Increasingly, we are becoming more and more separated from our foods and beverages. Most of us don’t even know what is contained in many of the products we consume. Our reductionistic tendencies cause us to keep wanting to extract the key constituents and feed them back to us in convenient, concentrated, or altered forms that are also often enhanced in some way. Given that the tea market has grown by double digits in the past few years, much of it driven by the health claims, I’m concerned that this trend may eventually find its way to tea. This post is meant to engender discussion about the difference between consuming whole foods and beverages and what would euphemistically be considered food products.
We live in a very fast-paced, highly technological, work-oriented society. Each feeds into the other. The more we work, the more technology develops to help us work faster. The more technology advances, the more and faster we can work. Unfortunately, this all bleeds into our personal lives. It both reduces the amount of personal time we have and provides further technological advances to reduce the amount of time we take for personal matters, such as eating.
Even our food culture has evolved into a very reductive way of eating. Everything gets reduced to its primary constituents for the sake of convenience. So much so that our food is barely recognizable as food anymore. We primarily eat products that require labels and a chemical dictionary to decipher them. Even the components that once were food are reduced to some concentrated juice, paste, or flake before being added.
When you review most of the scientific literature in nutrition, what you see are research studies that test the impact of one particular extracted constituent on the health of its subjects. That is exactly what the majority of research into tea does; it has predominantly been testing the impact of EGCG on the health of rats and humans. The results of these studies have been what is driving the growth in the tea market. At the same time, however, there is a small but growing body of literature suggesting that this may not be such a good thing. Many vitamins, antioxidants, and other healthy nutrients are starting to show up as actually creating disease processes in subjects when taken in isolated and concentrated forms. What is going on here?
What I believe, and have been discussing and writing about for years as an herbalist, is essentially what can be summed up in an old TV commercial catch phrase: “You can’t fool mother nature”. The organisms and systems of nature are so complex, so inextricably interwoven, that we really don’t have a clue as to how they all work or why. Yet, we are so ego-centric that when we come across something that we haven’t figured out yet, our wont is to label it as useless or unimportant. Just look at the wholesale slaughter of innocent tonsils and appendices in the 50’s. Then, they were just “vestigial” organs. Now, they are important components of our immune system. Oops! Did you know that we don’t know what 97% of our DNA does, so it has been labeled as “junk” DNA? Really? This amazingly intricate design system is 97% useless? Is that really what they expect us to believe?
Not me. I believe that there is an incredible, inherent wisdom to all things in the Universe. You can call it what you want: God, Nature, The Force, whatever. This wisdom that underlies all things has resulted in systems so complex that we may never be able to unravel their secrets. And yet, we think we know better. In our inimitable wisdom, we can obviously identify the one constituent in a plant that is truly useful and beneficial from the hundreds of others which we glibly demote to “junk”. Have we not learned our lessons from the years of deadly side-effects from the extracted chemicals used to create drugs? Do we not see that we have been slowly killing ourselves with diets rich in extracted and refined substances that we can no longer even define as food?
What will happen when EGCG pills get added to the growing body of Nutraceuticals? It’s already being added to thousands of over-the-counter products. Will all of those people who now drink tea for the health benefits switch to the tea pill for convenience? I already know some people who are so enamored with their supplements that they replace some of their meals with them. Will we eventually become a nation, as depicted in science fiction novels, that takes their nutrition in pills?
Over millennia, tea has become more than just a beverage. It has become a practice; a way to relate to people and the world. It is truly greater than the sum of its parts. In order to derive the full benefits of what tea can offer (pleasure, health, quietness, present awarenes), it must be consumed whole, just as the rest of our food supply must. It is becoming abundantly clear that the wonderfully intricate chemical interactions contained in all living things cannot be reduced to something better than they already are. There are no true shortcuts in life.