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Sip-by-sipping in the 90s: trends show coffee's not our cup of tea anymore.

Can't sleep? Upset stomach? Need to warm up or cool down? Then do what half of America and 90 percent of the world does each day -- have a cup of tea. Who can resist the whimsical packaging and names like Metabolic Frolic, Nighty-Night, Red Zinger and Grandma's Tummy Mint? Yet tea, innocuous as it seems, is steeped in controversy, government regulations, lawsuits and battles for the bucks.

From its accidental discovery by China's Emperor Shen Nung in 2737 B.C., when tea leaves blew into a pot of water he was boiling, tea has evolved into the world's most popular drink. Although the U.S. ranks 7th in tea consumption, well behind countries like India, Russia and England, tea manufacturers are striving to overcome American's coffee habit by targeting the 90s trend toward healthier lifestyles. It's working: U.S. tea profits are now $250 million annually, double that of a decade ago.

Indeed, the surge in tea sales, particularly decaffeinated and herbal blends, is attributed to people "cutting back on coffee"--often associated with heart attacks and stress -- "and switching to tea," says Bob Crawford, CEO for R.C. Bigelow which, with Thomas J. Lipton, comprises the lion's share of America's tea market. Although regular tea also contains caffeine, it has only 36 milligrams per cup compared to 100 for coffee.

"Coffee gets your motor running, while tea allows you to be calm, yet alert," notes Bill Rosenzweig of The Republic of Tea in San Rafael, California. "There's a new interest in Eastern culture and a focus on home, hearth and health. Americans want to slow down the frantic pace of their lives." Thus Republic's slogan: "Sip by sip, not gulp by gulp."

Some of tea's benefits are well known. FDR drank ginseng tea to clear his head before speeches. Even Peter Rabbit drank chamomile tea to help him sleep after a long day of garden raiding. Some teas are rich in fluoride, which can help prevent tooth decay. And chemicals in regular tea leaves, called polyphenols, may ward off cancer. But before you rush to brew your-self a cup, remember that not all teas are the same.

Herbal--or medicinal--teas come from the leaves, flowers, roots, bark, seeds or stems of various herb and spice plants. Purists don't consider these true teas, although they've been drunk for 5,000 years. The current herbal tea phenomenon began when Boulder, Colorado's Celestial Seasonings introduced Red Zinger 20 years ago. Today, Celestial enjoys a 55 percent share of the herbal tea market, and herbal teas have gone from being medicines to beverages.

"True" teas--black, green and oolong--all come from the same plant, camellia sinensis, indigenous to China, Tibet and India. Tea makers use only the first two leaves and the bud at the tip, to ensure freshness and prevent a bitter taste. The more than 3,000 varieties that make it to market are distinguished by the sizes and cuts of the leaves, growing conditions, processing methods and blending proportions.

Because some medicinal herbs are strong and bitter, they are blended with "buffer" herbs for balance. Passing taste tests is not easy -- Lipton tasters go through 200 cups a day. "It takes almost a year for a tea to come to market, after research and development, taste panels and consumer focus groups," notes Celestial spokesperson Kathy Rouse.

Standard size tea bags may also alter taste, contends Rosenzweig. "Leaves have to be cut small to fit into a bag. Full-leaf tea tastes much better." He advocates dropping full leaves in boiling water for several minutes, then straining them out. "Or get a teapot with an infuser."

Rouse says that, although tea grown organically (without pesticides or herbicides) "means better quality," few tea manufacturers monitor growing techniques because they import such a staggering amount of leaves into the U.S. each year--nearly 200 million pounds. In developing countries, such as Calcutta, Sri Lanka and Argentina, growing practices are often unknown and regulations are lacking. In fact, says Trish Flaster, botanical sourcing manager for the San Francisco-based Shaman Pharmaceuticals, pesticides made, yet outlawed, in the U.S. are often exported to these countries, and "come back to us on the tea leaves. You can taste the spray on the tea."

Only two tea companies, Celestial Seasonings and The Republic of Tea, currently sell certified organic black teas, grown in India. Both companies have also instituted organic growing communities in third-world countries for their herb teas, training laborers in proper harvesting techniques. Republic is collaborating with nonprofit organizations, including Washington, DC's Rights and Resources and the Vera Cruz, Mexico-based Sierra Santa Marta Project, both which help native people develop sustainable livelihoods by gathering herbs in the wild.

The one "true" tea grower in America, South Carolina's Charleston Tea Plantation, which makes American Classic Tea, adheres to its own strict standards. "By growing our own camellia sinensis plants, we can monitor what goes on them and how they're harvested," says co-owner and tea horticulturist Mack Fleming. "We use no insecticides or fungicides because we don't have to. Spraying only creates secondary and tertiary problems, for which you have to spray again," Fleming explains. "Plus, we pick buds within 18 days -- not enough time for disease to set in."

With herbal teas, however, "you can't prove the herbs are grown organically because many of them grow wild," says Celestial's Rouse. "But we oversee how they're harvested and handled to ensure cleanliness. And we test for herbicides and pesticides in our own lab."

It's hard to believe that a cup of mint, strawberry or chamomile tea could harm anyone, but the FDA recently pulled sassafras, catnip, valerian, lobelia, chaparral and comfrey off the market, citing health problems when taken in large doses. And while it's probably healthier to drink a variety of herbal teas in moderation rather than a few in excess, Rob McCaleb, president of Boulder, Colorado's Herb Research Foundation, says, "The FDA is angry with the herb industry for opposing their regulations. But herbs have been used medicinally for centuries. We're the only country that doesn't have consistent guidelines for herbal medicine."

That's for sure. FDA regulation of herbal teas falls into a grey area between food and drugs. The FDA regards herbal teas consumed for their taste and aroma only as foods. Herbs considered safe for use in food are presumed safe in tea as well. But, if an herbal tea claims to prevent or cure a disease, FDA considers it a drug and regulates it as such. Most tea manufacturers thus avoid therapeutic claims, or else label their products with generic words like "calming" or "relaxing." The Sebastopol, California-based Traditional Medicinals' line of over-the-counter teas, including their "Smooth Move" (a laxative tea) and "Throat Coat," are good alternatives to stronger drugs.

What's on the horizon for tea? Some herbal iced teas are already on the market. And joint ventures are underway between Lipton and Pepsi, and Celestial and Perrier to produce more ready-to-drink iced teas, herbal and black, in bottles and cans. Since 80 percent of America's tea drinkers prefer iced, these companies are vying for an ever-bigger piece of the soft drink market. "The future depends on the consumers," says Shaman's Flaster. "It's up to them to decide where tea companies should go."


Here is a mini-glossary of common teas:

* Black Tea leaves are withered, crushed, oxidized and fired, giving them a dark brown or black color and a full bodied flavor. Used for enhancing energy, some black teas include: Assam, Ceylon, Darjeeling, Keemun, Lapsang Souchong and Orange Pekoe.

* Green Tea leaves are steamed immediately after picking so that they remain green. Because they are not oxidized, green teas have an intriguing bitter taste. The most popular, known to contain fluoride and used to treat diarrhea, are Gunpowder and Dragon Well.

* Oolong Tea leaves are partially oxidized, which turns them a greenish-brown color. Used for centuries to treat digestive problems, oolong teas taste less bitter than green teas, and less full-bodied than black teas. The most common are Black Dragon and Formosa Oolong.

* Blended Teas combine several teas of different origins to provide a balance of flavor and strength. Most, such as English and Irish Breakfast, taste better with milk and sugar.

* Flavored Tea blends tea leaves with other flavorings, like citrus. You may have tried Earl Grey, Jasmine or just plain lemon, lime or orange.

* Herbal Teas have been brewed for millennia, mainly for healing. Even Plato and Aristotle wrote about their wonders. While these herbs are usually blended, straight chamomile (for relaxation) and pepper-mint (for digestion) are the most popular unblended herbal teas.

Want to make your own herbal iced tea? Purchase some dried herbs like alfalfa, red clover, nettles, raspberry or mint from your local health food store or from mail order companies like Traditional Medicinals. Put a handful into a half gallon glass jar, fill with boiling water and cover. Steep for eight hours, strain, add honey and chill thoroughly. Total cost? About two dollars.
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Title Annotation:includes glossary of tea leaf terminology
Author:Lane, Hilary
Date:Sep 1, 1993
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