Samui Wining & Dining

When it comes to tea, green is the colour of money – and of the naive.


10For us Brits, ‘a nice cup of tea’ is the only way to ponder upon the troubles of man, endlessly philosophize or just read the morning paper. There’re a few miscreants who prefer coffee, but tea consumption per capita outstrips them by, oh, all the tea in China or any other made-up measurement you care to mention. We each slurp down around four cups per day and that pretty much makes everything right in the world. Until it comes to deciding which tea we drink, that is – and then all hell breaks loose.

Visit any supermarket in the UK and you’ll see that there’re whole aisles dedicated to our favourite brew. And there you’ll find the six main varieties of tea: white, yellow, oolong, black, pu-erh (bet you didn’t know that one) and green. Add to that all the herbal infused styles that contain leaves, flowers, fruits, herbs and probably the crushed body parts of insects and you have a bewildering range. Now for most folks it’s a straight choice between PG Tips (the number one brand), Typhoo and Tetley and maybe some Earl Grey if the vicar’s coming round. But in recent years there’s been a big marketing push on the health benefits of tea, particularly when it comes to green tea. After all, haven’t the Chinese been drinking it for a gazillion years and they live so long they’re the size, shape and texture of a dried prune by the time they leave this mortal coil.

So are the green leaves all they’re cracked up to be? Mmm, my suspicions were first aroused when I read that the marketing budget for green tea producers and retailers rivalled the GDP of a small country. But let’s back-track a bit and define what green tea actually is. Tea is the agricultural product of the leaves, leaf buds, and internodes of the Camellia sinensis plant, prepared and cured by various methods. And ‘tea’ also refers to the aromatic beverage prepared from the cured leaves by combining it with boiling water and is the common name for the camellia sinensis plant itself. Green tea is made solely with the leaves of the plant that have undergone minimal oxidation during processing. Your everyday cup of black tea is more oxidised or fermented and has much more caffeine.

China, Japan, Vietnam and Indonesia produce almost all of the world’s green tea and, as you might expect, the Chinese grow and export by far the largest amount. India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, South Korea and Brazil produce relatively negligible amounts. And, really, it’s China and Japan that dominate the market and they send their lowest grade stuff to us. The most popular green tea in China is ‘Dragon Well’, or lung ching, a bright green and quite expensive kind of tea. Many consider it to be the best green tea but, because it is expensive and not very much is produced, it’s prone to imitation. In Japan, green tea drinkers prefer sencha, a sweeter kind of green tea. And the sweetest kind of green tea is macha, the tea used in the Japanese tea ceremonies. It’s super expensive, though also super delicious, and tastes more like a luxury dessert than the everyday tea that you and me are probably used to.

I would go into all the scientific reasoning behind why you should or shouldn’t drink green tea but you’d probably stop reading. Suffice to say, producers and retailers, and scientists who’ve been paid by the producers and retailers, say that it can be used as a stimulant, a diuretic, can heal wounds, treat flatulence, regulate body temperature and blood sugar, promote digestion, improve mental processing and may be useful in the treatment of everything from arthritis to coronary heart disease, diabetes, dozens of cancers, liver disease, influenza, tooth decay and weight loss. I’ve no idea about any of these except perhaps the last one. I guess if you pumped 20 gallons of green tea into a fat person there’d be no room left for cakes and chocolate.

But let’s be fair and balanced, as they say on Fox News. And in the blue corner, the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA) have repeatedly said – “No, it can’t.” On June 30th 2005, in response to ‘Green Tea and Reduced Risk of Cancer Health Claim’, the FDA stated: “We conclude that there is no credible evidence to support qualified health claims for green tea consumption.” And on May 9th 2006, in response to ‘Green Tea and Reduced Risk of Cardiovascular Disease’, the FDA concluded: “There is no credible evidence to support qualified health claims for green tea or green tea extract and a reduction of a number of risk factors associated with CVD.” I could go on but I think you get where they’re coming from.

However, if you simply can’t go without a drop of green tea every day then there are several ways to consume it. In China, they predominately use loose tea leaves and live forever. Unless you’re a political prisoner, of course, in which case no amount of green tea is going to save you. What about green tea bags? Unfortunately, most tea bags are made by the ‘CTC’ method, that’s ‘crush, tear and curl’ and that process is used on low quality leaves and they lose freshness rather quickly. This is the reason why brand manufacturers are busy adding flavours to make them taste better.

What about decaffeinated green tea? Again, a tiny flaw in the plan, the most commonly available decaffeinated green teas are naturally decaffeinated. These are made using a chemical solvent called ethyl acetate. A 2003 study conducted by the UCLA Centre for Human Nutrition found that it contains only a third of the ‘catechins’ found in regular tea. And, you guessed it, catechins are the good bits (allegedly). Then there’s a powdered green tea mix. If you read the label of any tea mix, you will find most are vague on their catechins content. The reason is simple; a 2007 report published by the US Department of Agriculture found that these tea powders contain only 10% of the catechins found in regular steeped tea. To make matter worse, the extra processing steps involved in making tea powders can increase tea’s fluoride content way beyond the level specified by EU and US regulations. According to a widely-publicized 2005 study, over many years, this could result in skeletal fluorosis. I don’t know what that is, but it doesn’t sound good.

Bottled or canned green teas have gained great popularity in recent years. Contrary to what beverage companies claim, though, they’re not a healthy drink. According to Rod Dashwood of Oregon State University, and to studies from other organizations, they contain only a fraction of the catechins found in regular tea. Most are heavily sweetened, flavoured, preserved and coloured and have a significant number of calories – definitely no use for the fatties then, after all. A 2007 report published by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) compared nearly 400 foods for their flavonoid content. They found that flavoured green tea contains only 43 milligrams of catechins per gram. This comes out to be a third of the catechins found in a regular unflavoured tea. This is hardly surprising. Every industry insider knows that high quality tea doesn’t require any flavouring. If a tea has been flavoured, then chances are it’s not good enough to be a regular tea.

So there you have it. Maybe it’s not so good to be green after all. Believe the hype if you like – it’s what the marketing experts are counting on.

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