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The Biology of Tea – The Secret is in the Science

The tea tree plant, scientifically known as Camellia sinensis, produces a large number and variety of teas.  Here is a brief lesson on the science behind the tea tree’s success.  Why has it been cultivated and consumed around the globe, in more than 100 countries, for more than three thousand years?  Science. That’s why.

The Biology Behind Tea Flavor
Tea gets its flavor from three main metabolites. These are small structures that fuel and signal   interactions within a cell
and inhibit effects of enzymes (proteins that speed up chemical processes.) These metabolites are theanine, caffeine and catechin.

  • Theanine is an amino acid that is associated with inducing feelings of physical and mental calmness. It works together with caffeine.
  • Caffeine is a central nervous stimulant that combats fatigue and improves alertness.
  • Catechin is an antioxidant (substances that can slow or prevent damage to cells.) It is linked to many health benefits, especially cardiovascular function.

 Processing Changes Tea Biology
Tea was once consumed by just adding the leaves to boiling water.  Now tea leaves are processed through a series of steps to decrease the water content, deactivate enzymes, and form special aromas and tastes.  These processing steps are important in producing the chemical and sensory characteristics of each type of tea.  These include withering, fixation, rolling, fermentation and drying.

  • Withering is a process in which tea leaves are placed on the ground or withering groove with continuous ventilation to lose water.
  • Fixation is accomplished by slightly heating tea leaves. It deactivates enzymes and removes unwanted scents without changing the flavor.
  • Rolling is a shaping process for forming curled tea leaves and promote the release of tea juice and enzymes.
  • Fermentation (chemical breakdown by microorganisms) is conducted in a warm, high humid condition. This process alters the chemistry of tea leaves and typically mellows the taste and reduces bitterness. It also helps in decreasing the amount of caffeine.
  • Drying and roasting is usually the last step in processing. This is done to preserve tea’s shelf life and prevent the degradation of the original compounds, appearance, aroma and taste.

This blog has just touched the tip of the tea leaf in terms of how science is the secret behind the longevity and continued consumption of tea.  There is so much more!  Science is digging deep into tea by decoding the plant’s genome, opening possible cultivating of “super teas”.  The many health benefits of tea are researched and backed by science, supporting evidence that tea can regulate and improve many of the body’s processes.  These can be discussed in future blogs.
For now, when it comes to tea, the Tea Can Company would like to quote the words of Bill Nye the Science Guy,
“Science Rules!”

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