Green tea became well known in China during the period of the Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) and was quickly prized as a promoter of health and vitality. There’s good evidence, however, that its many benefits had already been known to the elite for thousands of years by then. In fact legend tells of a stray camellia blossom, drifting on the breeze one day in 2737 BC, which found its way into the Emperor Shen Nung’s steaming drinking water and quickly infused it with all the characteristic refreshment and invigoration we associate with green tea.
So renowned did the benefits of green tea become that detailed rules of etiquette for its correct consumption emerged, culminating in the publication of Lu Yu’s “The Classic Art of Tea”. This famous poet and Buddhist priest laid down strict procedures for the preparation and serving of the perfect cup of tea. The water had to come from a gently flowing stream and be combined with leaves in a fine porcelain cup. And the resulting brew of green tea was ideally to be drunk next to a lily pond in the company of a beautiful woman.
Not surprisingly, given this kind of marketing, the popularity of green tea spread rapidly throughout China in the centuries following the publication of Lu Yu’s work. “Rather three days without food than a day without tea” became the saying, as news reached the remotest corners of the vast empire. Books and poems were composed in green tea’s honour; Emperors gave particularly prized samples as gifts, and the teahouse became a familiar feature of countless cities, towns and villages.
So just what are the health benefits of drinking green tea? The Chinese knew it from earliest times as an aid to good digestion when consumed after a meal, stimulating the absorption of nutrients from food; and it’s since also become known as a powerful anti-oxidant and detoxifying agent which can speed the flushing of toxins from the body. But there’s far more to green tea than this.
Most importantly, leaves for green tea are steamed rather than fermented, preserving the vital Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG) compound. EGCG is just one of a number of catechin polyphenols found in tea, but research suggests that it’s a particularly powerful anti-oxidant, the presence of which makes green tea anything up to ten times more powerful than the more common fermented (black) teas.
In fact, today’s Western science is increasingly confirming the health benefits long claimed for the consumption of green tea. And as amazing as it may seem, EGCG and related compounds in green tea appear directly to target the most common killer diseases often attributed to western affluence and diet. Some research, for example, has credited EGCG with the ability to reduce total levels of cholesterol whilst at the same time improving the ratio of “good” (HDL) cholesterol to “bad” (LDL) cholesterol; thereby helping to protect against both heart attacks and strokes – still two of the most frequent premature killers in the Western world.
Some exciting Swiss research published by the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition in November 1999 also suggests that green tea may help with the increasing problem of obesity by prompting the body to burn fat at a significantly increased rate.
But perhaps most excitingly, there’s now evidence that green tea may even help in tackling cancer. For example, in 1994 the Journal of the National Cancer Institute published the results of a study indicating that drinking green tea reduced the risk of oesophageal cancer in Chinese people by almost sixty percent. And University of Purdue researchers recently concluded that as few as four or five cups of green tea a day may provide enough EGCG to help retard the growth of tumours – and this without apparent damage to surrounding healthy tissue.
Now if after reading all of the above you’re just raring to add green tea to your daily dietary regime I wouldn’t blame you at all. In fact I’d actively encourage you. But it’s only fair to give you the whole picture. And that means pointing out that the consumption of large amounts of green tea could risk adding some caffeine to your normal intake.
Let me put this in perspective though. A standard six to eight ounce cup of green tea will contain between 30 and 60 milligrams of caffeine. A similar size cup of coffee will likely contain more than 100 milligrams. So just replace a couple of cups of your normal coffee intake with your recommended four to five cups of green tea and your caffeine intake’s going to stay level. But if you want to eliminate caffeine entirely then caffeine-free green teas are now becoming readily available.
So you can enjoy all the benefits cited above without any of the possible side-effects of caffeine, and with ever increasing interest in the health promoting properties of green tea, new benefits are coming to light all the time. Already for example, the anti-oxidant (ie anti–ageing) qualities of the tea are being applied to the manufacture of skin care products.
These applications may still seem a little far-fetched to you right now, but in terms of your internal organism there’s no longer any doubt that green tea is truly one of nature’s great gifts – a very inexpensive but extremely valuable health booster.