By Barbara Quinn
Monterey County (Calif.) Herald
"There is no trouble so great or grave that cannot be much diminished by a nice cup of tea," wrote Bernard-Paul Heroux (http://www.quotegarden.com/tea.html).
What is it about a cup of hot tea that is so ... soothing? I happen to think it's the warmth that emanates from pretty teacups. But scientists credit a host of naturally occurring compounds in tea with beneficial health effects.
All tea comes from the same plant: Camellia sinensis. And over the centuries as this plant grew in the sun, says the USDA Agricultural Research Service, it formed chemicals called "polyphenols" to protect it from the elements.
Polyphenols are family to "flavonoids" - health-promoting antioxidant substances found in many fruits and vegetables.
When tea leaves are processed into the various forms of tea, the flavonoid content changes, researchers say. Green tea, for example, contains more simple antioxidant flavonoids while black tea contains more complex varieties.
Green, black and oolong teas are all from the same C. sinensis plant ... just processed differently. Green tea is minimally fermented - the process of exposing to air and drying. Black tea is maximally fermented. And oolong tea is somewhere in the middle.
Besides the fact that tea contains zero calories and soothes your soul, here are some other compelling reasons to enjoy a cup of tea:
-Curb food cravings. "Afternoon tea" was supposedly started by the 7th Duchess of Bedford (England) to keep her hunger pangs at bay between lunch and dinner. And (from personal experience) it also seems to work in those munch-prone hours after dinner.
-Lower cholesterol. Tea drinking has shown to help lower "bad" LDL cholesterol levels in some studies. Powerful antioxidant substances in tea are believed to be the reason.
-Fight infections. Several compounds have been found in black and green teas that work like antibiotics to fight off the bad bugs that make us sick.
-Prevent halitosis (bad breath). Swish with tea to suppress foul mouth odor? Researchers at the University of Illinois found that some of the polyphenols in tea inhibit the growth of bacteria in the mouth that can cause this unpleasant smell.
What about herbal teas? While not officially "tea" from the Camellia sinensis plant, infusions from the leaves of other plants may have their own benefits, according to scientists at Tufts University.
Chamomile and peppermint teas, for example, appear to have infection-fighting capabilities. Peppermint tea is also rich in antioxidants that help fight against cancer growth. And a clinical trial with hibiscus tea showed a blood pressure lowering effect in volunteers who drank three cups a day for six weeks.
"Remember the tea kettle," someone once said. "It is always up to its neck in water, yet it still sings!"
Cup of perfection
How to make a perfect cup of tea? Here are some key steps, according to Cindy Bigelow, whose grandmother invented Constant Comment:
-Start with cold, fresh water every time, not the leftover in your tea kettle. "It's the oxygen in the water that opens up the tea leaf for full flavor extraction," Bigelow says.
-For black and oolong teas, bring the water to a rolling boil and then pour over leaves or tea bag. Steep for 1 or 2 minutes.
-Green teas are more delicate. Use water that has just begun to boil and steep for 3 to 4 minutes.
-Do not, do not squeeze your tea bag into your tea, Bigelow says. This releases bitter tannins that destroy flavor.