The Cinnamon of Autumn Teas

Cinnamon may well be autumn’s quintessential spice. Where would pumpkin and apple pie be without it?! Or your favorite chai on these chilly evenings?cinnamon-3-web

Culinary Spice Extraordinaire

Although the Western world tends to reach for cinnamon as part of dessert, this versatile spice is capable of so much more.

Native to Asia, the bark of the Cinnamomum evergreen tree has been used for centuries in Asian and African cuisines.

Cinnamon is harvested during the rainy season when the bark is more pliable; the bark is then rolled into the familiar sticks. The word “cinnamon” derives from Greek kinnamōmon, which itself came from the Hebrew qinnāmōn.

From the Middle Bronze Age

Gløgg, glüwein, mulled wine anyone? Cinnamon is an essential ingredient, but these beverages are actually latecomers to the mulled wine world.


Much earlier, ancient Egyptians were imbibing spiced medicinal wine, and in 1700 BC, revelers in a Canaanite palace were quaffing red and white wine that contained honey, mint, juniper berries—and cinnamon.

To the Middle Ages

Cinnamon eventually reached Europe, signaling wealth and prestige during the Middle Ages. It was used in baked goods, beverages, and meat-based dishes—and the more extravagant the use, the higher your social status.

The 1475 wedding of George, Duke of Bavaria, and Jadwiga of Poland required a staggering

386 pounds of pepper, 286 pounds of ginger, 257 pounds of saffron, 205 pounds of cinnamon, pounds of cloves, and 85 pounds of nutmeg (Freedman 2003).

Incidentally, cinnamon may have masked the taste of meat spoiling, with meat being another of those upper-class perks.

To Today—A Spice for Health?

This aromatic spice has been used medicinally for millennia, and today we know that cinnamon indeed has many health benefits.

The caveat is that much more research needs to be done. Like tea, the properties of cinnamon depend upon many factors such as where and how it is grown, the concentration used in the study, and the cinnamon variety.

Cassia cinnamon is the variety most likely to be found in our kitchens because it is more flavorful and less expensive, but Ceylon cinnamon seems to offer more health benefits. In high doses, cassia cinnamon is actually toxic.

Even with all the ambiguity, research does suggest that cinnamon may improve the function of insulin.

Like tea, cinnamon has antioxidant, anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial properties. In fact, when heated, its antibacterial benefits evidently increase.

Recent studies suggest that cinnamon also helps protect against cognitive problems, including Alzheimer’s disease.


So what’s not to like about cinnamon? Especially when blended with tea! 

Flavours and Fragrances of Plant Origin, FAO–Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Rome, Italy. 1995.
–Freedman, P. “Spices: how the search for flavors influenced our world,” YaleGlobal Online. 2003.
–LaMotte, S. “Cinnamon: Pantry staple—and medical powerhouse?” CNN. August 29, 2017.
–Seema, J. et al. “Effect of Cinnamomum zeylanicum extract on scopolamine-induced cognitive impairment and oxidative stress in rats,” Nutritional Neuroscience 18(5). 2015.
–”Spice pages,” Gernot Katzer’s Spice Pages.
–Wilford, J. N. “Wine cellar, well aged, is revealed in Israel,” The New York Times. November 23, 2013.


Tea in the Poison Garden

Tea. In the Poison Garden. In Ireland, land of tea drinkers.

Apparently recklessly risking their lives, in 2016 the Irish drank more tea per capita than any other country except Turkey!

Skull and crossbones on Camellia sinensis tea sign

So after being taken aback by the skull and crossbones, I did read the rest of the sign:

The ‘cup that cheers but not inebriates’ turns out to contain a highly addictive substance, caffeine, withdrawal of which results in a variety of unpleasant effects.

Contains caffeine and tannin. Caffeine is addictive; five cups a day are said to be sufficient to produce addiction. Withdrawal or reduced usage after excessive consumptions [sic] leads to dizziness, headaches, constipation, indigestion, palpitations and insomnia.

Camellia sinensis info sign

Well, okay, true enough.

But the sign continues:

The effects of caffeine addiction are, often, underestimated because it [sic] challenges the general view of what being an ‘addict’ means. But the physical affects [sic] of caffeine withdrawal are well documented and can be similar to withdrawal from tobacco or heroin.

Okay, aside from the grammar errors, I have issues with the information because, well—really?

Caffeine addiction can be equated to heroin addiction? I seriously think not.

I get that caffeine is addictive, and that it is a drug that happens to be legal. And I know that high levels of caffeine can be dangerous. But while a drink like Ammo apparently has around 171 mg of caffeine per ounce, tea has a paltry 3–6 mg of caffeine per ounce!

Maybe if you ate an entire tea plant? Daily?

tea plant

Okay, maybe I am overreacting. After all, the Poison Garden (which, granted, did contain some deadly plants) was located in Blarney Castle. Which was built in 1446.

But tea didn’t make it to Ireland until the 1800s.

Perhaps a tad bit of blarney here?

Click here to read my previous post, which introduced this poisonous plot. . . .

Next up: a look at what the rest of Ireland has to say about tea. . . .

Sources: (1) “Annual per capita tea consumption worldwide as of 2016, by leading countries (in pounds),” Statista; (2) “Ammo Energy Shot,” Caffeineinformer.


Can Drinking Tea Help Prevent the Flu?

computer mouse in teacup

tea leavesAs we hurtle toward the end of summer, back-to-school sales are ramping up, college dorms are filling up . . . and flu season is next up.

So the big question—does tea help prevent colds and flu???

We know that drinking liquids in general helps. As does gargling.

But it doesn’t look like gargling tea specifically makes much of a difference. Although early studies (e.g., Yamada 2006) were encouraging, in February researcher Ide and colleagues (2017) said that “green tea gargling may slightly reduce influenza compared with water gargling” but additional studies are needed. . . .

Of Mice and Tea

But this month, a more promising study—involving mice and, indirectly, tea—was published in Science.

Okay, the subjects were mice, and they weren’t exactly tea drinkers, so results are preliminary. Yet the results are exciting!

computer mouse in teacup
Mouse in teacup, oh, wrong mouse

Instead of looking to prevent flu, this study probed the body’s response to flu. Therefore, all the study mice were given the flu.

The scientists found that some mice suffered lung damage from the flu whereas other mice had no damage. The difference between the mice?

The ones who were shielded from lung damage had been given a specific metabolite, or DAT (desaminotyrosine).

And Flavonoids, Microbes, and Metabolites, the Short Version

microbe-webThe story is:

  • We all have microbes in our guts.
  • Some of these microbes break down or metabolize flavonoids, which are compounds found in plants (including tea leaves).
  • Flavonoids are good because they have “anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, vasodilatory, anticancerigenic, and antibacterial properties” (Schoefer 2003).
  • One of these microbes, Clostridium orbiscindens, breaks down certain flavonoids and makes a metabolite that helps with interferon signals.
  • An interferon is a protein that is released when a virus (like the flu virus) is present; it helps the immune system, inhibiting the virus from multiplying.
  • That metabolite is, you guessed it, DAT.

The Upshot:

virus-webSo all the mice had the flu virus. But those that had been treated with DAT experienced less flu-inflicted lung damage (such as pneumonia).

In other words, if the mice already had certain flavonoids—and the right microbes—in their guts, the byproducts from those microbes breaking down those flavonoids served to protect the mice from damage from the flu.

Presumably, then, the same would hold for people.

Next up:

Because we have lots of microbes in our guts, there are undoubtedly others that use flavonoids and, in the process, assist our immune systems. These need to be identified and studied. Also, how can we boost those beneficial microbes in people who have inadequate levels?

The Practical Take-away

So no, this study did not promise that drinking tea would prevent flu. It did, however, suggest that plant flavonoids just might mitigate the effects of flu!

And according to EurekAlert (2017),

the researchers said it might not be a bad idea to drink black tea and eat foods rich in flavonoids before the next flu season begins.

So, put on the kettle!cup of tea

–Ide, K. Y. Kawasaki, M. Akutagawa, and H. Yamada. “Effects of green tea gargling on the prevention of influenza infection: an analysis using Bayesian approaches,” J Altern Complement Med 2:116–20. February 23, 2017.
–Schoefer, L., R. Mohan, A. Schwiertz, A. Braune, and M. Blaut. “Anaerobic degradation of flavonoids by Clostridium orbiscindens,” Appl Environ Microbiol 69(10):5849–54. October 2003.
–Washington University School of Medicine, “Natural compound coupled with specific gut microbes may prevent severe flu,” EurekAlert AAAS, public release August 3, 2017.
–Yamada, H., N. Takuma, T. Daimon, and Y. Hara. “Gargling with tea catechin extracts for the prevention of influenza infection in elderly nursing home residents: a prospective clinical study,” J Altern Complement Med 7:669–72. September 12, 2006.
NOTE: Tea pictured is Lapsang Souchong from TeaHaus

Tea, Porcelain, and Our Brains—yes, there IS a connection here!

coffee-beans,-grinder-webAroma . . .

There is nothing quite like the tantalizing aroma of fresh coffee, at least to sleep-deprived me.

And if you—like me—feel as though just smelling the coffee makes you less sleepy, you may be experiencing an actual biological effect. Really! Some research studies have indicated that coffee’s aroma alone is enough to activate several genes and proteins that have antioxidant, anti-stress, and energy metabolism roles.*

The aroma of tea may also work on us physiologically. Its scent can evoke a positive response because we associate it with tea’s pleasing flavor, possibly serving to relax us.†

Studies abound for teasing out the effects of tea aromas because “smell leaves an imprint on the memory circuits” and can therefore be used in therapy for those with cognitive decline; in Britain, the aroma of teapots is used in work with the elderly—the scent rekindles their younger years.†

Anticipation . . .

In thinking about this power of aromas to transport a person across years, there is one particular new-textbook-smell that always induces a feeling of anticipation for me, taking me right back to elementary school, in a happy way. This expectation of learning segues into a fascinating and absolutely lovely exhibit of porcelain currently at the Indianapolis Museum of Art.

As guest curator Shirley Mueller explained as we toured her art & science exhibit, Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain,‡ our brains do react when we anticipate learning something, as well as when we see something beautiful. And her exhibit provides opportunities for these instinctive neural responses in spades!

Beauty . . .

My daughter and I learned a lot about early export Chinese porcelain—items produced specifically to be exported to Europe—as we oohed and aahed over the many pieces displayed, including this pair of tea caddies:

These caddies probably were used to store two different types of tea, distinguished by the caddy lids—one being white on blue and the other blue on white.

The beauty of the caddies is also no accident.

As humans, we want things to be beautiful, and as Shirley pointed out, we like to have beautiful things in our homes—we are sort of hardwired for this. In addition, with tea being a luxury item in the West in the 1600s, those lucky enough to be able to afford it wanted to display it along with its accoutrements (hence the eventual tea table, tea cart, china cabinet, and so on). Multiple reasons for the imported porcelain to be pretty!

Tea . . .

In the 1600s, the Chinese teas most likely imported to the West would have been those that traveled well, including Lapsang Souchong black tea (thoroughly dried with pine smoke), green gunpowder (its rolled leaves leave less surface area for the tea to absorb moisture or aromas), and the fermented pu-erh. Visitors to the exhibit can smell these teas (provided by TeaHaus) for themselves in this interactive display:

TH display-crop-web

If you’re wondering why Earl Grey is included, as it would not have been one of the teas exported early on, there is some evidence that bergamot was soon used in the West to mask the flavor of inferior teas (see my earlier post). Eventually, of course, Earl Grey developed into a tea that continues to be well-loved by Westerners.

Combined . . .

A cup of tea is indeed a thing of beauty at my home.

And its fragrant aroma may well transport me back in time . . . perhaps to dreaming about Europe at a time when I wouldn’t have been able to afford tea.

Nah. It just reminds me to get back to work!

*”Study results from H. S. Seo and colleagues update understanding of sleep deprivation,” Medical Devices & Surgical Technology Week, p. 369. August 10, 2008.
King, J. “Therapeutic effects of tea aromas,” Tea & Coffee Trade Journal 170(7):36. July 1998.
Elegance from the East: New Insights from Old Porcelain, exhibit by Shirley M. Mueller, Indianapolis Museum of Art, Indiana. May 26–October 22, 2017. Click here for more information about the exhibit, which is ongoing.
NOTE: Teas shown in exhibit are available at TeaHaus.

Drink Tea! Lose Weight?

best tea for weight loss!
weight-loss teas!!
drink tea to lose weight!!!

shangri-lade-montage-webWhat’s not to love about that?

Drink what I love and lose weight at the same time?!

Except for the fact that I drink tea all day long and have not experienced any notable weight loss. And the fact that I am always skeptical of claims written with exclamation marks!

But every so often these claims re-emerge in news reports—enough to keep people talking.

And it turns out that there is some science behind the claims—enough to keep scientists pursuing this line of research.

First, the secret to weight gain (or, what happens when we eat lots and lots of junk food)

Not so hard to figure out the cause and effect of food and physique! What happens physiologically is that:

  • fat cells get bigger
  • we get more fat cells

527 brew_crop

Second, can we counteract that??

Back in 2009, J. Söhle and colleagues looked at human precursor fat cells (preadipocytes) and white tea extract. Did tea affect whether the precursors matured into full-blown fat cells (or adipocytes, specialized cells that store fat)?

Short answer? Yes, actually.

And were their results tea dependent?

Well, they used white tea because it undergoes the least processing (oxidation) of all the teas, and only the new growth (buds and first leaves) of the plant are used. This means that white tea contains more polyphenols (including epigallocatechin [EGCG] and epicatechin) and more methylxanthines (caffeine and theobromine) than do green or black teas.

So about those results—

Söhle’s team (2009) found that the human cells exposed to white tea extract had lower triglyceride levels; the acting agent may be the polyphenol EGCG.

Lower triglyceride levels mean that fat is being broken down (lipolysis), with triglycerides being converted into fatty acids and glycerol.

Further, white tea extract appeared to discourage precursor fat cells from turning into full-fledged fat cells—at least in human subcutaneous cells. As Söhle et al. (2009) state,

This plant [white tea] extract is, therefore, an ideal natural source to modulate the adipocyte life cycle at different stages and to induce anti-obesity effects.

The caveat?

Exposing cells to white tea extract under laboratory and controlled circumstances is nowhere the same as a person drinking a cup of white tea.


We do know that tea—Camellia senensis leaves—provides many health benefits, and results of this study are definitely encouraging. So I am putting the kettle on right now!

Source: Söhle, J. et al. “White tea extract induces lipolytic activity and inhibits adipogenesis in human subcutaneous (pre)-adipocytes,” Nutrition & Metabolism 6:20. 2009.

Is Climate Change Real? Ask a Tea Grower!

Science cookies by TeaHaus, Ann Arbor

Many of us spent Saturday—Earth Day—thinking about our planet and our role  in caring for it.

So what about tea production? Any problems there? Should we be hoarding our favorite tea?!

From Damage in Darjeeling

During winter in Darjeeling, no tea is harvested, and the bushes are pruned to encourage new growth. Then in spring, warmer weather brings a burst of new leaves—the first flush so highly anticipated and valued.

Tea connoisseurs, of course, are thinking about first-flush Darjeeling’s incredible flavor.

A whole lot of other people, however, are more concerned about the economic ramifications of this first-flush harvest—because it accounts for around one-third of the year’s total tea value!

So just as farmers do everywhere, tea growers watch the weather. As quoted in the Economic Times (Sarkar 2017), scientist S. E. Kabir said:

Weather during this period plays [a] vital role behind quality and quantity of first flush. Tea is a chill loving plant and demands adequate humidity in air or soil. Less than normal humidity or above normal temperature can seriously retard metabolic function of bushes hampering its health rejuvenation.

This year, rainfall and humidity were first significantly lower, and temperatures significantly higher, than normal—followed by constant rain and no sunshine, which is equally detrimental to tea production (Ghosal 2017).

To Adversity in Assam

Meanwhile, over in Assam—one of the world’s largest tea-producing regions—heavy rains coupled with the failure of bushes to produce leaves are “likely to bring down total tea production by 30% during March, feel planters” (Ghosal 2017).

Sure, yearly fluctuations in weather are expected and normal. But are current weather problems normal?

Back in 2015 I wrote Assam Tea At Risk? Climate Change Threatens. And then, in 2016, Assam was beset:

–first by drought (bringing pests and plant loss)
–followed by heavy rains (plants didn’t get nutrients because there wasn’t enough sunlight, plus the sodden ground caused roots to rot)
–that brought widespread flooding (countless people were homeless with entire villages underwater)

Assam’s longer-term problems include:

  • Rainfall and monsoons have become less predictable.
  • Vacillations in rainfall are devastating to tea. A NASA program was designed to measure soil moisture (to allow smart irrigation)—but the equipment aboard the satellite malfunctioned (read more).
  • Soil fertility has deteriorated.
  • Lowland Assam tea is on the boundary of tea-growing regions, and so is the first affected by temperature increases (Kahn 2015).
  • Tea is produced by hand, so over two million workers in Assam are affected when tea quality and quantity decline.

So Is Tea at Risk?

The writing may well be in the [lack of] tea leaves.

–Doshi, V. “Flooding in India affects 1.6m people and submerges national park,” The Guardian, July 27, 2016.
–Ghosal, S. “Rains wash off tea’s premium edge,” Economic Times, April 3, 2017.
–Kahn, B. “Global warming changes the future for tea leaves,” Scientific American, June 4, 2015.
–Sarkar, D
. “Darjeeling’s high value first flush tea under trouble,” Economic Times, February 7, 2017.

Should You Microwave Your Tea? Part 2: Flavor

According to researcher Dr. Vuong (Hoh 2017), brewing tea in a microwave oven imparts greater health benefits and results in tastier tea.

So, About This Claim

While I cannot test the health factor (see my previous post), I can test the flavor! Admittedly my little experiment wouldn’t meet any laboratory standards, but anyway.

I brewed teabags (standard teabags, purchased from a grocery store) and loose leaf Chinese green teas (again, standard tea)—both in the conventional manner and with Dr. Vuong’s method.

Experiment 1: Brewing a Teabag

I used 8 ounces of hot water, steeping a teabag of Chinese green tea for 2 minutes.

I put a second teabag into hot water and immediately microwaved it for 30 seconds at half power, and then let it sit for a minute before removing the teabag, per Dr. Vuong, who advocates this method.

Neither he nor the teabag company suggested what temperature “hot” should be, so already this experiment is not at all controlled. Nor does Vuong provide what wattage the “half power” should be.

Experiment 2: Brewing Loose Leaf Tea

I measured a teaspoon of loose Chinese green tea and brewed it in 8 ounces of hot water for 2 minutes.

I put another teaspoon of loose tea into 8 ounces of hot water and immediately microwaved it for 30 seconds at half power. After letting it sit for an additional minute, I filtered out the leaves.

So Does the Microwave Make a Difference?

I had my husband and daughter do a blind taste test.

Teabag Results
preferred microwave version because it was stronger
Husband: thought the microwaved version was stronger but he preferred the conventionally brewed one
Daughter: thought the microwaved version was stronger but the conventionally brewed one was sweeter

Loose Leaf Tea Results
Me: microwaved version was awful so totally preferred the conventionally brewed version
Husband: preferred conventionally brewed one
Daughter: thought the conventionally brewed tea was stronger but the microwaved one was sweeter

The Upshot

With Teabags
It seems—based on this extremely limited trial—that if you are using a teabag and you like stronger tea, you may want to give the microwave a try.

These results intuitively make sense because in this photo of the teabag contents after brewing, you can see that the tea leaves have been chopped into tiny bits.

When they are brewed, there is a lot of surface area and the flavor is quickly extracted.

The microwave apparently maximizes that process, without contributing bitterness to the brew.

With Loose Leaf Tea
If, however, you have loose leaf tea, I personally would follow the recommended conventional brewing method.

For the loose leaf tea, the leaves are in large pieces or nearly whole, as seen in the photo here, taken after brewing.

Compared to small bits of leaves, whole leaves retain more of their flavor and health benefits, and they also release them more slowly—which is why many green, white, and oolong teas can, and often should, be brewed more than once.

The microwave was not sufficient, at least in my little study, to extract the flavor that I expect from these leaves.

Source: Hoh, A. “Microwaving tea the best way to brew and extract health benefits,” ABC News, April 10, 2017