Nearly every other day, science gives us another reason to drink good tea. Last week researchers from the School of Medicine, University of California, Irvine and from the Parnum Institute at the University of Copenhagen in Denmark validated yet another of the natural human health benefits in tea. Their study of black & green tea (from the plant camellia sinensis, not herbs or tisanes), examines how tea polyphenols contribute significantly to vasolidation (dilation of blood vessels, decreasing blood pressure).
This is good news for tea drinkers, and although not a scientist, I have to add .. we told you so! Tea was first discovered as a natural, herbal medicine over 4,500 years ago, and its benefits are being rediscovered. The introduction by the authors of the study, Kaitlyn E Redford, Salome Rognant, Thomas A Jepps and Geoffrey W Abbott, elegantly sums up the natural goodness – in tea.
They introduce their study in the International Journal of Experimental Cellular Physiology, Biochemistry and Pharmacology with these words: Tea played a role in creating the world as we know it today. As the consumption of tea spread across the globe, it changed the areas it encountered. It was used as a status symbol, led to new trading routes, helped with religious practices, and even played a role in instigating the American Revolution. With more than 2 billion people currently consuming tea daily in one form or another, it is still playing a significant role in society. Not only has tea had significant cultural and historical impacts on the world, there have also been many reported health benefits to drinking tea—dating as far back as the Shang dynasty (1766-1050 BC), during which tea leaves were used as an herbal remedy in conjunction with other forest herbs. For as long as tea has been around, it has been considered to have medicinal properties. Though people have only recently started studying the science behind tea’s perceived health benefits, there is a growing pool of evidence that drinking tea, especially green tea, can help with cardiovascular health and can inhibit carcinogenesis. As exciting as these results are, the mechanism behind these health benefits has remained largely elusive.
And they conclude: In summary, activation of the vascular and neuronal KCNQ5 potassium channel contributes significantly to vasodilation by both green and black tea. The tea polyphenols ECG and EGCG are major contributors to this effect, via hyperpolarization of the voltage dependence of KCNQ5 activation. ECG and EGCG or optimized derivatives of these compounds are candidates for future anti-hypertensive drug development.
As the authors suggest, future medicines will surely be made from the polyphenols in black and green tea based on this evidence, however, this is probably as good a reason as any that Emperor Shennung, Philosopher Lu Yu or Teamaker Merrill J. Fernando have been giving us to enjoy the Taste and Goodness in fine tea as a natural drink.
In that validation of the human health benefits in tea lies a tragic irony. Even as we marvel at the potency of natural antioxidants in tea, and place that within growing consumer appreciation for wholesome, natural, healthy food & drink, prospects for genuinely good quality tea vs the commoditised, blended and cheap alternative is mostly a mirage. Exciting from a distance, but on closer inspection a lot of hot air.
Lured by incessant discounts and promotional ‘deals’, consumers are consistently compromising on quality, choosing what promotional algorithms and retailers want them to believe is a cheaper, smarter choice. With the difference between a good and antioxidant rich cup of tea and a weak, mixture of cheap teas being a few cents (US$) per cup, the smarter choice is definitely not where the discounts point.
Tea is a herb that is unmatched in its cultural, natural, medicinal heritage, as varied as our 21st Century lifestyles and as pure as our plant based, vegan, calorie and sugar free diets demand. Good tea, handpicked, made in the traditional and artisanal style, is unquestionably the smarter choice. Good tea comes at a price that includes fair wages, respect for environment, tradition and investment in a sustainable future for tea.
For tea growers struggling to visualize a future for an industry that came with a history of colonial exploitation, and striving to balance critical social, environmental and economic priorities, the potency of tea in decreasing blood pressure adds to a very long list of human health benefits. As we fight to overcome the unfortunate legacy of our industry, battered by relentless and unfair price pressure, hope that the mirage must one day become reality must keep us going. Not just for the sake of the millions of workers whose survival depends on tea, but also for the affordable, varied and potent antioxidant benefit that tea offers a world that desperately needs that natural goodness.