Tea in the News

tea jugTea 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

Tea plantsFew 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?

Organic tea 2You 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.


Too much of a good thing – tea overdosing

The harmful banana diet (Photo: Joey Yee)

The harmful banana diet lacks nutrient balance (Photo: Joey Yee)

We get inundated with claims of superfoods that will cure your every ailment. Dietary advice is abundant and often provides skewed food intake. One day you are supposed to avoid saturated fats at all cost, but the next fat is the best thing since sliced bread and you should actually avoid the bread since you need to limit carbohydrate intake.

Fad diets

In the Morning Banana Diet you eat bananas to breakfast, lunch and as an evening snack, but fortunately you are allowed a normal dinner. It was popular in Japan in 2008 and caused a banana shortage. You might lose weight, but it is a harmful fad diet due to lack of nutrient balance.

In the Cabbage Soup Diet, also a weight loss diet that was proposed in the 1930s, you only eat a low-calorie cabbage soup. Fortunately it only lasts for seven days, but can still cause considerable damage. You are allowed to consume as much cabbage soup as you like, but still the number of calories per day is lower than what is considered safe and the extremely high sodium content used to make the soup palatable is dangerous. Many people report feeling weak and light-headed during the course of the diet.

The Master Cleanse Diet, revived in 1976, is a modified juice fast allowing no food but only tea and lemonade made with maple syrup and cayenne pepper. Proponents claim that the diet detoxifies the body and removes excess fat, but there is no scientific evidence that this is the case. It achieves nothing beyond a temporary weight loss and can be harmful over the long run. Short term side effects include fatigue, nausea, dizziness, and dehydration, while long term harm includes loss of muscle mass.

The benefit and potential downside of drinking tea

And that leads us into discussing tea in general. Research about green tea’s health benefits over the years has claimed that it has potential to fight cancer and heart disease, and 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.

A few cups of tea are fine but avoid excessive consumption.

A few cups of tea are fine but avoid excessive consumption.

But as usual, too much of a good thing can turn bad. A middle-aged female in the USA experienced pain in her lower back, arms, legs and hips for five years before visiting a doctor. X-rays revealed areas of very dense bone on the spinal vertebrae and calcifications of ligaments in her arm. According to reports the doctor suspected that the female had skeletal fluorosis, a bone disease caused by consuming too much fluoride (a mineral found in tea as well as drinking water). On questioning her the doctor learned that she had consumed a full jug of tea made from at least 100 tea bags daily, for 17 years. Her blood levels of fluoride were four times higher than what would be considered normal. Excess fluoride is typically eliminated from the body by the kidneys, but with extreme consumption the fluoride accumulates and forms crystal deposits on bone.

A few other cases of skeletal fluorosis caused by tea drinking have been reported in the USA. In these cases, patients typically drank 3-4 L of tea a day. On reducing fluoride exposure the fluoride deposits will gradually go away as the bone repairs itself.

Go for a balanced diet

Typically too much of a good thing. The old adage to eat a little of everything and have a balanced diet is still very true despite what all the diet gurus are trying to convince you to do.

Post script

By the way it might be handy to know that skeletal fluorosis is endemic in regions of the world with naturally high levels of fluoride in drinking water, including some parts of India and China, but is rare in Europe and North America. And don’t confuse the low levels of fluoride added to drinking water in many parts of the world to prevent cavities with those high levels. Deliberate water fluoridation is a good thing (despite some misinformation) and not high enough to cause fluorosis.

Give chai a try

Getting too much caffeine from coffee (Photo: Wikimedia)?

Getting too much caffeine from coffee (Photo: Wikimedia)?

Drinking too much coffee and getting the caffeine jitters? You could of course go for boring decaf coffee but it wouldn’t save you from the acrylamide and furan toxins formed in all roasted coffee.

Acrylamide is the subject of a new opinion from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) currently under public scrutiny. The draft report is recommending that acrylamide exposure be reduced as much as possible since it is a proven carcinogen in animal experiments. It is impossible to totally eliminate acrylamide from the normal diet, but since it is a numbers game any significant reduction in acrylamide exposure will similarly reduce the risk of developing cancer. EFSA recently published an excellent consumer guide on how to reduce acrylamide exposure.

Furan is another substance that has proven to be a carcinogen in animal experiments. Since furan formation is linked to the development of the coffee aroma it is an intrinsic component of roasted coffee and cannot be avoided.

And just so you know, coffee substitutes might be even more dangerous. According to levels of acrylamide in food reported by EFSA, coffee substitutes based on chicory carried at least three times more acrylamide than ordinary roasted coffee.

Go for exciting chai

You could go for ordinary tea, but why not try the exciting chai with less than a third of the caffeine content of normal coffee. Chai is a centuries-old beverage which has played an important role in many cultures. Although the word chai is simply the Hindi word for tea, it is much more to it. Chai is a flavoured tea beverage made by brewing black tea with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs. It can be prepared black, with milk, and with or without sugar. Originating in India, the beverage has gained worldwide popularity, becoming a feature in many coffee and tea houses. Although traditionally prepared by a decoction of green cardamom pods, cinnamon sticks, ground cloves, ground ginger, and black peppercorn together with black tea leaves, retail versions include tea bags for infusion, instant powdered mixtures, and concentrates.

There has been a phenomenal growth in the popularity and interest in chai in the Western world over the last decade. As chai has become very common at over-the-counter specialty coffee and tea shops, it is now as easy to order a chai latte as it is a cafe latte or a cappuccino. Many industry analysts are predicting that chai will eventually become as popular and common as coffee is now.

Great variety of spices used


A great variety of spices used in producing chai (Photo: Wikimedia)

Drinking chai is part of life in India and most Indian’s are amazed at all the current fuss in the West. The spices used vary from region to region and among households in India. Traditionally, cardamom is a dominant note, supplemented by other spices such as cloves, ginger, or black pepper; the latter two add a heat to the flavour and the medicinal aspect of the drink. Other spices include cinnamon, star anise and/or fennel seeds.

In Western India, cloves and black pepper are expressly avoided, while the Kashmiri version of chai is brewed with green tea instead of black tea and has a more subtle blend of flavourings including almonds, cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, and sometimes saffron. Other possible ingredients include nutmeg, mace, chilli, coriander, rose flavouring (where rose petals are boiled along with the loose-leaf tea), or liquorice root. A small amount of cumin, also considered a “warm” spice in Ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine/cuisine, is also preferred by some people. A pinch of turmeric may be added to aid those suffering from a fever.

The warm, aromatic flavours of chai have their roots in ancient Ayurvedic traditions. Ayurveda, meaning “life science” in Sanskrit, is a traditional system of medicine that includes the practice of yoga and the use of healing herbs and spices. It is said that Indian chai produces a warming, soothing effect, acts as a natural digestive aid and gives a wonderful sense of well being.

I tried a Hari Hai Chai

I had the benefit of trying a chai latte curtesy Hari Hai Chai recently. I am not vouching for the health claim aspects but it was difficult to resist a second cup and with so much variety possible it might take many months to explore fully.

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The real kick – coffee-leaf tea!

Tea can be made of coffee leaves (Photo: Wikimedia)

Tea can be made of coffee leaves (Photo: Wikimedia)

Do you get your daily kicks from coffee or tea? Well, don’t worry anymore because now you can have the best of both worlds with coffee-leaf tea. That is if you can find the coffee leaves in your shop, but more on that later.

Coffee leaves are the actual leaves from the coffee plant (either Coffea robusta or Coffea arabica). They can be used to prepare a herbal tea. After being roasted, the leaves are ground up or crumpled, then brewed in hot water  similar to normal tea. The resulting brew has an earthy taste but is otherwise similar to green tea. It contains less caffeine than either regular tea or coffee.

Coffee-leaf tea is so far not a common drink, but has been popular in some regions such as Sumatra and Ethiopia. Called kuti, it was drunk in Ethiopia, centuries before coffee bean roasting was invented. The locals there believe that the drink stems hunger and tends to energise both the body and mind. There have been historic attempts by coffee producers in Sumatra and Java to popularise coffee-leaf tea in the United Kingdom and Australia – it was even displayed in London at the Great Exhibition of 1851 – but the drink did not get enough attention to create a market opportunity.

This situation might change with new findings reported by researchers from the English Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in London and the French Research Institute for Crop Diversity, Adaptation and Development in Montpellier. The two research teams suggest that tea brewed from coffee leaves may have several health benefits. They discovered that coffee-leaf tea has more antioxidants than regular tea. This is because it contains high levels of the phenolic compounds mangiferin and hydroxycinnamic acid esters credited with lowering the risk of heart disease and diabetes, reducing cholesterol levels and protecting neurons in the brain. Mangiferin is a natural chemical normally found in mangoes while hydroxycinnamic acid esters have been isolated from blackcurrants and a range of vegetables.

Coffee beans the second most valuable commodity (Photo: Wikimedia)

Coffee beans the second most valuable commodity (Photo: Wikimedia)

The researchers believe the leaves of the Coffea genus have been overlooked because of the high value placed on its seeds, the coffee beans, which contain far fewer beneficial compounds. This might be the reason why coffee leaves are not yet widely available, but they can be found in some health food shops. A difficulty for more general adoption might be that coffee growers will want the leaves to stay on their plants so they can produce good beans. Coffee beans are the world’s second most valuable commodity after crude oil, with almost eight million tonnes produced and more than 400 billion cups consumed worldwide each year in an industry worth more than $66 billion.

And some final advice. Before going full bottle with coffee-leaf tea be aware that the researchers point out that more research will be needed to confirm the proposed health benefits.

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