Get full access to Outside Learn, our online education hub featuring in-depth nutrition, fitness and adventure courses, and more than 2,000 instructional videos when you sign up for Outside+..
We may love coffee, but tea is still the classic choice: Estimates show that Americans spent as much as $8 billion on iced and hot teas, and people around the world have been sipping the legendary beverage for thousands of years. Maybe that’s why you see so many varieties, ranging from delicate white teas to robust black versions to spicy herbal blends.
But no matter the name, tea is tea. Well, mostly. Except for the various herbal varieties, all teas come from the Camellia sinensis, a shrub that’s native to China and Southeast Asia. Variations in color, strength, and flavor depend on how the plant is grown, harvested, and processed. Here’s what’s brewing in the tea world today:
BLACK TEA is made by oxidizing Camellia sinensis leaves to develop different colors and flavors, from reddish-brown and flowery to brownish-black with undertones of wine. Teas may also be flavored, or blended to create different flavors. English breakfast is traditionally made from Assam and Ceylon teas; Russian tea typically blends Lapsang Souchong with Assam or Keemun; and Earl Grey is flavored with bergamot, a citrusy flower. Some varieties, such as Puerh, are fermented for months or even years, which creates a bracing brew ideal for coffee lovers.
A study published in Preventive Medicine showed people who drink black tea regularly had lower triglycerides and increased levels of HDL (“good”) cholesterol. Black tea contains powerful antioxidants that can help reduce the risk of many different cancers. Additionally, a link has been found between drinking black tea and lower rates of cancer, including breast, lung, and ovarian cancers.
OOLONG is like a mix between black and green teas; the leaves are oxidized for half the time of black tea. The result is a reddish-brown brew with a full, developed flavor that has the brightness of green tea with less caffeine (30–40 mg per cup).
Drinking oolong tea has been associated with improved memory and mental performance, possibly due to its caffeine content. Oolong tea has antibacterial properties, which may prevent tooth decay as well as assist with healing bacterial infections. It may also benefit weight loss—in a Japanese study, women who drank oolong tea for six weeks lost weight by boosting metabolism and energy.
GREEN TEA leaves aren’t oxidized, so they retain their green color, grassy flavor, and more antioxidants. Variations exist in flavor and quality between types, but all are high in antioxidants and modest in caffeine (20–30 mg per cup). You’ll find them plain, blended with herbs, or toasted for traditional Japanese flavor (Hojicha).
A compound called epigallocatechin-3-gallate in green tea, along with high levels of polyphenols, vitamins, and minerals, and low caffeine content, makes green tea a health standout. Green tea’s health benefits have been demonstrated in countless studies. Benefits include increased bone density, improved digestion, reduced aches and pains, boosted metabolism, relief of menopausal symptoms, lowered cholesterol, and reduced risk of heart attack and stroke.
WHITE TEA is the least processed variety. It’s made from buds and certain leaves of the tea plant that have been steamed and dried. The flavor is delicate with undertones of grass and pine. Silver Needle, made from only the buds, is considered the best (and priciest) version.
Although from the same plant as green and black teas, Camellia sinensis, white tea is harvested younger and dried almost immediately, which prevents the loss of antioxidants and polyphenols. It’s a natural antiviral and has anticancer properties; drinking white tea was as effective at suppressing intestinal tumors in mice as a drug used for cancer treatment in a study published in Carcinogenesis.
RED TEA is the name the Chinese use for what we call black tea. But when most English speakers say “red tea,” they mean “rooibos,” which comes from a plant that’s native to South Africa. It’s not technically tea, but it has its own charms. Rooibos tea is caffeine-free with a full, fruity flavor that suggests just a hint of honey. Plus, it contains ample antioxidants.
Red tea can help relieve headaches, as well as benefit allergies, asthma, dry skin, and eczema. It’s high in flavonoids, which benefit high blood pressure and overall heart health. Because it is caffeine-free, it has been recommended for insomnia. It is also high in antioxidants that can boost the immune system and protect against colds and flu, as well as slow aging.
See also Mood-Boosting Teas
CHAI TEA is traditionally made by brewing loose black tea with cardamom pods, star anise, ginger, clove, cinnamon, and other spices. Modern versions are also made from decaf black, green, and rooibos teas blended with any number of spices. Serve them hot in the traditional style, blended with milk and honey.
Chai tea is antioxidant and anti-inflammatory (great for conditions such as arthritis), and its mix of spices such as black pepper can stimulate digestion. Note: Traditionally, chai tea is blended with milk; if you are lactose intolerant, try rice, almond, coconut, or soy milk instead.
YERBA MATÉ tea comes from a species of holly that’s native to South America. It has a distinctive flavor that’s grassy, herbal, slightly bitter, and a bit like a robust green tea. Maté is sold loose and in bags, and you’ll also find varieties flavored with chocolate, citrus, peppermint, or other ingredients.
7 Reasons to Switch to Tea
As card-carrying members of the coffee generation, we’re not here to slam the bean. But tea does have a few benefits that coffee lacks:
1. It’s lower in caffeine. A cup of brewed coffee contains 110–180 mg of caffeine. A cup of strong black tea rarely tops 60 mg, and green tea is even lower.
2. It protects against cancer. A recent review of studies found that tea slowed tumor growth in cancers of the skin, lungs, mouth, esophagus, stomach, liver, pancreas, small intestine, colon, and prostate.
3. You’ll have more choices. Even different roasts and blends of coffee taste pretty similar. But there’s a world of difference between a delicate jasmine green and a robust smoky Lapsang Souchong.
4. It could make you slimmer. In one study, people who drank two cups of black, green, or oolong tea per week had 20 percent less body fat than non-tea drinkers.
5. It’s good for your heart. Studies have shown that tea helps reduce both overall and LDL cholesterol. And it lowers blood pressure.
6. It’s cheaper. Even pricey brands average out to fewer bucks per cup than similar quantities of coffee.
7. You’ll get fewer cavities. Teas contain compounds that kill bacteria in the mouth, which helps prevent tooth decay.
LEMON BALM (Melissa officinalis) was believed by ancient peoples to ensure long life, and legend recommends it to bring joy. The name Melissa is the Greek word for the honeybee, which favors this plant. A member of the mint family, it is also known as “heart’s delight” and “elixir of life.” It is thought to renew youth, strengthen the brain, and relieve a “languishing nature.” Lemon balm is a safe, calming herb, with anti-inflammatory and astringent properties from its high tannin content. It also contains antiviral compounds, which are useful in fighting colds, flu, and herpes types I and 2.
• Dispels melancholy, lifts the spirits, reduces feelings of panic.
• Relieves digestive disorders such as nausea, cramps, and flatulence, and is especially useful when anxiety causes digestive problems.
• Helps fight colds and flu.
• Relaxes nerves and may relieve headaches and migraines.
LICORICE (Glycyrrhiza glabra) gets its botanical name from the Greek words glukus (sweet) and rhiza (root). Chewing on licorice root has helped many people to stop smoking without gaining weight. Licorice contains glycyrrhizin, 50 times sweeter than sugar, with a similar structure to the hormones of the adrenal cortex, giving licorice its anti-inflammatory effect. Possibly, it may have mild estrogenic (estrogen-promoting) effects as well, and it’s long been used traditionally in repro-ductive tonic formulas.
• Relieves coughs, sore throats, mucus accumulation, and congestion.
• Soothes the digestive tract.
• Supports adrenal function.
• Strengthens and balances the female reproductive system.
NETTLE (Urtica dioica) tea is rich in iron, protein, and vitamins. Nettle is high in potassium and vitamins A and C, and its iron content makes it a traditional treatment for anemia. With astringent and diuretic actions and high potassium content, it is a good choice in reducing symptoms of PMS and edema.
• Purifies, nourishes, and builds the blood.
• Builds adrenal and kidney function.
• Nourishes core energy and helps alleviate daily stress.
• Increases milk supply for nursing mothers.
• Helps moderate allergy response.
PASSIONFLOWER (Passiflora incarnata) was used by Native Americans before the settlers arrived.
It is not only incredibly beautiful to behold, it contains sedative alkaloids and flavonoids that are helpful in remedies for insomnia, restlessness, hysteria, anxiety, and hypertension.
• Soothes and supports nerves.
• Offers nonaddictive, mild sedative and tranquilizing properties.
• Eases pain, tension, and nervous headache.
• Helps decrease blood pressure
• Relieves PMS and menstrual cramps in combination with other antispasmodic herbs
See Also: Rosy Ginger Tea
RED RASPBERRY (Rubus strigosus, R. idaeus) has a long history in many cultures around the world as a pregnancy tonic. It has been given to pregnant women because fragarine, an active alkaloid found in the foliage, is thought to “tone” the reproductive organs, especially the muscles of the pelvic region and uterus. Raspberry is high in tannins with strong astringent properties; it contains vitamins A, B, C, and E; pectin; calcium; magnesium; and phosphorus.
• Tones and strengthens uterine and pelvic muscles to encourage easy labor.
• Eases diarrhea with astringent properties.
• Externally, it can be used as a gargle and a mouthwash for bleeding gums.
SAGE (Salvia officinalis) is a member of the mint family. Its name comes from the Latin words salare, meaning “to cure,” and it is indeed a valuable medicinal herb. Rich in a hydrocarbon known as salvene, sage has astringent, aromatic, stimulating, and bitter properties. Sage is thought to slow aging, enhance memory, and prevent hands from trembling and eyes from dimming.
• Calms and strengthens nerves; especially valuable in relieving nervous headache.
• Cleanses, tones, and stimulates digestion and liver function.
• Helps ease lung congestion; useful for easing cold and flu symptoms.
v Externally, can be used to treat canker sores and sore gums, and as a gargle to soothe sore throats.
ST. JOHN’S WORT (Hypericum perforatum) has become the herb of choice as an antidepressant, antispasmodic, sedative, and pain reliever. In 23 double-blind, placebo-controlled studies, St. John’s wort proved 250 times more effective than a placebo for relieving mild-to-moderate depression, with few or no side effects.
• Strengthens and tones nerves and lifts the spirits.
• Useful in helping to repair nerve damage from trauma or injury.
• Externally, the oil helps to soothe and heal scrapes, wounds, and burns.
—Excerpted with permission from Herbal Teas: 101 Nourishing Blends for Daily Health & Vitality by Kathleen Brown.