By Arwa Lodhi
From a creamy English cuppa to a rich, fruity infusion, a hot cup of tea is just about everyone’s, well, cup of tea. Whether it’s a spicy Chai mix, anti-oxidant green tea or a traditional builder’s blend, most of us brewing our beverages from convenient tea bags. But whilst many of us prefer to shop for organic teas, we rarely think about the potentially dangerous chemicals lurking in the tea bag, string or tea label (which, let’s face it—often drops into the brew). Tea bags also give unscrupulous manufacturers the perfect excuse to use crappy tea leaves.
Here, we explore questions like: are tea bags toxic ? What gives flavoured tea its taste? There are loads of health issues related to tea drinking you may never have thought of before!
What’s in a tea bag?
As mentioned, using tea bags (as opposed to loose tea) gives manufacturers the perfect opportunity to make a fast buck by replacing quality tea leaves with what’s essentially crushed ‘tea dust’—or in other words, by-products of the industry.
In India and China, where fresh tea is grown, waste such as browned leaves, twigs and stems are not used for premium teas but are rather sold to manufacturers of cheaper tea brands. In some cases, grass, sawdust and other ‘dusts’ are added to the tea leaf waste. In such cases, artificial flavours are usually added to such blends to hide the poor quality.
It’s actually pretty easy to tell if you’re buying a quality brew: just open one of the tea bags to see how ‘clean’ the leaves are. If it’s more powder than solid leaf, that’s not a good sign. Ditto if the inside of the box of tea is littered with brownish dust.
Why should you care, you may be wondering? Well, such poor quality tea not only loses any health properties it should normally possess, but it could contain aflatoxin – a waste product of microscopic fungi that can be very dangerous to your health indeed–in fact, in large concentrations, it can cause irreversible liver damage.
Don’t let price be your guide: when I say ‘cheap’, I mean quality, not price. Some of the best branded blends are actually made with poor quality ingredients.
How to check for quality tea
A good quality black tea will have a tiny bit of froth on the surface of the liquid after brewing, and will turn a light reddish brown when lemon is added. If there’s no foam and the tea stays dark brown even with lemon, then it’s either poor quality, old, or both. Oh, and those dark rings on the inside of your mug after drinking a cuppa are often said to be ‘tannins’ but are, in fact, just indicative of a poor quality tea.
Some infusions carry even yuckier ingredients that poor quality black and green tea. For example, fruit, spice and other teas often contain a whole lot of nasty artificial flavours and colours—some even contain artificial sweeteners like aspartame! What’s worse, these ingredients are often not listed on the package, and manufacturers can even get away with saying the tea is ‘organic’—if the tea itself is. That part may be true, but they fail to mention that the flavouring is purely chemical.
What’s fake? What’s natural?
Detecting artificial colouring in an infusion is easy: just dunk the bag in some cold water. If it begins to change colour, it’s most likely due to a food dye. If the tea has an exotic sounding aroma, like ‘apple pie’ or ‘blueberry burst’ or even ‘strawberry cupcake’ (yes, that one exists!) you can bet the taste comes courtesy of exactly the same fake, chemical flavouring that’s found in candy and sugary cereals.
Chemical flavourings are far cheaper and flavour-dense than actual pieces of dried fruit (which are usually also the result of waste of food production themselves anyway), and since few governments require detailed labelling on tea, food manufacturers rarely indicate exactly which fragrances and flavourings are part of the product. This must change, given that myriad synthetic fragrances contain toxic substances that promote the growth of cancer cells, cause liver damage, and alter the metabolism.
Most tea bags are made from a kind of paper made of cellulose and cotton—which is one of the most chemically sprayed crops. But if you pour hot water through a typical piece of cotton blended paper, it will fall apart pretty quickly. So why don’t tea bags turn to mush, especially after steeping in water for ages? The simple answer is: more chemicals.
Yep, most tea bags are impregnated with special synthetic resins dissolved in alcohol or acetone. After being soaked in these chemicals, the filter paper becomes more resistant to mechanical, thermal and climatic influences: in other words, the paper is made so strong, acidic lemon juice, hot water and enthusiastic stirring can’t even break them. And guess what? Those ‘indestructible’ tea bags don’t biodegrade very quickly either, causing even more pollution for our poor planet.
The tags on tea bags are obviously not considered part of the food product so are not tested by food safety standards, so they could include any kind of toxic inks they like. And if you accidently get the tag in your cup, the hot water could help the dyes soak into your brew.
The only solution
If you want your health to be helped–not harmed– by your tea drinking habit, then it’s essential to start brewing high quality tea from its loose, pure leaf form. You can do this via a ‘tea egg’, strainer teapot, or manual strainer that fits over the top of a mug. It’s easy, and in many cases, it’s actually ultimately cheaper to buy good quality leaves that you can use for quite a few cups than disposable tea bags designed for single use. Make sure you use an organic tea, and if you like yours flavoured, try an organic blend that uses only natural flavouring.
How to make the perfect cup of tea
- Tea loves oxygen – it helps the flavour develop, so always use freshly drawn cold water in the kettle.
- Make sure your pot is clean.
- Warm the pot by swirling a small amount of boiled water in it.
- For black tea, only pour on freshly boiled water and do not over-boil it.
- For green tea, always use the water just at the boil.
- One teaspoon of loose tea per person and one teaspoon for the pot is about right, but add as much or as little to make it to the strength you like.
Main image: Don Horne