- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Tea is not just for your grandparents anymore. On the contrary, tea has become exceedingly trendy. Hip bars all over the United States and Europe are serving champagne teas and green tea martinis.

Teahouses are opening up on street corners almost as prolifically as Starbucks. Even Starbucks sells green tea latte. Futurologists are predicting tea clinics where tea will be prescribed. Tea is proving to be a superfood for our generation.

The benefits appear to be endless. This fragrant liquid is calorie-free, chock-full of antioxidants and considered part of our daily fluid requirement. Tea has been linked to heart health, cancer protection and it’s even included in multiple beauty remedies.

Anything this good has to have a catch, right? Well, in this case, maybe not. Tea is right up there with sex and a good run. Fairly inexpensive (or free), great for you and, unless abused, it can only be beneficial.

Legend says that tea drinking dates to 2737 B.C., and in my opinion, anything that has managed to hang on through every hokey new health claim and has survived every fad diet without a bad rap has to be good.

Do you know that tea is the second most consumed beverage in the world? (It’s second only to water.) In the United States, it’s the sixth most consumed beverage. Of course, it trails behind the Big Gulp and sweetened fruit drinks. (Need we wonder why Americans are overweight?)

The story of tea’s invention goes something like this. In 2737 B.C., a Chinese emperor was drinking boiling hot water when leaves from a nearby tree blew into his cup. The leaves came from the Camellia sinensis tree and the taste was acceptable to the emperor. Tea was born, and the rest, as they say, is history.

Before we go any further, a word about herbal teas. Although infused, packaged and enjoyed like tea, herbal teas aren’t really tea but rather, infusions of lemon grass, cinnamon, flowers (like chamomile) and many other botanicals. I will not address any potential health benefits of herbal teas in this story. I’m talking real, honest-to-goodness tea from tea leaves.

Teas contain literally thousands of chemical compounds. The most potent health benefits are linked to cardiovascular disease. The jury is still out on cancer, bone density and antibacterial properties. Up to this point, most studies have focused on green tea, and research on tea in general has been done either in the laboratory or with animals. We’ll have to wait to see if we get the same results in humans.

The three most beneficial compounds in tea are essential oils, which are responsible for the aroma; caffeine, a stimulant; and polyphenols (also called “flavonoids”), which contain powerful antioxidants that defend the body against free radicals. Free radicals cause damage in cells, and this is linked to heart disease and other illnesses. Antioxidants counteract these destructive effects. Studies suggest that green tea may be a substantially more effective antioxidant than even vitamins C and E.

There are four types of teas, all from the evergreen shrub known as Camellia sinensis.

BLACK TEA

The most popular tea worldwide and the darkest in color is black tea. After harvesting, it is first fermented (oxidized), which turns it dark. Then it is heated and dried. During the oxidation process used to turn the tea black, some of the phytochemicals are converted to other substances. We’re not sure yet how that affects the level of antioxidants.

As I mentioned, most studies have been done with green tea, but studies are showing black tea may possess some of the same healthy properties as green. Additional research needs to be done to determine black tea’s effects.

GREEN TEA

The palest in color when brewed, green tea has a more delicate taste and remains the most popular tea throughout Asia. After plucking, the tea leaves are steamed and baked immediately. This step prevents oxidation so the leaves remain green. The tea leaves are then rolled, heated and dried. Green tea is additionally rich in catechin, another type of phytochemical that functions as an antioxidant.

A large Japanese study examining tea and cancer found that green tea may help to confine cancer cells to the initial site of occurrence and prevent cell mutation. This may eventually be found to make the disease easier to treat, leading to a better prognosis rate.

OOLONG TEA

Only partially oxidized, then dried, oolong tea is a mix in both taste and color of black and green teas. Although popular in China, it accounts for only 2 percent of worldwide consumption.

Like the other teas, oolong, too, has polyphenols that are rumored to help fight aging of the skin. I don’t think you should take an oolong tea bath just yet, but you never know where the research will lead.

WHITE TEA

White tea is a very rare tea from China. It’s the least processed, has a flowery aroma and is said to be enjoyed only by the experienced tea drinker. Researchers theorize that it contains the most polyphenols due to its minimal processing. So far, most of the research on white tea has been done in the lab.

How much tea should you drink? One to four cups a day seems to be what researchers speculate as a preventative dose.

Tea brewed from tea leaves for 3 to 5 minutes seems to have more health benefits than instant tea.

Tea bags and loose tea are the same, in terms of polyphenols. (But you look like a connoisseur if you use loose tea with all its accouterments, and you know, looking the part is so important.)

To clear up any confusion, yes, tea does contain caffeine but considerably less than coffee. Six ounces of brewed tea contains roughly 60 milligrams of caffeine versus about 100 milligrams in the same amount of coffee.

Tea has no calories, fat, sodium, carbohydrates, sugar or protein. Green tea contains vitamin C in amounts similar to a lemon and has small amounts of the B vitamins, magnesium, potassium, fluoride and manganese — all essential nutrients.

Tea is showing a lot of promise, but it’s not the silver bullet for all our health ailments. Tea drinking belongs in a healthy lifestyle, but, as I always say, you should also eat well, exercise often and use alcohol in moderation.

So, after your workout, meet your friends over at the local tea shop. They’re everywhere in elegant hotels and among trendy boutiques. But don’t just take my word for it: Dance music icon Moby is co-owner of Teany, an ultrahip, trendy tea shop in New York. If everyone from your grandparents to today’s disc jockeys is drinking tea, they may just be on to something.

Green tea dip

Water

3 green tea bags

1 cup reduced-fat cream cheese or sour cream

2 tablespoons finely chopped scallion

1 tablespoon minced basil leaves

Veggies, crackers, whatever for dipping

Bring 1 cup of water to a boil. Remove from heat and add tea bags. Let sit for 5 minutes. Remove tea bags, squeeze out liquid and discard. Allow tea to cool to room temperature.

Place cream cheese or sour cream, scallion and basil leaves in a blender and process on medium speed until mixture is smooth. Gradually add small amounts of the tea concentrate until the mixture is desired spreading consistency. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour. Serve as dip with anything from carrots to crackers. Makes about 1 cup.

Per tablespoon (not including veggies, crackers, whatever for dipping): 24 calories, 2 grams total fat (1 gram saturated fat), 1 gram carbohydrates, 1 gram protein, 0 grams fiber, 36 mg sodium.

Green tea latte

1/4 teaspoon matcha (green tea powder)

2 teaspoons brown sugar or any other sweetener

1 cup steamed fat-free milk (see note)

Place matcha and brown sugar or other sweetener in a mug. Add steamed milk. Stir well. Serves 1.

Note: Any milk will do, but if you want to keep calories and fat to a minimum, stick with fat-free.

110 calories, 0 grams fat, 8 grams protein, 18 grams carbohydrates, 130 mg sodium

Betsy Klein is a registered dietitian and nutritional consultant in Miami; visit www.betsykleinrd.com.

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