What to add to your tea to make it healthier, how to make your own iced tea, plus 5 tips from a tea expert.

What to add to your tea to make it healthier, how to make your own iced tea, plus 5 tips from a tea expert.

Sure, a tall glass of iced tea on a hot day is refreshing, but did you know it might also do your body good? Studies show if you drink tea regularly, you may reduce your risk of Alzheimer's and diabetes, plus have healthier teeth and gums and stronger bones. How? Tea is rich in a class of antioxidants called flavonoids.

"True teas," such as black, green, oolong and white teas, come from the leaves of the tea plant, Camellia sinensis. What many of us call herbal teas, such as chamomile and rooibos, are actually tisanes or infusions. The differences in true teas result from how the tea plant's leaves are processed: black teas are oxidized (exposed to oxygen) a few hours before rolling and drying, deepening their color, while white teas and green teas are simply steamed, rolled and dried. Think of oolongs as hybrids; their leaves are partially oxidized before drying.

Regardless of the variety, maximize the power of its flavonoids by drinking it freshly brewed. If you want to keep a batch of cold tea in your refrigerator, "add a little lemon juice," recommends Jeffrey Blumberg, Ph.D., director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. The citric acid and vitamin C in that squeeze of lemon-or lime, or orange-help preserve the flavonoids.

How To Make Iced Tea

Making your own iced tea is easy-and much cheaper than buying the bottled or powdered-mix stuff. It can also be healthier: while iced tea is generally lower in antioxidants than hot tea because it's diluted with ice and water, you can counteract that tendency by starting with an extra-strong brew. But best of all, when you do the steeping, you get to choose the varieties and flavorings, to create a brew that's-well, just your cup of tea. Our three iced-tea blends will get you started.

5 Tips from a Tea Expert

As co-owner and tea sommelier at Tavalon, a New York City-based purveyor of teas, Chris Cason's mission is to "help create a new American tea tradition." Here's what he recommends.

1. Look for fresh tea at a tearoom or a market with high turnover, because the oils that give teas their flavor break down over time. Opt for loose tea rather than tea bags. "Loose tea just tastes better," says Cason. "Tea leaves need room to expand, in order to release their flavors." A typical square tea bag is too small, he explains, but larger ones shaped like pyramids give the leaves more room to bloom. Look for brands that list the region where the tea comes from, says Cason, "so at least you know you're not getting everything but the kitchen sink."

2. Start with spring or filtered tap water, which "have an ideal mineral content," says Cason. Mineral water contains too many minerals that can create off-flavors when they come in contact with compounds in the tea leaves, and mineral-free distilled water produces a flat-tasting brew.

3. Turn up (or down) the heat. Use boiling water (212°F) to brew black, herbal and darker-colored oolong teas. But use cooler water (170° to 180°F) to brew green, white and lighter oolongs teas. "The water should be steaming with little bubbles forming at the bottom of the kettle," says Cason. Brewing them with boiling water can release too many compounds that give color and complexity to the tea but in high doses produce astringent flavors, says Cason.

4. Use just enough tea. Use 1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons per cup of water when brewing teas with bigger leaves or flowers, like green tea or chamomile, and 1 teaspoon per cup for teas with denser, compact leaves such as most black teas.

5. Steep long enough to release flavors, but not so long that tannins and other bitter-tasting compounds dominate. "Generally, black teas and darker oolongs should steep for 3 to 5 minutes," says Cason. "Green, white and lighter oolong teas are much more delicate, so you'll only need 2 to 3 minutes." Herbal tisanes and infusions have fewer tannins, so there's less risk of oversteeping.

Tea Glossary

True Teas

Black Tea

Just like wine, tea's complex flavors vary widely with the region and processing. Darjeeling (India) is slightly spicy, with grape and almond overtones, while Chinese types, such as smoke-dried Lapsang Souchong, tend to be earthier.

Where it's from: China, India, Sri Lanka, Africa, Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, the Caucasus regions, Turkey.

Health benefits: People who drink black tea regularly (3-5 cups/day) tend to have fewer heart attacks and strokes, as well as lower rates of colon and lung cancer. Drinking black tea also may reduce risks of diabetes and osteoporosis and inhibit bacteria that causes tooth decay.

Water temp/steeping time: Boiling water for 3-5 minutes.

Green Tea

Green tea has a vegetal, mildly grassy flavor, with a slightly astringent mouthfeel. Oversteeped brews can be bitter. Chinese types include Dragonwell, prized for its trace of chestnut flavors, and Jasmine (fragrant with added jasmine flowers). Try Japan's smooth Sencha or toasty Genmaicha, blended with toasted rice grains.

Where it's from: China, Japan, Sri Lanka.

Health benefits: Drinking green tea is associated with lower rates of colon and pancreatic cancers and reduced risk of Alzheimer's.

Water temp/steeping time: Steaming water for 2-3 minutes.

White Tea

White teas are relatively rare and expensive because they're only produced from new leaves and buds. They have a light body and golden color plus a pure "tea" flavor without astringency and a hint of sweetness. The leaves of White Peony open up and look like a peony when steeped, while Ceylon White (Sri Lanka) has pine and honey notes.

Where it's from: China, India, Sri Lanka.

Health benefits: Compared to other true teas, white tea contains more of a flavonoid called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), which may help prevent heart disease and fight cancer.

Water temp/steeping time: Steaming water for 2-3 minutes.

Oolong Tea

The flavor and color of oolong tea can vary widely, depending on source and length of oxidation. Lighter oolongs, such as Pouchong, are similar to green tea, while darker versions like Formosa have characteristics more like black tea.

Where it's from: Taiwan, China.

Health benefits: Studies suggest that oolongs provide health benefits similar to green and black teas. A type of flavonoid in oolongs called chafuroside may fight inflammation and help inhibit the development of intestinal cancers.

Water temp/ steeping time: Darker oolongs: same as black tea. Lighter oolongs: same as green tea.


Herbal Teas (e.g., chamomile, hibiscus)

Their aromas and flavors echo the flowers, leaves, seeds or roots from which they're derived. Chamomile has flowery, applelike notes; hibiscus has sour, berrylike fruit flavors.

Where it's from: All over the world.

Health benefits: Chamomile tea has a long history of use as a sleep aid; it may also help soothe an upset stomach and help calm colicky babies. Hibiscus tea is rich in vitamin C and may help reduce blood pressure.

Water temp/steeping time: Boiling water for 3-5 minutes.

Rooibos (Red Bush Tea)

This earthy dark red brew is favored by black-tea drinkers looking for caffeine-free alternatives.

Where it's from: South Africa.

Health benefits: Rooibos contains a fair amount of flavonoids-quer­cetin, luteolin and aspala­thin-that are associated with reducing the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Water temp/steeping time: Boiling water for 3-5 minutes.

July/August 2009