Brewed tea loaded with health benefits

Clare Howard

Hong Ji came to Peoria two years ago and was surprised to learn that Americans drink tea made from leaves so old they have lost much of their nutritional value.

Equally surprising to her was seeing how much soda and iced beverages Americans drink.

Ji grew up in Harbin in the northeast region of China. Her family operates a tea business there, and she grew up believing in the medicinal value of tea.

Now in the U.S., Ji teaches classes on Chinese tea tasting at the RiverPlex, where she is an exercise specialist for OSF Saint Francis Medical Center's medical and arthritis program. She expects to offer a new series of classes on tea tasting in January.

"Don't keep dried tea leaves more than 18 months," said Ji, who also co-owns her own tea business, Chinese Tea Imports, Ltd., which sells high-quality, imported whole tea leaves. "Tea older than 18 months loses its taste, smell, color and health benefits."

She immediately acknowledged her admonition is hard to follow if tea is purchased from grocery stores because there is often no way to know when the leaves were picked, dried, packaged and shipped.

Ji cites these benefits of Chinese tea: increases antioxidants; boosts metabolism; regulates female emotion; cleanses kidneys and bladder; regulates gastrointestinal system; lowers cholesterol; burns calories; soothes nervous system.

She starts each day with tea.

The medicinal value of tea is largely anecdotal because there is no funding for large-scale scientific studies, although some studies suggest that the polyphenols in green tea inhibit the growth of many cancers.

According to the October issue of Harvard Women's Health Watch, a publication of Harvard Medical School, "studies have found an association between consuming green tea and a reduced risk for several cancers, including skin, breast, lung, colon, esophageal and bladder.

"Green tea is the best food source of a group called catechins. In test tubes, catechins are more powerful than vitamins C and E in halting oxidative damage to cells and appear to have other disease-fighting properties," the newsletter states.

Many physicians still advise caution in embracing claims about health benefits. On the other hand, Chinese tradition goes back thousands of years linking health benefits with tea consumption.

"Use whole-leaf tea, not tea bags," Ji said. "There is a huge difference. Tea is like a vegetable or a fruit that has the best nutrients when fresh."

Fresh tea means the leaves are dried but the shelf life for fresh tea is less than 18 months, she said.

At home, Ji brews tea by steeping loose leaves in a teapot with water between 175 to 210 degrees, just below boiling. She goes to work with a travel mug of tea. Over the course of the day as she drinks the tea, she adds more hot water to the mug.

"Keep adding water to the dried leaves to get many infusions," she said.

"Tea in the morning helps you wake up, and it's better than coffee which can cause digestive problems and jitteriness. Tea is not as harsh as coffee."

Ji rarely drinks iced tea or any iced beverages, which she believes are bad for the digestion.

"Americans have too many iced drinks. If you want to cool off, drink green tea. Even warm green tea is cooling by nature. Black tea is warming by nature," she said.

While tea does have caffeine, she said most of the caffeine is gone by the first or second infusion. As more water is added to the tea leaves through the course of the day, there is less and less caffeine in the tea infused toward the end of the day.

Tea has its origins in China and dates back to 1644, she said. The tea culture in India and England evolved from Chinese tradition. Like wine, tea has regional characteristics.

Early in Chinese tea traditions, tea bushes grew wild. Now, bushes are cultivated and some bushes are hundreds of years old.

"Tea is part of the Chinese healing arts," she said.

Hong Ji can be reached at (309) 377-5299 or through her Web site,

Clare Howard can be reached at (309) 686-3250