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, antioxidant 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.
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 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.
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 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 best solutions
First, learn which brands are the worst offenders for pesticides and chemicals. According to David Wolfe, these are:
- King Cole, which contained the 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 tea was found to contain no pesticides at all.
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.
Health guru David Wolfe suggests trying these new habits:
- Switch to white tea. It has the least amount of fluoride because it’s made from young leaves.
- Buy organic! Choose a non-GMO certified brand of tea.
- Check the ingredient list to make sure there are no added flavors or GMO ingredients added to the tea leaves.
- Most restaurants use tea brands that are known to be full of pesticides, so be careful about ordering tea 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. For environmental reasons, we still think it’s best to use a tea strainer/egg (they cost next to nothing!) or a cup strainer, or even a proper loose tea pot like this – looks lovely, too!
- Red Rose loose tea
- Numi loose leaf green tea
- Prince of Peace organic white tea
- Rishi Tea
- Organic stash loose chai tea
- Clearspring loose green tea
- Refresh fruit tea infusion
- Clipper organic rooibos
- Organic Tazo teas
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