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Tea is hospitable and healthy

August 1, 2004 1:07 am


CED TEA IS CELEBRATED in Southern hospitality, offered among neighbors, poured at church picnics, guzzled at baseball games.

It's not that people farther north dislike iced tea, it's just that it isn't as important there. The first few months after I moved to Virginia, it took the Midwestern-born girl in me a while to realize that when I ordered "tea" at restaurants, it would inevitably be served in a tall glass with ice, not a squat, steamy teacup.

Whether it's served hot or cold, brewed tea has incredible health benefits: lowering cholesterol and blood pressure; reducing risks of cancer of the stomach, lungs and rectum; and fighting certain bacteria, viruses and even tooth decay.

I've developed a real taste for iced tea, thanks to the kind, generous people I've met here. in Virginia.

All teas are not created equal. Real tea comes from the leaves of one plant only, Camellia sinenis. The five types of tea depend on how the leaves are processed: Black and green are best known, but oolong, white and puerh teas are gaining popularity. Herbal "teas" such as chamomile, mint and others aren't actually tea at all, but infusions of the different species of herbs.

The National Cancer Institute is investigating tea for cancer prevention. All tea is rich in antioxidants called catechins. The lighter the tea, the more health-promoting antioxidants it has. White tea is the lightest, most delicate tea, exposed to air only a short time after it is picked before being dried and packaged. Green tea spends more time being "oxidized," oolong even more, and black tea the most. Puerh tea is a type of black tea that is specially aged.

Common teas in the country, such as Lipton hot and iced teas, are made from black tea leaves. When brewed fresh, iced tea is just as healthy as black tea. When mixed from "instant" tea powder, however, it contains negligible amounts of catechins, according to the National Cancer Institute.

Tea is good for the heart

Drinking tea may increase blood flow to the heart, according to a small study published last month in the American Journal of Cardiology.

Studies released this spring following men in Athens, Greece, and women in Paris, France, found similar results: People who drink wine or tea (both of which have antioxidants) were less likely to experience heart disease.

Maryland researchers have found that giving people five cups of black tea daily helped their unhealthy LDL cholesterol levels fall by 10 percent, compared with a group not drinking tea. And another study found that when people drank four cups of tea daily after a heart attack, they were less likely to suffer a second attack.

Tea helps teeth, too

Tea may protect against tooth decay. Not only does it contain natural fluoride, important in keeping teeth strong, it also appears to kill cavity-causing germs, according to researchers at University of Illinois College of Dentistry. Don't give up your toothpaste yet, though, as dark teas can stain teeth.

Thousands of teas to try

Within the basic black, green, oolong and white types, there are about 3,000 varieties of tea. Gourmets search for the best tea the same way they choose fine wines, searching different estates around the world. The tea shrub grows on mountainsides in more than a dozen countries, including China, Kenya, India, Sri Lanka, Turkey and now even Argentina. Along with different varieties of leaves with names such as Darjeeling and Ceylon, there are more than a dozen different quality grades, which I don't pretend to understand.

Make that decaf?

Many tea lovers frown upon decaffeinated tea as having less flavor. You can make your own good-tasting almost entirely decaffeinated tea, according to the Tea Association of Canada. They say by brewing twice, you can take out nearly all the caffeine, which dissolves in water. The association Web site instructs you to boil double the water you would normally need and pour half of it over the leaves, brewing tea for about 30 seconds, then discarding the tea liquid and pouring fresh water over the wet leaves. Supposedly the second brew has less caffeine, which can be important for pregnant women and people suffering from anxiety or irregular heartbeats.

Sources disagree on whether black tea has more or less caffeine than the other types: It seems to depend on individual batches of tea. Generally, though a cup of regular black tea has only 40 milligrams of caffeine, about half as much as in the same about of coffee and equal to the amount in a cup of cola.

Rites of tea

Along with selecting a fine tea, fans have different rituals and recipes, calling for different types of teapots, from traditional metal or china pots to pre-heated clay pots that release flavors into the brew. Some pots are covered with velvet "cozies" that look like tiny suits to me. Tea aficionados differ on ways to contain the leaves (paper bags and filters, muslin bags, metal balls and strainers, among others), the benefits of starting with cold tap water versus filtered water, and more. The Japanese have a special tea-drinking ceremony that can last as long as four hours.

Making a perfect cuppa

When making tea, the darker the leaves, the longer you can let it brew. Many people like black tea brewed 3 to 5 minutes in boiling water, while paler white tea is said to be best brewed for less than a minute in water not quite hot enough to boil. Use about a teaspoon of loose tea (or one tea bag) for two 8-ounce cups of hot water.

If you want homemade iced tea, brew a teaspoon of tea in a cup of water, add sugar if you like while it's still hot, then add a cup of ice.

Speaking of sugar, popular tea companions also include honey, milk and lemon--but never make my mistake of adding milk and then curdling it by adding lemon.

Green and white teas are meant for drinking plain.

If you have iron-deficiency anemia, you should know that tea can impair iron absorption slightly. You can counteract this by drinking tea between, not with meals.

Some like it iced

While hot tea has been drunk for thousands of years in Asia, iced tea is purported to be a new invention, dating from the 1904 World's Fair, held in sweltering St. Louis. Apparently, no one wanted to drink tea until an Englishman had the bright idea of adding ice to the previously steamy cups.

If you are a tea purist, you probably prefer iced tea plain. And on the other hand, plenty of people like tea punches made with iced tea, seltzer and orange or pineapple juices.

JENNIFER MOTL welcomes reader questions via her Web site,, or mailed to Nutrition, The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401.

Copyright 2014 The Free Lance-Star Publishing Company.