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Posted on by Karen Sabbath, MS, RD, CSO

What is the second most consumed beverage in the world after water?

If you guessed tea (and had a HUGE hint from the title of this article), you are correct. The annual worldly consumption of tea is 3.6 billion cups.

You might guess that China consumes the most tea, and at 1.6 billion pounds of tea per year, that is true. However, if you look at the amount of tea consumed per person, you may be surprised at the five countries that top the list. Number one is Turkey, with an average of 1,300 cups (seven pounds!) of tea per person per year, followed by Ireland, Great Britain, Russia, and Morocco. The US ranks 69th of all countries, with about half of Americans drinking a cup of tea every day.

Tea is thought to have originated in southern China in 2737 B.C. when leaves from a tea bush fell into the emperor’s boiling water. He drank it, liked it, and used it medicinally before it became a daily drink. Tea didn’t arrive in Europe until the late 1500s, when a Portuguese Jesuit priest visiting China was granted trading privileges and brought some tea home with him. The rest is history. Tea is now grown in 52 countries, but China remains the biggest producer, followed by India.

All “true” teas come from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. The most common types of teas are black, green, white and oolong, with many variations within each type, for a total of 3,000 varieties. Their individual flavor profiles are from differences in how and when the leaves of the plant are harvested and processed, and how much they are oxidized (crushed and exposed to the air). Tea leaves that are highly oxidized are darkest in color (black teas including Earl Grey, English and Irish Breakfast, for example). All tea contains caffeine in varying amounts with black tea having the most and green tea, the least, but typically a cup of tea has half the caffeine of coffee. Herbal tea is not true tea.

Health benefits of tea: Brewed is best!

Brewed teas contain antioxidants called polyphenols that may reduce the risk of certain chronic diseases. When overly processed, as in tea powders used in bottled teas, the antioxidant content drops by 10%–100%, resulting in a high sugar and calorie beverage with minimal benefits.

There is a lot of information indicating that all teas, especially green, may have anti-cancer effects due to the antioxidant/polyphenol called epigallocatechin-3 gallate, or EGCG, thought to prevent or slow the formation of cancer cells. Observational studies appear to associate regular intake of green tea with reducing risk for bladder, colon, stomach, pancreatic and esophageal cancers. Clinical trials are needed to provide more precise data. Research exploring the effects of tea on heart health, blood pressure, diabetes and weight loss is ongoing.

People ask if it is okay to drink tea during cancer treatment due to its antioxidant content. The answer is yes, if the tea is brewed and not taken in the form of a supplement. There is one exception: Avoid green tea if you are taking Velcade (bortezomib), used to treat multiple myeloma, since it can decrease its effectiveness.

Bottom line: Brewed tea is a healthy beverage, loaded with antioxidants that may have many health benefits. Remember that it does contain caffeine, so be careful to limit it at night if you have issues with insomnia.

Tea Tips

Some people complain that tea, especially green tea, tastes bitter. If that is the case for you, try some of the following suggestions:

  • Add a little bit of sugar, lemon or honey, which softens the taste.
  • Brew the tea with hot, but not boiling water, and let it steep for only three minutes.
  • Try to “cold-brew” your tea by letting it steep at room temperature for two hours.
    This also cuts down on the caffeine content.
  • Add-ins can also help enhance the flavors. These include chopped ginger, fresh mint, unsweetened orange juice, or spices (cinnamon, ginger, allspice, cardamom, often found in Chai tea).