I thought I was in the minority, but, turns out, my love for tea isn't so unique: Tea just so happens to be the most popular beverage in the world besides water. Yes, it even beats coffee. I love tea for the variety of flavors, but it doesn't hurt that it has some serious health benefits too. Some studies have shown that the antioxidants found in the tea leaf can help prevent cancer, improve metabolic and cardiovascular function, and could even slow the progression of degenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s). With that info in my back pocket, I was confident that my sipping would have me soaring.
So when I first heard that tea bags can sneak in some pretty gnarly ingredients, I was shocked. No way. Not possible. I decided to do some digging and look into just how problematic my go-to afternoon pick-me-up could be. Isn't it just tossing a tea bag into hot water? If you regularly enjoy a cozy afternoon cuppa tea, you'll want to be aware of these super-sh*tty ingredients that might be lurking in your mug.
OK, so we obviously aren’t sharing anything new by telling you that exposure to pesticides probably isn’t great for your health. But if tea isn’t something you would normally associate with the dangers of agricultural chemicals, think again.
Multiple studies have been conducted in the past few years, and each one concluded that, yes, pesticides exist in a ton of teas: A study in 2012 found pesticides in 100 percent of the teas tested; a follow-up study in 2014 discovered pesticides in 94 percent of samples. What’s worse, many of the brands contained quantities considered unsafe for regular consumption. The FDA’s 2014 Pesticide Report found unacceptable levels of pesticides in 57 percent of the retail teas tested.
Not what you expected in your cup, right? Here's the thing: Occasional pesticide exposure isn’t likely to cause any devastating health problems. The challenge here is that long-term consequences of pesticide consumption aren't definitive, but a study like this is proof that it can't be good. If you’re someone who drinks tea on a regular basis, this is definitely something to be wary of.
One nutritional tidbit you might not have known is that drinking tea can contribute to your daily dose of calcium, potassium, magnesium, and zinc. But these aren’t the only minerals in your brew.
A study published in the Journal of Toxicology tested for toxic elements in a variety of common tea brands, and the findings are pretty unsettling. Seventy-three percent of brewed teas contained lead when steeped for the standard time of 3-4 minutes, and the quantity was even higher when steeped for longer. Umm, lead in my tea? Thank you, next. They also found potentially unsafe levels of aluminum, cadmium, and, oh yeah, arsenic. Feeling queasy yet?
I bet you’re wondering, how the heck does lead get into a tea bag? Companies would never add these toxins to products on purpose (or at least, we’d like to think they wouldn’t); it really all depends on where the tea was grown. Heavy metals inevitably accumulate in the soil on tea plantations due to the close proximity to coal-fired power plants, industrial waste runoff, and pesticide use.
One upside is that young tea leaves contained lower levels of heavy metals compared to mature tea leaves because their roots had less time to absorb the toxic elements in the soil. The only problem is young leaves are typically more expensive, and most large tea companies rely on mature leaves for their product.
If you think the leaves themselves are the only problem in your teacup, you’d be wrong. You know those fancy-looking tea bags shaped like little silk pyramids? You probably thought those were made out of some type of cloth… nope. They’re typically made of plastic: polyethylene terephthalate (PET) or polypropylene, to be exact. Again, not the first thing you’d instinctively steep in a cup of boiling water before drinking it.
While there aren't a ton of studies spelling this out for us, I'm going to make an educated guess here and bet that plastic tea bags are iffy because there's a good chance they’re leaching BPA and other endocrine-disrupting chemicals into your beverage, and why many reusable water bottles and plastic food storage containers are now BPA-free. Bisphenol A (BPA) has been linked to cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and serious problems with reproductive development. Then there’s the whole laundry list of estrogen-mimicking chemicals that can mess up your entire reproductive system and even increase your risk of getting cancer.
If you apply this information to tea, it’s likely that those chemicals are leaching out of your plastic tea bag and into your cup, just like they’d leach out into a single-use plastic water bottle. The history of tea drinking is estimated to be nearly 3,000 years old, but it wasn’t until after World War II that people began using tea bags in the infusion process. And it’s too bad they started because tea tastes way better when you use loose-leaf, plus you can get an adorable little infuser like this guy.
One of the sneakiest things tea companies can do is trick you into thinking you’re drinking something you’re not. Generally speaking, if you’re drinking something with a name like Raspberry Pizzaz or Tropical Sunset, odds are there are not actual raspberries or mangos in that tea bag.
This is because food scientists and flavor engineers are masters at manipulating synthetic chemicals to create flavors that mimic those of real foods. Oh, and don’t get me started on all the FDA loopholes companies can use to label something natural instead of artificial. It’s essentially code for all kinds of chemicals that don’t have to be explicitly listed—so read your labels and always buy organic when possible.
Tell me something positive, please.
We have some good news too. A lot of progress has been made regarding many of the issues we just discussed. In 2017, China promised to implement stricter regulations on pesticide usage, and many major tea companies have switched to plastic-free tea bags and more biodegradable options.
And you can now get your tea locally grown. Yes, that's correct: U.S.-grown tea is becoming a thing. What was once a crop almost exclusively grown in China and India is now being cultivated in our own backyards. Tea can only thrive in very specific climatic conditions, but there are some regions in the United States that allow relatively large farms to flourish, especially in tropical Hawaii, California, and some parts of the Southeast.
Where do we go from here?
OK, so we know that was a lot to take in. We can see you pushing that mug away—but you don't have to. We’re not trying to freak you out, just laying out all the facts so you can make more informed choices and look into your favorite brands to make sure they're making all the right calls. Because let's be serious, tea can be super good for you. It’s just a matter of figuring out what to watch out for and knowing where to buy the high-quality stuff.
The best way to avoid potentially harmful ingredients is by buying organic, ideally loose-leaf tea. Organic tea leaves aren’t sprayed with pesticides the way their non-organic counterparts are, making them a much healthier choice. Loose-leaf tea is frequently higher quality (which usually means younger leaves and less heavy metals), and you can buy compostable tea filters or stainless steel tea infusers that are just as convenient as the pre-bagged alternative.
Don’t worry, though, we’re not going to leave the task of finding healthy high-quality tea entirely up to you. We’ve done some digging to determine a few of the best tea brands that you can feel confident drinking. Numi Tea, Traditional Medicinals (specifically herbal but still a great choice), Mighty Leaf Tea, Mountain Rose Herbs, Vahdam Teas, and the Little Red Cup Tea Co. are all great options. And let's not forget about local tea shops, where you can talk to people who really know their stuff to get all the details.