Those of us in the business of selling tea must make money to stay in business.  Nothing wrong with that.  The decision before us is how honest we are going to be as an industry – especially trade associations and leaders in the industry – about tea and its benefits.  If we are going to promote tea as a healthy beverage chocked full of healthy polyphenols, what about those tea products that are devoid (or almost devoid) of them?  Are we misleading consumers who buy and consume bottled tea in record numbers, believing they are pumping up their immune system while quenching their thirst?

Anyone in the tea business knows the huge amount of money that Ready to Drink (RTD) or bottled/canned tea products bring in.  RTD is an extremely competitive and potentially hugely profitable and growing niche.  However, according to a widely publicized study by a team of scientists headed by Dr. Shiming Li, presented at the meeting of the American Chemical Society in August, bottled tea isn’t all it’s been promoted to be by some within the industry.

Here is an excerpt from the August 2010 issue of Science Daily on findings by Dr. Li and his team: “…there is a huge gap between the perception that tea consumption is healthy and the actual amount of the healthful nutrients – polyphenols – found in bottled tea beverages.  Our analysis of tea beverages found that the polyphenol content is extremely low.”  And Dr. Li is familiar with tea and its benefits.  As an analytical and natural product chemist at WellGen, Inc., a biotech company, he works at developing “medical foods” to benefit patients with diseases that may be helped by polyphenols.

Li and his colleagues randomly chose six brands of bottled tea for testing with the following results: “Half of them contained what Li characterized as ‘virtually no’ antioxidants.  The rest had small amounts of polyphenols that Li said probably would carry little health benefit, especially when considering the high sugar intake from tea beverages.”  Sweeteners aside, we still know there is evidence that antioxidants begin to degrade soon after infusion.  The article continues: “The team of scientists also tested tea bags and found “…a regular tea bag…could contain as much as 175 mg. of polyphenols…but polyphenols degrade and disappear as the tea bag is steeped in hot water.”

Ah…but what about loose-leaf tea?  Are we who specialize in this area faultless purists?  No one is perfect, but surely our veraci-tea and integri-tea depend to some degree on how well we educate our customers and present and brew our teas.  Do we need to sweeten tea samples to make tea tasty and appealing?  We make tea lattes and sweetened teas in our own store, but we need to tell customers as often as possible that tea is healthiest when not sweetened, possibly excluding honey in some instances, and that milk may also compromise the healthful qualities of tea.

In fact, all of us in the tea industry need to double-check ourselves if we are presenting tea as a healthy beverage full of polyphenols.  I have seen trade groups in interviews after Dr. Li’s studies defending RTD/bottled tea as “healthier/better than soda.”  Possibly – however, I stopped to read the label on one mass-bottled iced tea brand at a drug store tonight and the first two ingredients were brewed tea and corn syrup and the ones after that I don’t even want to think about.  Healthy?  Not something I want to consume.  There are some natural preservatives that may be used in bottled teas, but they don’t preserve antioxidants…simply keep the tea safe to drink while giving it long shelf life.  And let’s mention that many teas are in clear glass bottles, which allow ultraviolet light to further destroy whatever small amount of antioxidants may be left.

The conclusion of Dr. Li’s study was that the healthiest way to drink tea in order to maximize polyphenols and healthful benefits was as soon as possible after brewing, using quality loose-leaf tea.  But, we really knew that already, didn’t we, fellow tea biz colleagues?  Customers I had told to stay away from bottled teas if they were looking for high antioxidant value were surprised when I was able to give them concrete scientific findings that supported that advice.  And they felt betrayed by companies who bottle teas and promote them as being antioxidant-rich.  Let’s be profitable without causing consumers to be disappointed by yet another false product claim.

Loose-leaf, freshly brewed…it just doesn’t get any better!