Bergamot Oil: The Essence of Earl Grey Tea

Bergamot, of Earl Grey Tea Fame

Citrus bergamia, Köhler’s Medicinal Plants

Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)—the essence of Earl Grey tea—has been grown in Italy for ages, although the plant may have originated in Berga in Catalonia, northeast Spain, where the Bergistani were an Iberian tribe overtaken by the Romans, and possibly the source of the bergamot name.

We do know that bergamot has been grown in Calabria in southwest Italy for centuries. Although this region was ruled by many powerful peoples in antiquity, such as the Greeks and Arabs, it remained fairly isolated, which allowed its subsistence culture and customs to be maintained and eventually documented.

Thus, we know that bergamot was grown for its wood at first (to make snuff boxes), and then, in the early 1700s, was cultivated for its fruit and peel, used in perfumes.

The Calabrians also used bergamot to heal wounds; to reduce fever; and as an anti-inflammatory, antiseptic, and anti-parasitic. And many of these traditional medicinal uses have been validated by modern medicine.

Bergamot, of Value beyond Tea

As far as bergamot oil (extracted from the fruit’s peel) and bergamot juice go, they are valuable for myriad reasons, especially because bergamot has both a unique composition of beneficial flavonoids and a lot of them. (Flavonoids are also abundant in tea leaves.) In research studies, bergamot has been shown to:

  • Decrease total cholesterol and triglyceride levels (as statins do) while increasing high-density lipoprotein, a bonus.
  • Play a role in decreasing cancer cell growth, including liver cancer cells.
  • Act as an antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, antifungal, and antiseptic.
  • Promote wound healing.
  • Play a part in UVB-induced oxidative stress and photoaging and therefore may be valuable in skin-care products.
  • Protect the function of neurons and reduce damage to neurons.
  • With morphine, work to alleviate chronic pain.
  • Alleviate anxiety and depression.
  • Modulate markers of autophagy and thus may be valuable for drug development.

Earl Grey Is Not Earl Grey without the Bergamot

Bergamot has long been added to tea, with researchers finding that it was added to tea as early as 1824. However, it originally was used to doctor up low-quality tea. But somewhere along the way, the flavor was embraced and the blend of black tea and bergamot oil stood on its own merits.

Today, there are various blends of Earl Grey tea, including the traditional blend, green tea versions, and first-flush Darjeeling-based. TeaHaus offers its unique Haus-blend version that adds lavender, rosemary, and rose blossoms to the mix!

Note, however,  that a high-quality Earl Grey does not taste like orange (the bergamot orange itself has a very bitter taste), nor does it depend on flavor crystals. Rather, an excellent Earl Grey is made with bergamot oil, which is extracted from the fruit’s peel—and this unique combination of tea and oil offers plenty of health benefits!

–Di Donna, L. et al. “Hypocholesterolaemic activity of 3-hydroxy-3-methyl-glutaryl flavanones enriched fraction from bergamot fruit (Citrus bergamia): ‘In vivo’ studies,” Journal of Functional Foods 7:558–68. 2014.
–”Earl Grey tea,” The Foods of England Project.
–”Early Grey: The results of the OED appeal on Earl Grey tea,” OED Appeals, Oxford University Press.
–Filocamo, Angela, et al. “In vitro effect of bergamot (Citrus bergamia) juice against cag A-positive and-negative clinical isolates of Helicobacter pylori,” BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 15:256. 2016.
–Filomena, L., et al. “Inhibition of spinal oxidative stress by bergamot polyphenolic fraction attenuates the development of morphine induced tolerance and hyperalgesia in mice,”  PLoS ONE 11(5). 2016.
–”Investigators at University of Messina detail findings in hepatocellular carcinoma (NF-kappa B mediates the antiproliferative and proapoptotic effects of bergamot juice in HepG2 cells),” Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week 5 Mar. 2016:1123. 2016.
–Passalacqua, N. G., De Fine, G., and Guarrera, P. M. “Contribution to the knowledge of the veterinary science and of the ethnobotany in Calabria region (Southern Italy),” Journal of Ethnobiology and Ethnomedicine 2:52. 2006.
–”Researchers from University of Catanzaro Magna Graecia describe findings in chromosome structures (Telomere and telomerase modulation by bergamot polyphenolic fraction In experimental photoageing in human keratinocytes),” Obesity, Fitness & Wellness Week 7 Nov. 2015:1703. 2016.
–Russo, R., et al. “Role of D-limonene in autophagy induced by bergamot essential oil in SH-SY5Y neuroblastoma cells,” PLoS ONE 9(11). 2014.

Interpreting Tea History

As a recent report by the BBC illustrates, tea’s history is not nearly as healthy as the drink itself.

Great Britain brought the tea industry to India and changed the world—an accomplishment complicated by the many ways to view the events and the participants. For example:

What’s the Real Aim Here?

Robert Fortune, who, in the 1800s, brought viable, high-quality tea plants—along with Chinese tea implements and manufacturers—to India, has been regarded both as savvy, dedicated botanist and as first-class thief.

Were his motives altruistic—as when he avers that “a boon will have been conferred upon the people of India” if that country’s poor could be provided with an affordable tea, which is healthy and has “great value in the market” (Fortune 1853)?

Or, were these just pretty words, masking Great Britain’s calculated aim to break China’s monopoly of the tea trade, ostensibly to make it affordable for more consumers in Great Britain (aka to make more money?)?

And What’s the Real Aim Here?

In his vivid account of his travels in China, Fortune describes how “coloured green tea” was produced for the Europeans and Americans because they favored “uniform and pretty” leaves (Fortune 1853). Well, and there’s that added benefit—colored tea commanded more money in these markets.

The Incidental Consequences

The recipe for colored tea was troubling: Four parts gypsum powder (think fertilizer, plaster) to three parts Prussian blue (iron ferrocyanide, actually not toxic) powder. This powder mixture was combined with the tea leaves several minutes before the leaves were removed from the roasting pans.

While an 1857 article published in Edinburgh and London (in the magazine Titan) complains about non-tea leaves being mixed in with genuine tea leaves, perhaps they should have instead been concerned with those colorants! Indeed, Fortune (1853) calculates that “in every hundred pounds of coloured green tea consumed in England or America, the consumer actually drinks more than half a pound of Prussian blue and gypsum!”

Still, Tea Confers Many Benefits (Maybe)

Ah well. At least everyone seems to have agreed at this point in history that drinking tea itself was a good thing. Because it “is a great promoter of the amenities and charities of life. Even, commercially, its influence is of this nature, since it brings together distant countries, and unites them, through the fraternal bonds of commerce. This again dispels those prejudices which mock and degrade the human understanding, and gives to millions of people mutual sympathies and interest” (Titan 1857).

Right. . . .

Okay, but there’s this:  “by dispelling dyspeptic clouds and other noxious vapours which ascend to the brain . . . [tea] causes the benignant rays of cheerfulness and good-humour to shed happiness and peace” (Titan 1857).

Alternately, those positive effects could simply result from the “clatter of cups, and the mere occupation of drinking” (Titan 1857). . . .

However, “we leave it with our reader to determine whether it was this merely, or not rather the enlivening influence of the warm liquor, which put every one on good terms with himself, through the mediation of his stomach, by neutralising the acid juices . . . and so induced him to regard his next neighbour as a ‘decidedly more agreeable person’ than had been at first supposed” (Titan 1857). Yes, well. . . .

The Take-Away

Although some things strike us as humorous today, this history interpretation thing is difficult, and it’s far too easy to evaluate past actions solely with twenty-first-century eyes, or to think in simplistic terms.

Yet our history—the shared history of humankind—ought to inform our current thinking and decision-making. So when you next drink a cup of tea, perhaps, as Justin Rowlatt of the BBC suggests, “take a moment to reflect on the momentous global interactions that made the drink you are enjoying possible.”

lung ching  leaves

–Fortune, Robert. Tea Countries of China and the British Tea Plantations in the Himalaya, 3rd ed. London: John Murray, 1853.
–”Our tea table,” Titan, A Monthly Magazine, Vol. XXIV. Edinburgh: James Hogg; London: R. Groombridge and Sons, 1857.
–Rowlatt, Justin. “The dark history behind India and the UK’s favourite drink.” BBC News. July 15, 2016.

Stress and Loss—and the Role of Tea

Life . . .

I was going to get caught up, get organized, be in control.

But life intervened, as it so often does. Not a light or joyful moment to bring a smile and generate energy.

No, this was more a derailment. Of plans, of hopes, of optimism.


Death does that. And because we can’t quite comprehend our loss—it comes to us in degrees, often in unexpected ways—societally we have developed rituals to ease our way.

In our case, this involved flowers, as beautiful and ephemeral as life itself. Lovingly provided meals. And cards and texts and phone calls and kind words.

And during the funeral visitation, coffee and tea, available at all times.

Dealing with the pain

Which later, in retrospect—in perhaps an excuse to focus on the mundane and avoid the profound, or just as a way to ponder those things that comfort a bit—made me wonder: why hot coffee and tea? Why have we chosen this avenue to address grief?

Of course, personal interactions are foremost. Nothing replaces caring words, deep sympathy, hugs, genuine concern. But still, coffee and tea are often among the first things we offer to those who sit in a hospital waiting room or to the family that sits around a table and begins to face a deep loss.

It seems that handing a warm drink to someone is more than simply a symbol of our care. Holding a hot beverage seems to have an actual effect on us—we project the warmth of what we are holding to other people and situations, transferring physical sensations to the psychological.

Drinking hot liquids, especially those with caffeine, impacts us on multiple levels. Research has shown that consuming hot beverages—coffee, tea, or just water—makes us happier. Adding caffeine to that beverage lowers our anxiety, also makes us happier, and gives us more energy. Caffeine works immediately, and even small doses can impact us.

If a beverage’s warm temperature and caffeine somehow improve our outlook, does that, perhaps, help assuage our pain just a bit, or at least help us cope?

Tea, a balm for body and soul

 tea in a styrofoam cupTea is a bit more complicated than coffee or hot water, and scientists continue to tease out what does what. We know that the amino acid theanine increases alpha wave brain activity, which relaxes us, and that the main flavanol in tea, epigallocatechin gallate, is sedating. According to one double-blind study (Steptoe 2007), drinking tea for six weeks resulted in less post-stress cortisol (the “stress hormone,” released whenever we experience fear or something stressful), a personal feeling of being more relaxed, and less platelet activation (which is good for cardiac health).

Although drinking tea does not reduce stress, it seems to help us to recover from stress.

Another study (Cross 2009) showed that when people drank tea after completing a stress-inducing activity, their anxiety went down—and, in fact, went lower than what their anxiety level was before the activity. (Conversely, when people drank water instead, their anxiety went up 25%.) When the participants were asked about tea, they reported that tea relaxes them, confirming that psychological benefits accompany the physiological, and that both yield very real results.

Also embedded in the psychological aspect is the cultural meaning. As Cross and Michaels (2009) put it:

The symbolic dimensions of tea materialise in our body, thus enhancing the chemical effects that tea components have on our health. The cultural meanings in which tea is anchored shape our experience of tea, evoke particular feelings, ways of relating to others and mental states and by doing so they come to constitute our physical experience. This means that the psychological affects the physiological, just as the physiological affect [sic] the psychological.

A life continued

A loss is devastating, and our response is intensely individual. Yet, our way through may be eased just a bit by a thoughtfully provided steaming cup of tea.

–Cross, M. and R. Michaels. “The social psychological effects of tea consumption on stress.” 2009.
–Quinlan, P., et al. “Effects of hot tea, coffee and water ingestion on physiological responses and mood: The role of caffeine, water and beverage type,” Psychopharmacology 134:164–73. 1997.
–Steptoe, A., et al. “The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: A randomised double-blind trial,” Psychopharmacology 190(1):81–89. 2007.