What is tea?


I am a tea girl from way back, unable to start the day without a full pot of tea under my belt.

A tea snob too — none of this tea-bag nonsense for me, I insist on tea-leaves for my cuppa. Unfortunately, I am rarely able to enjoy my preferred beverage away from home.

Most cafes sport glitzy espresso machines frothing forth macchiatos, cappuccinos and lattes, tending to treat us tea drinkers as if we have the mange, serving thick-lipped cold coffee cups (tea drinkers prefer fine china thank-you) with a sub-standard tea bag submerged in luke warm and then have the hide to charge the same amount as one of their lovingly prepared espressos. Resentful, moi? However, with the recent good news about the masses of health-giving antioxidants found in tea, tea drinkers are feeling smug and superior, even though we still have to skulk home in order to enjoy our chosen brew.

Tea and history

Half a million years ago, Homo erectus pekinensis threw some leaves into boiling water, and invited her mum over to her cave for a cuppa. Throughout the millenia we humans have not lost our taste for tea.

By the middle of the fourth century, tea was already being cultivated in both China and India. Both cultures are steeped (!) in tea legends and traditions. Like this story from India: Buddism’s founder, Prince Siddhartha Guatama was said to have torn off his eyelids and thrown them to the ground because he fell asleep despite his vow to remain awake during a pilgrimage. Supposedly, the eyelids took root and germinated into tea plants that sprouted leaves with an eyelid shape. All Siddhartha’s fatigue vanished when he chewed the leaves of this plant.

Up until last century China used pressed tea blocks as a form of money. The western world didn’t find out about tea until the 1600’s when the Dutch East India Company (yesteryears e-tail multinational) traded tea to Europe from China. Until the last hundred years tea was a drink of the upper classes. Tea caddies were kept under lock and key to guard against tea leaf thieves.

Today the Irish lead the world in tea drinking, each year consuming over 3kg of tea per person. That’s a lot of cups of tea on top of the odd Guinness. Australia lags behind, only drinking 1kg of tea each per year. Americans barely rate a mention. Ever since the Boston Tea Party, tea has left a bad taste in American mouths, and they have forsaken the tea leaf for the coffee bean.

What is tea?

All tea comes from the tea bush, Camellia sinensis, whether it be black, Oolong or green tea. The only difference between these teas is how long the leaves have been left to ferment (oxidise). Black tea is fermented for the longest time, green tea the shortest, and Oolong tea (popular in Korea) somewhere in between the two. Fermentation of the leaves happens naturally by enzymes as soon as the leaves are picked. To stop the fermentation process, the leaves are steamed or heated which halts the enzyme activity.

90% of tea consumed in the world is black tea. All tea is from the Camelia sinensis plant, but there are hundreds of varieties. To the tea buff, each tea is as different as wine is to the wine aficionado. The tea most of us drink is a blend of different teas, blended by specialists so that the taste is the same from cup to cup from year to year. Tea tasters slurp and spit in the same manner as wine tasters.

The major black tea growing countries are China, India and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Common varieties of black tea include Assam and Darjeeling. Well known blends include: Prince of Wales, English and Irish Breakfast. Sometimes a flavouring agent is added to black tea, for instance Bergamot, a type of citrus is added to Earl Grey. Lapsang Souchong is tea produced by drying the tea leaves over open fires of pine wood. All sorts of other flavoured black teas are available such as vanilla, peach, orange. Chai is black tea made on milk with spices such as cardamom and cinnamon.

For a long time I thought Orange Pekoe was a variety of tea. However, it it just a term which refers to the size of the tea leaf. Plain Orange Pekoe is a long wiry leaf whereas just Pekoe is a shorter leaf. On the other hand Broken Orange Pekoe (BOP) refers to an even shorter (broken) leaf. Then there are fannings and tea dust which is not a derogatory term, but refers to the smaller sized leaves which make a stronger cup of tea quicker.

Tea and your health

Tea and nutrients

Tea provides us with small amounts of zinc, copper, magnesium, manganese and fluoride – the tooth strengthening mineral. If you live in an area which does not fluoridate its water supply, then cups of tea can help prevent dental caries. If the mother drinks a cup of tea a day during pregnancy and breastfeeding, this benefit can help the unborn baby and newborn. Only bother if you already are a tea drinker.

Tea and antioxidants

Tea contains tannins. Tannins give tea that deep orange/brown colour, and as it happens these tannins contain phenols which are known to be antioxidant. Antioxidants are helpful for everything from preventing heart disease and cancer to slowing the progression of wrinkles. One particular phenol, epigallocatechin gallate, is a whopping 30 times more potent than vitamin E. Another phenol, theaflavin is also a big-wig antioxidant. Interestingly, comparisons between tea and red wine, show that tea has a greater antioxidant activity, and you can still drive home. If you drink a couple of cups a tea a day, you are receiving over 250mg of tea polyphenols, a significant daily intake of antioxidants.

The antioxidants in tea are available in both green and black tea, so if you have been trying to develop a taste for green tea, relax and put your feet up because you are receiving similar health benefits from your standard cuppa. Adding milk does not interfere with the absorption of the antioxidants.

Tea and iron

Drinking a cup of tea after a meal can reduce the amount of iron you absorb from that meal by up to 60%. Particularly if the iron is non-haem, that is comes from vegetables such as spinach and broccoli. Tea will inhibit some iron absorption from haem-iron, that is the type of iron found in meat, but not as much as vegetable iron. If you are prone to anaemia, the common symptom of being low in iron, then perhaps you should resist drinking tea directly after a meal. Drinking tea between meals has no effect on iron levels. Anaemia is the most common nutritional deficiency in developed countries, symptoms include fatigue, dizziness, nausea and looking pale and interesting. Vitamin C really helps with iron absorption. If you are a vegetarian, or know you are at risk of anaemia (for instance suffer from heavy periods) then there are some vitamin C’y things you can do to improve iron absorption from your food. Drink a glass of orange, cranberry or tomato juice (this does not necessarily mean a Bloody Mary) with your meal. Squeeze some lemon juice on your food or take a vitamin C tablet after your meal.

Tea and calcium

As well as iron, tea drinking can reduce the amount of calcium we absorb from food. Drinking coffee is far worse in this regard than tea. However, lots of cups of tea (over 5 a day) can potentially be a problem. Calcium is important for nerves and muscles, but we need it mostly for strong bones. Loss of calcium from bones is a big factor in osteoporosis, which can lead to all sorts of problems like back and neck pain and more tragically broken hips. If you worry about your calcium levels, make sure you are eating plenty of calcium rich foods including cheese, yoghurt, sardines (with bones), broccoli, nuts and seeds. If you are really worried (and ask your doctor whether you should be eg family history of osteoporosis, post menopausal etc) then perhaps you should take a calcium supplement. Over 1,000mg taken at night when calcium is taken into bones more effectively. Bone density tests are a reliable indication of where your bones are at with regard to osteoporosis.

Tea and diarrhoea

The tannins in tea are astringent and a little drying. For a minority, this can cause constipation. On the other hand, weak black tea can be quite helpful in the treatment of diarrhoea. The tannins can kill certain microbes that cause diarrhoea and vomiting. In addition, weak black tea with a bit of honey or sugar will help replace fluid and glucose after vomiting and diarrhoea, and seems to stay down better than other fluids. Never drink milk after diarrhoea or vomiting, because quite often the enzymes that break down milk sugar, lactase, have been wiped out by the gastro-intestinal hijinks, and take a few days to regroup.

Tea and the wee factor

Both theophylline and caffeine, present in tea, are diuretics. Which means, they stimulate urine flow through the kidneys and out of the body.  However, the human body is ingenious… and once you have become habituated to tea, it won’t act as a diuretic and can be counted as part of your fluid intake.  So up your cuppa’s!

Tea and burns

Although a scalding cup of tea can cause a nasty burn if it falls in your lap, applying cool black tea can help heal a burn or wound. The tannins are antibacterial as well as astringent, and will help dry up a weeping wound.

Tea and the mind

There is nothing like a good cup of tea to refresh the tired mind. Tea contains just enough caffeine to stimulate, without causing that nasty jittery feeling that can come from coffee. Small amounts of caffeine have been shown to improve memory, concentration and alertness.  Tea also contains the amino acid Theanine which helps improve cognition and memory.

Tea and dust mites

Many people are allergic to dust mites, and dust mite poo. Dust mites live in pillows, mattresses, carpets and blinds. When susceptible noses come into contact with dust mites and their business, a sneeze results. Other reactions include: sinus; itchy eyes, nose and throat; asthma, allergic shiners (dark patches under the eyes) and in children the ‘allergic salute’- a persistent upward rubbing of the nose causing a permanent horizontal crease. After a good vacuum, spray a solution of weak black tea sprayed over carpets (hope you like Berber), mattress and pillows. The tea tannins will inactivate the mite. Another thing to do is to fit special ‘anti dust-mite’ covers over mattress and pillows. Like vampires, mites detest direct sunlight. Open windows during the day to allow the sun to shine in.

Tea and asthma

Theophylline is used medically to treat asthma, as large doses will dilate the bronchioles, breathing tubes. To treat an asthma attack you need more than a cup of tea’s worth of theophylline, although regular cups of tea can help reduce the tendency to asthma.

Tea and baggy eyes

If you suffer from PES (Puffy eye syndrome) then try this quick fix. Drink two cups of tea-bag tea, or have a cup of tea with a baggy-eyed friend. Keep the tea-bags, when they are cool, lie down and place a tea bag over each eye. Your friend will have to wait their turn and use second hand bags. Your eyes will look bright and sparkling, and bagless. Go out and party!

Tea and Caffeine

Tea, coffee, guarana and chocolate all contain a group of chemicals called the xanthines (zan-theens). The xanthine found mostly in tea is theophylline, but tea also contains caffeine. A cup of tea (green or black) provides roughly half the amount of caffeine as a cup of coffee.

As caffeine is water soluble, when you make tea (with bag or leaves) caffeine is one of the first substances released into the water. If you want to reduce your caffeine intake, dip your tea bag for a couple of seconds in one cup of hot water, throw this water away as it contains most of the caffeine, and then put the tea-bag in the second cup of water for a full-flavoured, antioxidant-rich but caffeine-reduced cup of tea.

Although tea has less than half the caffeine than coffee, it is probably the caffeine that gives you that refreshing ‘lift’ from a good strong cuppa. However, if you have several cups of tea a day, or are especially sensitive to the effects of caffeine, you may need to reduce your tea consumption or do the tea bag dipping routine mentioned above. Symptoms of being affected by caffeine include: nervousness, agitation and a rapid heart rate.


As tea is actually pretty good for you, and I really like it, I am not in the position of suggesting you stop drinking it. Two to four cups of tea a day will provide you with plenty of antioxidants without compromising your calcium, iron and fluid intake. If you are at risk of anaemia try not to drink your tea too close to meals. However, if you enjoy your tea a lot more than four cups a day, then you might need to take out some nutritional insurance.

  • Drink at least one litre of water, in addition to your tea
  • If you are at risk of anaemia (ask your doctor) you may need to take an iron supplement.
  • If you drink a lot of tea and are over 40 years old (male or female) ensure you eat a lot of calcium rich foods including seeds, nuts and Asian green vegetables.