Tea is one of the most popular beverages worldwide, known for its distinctive taste, aroma, and numerous health benefits. But what exactly makes tea so special? The answer lies in its chemical components, including polyphenols, flavanols, alkaloids, amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. This article explores the role of three of the most important chemical groups found in tea: antioxidants, caffeine, and theanine. By understanding these components, we can better appreciate the complexities of tea and its potential impact on our health and wellbeing.
Tea contains several chemical groups such as polyphenols, flavanols, alkaloids, amino acids, carbohydrates, minerals, and vitamins. These chemicals contribute to different aspects of tea, including its taste, aroma, appearance, and health benefits. The proportion of these chemicals in tea is determined by several factors such as the type of tea leaf, the cultivar, soil quality, plucking season, and atmospheric conditions.
Tea contains various chemical groups, including flavanols, which are naturally found in the leaves of the Camellia sinensis plant. Flavanols have gained the most marketable attention in tea, with epicatechins and catechins being the most popular antioxidants. Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is the most abundant catechin in tea and is the antioxidant that holds the most promise for its potential health benefits.
It is widely accepted that tea has approximately 8-10% more antioxidants than any other fruit or vegetable, and antioxidants generally protect cells from oxidative stress, which can cause damage caused by overly reactive oxygen in the body. However, the effects of various antioxidants on different cells are not yet clear. Additionally, the antioxidants found in tea are not necessarily the same as those found in other fruits and vegetables.
Finally, although approximately 25-40% of EGCG is converted into theaflavins, thearubigins, and theabrownins during the oxidation process of oolong and black tea, studies have shown that antioxidants are still present in significant numbers in all types of tea.
Tea contains an alkaloid called trimethylxanthine, commonly known as caffeine, which is one of the most important and economically significant chemicals in tea. Caffeine is the most consumed psychoactive drug worldwide, with over 90 percent of all adults consuming it daily. Tea is one of the most common sources of caffeine consumption. Caffeine serves two natural purposes for the tea plant: as a natural insecticide that kills pests, and to strengthen the memory of the bugs that pollinate the tea plant, enabling them to return every year to pollinate the plant’s flowers. For humans, caffeine is widely known for its effects on the central nervous system, creating a sense of energy and alertness.
Caffeine is a relatively stable chemical that is not affected by tea’s production processes. However, caffeine levels decrease in the leaf as it grows on the tea plant. Generally, younger and immature leaves contain more caffeine. It is a common misconception that black tea has the highest amount of caffeine among the six types of tea. However, teas grown in the old colonial territories that dominated the black tea market in the twentieth century were made from the leaves of Camellia sinensis var. assamica, which generally contain more caffeine than the leaves of var. sinensis. Therefore, black teas made from var. assamica generally have more caffeine than black teas made from var. sinensis. This does not necessarily mean that black tea has more caffeine than other types of tea. People’s perceptions of teas have been biased based on the market conditions created over the past century. To predict the caffeine content of a particular tea, it is important to know the age of the leaf when plucked and the variety from which the tea came.
The amino acid theanine is another crucial but frequently overlooked compound found naturally in tea. Theanine has psychoactive effects on the brain in high doses, yet its precise effects are still being studied. Throughout history, theanine has been connected to the feeling of relaxation when drinking tea, and it is thought to produce positive mood-altering effects. Additionally, theanine is recognized for its unique umami flavor, which contributes to the earthy, “wet stone” taste in many teas.