It’s true: tea is a wonder beverage

If marijuana is your preferred drug, glad that you can consume it legally in Illinois now.

Mine is tea. I figured it was an excusable addiction even as my consumption grew over the years to a half-dozen or so cups a day. I never experienced caffeine jitters. When reports of tea’s health benefits came out, I was content to think that my addiction is actually good for me and didn’t delve into the research.

It was eye-opening recently to read the claims made for my favorite beverage in Lisa See’s 2017 novel The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. Lee’s characters in the Chinese tea industry prescribe tea for a myriad of ailments, even as a cure for cancer:

Tea “has more than one hundred proven purposes: to boost the immune system, balance the body’s hot and cold temperatures, lower blood pressure and blood sugar, and help melt away hangovers as well as tumors.”

“Tea helps us to think quicker, sleep less, move lighter, and see clearer.”

“Our ancestors believed that the best teas could eliminate arrogance, dissipate impatience, and lighten our temperaments.”

“Tea can alleviate the stoppage of the bowels, relieve melancholy, and remove aching of the brain, stinging of the eyes, and swelling of the joints.”

Wow! If all those claims are valid, why aren’t we all drinking boatloads of tea? Why do Americans still prefer coffee?

I decided to find out which of the purported benefits are supported by scientific research.

The health benefits of tea derive from the antioxidants contained in the plant-based micronutrients known as polyphenols. The antioxidants in tea polyphenols protect cells against damage that might be done by potentially harmful free radicals in the body.

The Tea Association of the USA obviously is not impartial, but its lengthy report about tea’s benefits is backed up by more than 100 citations. The association cites research that found that tea reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, certain cancers, neurological decline, obesity, and osteoporosis, helps manage diabetes, and strengthens the immune system and oral health.

Hasan Mukhtar, a University of Wisconsin professor who has studied tea’s health effects, and his UW colleague Naghma Khan summarized recent studies in the paper “Tea Polyphenols in Promotion of Human Health.” Published in Nutrients in December 2018, the paper documented the role of tea polyphenols in the prevention of cancer, diabetes, and cardiovascular and neurological diseases.

Mukhtar and Khan focused on green tea, the most studied of the three major tea forms. All true tea comes from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, and processing methods produce different varieties. Since fermentation destroys some of the polyphenols in black and oolong teas, “as of now, it looks like green tea has more beneficial effects,” Mukhtar told a writer for Tasting Table. The Tea Association of the USA says, however, that “studies conducted on green and black tea . . . have yielded similar results.” Preferring black, as do 75 percent of the world’s tea drinkers, I hope the Tea Association is right.

But really, are health benefits the reason we prefer a beverage? I started drinking black tea because I liked its bold, malty taste, and I’m not going to switch to weaker-tasting green for a potentially bigger antioxidant bang. Health perks are a fringe benefit; I drink black tea for pleasure (and caffeine, it must be admitted). Starting with Lipton teabags, I moved up to classier teabags like Twinings to loose-leaf teas from an Indian grocery on Devon Avenue. Reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane inspires me to sample the world’s great teas, including Pu’er, the “king” of tea it features.

The physical benefits that have been researched lately are not the focus of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane. It notes them but emphasizes the pleasure as well as the spiritual aspects of tea that Chinese sages have expounded for centuries.

“Confucius taught his followers that tea could help people understand their inner dispositions,” one character says, “while Buddhists grant tea the highest spiritual qualities . . . . They believe tea can link the realms of meditation. . . . The Daoists see tea as a way to regulate internal alchemy, be in harmony with the natural world, and serve as an ingredient in the elixir of immortality.”

If you haven’t experienced such transcendent effects from tea — I haven’t — it may be that in our fast-paced society, we aren’t paying enough attention to the act of drinking it. “Tea reminds us to slow down and escape the pressures of modern life,” See writes, but I miss the reminder when I’m drinking at the computer or while walking down the sidewalk.

See’s character who talks about the spiritual qualities of tea gives a lesson in how to drink it when he says: “Just the physical process we experience when we drink tea . . . causes us to turn inward and reflect as the liquor coats our tongues, shimmers down our throats, and then rises again as fragrance.” If I were to drink tea with that level of absorption, perhaps I’d make discoveries about the beverage or myself.



“Shouldn’t we be taking ‘appropriate action’ against ourselves as well? Aren’t we indirectly to blame for the loss of these civilian lives? As we see it, the lesson of the last week is that the Trump administration was wildly irresponsible in deciding to kill Soleimani at this time, however reprehensible the general was.”

Chicago Sun-Times editorial, January 10

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