Tea, A Powerfully Healthy Beverage


Mia Stainsby blogs about her research into the many health & lifestyle benefits of tea.

It’s a Monday morning. I have on my desk, a soy matcha latte and I’m feeling pretty good about it.

Researching this story on tea, I’m reminded that tea is a healthy drink, loaded with antioxidants; and matcha tea, made of finely powdered green tea leaves, is super-duper healthy with about 130 times more antioxidants than steeped green tea per serving.

That, I think, oughtta make up for the loukoumades (like honeyed Greek Timbits), two servings of frozen lemon mousse and too many glasses of Prosecco and wine I had over the weekend.

Matcha also has the highest concentration of phytochemicals of the green, black or oolong teas, says nutritionist Leslie Beck, of Toronto, but all of them are good in her book. Literally. In the latest of 10 books she’s written on nutrition (Leslie Beck’s Longevity Diet) she includes tea as one of the 25 “longevity” foods. That is, if you want a longer life, drink tea.

She says there’s clear evidence that tea (from the Camellia sinensis plant) is incredibly rich in phytochemicals called catechins, a class of flavenoids with potent antioxidant properties.

Many of the health studies have been done on green tea, she says (oolong and black teas are fermented and they lose some degree of antioxidants during oxidation).

Tea is one of the best source for antioxidants in the North American diet, she says, more than fruits and vegetables (which, of course, have a lot of other healthy things going on). Antioxidant activity in two cups of black tea is equal to that in one glass of red wine, seven glasses of orange juice or 20 glasses of apple juice, she says. And, she adds, the catechins in tea have more clout than vitamins C and E.

“One of the better reports on green tea had a combined analysis of big four studies and it concludes that if a woman drinks at least five cups a day, versus one cup, there is a 22 per cent lower risk of developing breast cancer. Another study, done in Japan, showed that women who had Stage One or Two breast cancer had a lowered risk of re-occurrence by drinking five cups of green tea a day. Something in green tea modifies breast cancer,” Beck says.

Another study, she says, showed 46 per cent lower risk of ovarian cancer among women who drank two cups of green tea a day versus those who rarely drank it.

Researchers has also found that black tea guards against heart disease. One study found the risk of heart attack was reduced by 43 per cent in people who drank more than one and a half cups of it daily and there was even more protection against a fatal heart attack. The catechins in black tea have been shown to lower LDL cholesterol, reduce blood clotting and prevent the oxidation of LDL cholesterol, which are thought to stick more readily to artery walls.

The Tea Association of Canada also points out that tea might protect the brain as we age and that tea consumption inversely correlates to the incidence of dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s diseases.

The mounting scientific evidence convinced Health Canada to become a fan in 2007. According to the Tea Association, green tea “is the first food to be sanctioned by Health Canada” for its antioxidant properties. As for black tea, there’s sufficient science to support antioxidant claims but Health Canada hasn’t yet approved the claim.

Herbal ‘teas’ are technically not teas. They’re referred to as tisanes made from herbs, flowers, roots or other parts of plants. And rooibos tea, made from the red bush plant in South Africa, is also noted for its antioxidant power.

So if the health benefits of tea are so great, why are’t there more tea shops in Vancouver? Why, in a city with a yoga-wear dress code, are there streets lined with coffee shops but not tea shops? Why is tea, the dominant drink in most of the world, taking a back seat to coffee here?

I put that question to Garret Chan, one of the owners of Tealeaves, a retail and wholesale tea company based in Vancouver. The retail tea shop is closing at the end of the month after 17 years (lease expires). As to whether they re-open in Vancouver or another city has not yet been decided.

Meanwhile, Tealeaves has evolved as the largest supplier of high-quality teas to all but three of the luxury hotel groups in the world and 99 per cent of sales is outside Canada. Top international chefs use Tealeaves’ blends in their global properties (Jean Georges Vongerichten, Alain Ducasse, Joel Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay, Guy Savoy, and others) and the company has warehouses in Vancouver, Seattle, England, with two more opening this year in Hong Kong and Shanghai and another opening in the Middle East next year. It has hired a major L.A. designer in for their next tea room where ever that might be. And they’re quite aware that they’re a bigger deal outside of their home city.

“A tea-drinking culture here is difficult because of the economics,” Chan says. “Coffee shops do well because they have a take-out market and are making $5 on double lattes. In their first hour of business, they can outsell any tea room in Canada for the entire day,” he says. “Take-out and tea don’t work together. Coffee has done a way better job of marketing. It’s way sexier, way cooler and it’s incredibly addictive as well,” he points out.

And tea’s not addictive; rather, it’s associated with calm and relaxation. “Even in yoga studios,” he says, “just look at how many Starbucks cups there are in the garbage.”

As well, there’s that caffeine factor. “Coffee’s got great caffeine delivery,” he says, “and even China’s starting to embrace coffee to a limited degree. It’s part of the go-go-go lifestyle. You need coffee for 16-hour days and people pay a lot of money for that lifestyle and image. That’s what Starbucks was able to do – create that image. Tea is perceived as more zen. It’s not about go-go-go and it’s going to be tough to change that perception.”

When Teavana, a huge international retail operator comes to town, we’ll know that tea has struck a major chord in Vancouver, he says. “I think it’s going to be a long, slow drive in Canada,” he says, “even in Vancouver, where there’s a significant number of Asians, Indians, and Iranians.”

Petra Blackmore, another Tealeaves partner, says, “There’s definitely room for development. Starbucks first location outside of the U.S. was in Vancouver so we [the city] jumped on the bandwagon. It’s interesting because we are a pretty laid-back and educated city.”

Ironically, Chan says, people in intense jobs like investment banking, for instance, drink yerba maté ‘tea’, a South American drink. “It’s loaded with stimulants and is often used as a superior stimulant,” he says.

If you’re one of the addicted, go-go-go coffee drinkers, this isn’t meant as discouragement at all. In fact, nutritionist Beck (who’s a tea drinker) says coffee has far more health benefits than negative. “I would bet people think coffee isn’t good for them but it has far more health benefits than negative ones.

“Research now suggests that if you drink enough coffee, you’ll lower the risk of a handful of diseases. You’ll also feel more alert and work out harder at the gym.”

“Tea is one of the best source for antioxidants in the North American diet, she says, more than fruits and vegetables (which, of course, have a lot of other healthy things going on).”

Enjoy These Blends

Luxury tea blender to Michelin chefs, five star hotels & tea lovers alike.

Established 1994