Tea: to drink or not to drink?
International Tea Day gives us a chance to celebrate the globally recognized drink and the people that make it
1 May 2023

To celebrate International Tea Day on the 21st May, we look at how tea has contributed positively to cultures around the world. From economic to social and psychological, its influence has spanned the globe as a product and the drinking of it is a ritual observed by many.

This day is not only significant to recognize why tea is so important in today’s global culture, but also to highlight the important work of tea producers. The tea industry provides millions with jobs, often in the poorest of countries. Tea in its rawest form is a cash crop and therefore vital for food security for many families. Environmental factors such as drought, floods and climate change are threatening yield for the tea farmers – emphasizing the need for action on this front.

We can thank China for the origins of one of the world’s favorite drinks. From what started off as a simple realization of placing leaves in boiling water, it has now become an entire subculture of itself. It is now the second most consumed drink in the world after water, involved in celebrations, everyday rituals and recognized as a versatile drink of many flavors.

So why should we drink it?

Tea has a multitude of benefits, recognized as a caffeinated drink and therefore occasionally preferred over coffee. Of course, it also depends on the type of tea there is. With a growing number of tea flavors and combinations, there really is something for everyone. A cup of black tea is around 40 milligrams of caffeine, whereas green tea is only 29 milligrams. In the Western world, black tea is preferred – whereas in Asia, green tea is the more popular choice.

Other than for its stimulating psychoactive properties, other health benefits include vital nutrients and natural substances. Minerals such as potassium, magnesium, and zinc are present in tea, all of which benefit and contribute to a healthy diet.

Studies have suggested that tea drinking, particularly herbal tea, can significantly improve your health in other ways. The compounds that herbal teas contain, antioxidants called ‘flavonoids’, have been established as beneficial to heart health and help to reduce cancer in some cases, since these substances may help neutralize free radicals, preventing them from causing damage.

Green tea contains amino acids, helping the body to burn stored fat by boosting energy levels. This makes it a well-known addition to any weight loss journey one might undertake. It can also help to counteract any sugar craving, further accelerating the fat loss process.

Digestion processes are also helped through the drinking of tea. Particularly the addition of lemon and ginger – that has been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine for many generations. Other ingredients in tea support your immune and nervous system. Lavender and camomile are good examples, used primarily as night-time teas for their soothing properties.

The social life of tea

Tea has other transformative properties that extend into social culture. The ritual of tea drinking is conducive to socializing as much as its comforting taste.

Although the roots of tea itself come from the East, it is the British that have become famous for their tea-drinking habit. The English King Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Catherine de Braganza, first popularized it during the 1600s. Since then it has been an integral drink within British culture.

The quintissentially English activity of afternoon tea has proved transcendental from simply drinking tea. Together with the accompaniment of sandwiches, scones and a variety of sweet treats, tea is enjoyed (but not exclusively!) during the mid-afternoon period.

The tradition started with one of Queen Victoria’s ladies-in-waiting, the 7th Duchess of Bedford in the 19th century, who found herself hungry during the afternoon. The custom became fashionable as the British upper classes followed suit. Afternoon tea was not only a socializing opportunity, but also became a liberating move towards women sharing ideas away from their husbands. Many English hotels and seaside towns have monetized this afternoon ritual, becoming famous for their tea rooms.

The exclusive origins of tea-drinking resulted in a host of expensive receptacles signaling wealth. These had the sole purpose of brightening the afternoon tea table to be shared with, and shown off to friends during tea parties. The teapot, as an example, comes in many forms and materials – copper, china and silver to name a few. Less so now, but still prevalent is the quality of tea and the vessels it comes in, which can symbolize identity and social status.

Tea remains a worldwide favorite as a drink and a medium for conversation and the exchange of ideas. When you next drink your cup of tea, think about the importance of sustainable tea production, and reflect on your support for tea producers and processors working to provide your favorite tea blend. 

* Mollie Fraser-Andrews is Editorial Coordinator for UN Today.
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