Drink Up: Your Guide to Tea

Every day new studies seem to pop up recommending tea as the perfect remedy to protect your health, reduce aging, and calm your mind, body and spirit. If that seems like a tall order in one little cup, it’s time to learn more about the tiny leaf with big healing properties.

Countless studies tout the benefits of tea to help prevent or remedy a range of health conditions, including cancer, cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel-related) disease, inflammatory conditions, diabetes and more. It contains a variety of antioxidants, substances which may help prevent or reduce cell damage that’s associated with disease and aging. In fact, research recently presented at the European Society of Cardiology’s Congress suggests that drinking tea can reduce non-cardiovascular death by 24 percent. Another study in the journal Psychopharmacology found that green tea extracts may improve brain function and memory. As more studies pour in it’s becoming clear that tea is a hot topic.

The health benefits don’t come from just any tea though. There are a wide variety of beverages that we call "tea," including many made with fruit, herbs and spices (generally called "herbal teas"). Real tea, the kind that delivers the health benefits mentioned above, is made by steeping the leaves of the camellia sinensis plant in boiling water. Tea varieties that come from that plant are referred to as white, green, black, puerh and Oolong.

Black Tea, White Tea: What the Terms Mean

Differences between tea varieties have to do with the way the leaves are grown, harvested, oxidized, and processed, according to Jodi Anderson, a manager for The Jasmine Pearl Tea Company in Portland, Oregon. "Oxidization is what happens when an apple turns brown. The same thing happens with tea, but the oxidization is controlled through a process. The more a tea is oxidized, the darker it is."

"White tea is the least oxidized and black tea is the most," she continues. "'Processing' refers to the many steps tea leaves go through before they’re ready to be brewed. The leaves may be wilted or withered and tossed in a basket to break them up, pan fried, rolled, baked, and dried. Depending on the specific type of tea, it may go through many steps or very few steps. Those steps have been the same for hundreds of years. An Oolong tea may go through a lot of steps, but the process still makes for a tea that has the antioxidants and nutritional benefits people want."

Here are some tea basics:

  • Black tea is wilted and rolled after picking; it is the most oxidized form of tea.
  • Green tea is less oxidized; it is withered then steamed or baked to stop the oxidation.
  • Lapsang souchong is a smoked black tea.
  • Puerh tea is either fermented/gathered in a pile when wet (ripe puerh) or aged for a long time (aged puerh).
  • Oolong tea goes through many steps that contribute to oxidation, like sun wilting, indoor wilting, and tossing in a basket. Then the tea is panned or baked to stop the oxidation.
  • White tea is the least processed tea, made with the youngest buds and leaves of the plant.

Caffeine in Tea

In addition to antioxidants, teas contain varying amounts of caffeine: The USDA says an 8 oz. cup of black tea has 26 mg. of caffeine, but other sources say it may contain as much as 30-80 mg.; the same amount of green tea may have as much as 35-60 mg.

Anderson says, "Caffeine levels in teas are complicated and have to do with many factors including where and how it's grown, oxidation processes and individual plants. To get accurate information you'd really have to test each tea individually."

Choice Organic Teas offers these caffeine estimates, but emphasizes that they're not absolute or guaranteed:

Black tea: 60-90 mg. of caffeine per cup.

Green tea: 35-70 mg. of caffeine per cup.

Oolong tea: 50-75 mg. of caffeine per cup.

White tea: 30-55 mg. of caffeine per cup.

It’s Tea Time

Brewing your tea is easy. Anderson says that while there are specific water temperatures recommended for different teas, she uses a simpler approach: "At home, I let the kettle come to a boil, turn off the heat and wait 20 to 30 seconds for the water to settle down. I pour about eight ounces of water for every teaspoon of tea and let it steep three to four minutes before pouring. If you want a stronger cup, add more tea rather than steeping longer."

Once your tea is brewed, sit back, enjoy a few cups and reap the healthy benefits.

Jodi Anderson reviewed this article.


Jodi Anderson, wholesale manager of The Jasmine Pearl Tea Company. Interviewed January 5, 2015.

"Drinking Tea Reduces Non-CV Mortality by 24%." European Society of Cardiology. Presented at ESC Congress, Barcelona, August 31, 2014.

Schmidt, Andre, Felix Hammann, Bettina Wölnerhanssen Anne Christin Meyer-Gerspach, Jürgen Drewe, Christoph Beglinger, Stefan Borgwardt. "Green Tea Extract Enhances Parieto-Frontal Connectivity During Working Memory Processing." Psychopharmacology 2014 231(19): 3879-3888.

Heiss, Mary Lou and Robert J. Heiss. The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide. Ten Speed Press, 2007.

"Caffeine Content of Food and Drugs." Center for Science in the Public Interest. Page updated November 2014.

"How Much Caffeine Is in Tea?" Choice Organic Teas. Page accessed January 22, 2015.