Whether you drink it as a hot beverage to ward off Old Man Winter or iced to cool off on a hot summer day, tea is an invigorating drink that people around the world consume in copious amounts. In America alone, each person drinks approximately 155 cups of tea per year! And as researchers discover more health benefits from those little leaves, tea sales continue to climb. But we're not just drinking tea; its extracts are becoming popular supplements and additions to other foods and drinks.
If you drink tea because you enjoy the taste, great. But if you're buying foods or supplements that contain tea extracts, thinking they'll help lower your risk for cancer and heart disease, speed your metabolism, or help you lose weight as many products claim, think again. Let's look at what research (and common sense) really tells us about tea, tea extracts and supplements, and what they can—and can't—do for your health.
First Things First: What is Tea?
Technically, only one plant provides the leaves to make what we know as tea: Camellia sinensis. The difference in the flavor, color, and name of the tea depends on how the leaves are processed. There are four basic types of tea:
Many other hot and cold drinks are referred to as "tea," but unless they are made with Camellia sinenesis, they are not true teas; they are herbal teas (made from a variety of other plants, flowers and herbs). Some herbal teas may offer health benefits, but you cannot assume that the health benefits of one type of tea apply to any other variety.
Black tea is the most popular variety in the United States. When you drink a regular cup of hot tea, iced tea, or sweet tea, you are drinking black tea. Black tea comes from tea leaves that were exposed to the air and allowed to fully oxidize or ferment, changing the leaves from green to black.
Oolong tea varies in the fermentation time. It therefore falls between black and green tea.
Green tea is less processed and is not fermented like black tea is. These tea leaves therefore retain their green color and delicate flavor.
White tea is the least processed of all teas. The leaves are picked at a very young stage and are only dried in the sun.