Is tea good for you? Well, that depends. Follow our tips, and there should be no trouble brewing!
By Lora O’Brien
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, antioxidant green or a traditional builder’s blend, most of us brewing our beverages from convenient teabags.
But whilst many of us know we should be shopping for organic leaves, we rarely think about the potentially dangerous chemicals lurking in the teabag, string or label (which, let’s face it, often drops into the brew). Teabags also give unscrupulous manufacturers the perfect excuse to use low quality leaves.
Here, we explore questions like: is tea good for you? Are teabags toxic? What gives flavoured infusions their taste? There are loads of health issues related to tea drinking you may never have thought of before!
Is Tea Good For You? Or Is Trouble Brewing?
What’s in a bag?
As mentioned, using teabags (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‘. In other words, byproducts of the industry.
In India and China, where fresh tea leaves are grown, waste such as browned leaves, twigs and stems are not used for premium blends, but are rather sold to manufacturers of cheaper tea brands. In some cases, grass, sawdust and other ‘dusts’ are added to the leaf waste. In such cases, artificial flavours are usually added to such blends to hide their poor quality.
It’s actually pretty easy to tell if you’re buying a quality brew: just open one of the teabags 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 product’s box 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 have, 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 known branded blends are actually made with poor quality ingredients.
You know how when you want to make a salad, you pull out the lettuce from the fridge, give it a good wash, and rip it up? Well guess what – most tea leaves are sprayed several times with pesticides, just like lettuce is, but isn’t at all washed (or even washed at all) before being distributed into tea bags.
Result? Those pesticides wind up directly in your cup. The scariest part is that many non-organic tea brands have been found to contain pesticides that are known carcinogens. The solution? Buy organic, of course!
By now, most of us are aware that fluoride can seriously damage our health – it causes thyroid issues, bone and teeth problems, brain damage and arthritis, amongst many other health issues. That’s why it’s wise to avoid drinking any kind of water containing it, and even swapping to a toothpaste that doesn’t have it at all (the notion that fluoride can help prevent cavities is largely a myth).
But what most of us don’t know is that tea plants absorb fluoride from soil and accumulate it as they grow, meaning older tea leaves contain the most fluoride. Cheaper quality teas are often made from older tea leaves, which also contain the least amount of antioxidants, lessening the health benefits associated with drinking tea.
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’?
Popular tea brands often get away with listing “natural flavors and colours” as ingredients, causing many consumers to think they are buying better, cleaner ingredients. But there is a whole list of what “natural flavors and colours” could mean.
First off, detecting artificial colouring in an infusion is easy: just dunk the bag in some cold water. If it begins to change colour immediately, 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 teabags 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 the bags turn to mush, especially after steeping in water for ages? The simple answer is: more chemicals.
Yep, most teabags 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 the bags are obviously not considered part of the actual food product so are not tested by food safety standards, so they could include any kind of toxic inks they like. And if you do get the tag in your cup, the hot water could help the dyes soak into your brew.
The best solutions
First, learn which brands are the worst offenders for pesticides and chemicals. According to David Wolfe, these are:
- King Cole, which contained monocrotophos – a chemical that is currently in the process of being banned, as it causes irregular heartbeat and even coma.
- Uncle Lee’s Legends of China, which contained more than 20 types of pesticides. One was endosulfan, which causes nervous system damage.
- No Name (Loblaw’s brand in Canada), which contained more than 10 pesticide types.
That doesn’t mean the other tea brands were totally safe, however. In fact, only Red Rose was found to contain no pesticides at all.
Is tea good for you, then? If you want your health to be helped, not harmed, by your tea drinking habit, then it’s essential to ensure you use an organic tea, and if you like yours flavoured, try an organic blend that uses only natural flavouring.
Make your cuppa with 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.
Health guru David Wolfe suggests trying these new habits:
- Switch to white leaves. It has the least amount of fluoride because it’s made from young leaves.
- Buy organic! Choose a non-GMO certified brand.
- Check the ingredient list to make sure there are no added flavors or GMO ingredients added to the leaves.
- Most restaurants use brands that are known to be full of pesticides, so be careful about ordering a cuppa while out and about
Some brands to try
If the label says ‘organic’, it means that no bleach should be used in the tea bag, and no pesticides on the tea. We recommend the following brands:
- Red Rose
- Prince of Peace
- Organic Stash
- Refresh fruit infusions
- Clipper organic rooibos
- Organic Tazo
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.
So, to answer the question is tea good for you? Well, ultimately, that depends. With its many antioxidants and minerals, it can be one of the healthiest drinks around. But it’s important that your brew – and its bag – is organic. Enjoy!
Main image: Don Horne