The wonder of tea

Fancy a cuppa? Photo: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos
Fancy a cuppa? Photo: PA Photo/thinkstockphotos

From work breaks to times of tears and strife, popping the kettle on is always a welcome remedy, and the humble cuppa is bursting with health-boosting benefits. Abi Jackson brews up the basics.

We don’t need scientific studies to confirm we’re a nation of tea-lovers - according to the UK Tea Council, we Brits get through 165 million cups a day.

What science can confirm, though, is that tea is officially good for us, in countless ways, from helping prevent stroke, type 2 diabetes and reducing stress.

“The British started drinking tea in the 17th century, when it was introduced by the Dutch and Portuguese,” says Jane Pettigrew, a tea historian who’s written a number of books on the topic, including A Social History Of Tea (Benjamin Press, £18.99).

“The East India Company, who had the monopoly on trading goods from the South China seas into England, started importing its own supplies in 1669.”

At the time, all tea - the traditional form, made from the leaves and leaf buds of the Camellia sinesis plant - all came from China.

Initially, it was expensive, a luxury item enjoyed by royals and wealthy aristocrats, but over time, this changed. By the end of the 18th century, trading with China - which remains the world’s greatest producer of tea - had become difficult and plantations were developed in India (which remains the second biggest producer of tea).

Thus it became cheaper, more widely available and, eventually, our iconic national drink.

“When tea was first drunk in the UK it was hailed as a cure-all, with such benefits as curing headaches, memory loss, stomach problems, skin disorders, scurvy,” says Pettigrew.

“Back then, those stories were based on legends and experiences arriving with travellers and tea merchants from China. But gradually over time, research has shown that a lot of these stories are actually true.”

Dr Tim Bond, from the UK Tea Council’s Tea Advisory Panel (TAP), will vouch for this.

“One of the most interesting things about tea is flavonoids. They’re antioxidants and help support our body cells, and are recognised as being important in terms of long-term health. Black tea [as traditional tea is known - it doesn’t mean tea without milk] is actually the number one source of flavonoid antioxidants in the UK diet, and there have been some really good studies recently on the associated health benefits, including reducing the risks of certain types of cancer.”

These studies, he explains, analyse data gathered through other research, looking at incidence rates of particular illnesses and people’s lifestyles and diets, and rooting out significant correlations.

Recent examples found regular tea drinkers were less likely to develop oral cancer, for instance.

“There’s also evidence that tea helps control blood pressure fluctuation, and growing evidence for a link with reduced cognitive decline,” adds Bond.

Research published in the American Society of Nutrition earlier this year reported that high tea intake (seven or more cups a day) was associated with a 63% reduction of cognitive impairment, medium intake (four to six cups) with a 55% reduction and low intake (one to three cups), 44%, while a number of recent studies have found strong suggestions that tea can help lower the risk of cardiovascular disease.

Adding milk doesn’t ‘undo’ these beneficial effects, Bond points out,. Cups of tea even count towards your recommended daily water intake (TAP published a report in 2011 which found it had similar hydrating effects as water).