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Tea time again! I recently received this chock-full-of-info response to my article (Tea and Raw Food: Legal?) from Suzette Hammond, head of Training and Education for Rishi Tea--thank you, Suzette!! I thought I'd share it here (with the permission of the author, of course). Ms. Hammond's response follows in its entirety, cheerio!
I’m not a raw foods follower, but I did want to offer some helpful information on the topic of tea itself. I work for Rishi Tea, as the head of Training and Education. I’ve also taught extensively with the Specialty Tea Institute (a branch of the U.S. Tea Association), the World Tea Expo and regional tea festivals in the United States. So, I really love teaching tea and would be happy to answer some questions that are being posed here. I can’t personally advocate whether or not raw foods followers should or should not drink tea – that is up for you to decide. But tea is a complicated topic, so I do believe everyone should be well informed.
Firstly, if I had to make the call, I would say by its nature, tea is NOT a raw food. Doesn’t mean it’s not friendly to the body, but all forms of tea have had heat applied to the leaves. Unless you travel to tea gardens, pluck leaves right from the bush and eat them on the spot, there’s no way you can have raw tea.
All tea comes from the same plant family: Camellia sinensis. There are six basic categories of tea: Green, White, Yellow, Oolong, Black and Dark (to which the famous aged and fermented tea, Pu-erh, belongs). This is speaking of tea proper, by the way - not herbs, spices, dried fruit, flowers, etc that are brewed like tea. Those are botanically different. Differences between the category types comes down to what level of shaping, crafting, and flavor development is accomplished by the tea maker after those leaves have been harvested. All tea will be exposed to heat during its crafting, as this helps remove moisture and control chemical changes happening inside the leaf which create complex flavor compounds. One of those important chemical changes is oxidation.
Oxidation happens to all living things. You see this change happen when you cut an apple and let it sit on the counter. After a while, it browns. Now, if you take those apple slices and bake them into a lovely pie, the slices will not brown. The sustained use of heat prevents oxidation. Same thing as blanching vegetables. Green tea, as an example, is heated (either with dry heat, such as roasting, or steam heat) right after harvest to lock in that bright green color and flavor. Otherwise, the leaf will wilt, brown and oxidize and all the “greenness” is lost. So, green tea is already “cooked” before you buy it.
Other teas are also heated at some point during their production, as heat helps control oxidation. It does this by denaturing the enzymes in the leaf, which happens when they are exposed to a sustained heat of at least 130F. So, tea as a product is not raw.
If you still want to add tea to your diet, but prefer to not use hot water to brew, might I suggest cold brewing? Use the recommended amount of leaves and water for however much you’d like, place in a covered pitcher or glass jar in your fridge overnight, and enjoy iced tea the next day. Cold brewing will extract different flavor elements than hot brewing (most notably less caffeine), but it tastes delicious! I would recommend against sun brewing your tea. This method can be dangerous, as bacteria grows very easily when kept that long in the “danger zone” food workers are so familiar with. People have been doing this in the South for generations, of course, and many would say it’s perfectly fine. If you live in a very hot climate, obviously your pitcher of tea on the porch will get quite hot, so you might be more in the clear. But why risk it? Cold brewed tea is wonderful.
Speaking of caffeine…
Hate to burst the bubble, but the myth of decaffeinating your tea with a 30 second “pre-brew” is unfortunately just that: A myth that industry educators have been trying to un-do for well over a decade. Research in the last few years has proven this concept very inaccurate (the analysis company Chromadex, as one example, held a very in-depth presentation on this during the World Tea Expo to try to help debunk this myth). Caffeine is a xanthine, a member of the alkaloid family, and like most alkaloids, it is not very water-soluble. It takes several minutes to start extracting anything significant; a 5 minute brew of many teas only releases around 40% of the caffeine the tea has to offer. On the very unfortunate flip side, some of the most easily water-soluble components in tea are the polyphenols – the antioxidants that are being studied by researchers. They come out very quickly, so when you attempt to “rinse off” some of the caffeine with this method, in reality, you’re just tossing out polyphenols.
What about decaf tea? Is that considered raw-friendly? That’s up for debate. Tea is decaffeinated through some pretty intense processing, if nothing else. It can happen either by chemical (ethyl acetate, which is actually found naturally in some fruits, such as apple skins) or by using liquid carbon dioxide. Because caffeine is not very water-soluble, decaffeination requires using something else as a solvent to draw it out. The liquid CO2 method is cleaner for the environment. There’s literally no waste, as everything can be recycled. It’s also gentler on the leaves. But you still have to re-dry the tea after it’s been decaffeinated, and some of the polyphenols are removed in decaffeination, too.
It's worth noting that some of the most beneficial elements in tea are extracted by heat. Caffeine is one of them, and caffeine can be helpful in appropriate amounts. Tea is also a unique source of the amino acid L-theanine, which helps the body produce relaxing and stress-reducing alpha brain waves and regulates the absorption of caffeine. This is why tea drinkers often report a more sustained, “calm alert” energy, without the dramatic crash that coffee can give (which has no L-theanine). Monks have used tea in their meditation practice for this reason for centuries. Ttea is not considered properly brewed by aggressively boiling the leaves; the very large range of brewing recommendations includes 45 sec at 160F for some delicate Japanese greens to 5 min at 205F for some black teas.
Tea has been enjoyed as a food, beverage and traditional medicine for thousands of years. Even still today in Southeast Asia, you can find people living amongst ancient tea plants (many hundreds of years old – the oldest found so far is believed to be 2,700 years in age) who harvest tea as a wild foraged vegetable. In fact, one of the earliest characters for “tea” was actually a word that meant “bitter vegetable.” Tea is a valued, honored plant to many cultures, and they have benefited from it for millennia. They have steamed the leaves, pounded them into cakes, aged and fermented them, roasted and baked them, boiled them into nourishing soups, used them as compresses for wounded skin. They have eaten tea leaves raw and also pickled them as preserved salads. Tea as a tradition is older than modern medicine, dietary practices and (arguably) most world religions.
In my humble opinion, I feel it honors and respects the ancient art that is tea to learn from the plant as its most loving human ancestors have for all this time, handing down generation to generation the deep knowledge they acquired without the use of any scientists or researchers to tell them what a polyphenol was or what oxidation meant. Tea is beautiful in that way; I don’t personally believe there’s anything else truly like it on earth.