Whether you've been looking for a healthy alternative to coffee or just watching a lot of British television, you may be tempted to set aside your morning cup of joe and try something different - tea.
Often the term "tea" can be confused with other infusions that don't incorporate the plant Camellia sinensis. True teas are derived from this shrub, native to China and India, and include black tea, green tea, white tea and oolong tea.
The hottest health benefit of tea is its flavonoids, antioxidants that fight against free radicals in the body that can contribute to heart disease, clogged arteries and cancer. Although the health benefits of tea have been part of ancient wisdom in Asia for thousands of years, Western researchers are finally uncovering some of the mysteries of this popular beverage.
For example, green tea, made with steamed tea leaves, has a high concentration of the flavonoid EGCG, and may interfere with the growth of tumors of the bladder, breast, lung, stomach, pancreas and colon. It also prevents clogging of the arteries, improves cholesterol levels, reduces the risk of stroke and reduces the risk of neurological disorders like Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases.
Black tea, which is made with fermented tea leaves, has the highest caffeine content. Studies suggest that black tea may help protect the lungs from damage caused by cigarette smoking, and that it may also reduce the risk of stroke. White tea, uncured and unfermented, may have even more cancer-fighting properties.
Aside from true teas, there are health benefits to infusions of other plants. Known as herbal teas, these hot tinctures like chamomile, hibiscus, ginger and others have health benefits of their own.
Aisha Alayande and her husband have been mixing and brewing different herbal blends since 2004 in New Jersey with their business, the Healing Pot. Now running the business from her home in Sebring, Alayande uses flavors inspired by her Jamaican grandmother's herbal tinctures, research into the health benefits of different ingredients and experimentation with taste to make her custom blends.
One of Alayande's favorite infusions is a hibiscus blend she jokingly calls "Give Love a Chance." "People get funky about drinking things that are healthy. Healthy equals love for me," Alayande said.
The mix includes hibiscus, rosehips, ginger and peppermint, and Alayande likes it cold and punchy. "I love this tea because it is reminiscent of the herbs my grandmother used," Alayande said. Both rosehips and hibiscus are high in vitamin C. Ginger and peppermint are good for the stomach. Last year, Alayande started adding elderberry to the recipe, saying "(Elderberry) is said to fight off many different strains of the flu. It's a wonderful herb to complement that group."
One style of tea that is becoming popular the world over is Indian chai. The rich black tea, spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves and/or pepper, mixed with hot milk and sweetened, is a staple in India and works as a digestive aid. Alayande makes her own Jamaican chai blend using hops, allspice, black pepper and cloves. Instead of milk, she prefers a 50/50 mix of almond and coconut milks.
For relaxation and sleep, chamomile is wonderful, Alayande said. Another calming ingredient that is overlooked is hops, she said. Alayande also makes blends for women's reproductive health, kidney care and more.
The new craze, she said, is turmeric. A member of the ginger family and an anti-inflammatory, this yellow spice is used heavily in Indian cooking, and researchers are looking into its cancer-fighting and arthritis-reducing properties. It may also prove to be preventive against Alzheimer's. "Turmeric has a very distinct, pungent taste. Most people wouldn't find it pleasing," Alayande said, though she complements it with its cousin, ginger, and "a little honey" for a more palate-pleasing effect.
Making tea or infusions at home? Alayande gives a few pointers on the best way to brew. "Put a good teaspoonful in six ounces of water. If you are doing it for pleasure and taste, three to five minutes of steeping is fine. For medicinal quality, at least 10 minutes," she said.
When using roots like ginger, boil the root in the water. It's also important to look at where your ingredients are coming from if you are taking herbs for an ailment, Alayande warned. "Herbs lose potency and oils when chopped and sorted in a machine. You really want to go to companies that are true to providing that medicinal quality."
Going green or black but want to reduce the caffeine? Tea naturally has less caffeine than coffee. According to the Mayo Clinic, black tea has 14-61 milligrams of caffeine in an eight ounce cup as compared to generic brewed coffee's 95 to 200 milligrams in the same serving size. Green tea has 24-40 milligrams. But you can also reduce the amount of caffeine in your cup by throwing away the first steep, Alayande suggested.
Don't believe myths about tea that adding milk spoils its health benefits (the antioxidants didn't go anywhere) or that you can keep it indefinitely (after six months, those same antioxidants begin to deteriorate). If you want to get the most out of your tea, protect its health benefits by storing it in a sealed container in a cool, dark pantry or cupboard.
As for the health benefits of iced tea, if you are making it from a container of crystals, there may not be enough actual tea in there to make a difference. Read the label. If the first word is "sugar," think about switching to a brewed tea that you can chill and sweeten on your own.