Tea has long been a part of our social rituals, yet we rarely stop to consider the healing power of one of the world’s oldest – and most popular – beverages.

Sweet and black, served in exquisitely decorated glasses: that’s how tea is drunk in northern Africa, where they believe the hot drink keeps the body cool in the scorching heat. In China, aromatic green tea has been used as medicine for more than 4,000 years.

And in Japan an entire ceremony has been developed around the preparation and enjoyment of tea, believed to balance body and mind.

It’s interesting to note that Australians usually go for tea bags instead of loose tea leaves, according to Lipton.com.au. This major tea producer also reports that many of us prefer to “help the bag along” by gently squeezing it with a spoon to increase the strength of the cup of tea.

Tea is a drink for which there are many occasions – it isn’t difficult to find a reason to enjoy a cup several times a day. Whether you opt for an invigorating pot of Ceylon tea at breakfast time or a soothing cup of camomile tea when you’re feeling frazzled, there’s a tea to suit your every taste.

Types of tea

All traditional tea leaves come from the plant Camellia sinensis, which originated in China but is now grown in countries as far afield as Japan, Kenya and India.

Traditional tea is categorised by how it’s processed and there are three main types: green, oolong and black.

Green tea leaves are dried directly after harvest; black tea leaves are wilted, fermented (oxidised) and then dried; and oolong tea leaves are only partially oxidised before being dried.

Teas are often named after the region where they were originally grown, such as Ceylon and Darjeeling.

A healthy brew

Tea can be included in most healthy eating plans and, expert say, up to four cups per day of traditional tea offer good health benefits.

Even though most studies tend to focus on the health properties of black and green tea, all three traditional teas – black, green and oolong – contain many of the same nutrients, albeit in varying amounts due to their different oxidation levels. They all have amino acids, minerals (such as fluoride) and important antioxidants.

Antioxidants capture free radicals, which damage cells in the body. Research shows that the antioxidants in tea may lower bad cholesterol and relax blood vessels, reducing the risk of heart disease and stroke. They also have antiseptic, anti-inflammatory, anti-fungal, anti-cancer and anti-allergic properties.

Green tea contains more antioxidants, but black tea definitely also has health pluses. Studies show that regular black-tea drinkers have up to five times more antibacterial, immune-boosting proteins in their blood than people who favour coffee over tea.

Black-tea drinkers also have lower levels of stress hormones after stressful events. What’s more, black tea reduces the development of dental plaque and fights the bacteria that cause bad breath.

A word to the wise

While a cup of black tea contains roughly half the caffeine of a cup of coffee, and green tea contains only a third, those sensitive to caffeine should enjoy tea in moderation.

Decaffeinated teas aren’t recommended, since processing removes many of the nutrients along with the caffeine. But even though concentrated caffeine can dehydrate the body, the amounts in a cup of tea are so miniscule in relation to the water consumed that the beloved beverage is still considered a good way to stay hydrated.

Many of the good antioxidants in tea are tannins, which give tea its slightly astringent aftertaste. Unfortunately, tannins can restrict the body’s absorption of iron, so those who suffer from anaemia should not drink tea at mealtimes to allow the body to absorb as much iron as possible from food.

And even though black tea reduces dental plaque, it can stain your teeth. But this shouldn’t be a problem if you visit an oral hygienist regularly.

The perfect cuppa

There’s no doubt: “the art of tea is in the making”. Each type of tea requires a different temperature and infusion time to unlock the full flavour and potential of the tea.

Black tea should be infused in water just below boiling point (90 - 95 °C) for three to five minutes. Oolong prefers water at 90 - 100 °C for one to three minutes, while green tea needs to steep in 60 - 80 °C water for a minute or two. And three to five minutes’ infusion for black tea ensures the most flavour and the highest antioxidant level.

Try using loose, whole tea leaves when making tea – the leaves tend to be more carefully processed. High-quality teabags are a convenient alternative.

The jury is out on whether milk affects the nutrients in tea. Try drinking it unsweetened and without milk to pick up the subtlety of the tea’s flavour. Of course, adding sugar, full-cream milk or non-dairy creamer can also increase your daily kilojoule intake and this may result in weight gain. Replacing sugar with honey won’t solve the problem – both have more or less the same amount of energy.

Which tea when?

You can enjoy many cups of tea throughout the day. Timing them right can make a world of difference:

When you wake up: Black tea – try one of the breakfast blends.
As a mid-afternoon pick-me-up: Oolong or aromatic green tea.
Before bed: Camomile tea – it will help you to unwind.
If you’re feeling run-down: Green tea. If you have a sore throat, add a touch of raw honey, which has antiseptic properties. A slice of fresh ginger helps a queasy tummy while a slice of lemon provides a refreshing dose of vitamin C.
If you’re feeling stressed: Black tea.
For the school lunch-box: Dilute your child’s favourite fruit juice with a cup of herbal tea, brewed in the morning to preserve as many nutrients as possible. Add ice cubes to chill.

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