What can be better than a piping hot cup of tea on a cold winter night? But with over 1,500 varieties of tea to choose the options can be overwhelming, according to Dr. Pam Duitsman, nutrition and health education specialist with University of Missouri Extension.

“Tea can vary greatly, based on where it is grown, time of year harvested, and the processing method used,” Duitsman said. “Each type of tea has distinct characteristics, as well differing tastes and health benefits. Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, after water.”

Though many brews may use the name tea, authentic tea is made from Camellia sinensis, a species of plant used to produce white tea, green tea, black tea and oolong. 

“Each of these contains unique phytochemicals from the Camellia sinensis plant, which contribute to the amazing health properties of tea,” Duitsman said. “The more processed the tea, generally the fewer healthful phytochemicals.”

There have been more than 2,000 studies conducted on tea over the past few years.  The strongest evidence shows some teas are associated with prevention of diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes.

Some teas are also associated with lower blood pressure and cholesterol, and increased bone mineral density and mental alertness.  There is strong evidence that tea protects brain health. 

According to Duitsman, green tea is minimally processed, and is a great source of antioxidants, which help ward off cell damage that leads to disease.  It has the highest concentration of EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which is a very potent antioxidant that has been widely studied. 

“These and other antioxidants in green tea may help prevent cancers of various kinds, help prevent cardiovascular disease, reduce oxidative stress on the brain, reduce stroke, improve cholesterol, and help reduce disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s,” Duitsman said. 

A Japanese study that covered thousands of people showed that elderly adults who drank green tea showed less disability and were more agile and independent than their peers.

“Black tea is more familiar to most people in the United States, since this is the type many of us grew up with.  Black tea begins the same as green tea, but is processed differently and then fermented before being dried,” Duitsman said. “Both green and black teas contain high levels of healthy antioxidant polyphenols.”

For many years, researchers did not think that black tea offered significant health benefits. However, recent studies show that black tea does deliver many health benefits, though its properties differ from green tea.

A 2008 study found that people who drank the most black tea had a much lower risk of Parkinson’s.

White tea is uncured and unfermented, and has been associated with anticancer properties. 

Oolong tea is processed uniquely, and contains antioxidants that have been associated with lowering of “bad” cholesterol levels. 

No matter the variety, Duitsman said to steep tea for three minutes to enjoy the benefits of the healthful phytochemicals, and to produce a rich flavor. Decaffeinated tea may have reduced phytochemical activity, as will most bottled and instant teas.

“Enjoy exploring the taste of various teas,” Duitsman said. “The experience of discovering, brewing and drinking your favorite tea can be very satisfying, and a healthy addition to your daily routine.”

For more information on nutrition, go online to http://extension.missouri.edu or contact nutrition and health specialist Cammie Younger in Texas County at 417-967-4545.

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