Superbrew: The emerging health benefits of tea
Many years ago, British consumers were encouraged to drink tea because it was "the best drink of the day," and the idea that Britain is a nation of tea-drinkers has endured. However, it is unlikely that mass tea consumption in days gone by can be attributed to anything other than taste reasons.
Tea is now touted as a drink that is beneficial for health
This has changed. Internationally in today's health-conscious society, with more information on healthy eating available than ever before, the humble cup of tea has acquired extra significance. Tea is now touted as a drink that is beneficial for health. Green tea has started appearing on supermarket shelves, and its connections with cancer prevention are gaining currency. There is also a growing breed of herbal teas. Strictly speaking these herbal infusions are misnamed as tea, since they do not contain any tea leaves, and they are technically referred to as tisanes.
In some ways, tea drinking has become a little like a visit to the pharmacy, as different types of tea may have the ability to help a particular ailment. Though the phenomenon seems to have mushroomed recently, it is far from new. Many of the infusions use long-held herbal knowledge in their promotion, while others are traditional recipes from bygone ages. It is almost as if they represent a lifestyle choice, as people hark back to the past for revived, drug-free ways of dealing with modern problems.
The resources available to promote the health benefits of tea confirm that it is no longer drunk simply for taste. Among the many websites that provide health information on tea and herbal remedies, two stand out. The Tea Council in the UK has a dedicated website (www.teahealth.co.uk) which promotes the health aspects of black and green tea, while US producer Celestial Seasonings has similar resources at its website, though these also extend to infusions (www.celestialseasonings.com).
Health claims proliferating
A swift perusal of Celestial Seasonings' Wellness teas emphasises the 'tea as medicine' concept. Each tea description contains a number of claims linked to certain ingredients, such as helping with sleep or acting as a laxative. They also contain disclaimers advising consumers that the comments have not been evaluated by the US Food and Drug Administration and that products are not intended "to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease." Quite how that squares with a tea which is an "all-natural, herbal alternative that helps get you feeling regular again" is debatable. Furthermore, consumers are advised to check whether a tea will clash with medicine that they are taking. So these products are clearly marketed for their specific health benefit.
The relation to lifestyle is seen elsewhere. Dutch-produced Golden Temple tea comes straight from the Ayurvedic traditions of India, and as well as offering teas which use traditional recipes to aid health problems, the company also produces information on Ayurvedic lifestyles (www.goldentemple.nl). Drinking Ayurvedic tea is seen as being good for you while giving you a chance to be part of a longstanding tradition.
Infusions "just sit at the back of the cupboard..."
So which is the healthiest option when it comes to tea drinking? Bill Gorman, executive director of the Tea Council, is in no doubt that black or green tea is a far better option when it comes to drinking tea for health. "There's lots of noise about tisanes but the actual volume is very small," he told just-drinks.com. "Some major companies get into the market and then withdraw because the volumes are not enough." He added that people often buy infusions but find they "tend to sit at the back of the cupboard."
Gorman added that infusions do not have the vitamin and mineral content of black tea and also do not contain antioxidants. In terms of making somebody feel better, he said "It's as much to do with drinking a warm drink which has a nice flavour as with any scientific benefit."
The tea market does not, however, have to take sides when it comes to health benefits. Keith Garden, the managing director of Only Natural Products, which produces the Dr Stuart's range of herbal teas, believes a balance is vital. "There are some very good health messages on black teas," he told just-drinks.com.
Germans keen on infusions
Garden pointed out that while only 4% of the tea market in Britain is currently taken by infusions, though that amount is growing, other countries are keener drinkers of herbal blends, with France registering 12% of the market, the US 14% and Germany a remarkable 55%. "It's driven partly by health, especially as people want to cut down on caffeine. Also, the older generation which drank a lot of tea is dying off and younger people drink a number of different things."
"It's as much to do with drinking a warm drink which has a nice flavour as with any scientific benefit"
Dr Stuart's products contain hints about their health benefit without being as specific as some others in the market. "We don't make health messages and we rely on people's awareness and that they have done their own research."
The company also tries to deal with the fact that herbal teas can taste unpleasant. "We employ a blending process of natural products and try to make them so people enjoy them," he said, though he conceded that sometimes an unpleasant taste cannot be avoided. A product such as the relaxing Valerian Plus needs other ingredients to counteract the taste of valerian. Mr Garden added that the blend, along with the Tranquility product, are particularly popular in prisons because of their ability to help people sleep.
Twinings tapping the trend
Twinings' marketing manager Elizabeth Edwards acknowledges the influence of health messages in tea choice but is unsure about the validity of the information behind it. "There are no scientific studies which overwhelmingly prove the health benefits of tea," she said, "There are some studies into black and green tea. The most they can say is that they are full of anti-oxidants and people are making the link between tea and what anti-oxidants can do."
Ms Edwards said that for Twinings, the infusion market is growing rapidly, worth around £15m annually in UK supermarkets and representing 30% of the business. "The health benefit is a big marketing tool. Consumers fall into two categories, those who drink nothing but health infusions, to avoid caffeine and calories or because they genuinely believe it's doing them some good. The second sector dabble, they are bored with tea and coffee and also believe if they are being good with tea during the day, it allows them to be more indulgent later with perhaps a glass of wine.
"With infusions, health benefits are derived from the reputed benefits of the herbs, things which are well known within the homoepathic environment," she added. "What we don't do is put herbs in our teas and say 'now you're going to get better'. It's very different to the United States." Twinings mentions reputed benefits on packaging, such as peppermint helping with digestion, without going any further. "With herbals they can effect some people and not effect others, so they're not a cure-all."
Captive audience, healthy or not
It is clear that tea is no longer just something that you have in the afternoon with scones and sandwiches. But awareness may need to grow. When mentioning to people that one is writing an article on the health benefits of tea, blank looks are the most common response, often accompanied by the acknowledgement that green tea is good for you but they scarcely believe that there is any health benefit from PG Tips.
Producers of black tea have a captive and loyal audience, and an excellent opportunity to demonstrate tea's benefits. Those in the tisane market carry an automatic health association, especially as their products are carried in health food stores. But whatever people choose, the message is clear. Drinking tea can make you feel good.
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