Tonia George’s love of tea began with her mother, who said tea would brighten your eyes and make your nose shine. And though her belief in that logic may have changed since childhood, George’s enthusiasm for tea continues to grow.
“I love the ritual of using my favorite teapot and mugs to brew a pot of tea,” says George, in an email, co-author of “The Ginger & White Cookbook,” and author of “Tea Cookbook.”
“It restores your senses after a busy day; it makes friends feel loved and welcome in your home, too.”
As the second-most-consumed beverage in the world (the average intake per person is about 40 liters per year), everyone from physicians to family members praise tea for its apparent benefits, such as protection against cancer and heart disease, decrease in memory loss and improved bone and joint health.
But researchers caution that the actual benefits of drinking tea still remain uncertain.
“It’s really hard because you can look at how tea can affect cancer cells in test tubes in the lab, and then you can look at population studies,” says Dr. Donald Hensrud, a physician and nutrition specialist at the Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn. “But both of those types of studies do not necessarily translate into solid evidence on the benefits of tea.”
One study says tea loses its power when milk is added, while others say potential benefits come only directly from the leaves and not supplements or tea extract capsules.
But Hensrud emphasizes that the lack of randomized clinical trials, tests that examine specific effects of tea on large groups of people over a period of time, makes it difficult to make conclusions about tea.
“People who consume tea maybe have other health benefits that are better, like they’re more conscious about their diet and exercise,” Hensurd says. “But if you don’t measure all of those confounding factors then it will appear like tea is beneficial.”
He says moderation is the key — tea drinking incurs very few risks unless you drink a large amount and are iron-deficient, since tea (along with coffee) binds to iron.
Robert Wemischner, a pastry chef and culinary educator in Los Angeles, doesn’t think that a lack of proven benefits would take away from tea’s popularity.
“I think it’s being reinvented for a younger generation, so if reports came out saying it wasn’t beneficial, it wouldn’t affect that,” says Wemischner, the author of “Cooking with Tea.”
“Tea has many complexions, and there’s a tea for everyone. There’s lots more being written about it, and even chefs are beginning to use tea.”
Wemischner says that part of tea’s benefits comes from incorporating tea in these new ways. After studying Japanese language, culture and history in college, his interest in tea eventually led him to incorporate tea regularly into his own cooking and baking.
“It was really about educating my palette and appreciating the pleasures of tea,” he says. “There are many different ways to get tea flavor into both sweet and savory foods without anything artificial. The key is to buy good quality tea that is fresh.”
And for both Wemischner and George, the ultimate benefit comes with the simple relaxation of slowing down the day and preparing the perfect cup of tea.
“I find it has a very calming effect, and that is enough for me,” George says. “The health benefits are an added bonus, but it is the ritual I love. Like running a hot bath, I don’t know whether it is good for you, but I feel great when I have had one.”