Our love affair with tea goes back thousands of years. The Chinese were cultivating the tea plant about 4,000 years ago and sometime in the 700s the Japanese discovered it. During the 1600s century, Europeans were introduced to tea for the first time by the Dutch and the Portuguese, who picked it up in their travels to Asia.
Tea soon became an important item of trade. The British took up tea drinking with a passion unequaled by any other European people. Tea soon became England’s national drink, with that country importing about 40,000 pounds of tea in 1699, and as much as 240,000 pounds in 1708. Dutch and English colonists brought tea to the New World, and early settlers in America soon embraced this soothing new beverage.
Though tea is an important Asian tradition, for Westerners the culture of tea is quintessentially British. In England, tea (and teatime) has been elevated to a national institution. As teatime rapidly became a common practice in England, it also evolved into two different customs, created loosely along class lines: Low Tea (afternoon tea) was for the aristocrats and the wealthy, who enjoyed an array of biscuits, little cakes, sweets, and other desserts along with their pots of tea at 4 p.m. High Tea, on the other hand, was usually had by the middle and lower classes, and was served at 5 or 6 p.m. More of an early dinner, it featured substantial foods like meat and vegetables, along with the tea.
In the world at large, the countries with the highest consumption of tea are India and China, who together are responsible for producing 80 percent of the world’s tea. Though the United States consumes quite a few metric tons of tea a year, the per capita consumption is quite low: only 1/2 cup daily.
Types of Tea: Black, Green, Oolong, and Blends
There are over 3,000 varieties of tea worldwide, and each has flavor characteristics associated not only with the variety but also with the soil and climate in which it is grown.
The fluoride in black, green, or oolong tea may help to strengthen tooth enamel, fight cavities, and prevent dental plaque. However, apart from fluoride, tea contains only a little potassium and folate, and traces of other minerals. Unless you add sugar or honey, tea has just 2 calories per cup.
Green tea is a likely choice these days for people looking for health benefits from their beverages. But current research indicates that all tea is good for you, as long as it comes from the leaf of Camellia sinensis—as do all green, black, and oolong (red) teas.
The chemicals that likely make tea a potential protector of health are called polyphenols. Though green tea was once thought to have the most polyphenols, it turns out that black tea has a similar amount. The most potent polyphenol in tea is a substance called EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which belongs to a group of flavonoid phytochemicals called catechins. The polyphenols in tea seem to operate in a variety of ways: They may help halt the damage that free radicals do to cells and inhibit a variety of cancers. Yet studies of these and other antioxidants have yielded contradictory results. These substances can protect against oxidation in a test tube, but in the human body they can have the opposite effect—acting as pro-oxidants as well as antioxidants. Or they may have no effect at all.
While tea may have health benefits, it clearly is no panacea. Think of tea as an adjunct to other good health habits, not as a miraculous potion that will keep you well by itself.
For a full listing of nutrients, see the National Nutrient Database:
Published January 29, 2016