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Published on December 17th, 2007 | by Stephanie Evans


Green Tea, Herbal Tea, and Beyond

You sit down with a steaming cup of tea and prepare to sip, slowly . . . but wait.  Take a moment to watch the contents of your cup in wonder, because with tea, what you see is not even a shadow of what you get.   Within the water and its mixture are years of wisdom, seeds of nature’s healing remedies and opportunities for social bonding.

Tea is one of nature’s most ancient medicines that we have used for thousands of years to heal conditions in the body and restore vitality.   Tea is one way that Mother Earth provides for our health and well-being, and in choosing sustainable options, we begin to return the favor. 

Tea Types

So where does this miraculous beverage come from?  For most teas, it all starts with a plant called camellia sinensis, otherwise known as the tea bush.  Four of the most commonly sipped teas are derived from this plant, and their classifications are based on the extent of processing that each undergoes, which determines their degree of oxidation:

  • Tea FieldsWhite Tea: This tea is made from the bud of the camellia sinensis and is therefore the least oxidized of the four.  The buds and small leaves are harvested only at the beginning of each season.  Because it is virtually unprocessed, white tea is packed with a high amount of polyphenols, a powerful form of antioxidant that helps to strengthen the body’s immune defense system.
  • Green Tea: This tea comes from the camellia sinensis leaves.  Rapid plucking and rolling quickly dries the leaves so that they do not brown.  Like white tea, green tea undergoes a very minuscule amount of processing, lending to its high antioxidant content.
  • Oolong Tea:  Oolong is a name derived from the Chinese word for "black dragon" and is processed immediately after picking.  The entire tealeaf is used, creating a taste sensation between the light grassiness of green tea and the rich potency of black tea.
  • Black Tea: 100% oxidized, black tea is sometimes referred to as red tea in Chinese culture because of its color.  This tea is high in caffeine and is sold in many forms, such as Ceylon, Darjeeling and Assam.

Strictly Herbal

You may look at the list above and wonder where to classify your favorite herbal blend.  Herbal teas are actually infusions (also known as tisanes), such as those made from chamomile and rose hips.  These herbal infusions are not derived from the sinensis plant, and are therefore not technically considered "real tea."   Tisanes are made by steeping fresh or dried flowers, leaves, roots or seeds in boiling water.  While the components of ‘real tea’ (those derived from the sinensis plant) undergo various stages of processing such as heating, drying and oxidation, tisanes undergo no processing.

The similar preparation method of steeping that regular and herbal teas share may have been what first caused herbal infusions to be labeled as "teas."Another popular type of tea that doubles as a commonly used coffee substitute is yerba maté, a highly caffeinated tea derived from a small tree in the holly family.  Maté is a very popular beverage of choice in South American regions such as Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay, especially in light of its famed ability to counteract the symptoms of illness associated with high levels of elevation.  The most popular way to enjoy this tea is to share it with a friend using a hollow wooden gourd and drink it through a wooden or metal straw called a bombilla, which acts as a filter to keep the leaves separated from the liquid.  The passing of the gourd is a special South American social ritual that has recently made its way to the United States. 

Tea is one of nature’s most ancient medicines that we have used for thousands of years to heal conditions in the body and restore vitality.  Tea is one way that Mother Earth provides for our health and well-being, and in choosing sustainable options, we begin to return the favor.

Choices for Sustainability

Regardless of the type of tea that you favor, it is important to be aware of who grows it—and how they grow it.  Today, it is easy to be romanced by popular buzz words like "organic" and "sustainability," but the most important thing to keep in mind is who sets the standards for each individual product.  The USDA National Standards Board states that the main focus of organic growth is to "optimize the health and productivity of interdependent communities of soil life, plants, animals and people."  Abiding by this definition for organic growing processes creates sustainable teas cultivated by maintaining crop rotation, soil fertility, and utilizing methods that minimize impact on the environment.  An organic tea is one that has been grown without the use of fertilizers, pesticides or herbicides.

The Fair Trade tea movement also promotes environmentally-beneficial and humanitarian-friendly methods of growth and production.  Fair Trade is an ethical movement that focuses on exactly what its name suggests: fairness.  The foundational principle of this movement is the provision of fair treatment, wages, hours, and overall quality standard of living for tea growers. In the past, and even now, equitable treatment for workers is not guaranteed and can be considerably hard to come by.  It’s now common practice for most cafés in the U.S. to sell fair trade tea, which is usually labeled as such.  Certified fair trade teas that are sold in stores—such as Numi, Rishi, Guayaki for yerba maté, and some blends of Choice Organics—will also be labeled. 

Generally speaking, fair trade and organic go hand-in-hand in the tea industry.  However, be careful not to make any assumptions about teas based on buzzwords or clever marketing—packaging labels should always indicate their status, and if you’re in doubt, you can research an individual company online by reviewing their website.  Another good resource is The Organic Pages Online—a fairly extensive database that allows you to search for certified organic products in multiple categories including International Trade.

The impact of the Fair Trade movement also extends to the coffee industry, so why should a consumer opt for tea or tisane instead?  The caffeine in tea and its associated benefits are entirely different from what coffee provides.  Coffee is roasted, making it a carcinogen that attacks the adrenals and negatively impacts the metabolism.  When you make the choice for your daily dose tea affords a healthy option, providing a gentle caffeinated kick while sparing your kidneys and other organs from undue stress.

Cup of TeaWith its herbal healing power, gentle energy boost and sustainable varieties for the choosing, tea presents itself as the perfect all-around panacea.  Whether you favor ginger or ginseng, tea or tisane, you can’t go wrong!  Make a point of seeking out sustainable options for your favored brew so you can enjoy each sip with the knowledge that you are reaping an abundance of health benefits while the earth is reaping countless profits from your sustainable choices.  Mother Earth knows best how to recycle these profits back into the next harvest for our continual well-being and delight.  Cheers!

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