As carbonated beverages come under increasing attack and researchers debate just how good or bad coffee is for you, more Americans are trading in their Big Gulps and venti lattes for cups of tea. This ancient beverage—whether it be black, green, white, oolong, or herbal—is considered by many to be the original health drink. Both folklore and research shows that tea can offer a cuppa hot cures for everything from obesity to cancer.
But as tea becomes bigger business in the U.S., we are now finding out that the preparation, manufacturing, packaging, and marketing practices of many popular tea brands leave a lot to be desired.
In fact, a surprising number of teas can actually be health hazards.
Of course, the manufacturers that tout their teas as miracle cures don’t want to reveal this steamy secret. But I will.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to get all of tea’s health benefits… without putting yourself at risk.
Tea is big business
Black, green, white, and oolong tea all come from the leaves of the same plant (Camellia sinensis, or Chinese camellia), but are cured and prepared differently. This distinction accounts for each tea’s unique color and flavor. Herbal teas, on the other hand, are made from a variety of botanicals.
Tea has been an important plant commodity for thousands of years. It motivated early European exploration and trade expeditions into China and India, and helped spur the Dutch and British mercantile empires. And of course, it contributed to the American Revolution when British King George III imposed a tax on tea in 1773. Although this tea tax was miniscule compared to the multiple open and hidden taxes heaped on Americans by our own government today, it was enough to spark the Boston Tea Party. Americans took their tea, and their liberty, seriously in those days.
Today, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world. Production is estimated at over $15 billion a year, with Americans accounting for more than $2 billion of that total.i, ii On any given day, more than half of all Americans drink some type of tea, according to the Tea Association of the USA.ii
The supply of black, green, oolong, and white tea is tightly controlled by a vertical near-monopoly. According to The United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, only seven companies account for 85 percent of the world’s tea production.iii Two main tea packers, India’s Tata Global Beverages (which makes Tetley tea) and the Netherlands’ Unilever (Lipton), dominate the trade through strong influences on sourcing, supplies, and transport.iv Although tea, as with other natural plant products, cannot be patented, the dominant players effectively control it as if it were.
When it comes to herbal teas, there is still some independence. Although Celestial Seasonings is the star of this market, there are a variety of smaller natural, organic, and medicinal herbal tea manufacturers.
And today, tea has become more popular than ever before, thanks to the powerful health claims made about it in recent years.
Does the proof support the promises?
People in the U.S. are increasingly attracted to tea because it can theoretically help prevent chronic diseases. You’ve probably seen teas touting everything from “weight-loss” to “anti-aging” benefits. But science doesn’t support all of these marketing claims.
Tea is very rich in polyphenols—natural compounds that have been shown in scientific studies to have anticancer, anti-inflammatory, and antioxidant properties. A typical cup of brewed green tea contains between 80 to 100 mg of polyphenols. One of the most potent of these polyphenols—epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)—accounts for about 25 to 30 mg of that total.iv
However, the typical amount of EGCG that is proven in scientific experiments to have beneficial health effects is 300 to 400 mg. So to get the right “dose” of EGCG in terms of proven health benefits, you would have to drink 10 to 16 cups of tea per day. I doubt even the most avid tea drinker could guzzle down that much.
So practically speaking, drinking tea may not be the “cure-all” it’s been made out to be. But there are much darker sides to the tea story you need to know about.
The darker sides of tea you haven’t heard about
Not all of tea’s polyphenols are as beneficial to your health as EGCG. For instance, black, green, white, and oolong teas are naturally high in tannins and tannic acid—polyphenols that have strong astringent properties. Tannins have a powerful effect on animal cells and tissues and are traditionally used to tan leather. So imagine what too many of these compounds can do to the lining of your stomach and intestines. No wonder some people experience gastric irritation from the strong tannins in teas.
Tea also naturally contains oxalic acid. Too much of this compound, especially if you are chronically dehydrated, can lead to the formation of painful kidney stones.
In addition, tea typically contains theophylline, a stimulant that expands respiratory passages. Which sounds like a generally good thing. Except theophylline can also keep you awake at night. What’s more, theophylline is a powerful diuretic that, in essence, pumps water out of your cells and tissues and causes dehydration. Thus, tea is certainly not a healthy substitute for the water and electrolytes you need for normal hydration.
If you think you can counteract this problem with a “caffeine-free” tea, remember that there is no such thing in nature. Removing the caffeine from tea involves the use of artificial chemical solvents.
Limiting your tea consumption to a few cups per day can help control the problems caused by tannins, oxalic acid, and caffeine/theophylline. But then you’re not drinking enough to get optimal, active doses of tea’s beneficial health ingredients.
So there is a natural conundrum inherent in tea. And that doesn’t even take into account what modern cultivation and manufacturing has done to this plant…
A teacup full of toxins
Recent investigations into what is really going on with teas today are truly shocking. In ancient China, tea leaves went directly from the plant to the pot. But today’s teas are often laden with artificial flavors and ingredients, genetically modified organisms, pesticides, and other toxins. And these toxins may be hiding in some of the most popular tea brands.
A recent independent analysis commissioned by Glaucus Research Group found that 91 percent of Celestial Seasonings teas contained pesticide residues that exceed U.S. limits.v Celestial Seasonings denies these findings based on its own research, but hadn’t released that research as of November 2013.vi
The Glaucus analysis found that Celestial’s Sleepytime Kids Goodnight Grape Herbal tea contained 0.26 ppm of propachlor, which has been determined to be a carcinogen at any level under California’s Safe Drinking Water and Toxic Enforcement Act of 1986. That’s some “goodnight” for your children. Meanwhile, Celestial’s “Wellness” tea line was found to contain traces of propargite, also a known carcinogen, and a teratogen, which causes birth defects. That doesn’t sound like “wellness” to me.
To the credit of the FDA, it has already issued two warnings to Celestial Seasonings for poor quality control in the company’s manufacturing practices. But warnings aren’t the same as a recall. And teas containing these toxins are undoubtedly still on supermarket shelves across the country.
So are you better off with freshly prepared teas versus the packaged teas that sit on grocery shelves? People line up to pay for overpriced teas at places like Teavana, just like they pay for overpriced coffees from Starbucks (which, unsurprisingly, is now Teavana’s parent company). But are they getting anything healthier for their “Teavana experience”? As with the coffee at Starbucks, Teavana makes a big show of preparing tea. But are the “tearistas” simply like magicians, misdirecting your attention away from the reality of what you’re drinking? That may be worth shedding a few “tear-istas” right there.
Teavana asserts that it rigorously tests its tea. And that each batch conforms to European Union pesticide standards. Yet, Glaucus Research also commissioned independent lab testing on Teavana tea. And the lab found that fully 100 percent of the Teavana tea samples it tested contained pesticides that violate U.S. food pesticide standards.vii
It also found that 77 percent of the samples violated E.U. pesticide import standards for dry tea. Meaning those teas couldn’t be sold to E.U. consumers. And 62 percent of the tea samples contained endosulfan, a pesticide banned in the U.S., the E.U., and 144 other countries because it may impair fertility and cause birth defects. And one Teavana tea, Monkey Picked Oolong, actually contained 23 different pesticides. So now who’s the monkey ?
So much for “rigorous testing.”
And these are just the disturbing facts about pesticides—which wind up in teas unintentionally. What about the ingredients manufacturers are intentionally adding to teas?
Just how natural is that “natural flavor”?
Many popular tea brands try to get away with using the term “natural flavors.” But just because the flavor may be found in nature doesn’t necessarily mean it comes from the natural source. Tea companies can break down anything found in nature and if it ends up tasting like the flavor they want to use, they can add it to any product and claim “natural flavor” on the label.
And then there are the teas that actually list “artificial flavor” or “artificial color” on their packages. These artificial ingredients typically come from petroleum or coal tar sources.
Some tea companies also add modified corn starch to their products. This additive is likely made from genetically modified corn. As I’ve pointed out before, the vast majority of corn grown in the U.S. today is genetically engineered.
Plastic—it’s in the bag
Beyond the tea itself, there are also problems with the packaging.
Regular tea bags are commonly made from rayon, nylon, PVC, polypropylene, or polyethylene terephthalate (PET). And the popular new sachets and mesh bags may look pretty as they showcase loose-leaf teas. But they often contain polylactic acid (PLA), a biodegradable plastic that is likely made from a GMO-corn-based material.viii While these chemicals are generally considered to be inert and safe, the plastic may still leach out and break down when exposed to heat—like the boiling water used to prepare tea.
Unfortunately, paper tea bags can actually be worse than plastic. Some paper tea bags are treated with epichlorohydrin, a chemical primarily used to create epoxy resins and glues. Epichlorohydrin is also used as a pesticide and is considered a potential carcinogen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.vix When epichlorohydrin gets wet (as in tea brewing), it breaks down into chemicals that have been shown to cause cancer, infertility, and birth defects in animals.
All the antioxidants in all the tea in China can’t counter the effects of these chemical additives and toxins.
The only tea I recommend
Whatever you do, stay away from Lipton, Celestial Seasonings, Tazo, Teavana, Bigelow, Republic of Tea, Twinings, Yogi, Tea Forte, Mighty Leaf, and Trader Joe’s brands of tea. These are among the worst offenders when it comes to toxic ingredients.
However, there are a few teas that appear to be free of pesticides, artificial flavors, GMOs, and harmful packaging: Allegro, Numi, Rishi, Choice, and Traditional Medicinals.
But the only tea I really recommend comes from the South African red bush plant. Red bush (or rooibos) is naturally free of caffeine, oxalic acid, and tannins. Plus, research shows that rooibos can lower blood sugar.x In addition, rooibos has even more natural disease-fighting compounds than green tea. And it hydrates you at the cellular level.
The brand I helped formulate, Red Joe Rooibos Powder, is also 100 percent certified organic—meaning no pesticides or chemical fertilizers were used to grow it—and it has no added ingredients. You can add Red Joe powder to water or any beverage, hot or cold.
The best way to get the benefits of green tea
There is no way to know precisely how much green tea you have to drink to get the desired effects. For example, each cup of green tea contains different amounts of the active ingredient EGCG.
Manufacturing practices and products vary. And you may steep your tea longer than I do. So it’s a guessing game. (And remember, when I report on green tea, I mean the real green tea infusion that you steep. You can’t know how much EGCG might be in the sugary, bottled green teas sold at the convenience store. So don’t be fooled.)
Fortunately, there’s a way to get around all of these problems.
Scientists now know accurately and precisely how much EGCG you need in order to get the health benefits associated with green tea. And it’s actually much easier to get this exact amount by taking a green tea extract supplement instead of drinking green tea. This lets you avoid the guessing games.
With a supplement, you know exactly how much EGCG you get in each capsule. You also avoid the kidney stone issue because green tea supplements don’t contain oxalic acid. Plus, the supplements don’t contain caffeine or theophylline. So there is no diuretic effect.
Most studies show benefits from 300 to 400 mg of green tea extract.
iNational Coffee Association of the USA. Reading the Tea Leaves: Growing Sales & Profits With Tea. Available at: https://www.google.com/search?client=safari&rls=en&q=reading+the+tea+leaves&ie=UTF-8&oe=UTF-8#. Accessed February 21, 2014.
iiTea Association of the USA. Tea Fact Sheet—2013. Available at: http://www.teausa.com/14655/tea-fact-sheet. Accessed February 21, 2014.
iiiFAO. Making Kenya’s efficient tea markets more inclusive. Available at: http://www.fao.org/docrep/018/aq657e/aq657e.pdf. Accessed February 21, 2014.
ivTea: The Future is Green and Herbal. Summary available at: http://www.marketresearchreports.com/amadee-company-inc/tea-future-green-and-herbal-global-markets-competitors-and-opportunities-2013. Accessed February 21, 2014.
vGlaucus Research Group. Glaucus Research Group California LLC is initiating coverage on the Hain Celestial Group (Nasdaq: HAIN) with a Strong Sell rating. Available at: https://glaucusresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2013/02/GlaucusResearch-The_Hain_Celestial_Group_Inc-NasdaqHAIN-Strong_Sell_Febuary_21_2013.pdf. Accessed February 21, 2014.
viCelestial Seasonings. Celestial Seasonings Product Safety Assurance. Available at: http://www.celestialseasonings.com/safety-assurance. Accessed February 21, 2014.
vii Glaucus Research Group. Glaucus Research Group California LLC is initiating coverage on Teavana Holdings (NYSE: TEA) with a Strong Sell Rating. Available at: https://glaucusresearch.com/wp-content/uploads/downloads/2012/11/GlaucusResearch-Teavana-TEA-Strong_Sell_November_20_2012.pdf. Accessed February 21, 2014.
viii Patent WO 2012027539 A2: Teabags and components of bi-component and mono-component pla and co-pla fibers. Available at: http://www.google.com/patents/WO2012027539A2?cl=en. Accessed February 21, 2014.
vixNIOSH. Criteria for a Recommended Standard: Occupational Exposure to Epichlorohydrin. Available at: http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/docs/1970/76-206.html. Accessed February 21, 2014.
x “Acute assessment of an aspalathin-enriched green rooibos (Aspalathus linearis) extract with hypoglycemic potential.” Phytomed. 2012;20(1):32-39.