There’s a seasonality to the teas we drink—perhaps most pronounced for those of us who annually enjoy four distinct seasons. Whereas a full-bodied, steaming hot tea comforts during winter’s cold, we often reach for light and sunny brews on the first precious warm days of spring.
Citrus teas fulfill that need nicely, reminding us of the tropics perhaps, or simply because they’re versatile, refreshing when sipped hot or iced.
We read constantly that tea is full of polyphenols, which is true. In fact, “coffee, tea, fruit (citrus and berries), and fruit juice have been identified as major (poly)phenols contributors in the US diet” (Kacie et al. 2020).
But it’s also a fact that there’s no correlation between how many polyphenols are in a given food and how many of them are biologically available to your body (Pandey and Rizvi 2009). Most polyphenols must be broken down so that your body is able to absorb them!
Why is this important?
Polyphenols are antioxidants, and therefore help mitigate inflammatory, chronic, and degenerative diseases. The more polyphenols that our bodies can absorb and use, the better. That’s why we are constantly urged to eat a diversity of fruits and vegetables, especially since each food contributes different polyphenols and different amounts of polyphenols.
Many researchers are trying to figure out how to maximize those benefits. Which polyphenols are best broken down and made available, and how do we increase the absorption rates?
Polyphenols in Citrus
We know that certain foods have specific polyphenols.
Citrus, for example, contains flavanones—a type of flavonoid, or polyphenol—that are found also in tomatoes but not in many other fruits.
The importance of flavanones lies in the fact that they may significantly contribute to the total daily intake of flavonoids more than all others [sic] polyphenols. . . . [and] they have a better bioavailability than flavonols. (Nazzaro et al. 2020)
They are more available in our bodies and they are better absorbed.
Tea + Citrus
So going back to tea. Studies of green tea extract indicate that not many of tea’s catechins, EGC, and EGCG (types of polyphenols) are actually absorbed. The catechins may not be broken down, absorbed, or metabolized efficiently.
But we also know that the flavanones found in citrus are more available and better absorbed. So what happens when elements of citrus are combined with tea?
- citric acid—antioxidant and antimicrobial; gives the sour or tart note to fruit, particularly limes and lemons
- ascorbic acid—another name for vitamin C; antioxidant and antimicrobial
As we might anticipate, when citric acid and/or ascorbic acid are added to tea extract, substantially more of the polyphenols are absorbed (Shim et al. 2012). Likewise, adding sucrose and ascorbic acid to green tea extract makes more of the tea’s catechins available and increases their absorption (Peters et al. 2010) (although I’d argue that sugar has its own problems).
It seems as though any citrus may be beneficial. Black tea combined with mandarin orange peel seems to have antioxidant properties as well some effect against liver cancer; green, yellow, and black tea blended with pomelo may have a role in how lipids build up in the liver.
Although many of these studies were done with rats and/or using tea extracts rather than tea as a beverage, and all were under laboratory conditions, researcher Mario Ferruzzi (Wallheimer 2009) suggests that we add lemon juice to our tea—or simply drink some fruit juice alongside our green tea!
However, research conducted in a lab is very different from real-life applications. We must always be careful not to read too much into these studies, or to extrapolate too much. All we can really say is that tea and citrus both have many beneficial polyphenols, even if we aren’t sure how many of those are actually available for our bodies to absorb.
The issue is very complex, complicated further by the fact that the concentration of polyphenols in a specific plant depends on what part of the plant is being used, how ripe the plant is, the plant’s specific environment, whether the plant was stressed, how the plant was processed, and how the plant was stored (Pandey and Rizvi 2009)!
Still, with indications that citrus works synergistically with tea, it seems that it can’t hurt to combine the two—and it is true that citrus flavors can meld beautifully with tea.
The earthiness of white tea makes a terrific base for citrus, as does the nuttiness of an oolong. Green tea, with its freshness, lets citrus flavors shine, while black tea nicely balances the citrus. With abundant choices, it shouldn’t be hard to find a flavored tea that you love.
–Kacie, K. H. Y. Ho, et al., “Potential health benefits of (poly)phenols derived from fruit and 100% fruit juice,” Nutrition Reviews 78(2):145–74. 2020.
–Nazzaro, F., et al., “Probiotic and prebiotics in foods,” Advances in Food and Nutrition Research, 2020.
–Pandey, K. B., and S. I. Rizvi, “Plant polyphenols as dietary antioxidants in humans health and disease,” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity 2(5):270–78. 2009.
–Peters, C. M., et al., “Formulation with ascorbic acid and sucrose modulates catechin bioavailability from green tea,” Food Research International 43(1):95–102. 2010.
–Shim, S.-M., et al., “Digestive stability and absorption of green tea polyphenols,” Food Research International 45(1):204–10. 2012.
–Wallheimer, B., “Model backs green tea and lemon claim, lessens need to test animals,” Purdue University News Service. 9/9/2009.