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Tea 101: Types of tea & their health benefits

People around the world have been enjoying tea for thousands of years, but it’s only recently that the health benefits have been more deeply researched. If you’re not currently a tea drinker, read on to see what you’ve been missing.

Woman making tea

Types of tea

There are three basic types of tea: black, green/white and oolong. Contrary to popular assumption, all three teas come from the same plant, the Camellia sinensis. The difference between the teas’ flavors and health benefits are based on the way the plant’s leaves are cultivated and processed.

You may be thinking, “Wait a minute, my favorite tea is Earl Grey. I know there are more types of tea than just those three.” Well, not really. Earl Grey, like many other popular teas, is actually just a flavor of tea, not a specific type. In fact, Earl Grey is a black tea infused with bergamot, which gives it a distinct, citrusy flavor.

The making of tea

Fresh tea leaves contain catechins and polyphenol oxidase enzymes. When tea is processed, the leaves may be rolled or broken, causing the polyphenol oxidase to join with the catechins. This process is known as oxidation or fermentation, and according Oregon State University’s Linus Pauling Institute Micronutrient Information Center, it can be stopped by steaming or firing the tea leaves. White and green teas both experience minimal oxidation, while oolong tea undergoes partial oxidation and black tea is considered a fully-oxidized tea. The main difference between the white and green tea varieties is that white tea is developed from young tea leaves and buds, while green tea is made from more mature leaves.

Tea’s benefits

Given the fact that each type of tea comes from the same plant, you can expect the health benefits to be similar, but not identical. The level of oxidation a tea’s leaves undergo will affect the benefits incurred by consumption. Consider the following:

  • According to a research study performed in Taiwan, individuals who drank oolong tea daily experienced a significant drop in blood sugar, which could help prevent diabetes
  • Black tea has the highest concentration of caffeine, which can help with alertness
  • While all teas appear to be able to kill bacteria, viruses and fungi in the body, according to a study performed at the Pacific College of Oriental Medicine, white tea is the most effective in this regard
  • Both green and white teas may be able to help with weight loss. A 2009 study published in the journal Nutrition and Metabolism noted white tea’s inhibition of the development of new fat cells and its stimulation of fat mobilization from existing cells. Similarly, the University of Maryland Medical Center notes that green tea helps with fat mobilization when combined with caffeine.

In addition to the specific benefits of each tea, the OSU Linus Pauling Institute lists the following potential benefits of general tea consumption:

  • Drinking three cups of tea a day may be linked to a modest reduction in heart attack risk
  • The antioxidants in tea may be able to help prevent a variety of cancers
  • Tea consumption may enhance bone density
  • Tea may help prevent cavities and kidney stones

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    Know what you’re drinking

    If all these potential benefits have you itching to boil water and steep some leaves, make sure you’re not confusing herbal tea for green, white, oolong or black tea. Herbal tea is not made from the tea plant and cannot be associated with the same health benefits. The only thing that makes herbal teas “tea” is the fact that they use dried leaves and herbs to release flavor when soaked in hot water.

    Tea types explained

    Do you know the difference between green tea and white tea? This video explains the difference between different types of tea.

    More on tea

    Skin benefits of green tea
    Matcha: The healthiest green tea
    Tea recipes: Cooking with tea

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