Teacology

Tea, with an Ecological Approach

Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential – A Book Review

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Back in 2009, while researching the health properties of tea, I came across an interesting book, titled Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential.  Here I will share a review of this book, but I also want to highlight a key point about tea and health that I found in this book, that I think others may find interesting.  This review is informed in large part by how what I read in this book fit and did not fit with various things I learned from my later research.

A purple book titled: Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential

The Cover of Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential

As its name suggests, the book focuses on tea and medicine, therapeutic uses of tea, rather than the more general tea and health, although there is certainly a lot of discussion of broader and long-term impacts of tea, such as through nutrition and public health.

This volume is a collection of research articles by different authors.  Although the ordering of the essays is about as logical as possible for weaving the book into a coherent whole, it is still a collection of disparate articles on different facets of tea and medicine.  This sort of structure lends itself more to looking up and reading one essay in isolation than reading the book straight through.  I skipped around and read the parts I found interesting and then returned it to the library.

This book is also interesting in that it is an English-language text, but it consists mostly of research conducted at Chinese institutions by Chinese researchers.  I find it offers a novel perspective from what is available in other English-language texts.  There is a lot of information that I have found in this book that I have not encountered in any other English-language sources.  It is a pretty dense, scientific text, and I would not recommend it to most casual tea drinkers, but scientific-minded tea lovers may find it more accessible and interesting.  Parts of the book require a working knowledge of basic biochemistry.

A Review of the Book’s First Essay, Titled “Tea and Health: An Overview”

The book’s first article is titled “Tea and Health: An Overview”, and is by Mia-Lan Chen, at the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences and Peking Union Medical College.  As this was an overview, and among the most accessible of the pieces in the book, I read it more deeply and thoroughly than the other articles.

When I initially read this article, it seemed very informative and well-researched, although I have a critique below in which I mention some potential bias.  Although it focuses on tea and health, the article begins by going into the history of tea drinking, and explores this history through the lens of health.  This section of the article has some fascinating observations, among them, observing that tea drinking changes how people consume water in ways that can potentially benefit public health.

Tea Drinking and Public Health: The Importance of Boiling Water

In our modern Western society, we often take clean drinking water for granted, and we may forget that for much of human history, and still in many parts of the world, the water supply was or is a major vector for a variety of diseases, and the spread of diseases through water and the practices needed to maintain sanitation were poorly understood.  This essay asserts that when tea drinking became widespread, it resulted in the boiling of water becoming mainstream, which killed microbes present in the water, making it safer to drink.  This might have provided one of the most compelling “health benefits of tea” not only in ancient times but up until the advent of modern sanitation.

A pot of water boiling on a stove

Boiling water can promote public health by killing microbes in the water. Tea may have helped this practice become mainstream.

The above image is provided by Wikimedia Commons user Gran and licensed under CC BY 3.0.

A Possible Bias?

The rest of this essay goes through the chemical composition of tea, talking a little about how it relates to tea production, and then gives an overview of tea and health, as its name would suggest.

Some time after reading this essay and researching other sources on tea and health, I began to get a compelling feeling that the health benefits of tea had been overstated somewhat in this essay, and the potential health risks downplayed.  Granted, the health risks of tea consumption are mild, even relative to coffee, but the book made a bold claim about tea consumption showing no evidence of harmful effects even when consumed in very large quantities and this did not fit with my own knowledge or research.  The extent and certainty with which the article presented the various benefits of tea drinking also seemed to exceed that which I encountered in other sources.  I have not returned to this book though, so my impression of bias was just that–an impression or gut feeling, and I am not certain whether it would pan out if I subjected this article to more intense scrutiny.

Are you familiar with this book?

If you’ve read this book, I would be curious to hear your opinion or perspective on it.  I’d be particularly interested to hear people’s perspectives on my impression of pro-tea bias.  As a tea lover, I tend to worry that I myself may tend to be biased in favor of tea, so if I see something as being biased in favor of tea, it raises a red flag for me.

Here are some questions to think about:

  • Have you ever encountered the idea that tea drinking indirectly promoted or promotes public health through encouraging the boiling of water?
  • If you’ve read this book, do you think it exhibits any sort of bias in favor of tea’s benefits, or do you think it is more objective?
  • Do you think there could be possible cultural biases or economic factors at work influencing researchers in China to view tea in a more positive light?
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Author: Alex Zorach (teacology)

I am the founder and editor of RateTea, and am also a co-founder at Why This Way. I am committed to sustainability in every aspect of my life. I like describing my approach to life as "ecological" because it is both scientific and holistic.

3 thoughts on “Tea: Bioactivity and Therapeutic Potential – A Book Review

  1. I’m a little skeptical about the idea of tea promoting public health by encouraging the boiling of water because, unless people consumed all of their water in the form of tea (and if so, everyone would be super caffeinated), they would still be drinking un-boiled water as well, and would still be exposed to the microbes in the water, right? Or, did they boil all of their water because the drinking of tea made boiling water more common, and/or easier in some way?

    • These are really good points. My experience with Chinese food culture is that it’s the norm to be served tea and no water with a meal–and it’s also the norm for all vegetables to be cooked. If these practices were really followed, it would protect people from microbes. About people being super caffeinated…there are two things that would mitigate that. One is that the body quickly develops a tolerance to caffeine, so the long-term effects of a person drinking a certain amount of caffeine at the same times each day are pretty negligible, unless it’s an extreme volume of tea. But there are also a lot of teas, especially the more inexpensive ones made from larger, more mature leaves, that are quite low in caffeine. Tea can also be brewed more weakly, and leaves can be resteeped multiple times, all of which can lower caffeine. The way we brew tea in the west is not that close to the way most Chinese people drink tea–think of the strength of tea in a typical Chinese restaurant, not that that’s exactly representative, but it shows that there are different ways of consuming tea.

      I’d also imagine that most people would be consuming the “lower grades” of tea which are lower in caffeine anyway.

      There may also be ways in which tea culture led to the boiling of water becoming easier and more mainstream–for example, if tea became popular, it could drive people to purchase or make equipment or setups for conveniently boiling water.

      It may also be true that even if people still consumed some unboiled water, consuming more water from tea and less unboiled water could still promote public health. This would be especially true if people were getting water from different sources, like when traveling around, I’d imagine.

  2. Interesting! I was unaware of this book, so thank you for highlighting it!

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