Do you take your tea with plastic?
There a lot of things you can put in a mug, but none quite as comforting as tea.
We are unequivocally a nation of tea lovers with 42 per cent of Australian adults buying it – only slightly less than the 45 per cent who buy coffee.
While most of us take a hot cuppa for granted, some people believe tea bags are not so hot for our health and the environment.
Loose leaf versus bag
Humans are lazy by nature and our tea drinking habits are no exception. It takes four minutes and a teapot to make a loose leaf brew, but for a time-poor individual the convenience of a bag is too good to pass up.
But we could be compromising flavour in our rush for an afternoon tea.
“Traditional tea bags, due to their limited space, often contain lower grade, smaller pieces of tea ‘dust’ or ‘fannings’ that are left over from when higher grades of tea are gathered,” says naturopath and founder of Bodhi Organic Tea, Lisa Guy.
“When you brew full leaf loose tea there is plenty of room for the leaves to unfurl and move about freely in the water, which results in a more full-flavoured, richer tea.”
Loose leaf may be better for the environment too, as some tea bags aren’t fully biodegradable.
A spokespwoman for Twinings explained that they use three different types of tea bags, with varying degrees of biodegradability.
“The material used in Twinings Pyramid Tea bag range is fully biodegradable and compostable,” she told Fairfax via email. “The material is derived from maize starch. The starch is treated by an enzyme to create the compound poly-lactic acid which has a ‘plastic’ character which can be spun into filaments.”
Their standard square tea bags — used for teas such as Earl Grey, English Breakfast and green tea — however are “heat sealed” meaning that a thin film of polypropylene is applied to seal the two sides together. Their “string and tag with sachet” range also contain polypropylene, as well as a small amount of acrylic copolymer emulsion, a plastic based glue that is used to bond the bags together.
The way tea bags are manufactured varies depending on the brand, but according to The Guardian, around 70 to 80 per cent of many bags are made from compostable paper while the remaining 20 to 30 per cent contains heat-resistant polypropylene. This is to prevent the bag breaking mid-dunk, but it does mean that small pieces of plastic mesh are left behind in the soil when you compost the bags.
The Twinings spokesperson says “we would not recommend that tea bags are used directly on the soil as a ‘fertiliser’ or soil conditioner, as they are likely to take a longer time to breakdown. We would recommend that they are composted in a compost bin, or wormery first to optimise the availability of any nutrients for the plants.”
As well as environmental concerns, questions have been raised about the potential impact of the plastics on human health. The plastic in tea bags is made from food grade nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), which are considered safe because of their high melting point, which reduces the possibility of leaching.
Lipton tea, for instance, assures consumers that their Pyramid Tea Bags made of PET are “the same food grade material clear water and juice bottles are made of and … are microwave safe.” Yet one 2009 study found that water drunk from a plastic water bottles made from PET may contain “a substantial quantity of estrogen-mimicking pollution.”
While the health risks posed by these chemicals are still unclear, if you’re turned off by the idea of drinking tea brewed in plastic, a few extra minutes spent making a pot of loose leaf could put your mind at ease.
Health benefits of tea
In better news for tea lovers, there are plenty of benefits that come from drinking tea, particularly of the green variety.
A number of studies have found that high levels of the antioxidant catechin in green tea are associated with antiviral, anticarcinogenic and anti-inflammatory effects. Research has also found that increasing your consumption of green tea may reduce the risk of liver disease, coronary heart disease, stroke, depression and possibly some forms of cancer.
Before you move on to greener tea pastures, Dr Karl Kruszelnicki points out that the studies don’t provide conclusive evidence. Very few human studies have been conducted, and he refers to those that have as “low-grade observational studies” because they don’t take into account factors such as family history, wealth and diet.
“In the overwhelming majority, they can be interpreted as showing that people who have healthy lifestyle habits tend to drink green tea,” he writes, “so drinking green tea is more a result of the healthy lifestyle, rather than the cause of the health benefits.”
In other words, tea is certainly good but may not be a miracle cure-all that some claim it to be.
There are many other herbal teas that may be beneficial to wellbeing. Guy suggests that a ginger tea can ease digestive ailments and morning sickness. Licorice and ginseng teas, on the other hand, have been used in China for thousands of years to alleviate stress and adrenal fatigue.
Brewing loose leaf: 101
Brewing the perfect cup of tea is all about getting the timing, temperature and duration right. And this depends on the variety of tea or herbal tisane you’re using.
“White and green teas should be brewed at around 70°C and black around 85°C,” says Guy.
“The amino acids responsible for tea’s flavour are released at a lower temperature. Steeping tea for too long or using boiling water will result in more tannins being released, resulting in a bitter and more astringent tea.”
To make sure the water isn’t too hot, you can either turn the kettle off before it reaches boiling point, or pour the boiling water into the tea cup or pot first, and allow it to cool slightly before adding the tea.
“White tea should be steeped for one to three minutes, green steeped for one to two minutes, and black tea got 45 to 60 seconds (without milk), or for a stronger richer tea served with milk, two to three minutes.”
Herbal teas should also be brewed for different lengths of time.
“A general rule of thumb, if it is a flower or leaf you can pour boiling water over your herb and then infuse it for 3 to 4 minutes,” explains Guy.
“Harder herbs like seeds, roots and barks will produce a richer tasting tea and will draw more therapeutic properties by brewing them for longer. A decoction – which is when you simmer your tea in a pot for five to 10 minutes – is ideal for teas made up of these tougher herbs like that found in chai.”
When you have tea blends containing leaves and roots you have to find a happy medium with your brewing time.
In terms of quantity, Guy recommends using around one teaspoon of tea per cup for most teas or two teaspoons per cup for light and fluffy teas such as chamomile.
Guy suggests that brewing tea is the perfect time to practice mindfulness. Channelling your inner Geisha can help you to relax and lead to an enriched drinking experience that will “engage all of the senses”.
Liked this? Read these!
Got something to say? Get it off your chest here
The Juice Daily is a Fairfax Media owned website