TEA: New Benefits Being Discovered, Yet the Plant’s Sustainability Is in Question in Some Regions of the World

Increasingly exciting results are coming out of research into tea as a beverage and/or medicine—even as tea as a plant is becoming embattled in many regions of the world.

First the Good News: Tea Is Great! 

Against antibiotic-resistant bacteria—

Current headlines tout the efficacy of tea’s main flavanol, epigallocatechin gallate or ECGC, in working synergistically with the antibiotic aztreonam to combat antibiotic-resistant bacteria, at least in vitro as well as in Greater Wax Moth larvae (Betts et al. 2019).

This promising research is important because our current arsenal of drugs is losing effectiveness and few new drugs are currently being developed.

lung ching leaves
Lung Ching green tea

A side note: Although this study used green tea, flavanols (or catechins) are a type of polyphenol—present in all Camellia sinensis leaves, meaning black, green, oolong, and white tea. In green tea, the flavanols include ECGC, whereas in black tea, oxidation converts catechins into more complex polyphenols (giving black tea its color and flavor). All tea contains health-bestowing polyphenols, so if you want to drink tea for its possible health benefits, drink the type that you most enjoy!

To preserve cognition as we age—

For those of us who have been drinking tea for a long time, a new study by J. Li and colleagues indicates that this habit helps brain efficiency.

As many people find, to their frustration, the connections in our brains communicate information less effectively and can be disrupted as we age.

However, it appears that in longtime tea drinkers, the brain structure doesn’t experience the same decline but instead continues to more efficiently exchange information—in terms of global brain organization, how the two hemispheres interact, and the nodes or synapses (the juncture across which the neurons send information on to other neurons) within the frontal cortex. A caution: this isn’t to say that a tea-drinker’s brain in old age would be comparable to that of a young person. Rather, the asymmetry in the hemispheres, for example, is more like someone in middle age (which is still a bonus).

lung ching brew
Lung Ching

Also, as activity and connectivity in the default mode network (that is, what the brain is doing, such as preparing to act, while the person is “at rest”) decrease, cognition declines.

But this decline “can be hindered or mitigated by tea intake” according to Li et al. (2019)!

How much tea would that take?

This study established longtime tea drinkers as those who drank tea at least 4 times a week, beginning at age 45. The participants were around 70 years old, meaning some 25 years of drinking tea.

As an alternative to sugary drinks—

fruit juice
Fruit juice

Meanwhile, the dangers of sugar are confirmed in study after study, including one that tracked 101,257 people and found that:


an increase in sugary drink consumption was positively associated with the risk of overall cancer and breast cancer. (Chazelas et al. 2019:7)

Those sugary drinks include 100% fruit juice. And the link isn’t completely due to a person’s being overweight or obese from consuming too much sugar, despite excess weight being a risk factor for cancer.

Researchers Chazelas and team (2019:10) found that “water and unsweetened tea and coffee were not associated with cancer in this study.” In fact, while perusing scientific studies, I’ve noticed that many scientists suggest that it’s healthier to drink tea than plain water.

Then the Bad News: Tea at Risk?

While I have addressed similar issues before (see, for instance, Is India’s Tea Industry Really at Risk?), it seems that new crises continue to clamor for our attention. Although this is only a cursory look, it provides some idea of the scope of problems affecting tea gardens.

Strikes continue at Darjeeling, which has been repeatedly hit with workers demanding better wages and working conditions. According to one source, Darjeeling’s 87 tea gardens employ some 75,000 to 80,000 permanent and temporary workers, so a strike has far-reaching consequences in this small area of the world. Although the higher-quality first- and second-flush teas have been already harvested for this year, repeated disruptions to the tea industry often mean the plants suffer and workers leave the industry for other jobs.

darj steinthal
First-flush Darjeeling

In February I looked at the many problems facing Nilgiris, and a September article by V. Kulkarni continues the saga of bad news. After heavy frost and cold temps, the western region had unseasonably warm weather, followed by too much rain—3 years of rain fell in 3–4 days! Meanwhile, the eastern region has endured 3 years of drought so far, with sporadic, too intense, rainfall. Drought, of course, leads to a proliferation of pests, impacting tea quality. Tea plants are being replaced with crops such as cabbage, carrots, and beets.

And India’s Tocklai Tea Research Institute, the world’s longest-operating tea research facility, is financially struggling. Research and development have been curtailed while the institute looks for funding.

Meanwhile, in Sri Lanka, workers are leaving the colonial-era large tea estates to seek better wages and living conditions. However, because remaining employees still earn more money than those in Kenya and Vietnam, the country “produces less tea at more cost compared with its international competitors” (Ypannopoulos 2019). And, as in areas of India, flooding and landslides have taken their toll on the gardens, while years of tea production mean the soil is degraded.

Love that high mountain oolong? According to one source, as of 2016 most of Taiwan‘s tea gardens above 2,500 meters in elevation have been destroyed as the government pursues reforestation.

Lu Ming oolong Taiwan
Oolong from Taiwan

Rwandan farmers have faced drought, floods, low yield, and loss because they couldn’t sell the tea they did produce. Having joined in cooperatives and obtained loans to grow tea—with National Agriculture Board encouragement—they can’t make payments on the high-interest-rate loans if they don’t produce enough tea or sell what tea they do have.

The Upshot

Even if your corner of the world isn’t experiencing severe repercussions of climate change, many regions are struggling to deal with the erratic weather that makes agriculture, including tea, vulnerable. It would be a shame to lose tea, or for it to be less accessible, just as we are discovering its huge array of benefits!

Something to keep in mind as we make our daily lifestyle choices.

three teas

–Betts, J. W., et al., “Restoring the activity of the antibiotic aztreonam using the polyphenol epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) against multidrug-resistant clinical isolates of Pseudomonas aeruginosa,” Journal of Medical Microbiology 68(10). 2019.
–Chazelas, E., et al., “Sugary drink consumption and risk of cancer: results from NutriNet-Santé prospective cohort,” BMJ 365(l2408). 2019.
–”Darjeeling tea workers on strike, life hit in Bengal hills,” Udaipur Kiran, 10/8/19.
–”Fund crunch cripples world’s oldest tea research institute in Assam,” The New Indian Express, 9/24/19.
–Iliza, A., “Tea farmers appeal for debt relief,” The New Times, 8/12/19.
–Kulkarni, V., “No longer the right climate for tea,” The Hindu Business Line, 9/24/19.
–Li, J., et al., “Habitual tea drinking modulates brain efficiency: evidence from bain connectivity evaluation,” Aging 11(11):3876–90. 2019.
–Wei, C., “Taiwan is destroying its high mountain oolong tea farms,” Vice, 4/27/16.
–Yiannopoulos, P., “Spilling the tea in Sri Lanka,” FP, 7/8/19.

3 thoughts on “TEA: New Benefits Being Discovered, Yet the Plant’s Sustainability Is in Question in Some Regions of the World

  1. Great post! I’ve heard that most of the cheapest tea (the tea dust that they use in the coffeeshops in Singapore) comes from Indonesia now, but I suspect that the crises in India, Sri Lanka, and Rwanda will happen in Indonesia as well in a different form. The days of cheap tea may be over soon, which may end up being better IF it results in better quality tea and better working conditions and pay for the workers (without tea going back to the domain of the 1%, I would hope!)

    Liked by 1 person

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