Tea is the second most consumed beverage on earth after water. The daily cup of tea has many positive associations. Winding down (thought to be due to the relaxing presence of the amino acid L-theanine), or winding up (thanks to caffeine’s influence).
Several health benefits have been attributed to tea, especially green tea consumption. There are claims that green tea has the potential to fight cancer and heart disease, that it can lower cholesterol, burn fat, prevent diabetes and stroke, and stave off dementia. Pretty impressive stuff, but probably far from the real truth. Sure the catechins in tea act as free radical scavengers and might prevent DNA damage. However, it is more likely that the theory that drinking green tea is good for memory is true. Researchers have actually shown that epigallocatechin-3 gallate, a key property of green tea, can affect the generation of brain cells, providing benefits for memory and spatial learning.
So should you drink more tea?
Time to be a little careful as recent research has uncovered a connection of a less pleasant kind – the possibility of pesticides and other carcinogenic chemicals in your tea. Independent lab testing in 2018 by CBC News Canada found that many tea brands contain pesticides over levels permitted in that country.
CBC tested 10 samples of black and green teas including Canada’s most popular brands: Lipton, Red Rose, Tetley and Twinings. Other popular brands tested included No Name, Uncle Lee’s Legends of China, King Cole and Signal. Half of the teas tested contained pesticide residues above the allowable limits in Canada. And eight of the 10 brands tested contained multiple chemicals, with one brand containing residues of 22 different pesticides.
In a way this is nothing new. In 2012, Greenpeace found that every one of 18 tea samples from nine Chinese tea manufacturers contained a mixture of at least three different kinds of pesticides. In total, as many as 29 different pesticides were detected. Six of the samples contained more than 10 different kinds of pesticides. Pesticides banned in China for use on tea plants and tea leaves were found on 12 samples from eight different tea companies.
Indian tea didn’t fare much better. About 94 per cent of 49 Indian tea brands tested by Greenpeace in 2014 contained pesticide residues, and 59 per cent contained at least one pesticide above the Maximum Residue Level (MRL) set by the EU. Similar to the Chinese teas, 68 per cent of the pesticides discovered in the teas weren’t registered for use in tea cultivation.
Recent European Union pesticide report
Few samples were used for the ad hoc testing above, which could have biased the results. A more comprehensive report from the 2016 testing of pesticide residues in food in the European Union was published in 2018 by the European Food Safety Authority. Although pesticide levels exceeding the MRL amounted to only 3.9 per cent in total, for some products, including tea, the levels were much higher. Of 1016 tea samples tested, 36 per cent contained no detectable pesticides at all, while 24 per cent contained pesticide residue levels exceeding the European Union MRL.
Anthraquinone was one of the substances detected in the European testing. In recent years, issues have emerged with regard to the MRL of anthraquinone, which is set at the analytical detection limit of 0.02mg/kg for food, including tea leaves. In many cases, anthraquinone has not even been used as a pesticide on tea plants. The tea becomes contaminated during drying or packaging, or by smoke caused by tea drying.
Should you be worried about pesticides in tea?
The simple answer is not necessarily, but to understand the issue we need to delve a bit deeper into the setting of MRLs.
The MRL is the highest amount of an agricultural or veterinary chemical residue that is legally allowed in a food product. Levels are set based on how much of the chemical is needed to control pests and/or diseases. The product’s chemistry, metabolism, analytical methodology and residue trial data are also assessed.
Limits are set using internationally recognised methods and national scientific data and are well below the level that could pose health and safety risks to consumers. MRLs help enforcement agencies monitor whether an agvet chemical has been used as directed to control pests and diseases in food production.
Unfortunately, allowable maximum residue levels, that fuzzy line of safe use defined by governments, varies greatly from country to country.
Thus, pesticide residues in tea has been a major non-tariff trade barrier affecting tea trade globally as pointed out by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO). The problem was due mostly to certain default MRLs set at analytical detection limits, like for anthraquinone, and not according to agricultural practice or human toxicity.
As a matter of fact the European Union use a default MRL set at the detection limit for at least 6 other pesticides used on tea in some countries.
FAO pointed out that the only way to tackle this problem would be to help fix realistic MRLs which would be acceptable to all stakeholders in order to ensure food safety as well as smooth tea trade globally.
Not sure yet?
You might question if we really want any toxins in our tea? Well, like any agricultural food product, tea leaves can be contaminated with agri-chemicals that are used to control pests and diseases. This is an irrefutable fact.
The solution? If you’re health conscious and a big tea drinker, paying a bit more for certified organic loose-leaf teas, and infusing it in an old-fashioned pot or stainless steel infuser, would probably be your best bet.
For the rest of us we can be assured that using only 2g of tea leaves for a cup of tea will pose no major health hazard.
Still it would be good if the tea producing countries could get their act together and sharpen their agricultural practices.