brown color that most Americans associate with tea. Green tea and white tea have a much lighter hue and a fresh flavor, due to the minimal processing.
Oolong tea is made from leaves that are partially fermented before being dried, and falls midway between green and black teas. Oolong is a greenish-brown tea whose flavor, color and aroma are richer than that of green tea, but more delicate than that of black.
The tea plant is an evergreen shrub that produces fragrant white blossoms in the spring. These blossoms eventually form a fruit that then is cross-pollinated with another tea plant. The baby tea plant ends up with some characteristics of each parent plant, as well as some from earlier ancestors. Thus, every tea plant is unique to itself.
Tea plants grow only in warm climates, but can flourish at altitudes ranging from sea level to 7,000 feet. The best teas are produced at higher altitudes, where the leaves mature more slowly and yield a richer flavor. A new tea plant may take from 2 to 5 years to be ready for commercial picking, but once productive, it can provide tea leaves for a hundred years.
Many commercial green teas are only marked as "green tea," without any variety specified on the label; these are often poor-quality blends that you'll want to avoid. White teas are even more difficult to find. Because of its mild taste, white tea is often blended with other herbs for a stronger flavor.
If your city has any oriental markets, you'll probably find some very good green and white teas there, or you can shop the internet. If you're going to drink a lot of tea, it's worth the effort to get the freshest and best quality, and not just go with the cheapest tea bag on the shelf.
I think a fine tea is something to be savored, like wine or cheese. I have to admit that I personally don't drink tea, eat cheese or drink wine much! But I do appreciate that these foods attract some devoted consumers. There's obviously something there that's immensely enjoyable.
What About Bottled Tea?
Bottled green tea often has sugar or artificial ingredients in it. There are also far fewer catechins than there are in freshly-brewed green tea. The health-promoting antioxidants in green tea are sensitive to heat and oxygen, so they are easily destroyed during the processing, transporting and storing of bottled tea. Researchers have found that the polyphenols and antioxidant activity in some bottled tea products were 10 to 100 times lower than those found in brewed tea!
Many of the prepared green tea drinks out there also have potentially toxic levels of fluoride, which you would have no way of detecting. Decaf varieties seem to have the highest levels of all.
Green tea has several times more fluoride in it than fluoridated tap water, enough to think about if you're going to be drinking 3 or more cups of it every day. See my page on green tea side effects to get important information about fluoride toxicity and green tea.
Buy Small Quantities. Since a single ounce of tea should produce 15 to 30 cups, the best way to ensure your tea is fresh is to purchase it in small amounts — two to four ounces at most.
Store It Right. To retain freshness and flavor in both loose and bagged tea, store it in a tightly constructed opaque container to protect it from light, moisture and food odors. Use a small container just large enough to accommodate the amount of tea; the air in a half-empty container will cause the tea to slowly oxidize.
Store tea in a dark, cool and dry cupboard. Tea stored in the refrigerator or freezer is vulnerable to moisture and odors from other foods, and the condensation that occurs when frozen tea is warmed to room temperature can ruin it.
The health benefits of green tea comes from powerful antioxidants called polyphenols. Polyphenols also account for tea's pungency and unque flavor. The subtle color of green tea comes from a combination of chlorophyll and polyphenols. It's the unfermented polyphenols in green tea that give it its distinct taste.
The most significant health benefits can be gotten by using green tea in its least-processed state — tea leaves. Tea bags don't quite provide the same benefit as the entire green tea leaf, although a superior quality, organic source will do just fine. It's also important to obtain your tea from a source that guarantees the tea's freshness.
The amount of polyphenols and other flavonoids in a cup of freshly brewed tea can vary, depending on the variety and how it was processed and brewed. Decaf brewed green tea typically has about half the antioxidant content of regular green tea, and potentially toxic levels of fluoride.
Green tea contains caffeine, about half of that found in coffee. The amount of caffeine that ends up in your cup of green tea will vary according to the amount of tea used and the length of time the leaves are brewed.
Most of the caffeine in green tea is extracted into the water the first time the tea is infused. If the same leaves are then used for a second brew, the caffeine level drop off to about one-third of the first cup, and decreases more with each subsequent cup brewed.
What about Decaf Green Tea?
If you use decaffeinated green tea, you'll want to know that decaf green tea has about half the antioxidant content of regular green tea, and much higher levels of fluoride than regular green tea.
As mentioned above, green tea is known to have high levels of fluoride, and also aluminum, two highly toxic substances. Decaffeinated green tea has even higher levels than regular green tea. Before you decide on a green tea regimen, you'll want to learn more about the potential health hazards, and how to minimize them, at my page on green tea side effects.
Now we come to my favorite type of green tea product — green tea extracts! For someone who wants the benefits of green tea, but doesn't care for the taste (like me), extracts rock!
While antioxidant levels in different brands of green tea can vary significantly, green tea extracts are available in standardized formulas that guarantee their potency. Some provide up to 98% polyphenol content, and are the equivalent of drinking 3 cups of tea — in just one capsule. Some of these standardized products are decaffeinated and fluoride-free, also.
Learn more about Green Tea Supplements
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