For fortune-tellers, gazing into tea leaves reveals the future. For tea-drinkers, the leaves of certain teas may be harbingers of a healthier future.

Aside from herbal or fruit-infused teas, most teas come from the leaves of the same tea bush, Camellia sinensis. The benefit of each kind of tea from the Camellia sinensis depends upon when and where the leaves are harvested and how their properties are brewed or extracted. To get to the truth about tea, we need to gaze into the leaves a bit, too.

Green tea

Read the leaves: Green tea reigns as the current health superstar of teas. Young leaves of the Camellia sinensis bush are harvested to make green tea, then steamed, dried, and rolled. When brewed, the leaves yield a delicate, grassy flavour. Tons of varieties exist, infused with different flavours, like fruit or toasted rice. Some kinds are handled differently, as with the "gunpowder" variety, in which the leaves are rolled into balls that look like gunpowder pellets used in cannons.

Harvest the benefits: Tea from the Camellia sinensis family contain catechins, a type of antioxidant that can protect cells in the body from oxidative damage that may lead to cancers. Because it goes through less processing than other tea types, green tea contains a higher amount of a certain kind of catechin called EGCG.

EGCG is at the heart of numerous scientific studies researching green tea's potential medical uses and health benefits. Some of its suspected uses include:

  • helping to maintain healthy weight
  • slowing the growth of some cancers and lowering risks of others
  • reducing inflammation associated with rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn's disease and ulcerative colitis
  • reducing the risk of death from cardiovascular disease

Is all this a tempest in a teacup? Can green tea live up to all of its hype? Most people don't drink enough to get the kinds of results seen in research studies, in which highly dense extracts of green tea may be used. Still, risks of cardiovascular disease and prostate cancer were found to be drastically reduced when people drank 5 cups per day (one cup of green tea provides 20-35 mg of EGCG). Drinking 5 cups of green tea each day may work for some, but even one or two a day may give you some of the benefits.

Black tea

Read the leaves: Known as "red tea" in some cultures, black tea is created from the withering, crushing, oxidizing, and drying of the leaves of Camellia sinensis. Since the leaves are oxidized, which darkens the leaves and gives it its recognizable "tea" flavour, some of the health benefits are leached out of the tea. Black tea provides the base for many tea blends, including the popular Earl Grey and English Breakfast teas. Chai - named with the Hindi word for tea - is a blend of black tea and spices, including cloves, cinnamon, and ginger.

Harvest the benefits: The ritual of taking tea offers a moment of respite from stress, and black tea specifically has been linked to lowering the levels of stress hormones in the body. Despite its reputation as a tooth-stainer, black tea may have dental benefits because of its fluoride content. Black tea may also aid the healing process of those with coronary artery disease. And like its greener kin, black tea contains antioxidants and is a low-calorie, low-fat beverage.

White tea

Read the leaves: To create the "white" variety of tea, the youngest buds and leaves of Camellia sinensis are harvested in early spring. They are then put through an even more delicate process than the leaves of green tea: low heat, no rolling, extended time to wither. White tea's caffeine content varies depending on the blend and quality of the leaves. Its flavour is described as sweet.

Harvest the benefits: White tea extract has lately been added to some toothpaste brands because of its purported ability to fight the growth of bacteria on teeth. Due to its extra-delicate processing, white tea retains even more of its antioxidants than green tea and holds promise as a potential sunscreen additive.

Let these ideas steep

Keep the following in mind as you decide whether to add some tea to your days:

  • Tea may contain less caffeine than coffee, but it is caffeine nonetheless. Caffeine has been linked to high blood pressure and can trigger symptoms of conditions, including heartburn and headaches.
  • The tannins in tea may interfere with or decrease the effectiveness of some medications. Ask your doctor or pharmacist whether your medications can mix with green tea.
  • The tannins may also hinder iron absorption.
  • Women who are pregnant should not drink large amounts of green tea. EGCG can interfere with neural tube development.
  • Mixing tea with citrus may up its antioxidant strength.
  • To get the most of tea's benefits, drink it freshly brewed, rather than bottled. Let tea steep for a few minutes to release the catechins.