Tea can do a whole lot out of the kitchen, like soothe sunburn and de-stink a smelly gym bag, but how can we optimize the superfood in its mug form? Tea is an antioxidant-rich beverage full of catechins, which help protect the heart and swoop in to attack free radicalsEffects of infusion time and addition of milk on content and absorption of polyphenols from black tea. Kyle, J.A., Morrice, P.C., McNeill, G. et al. Rowett Research Instititue, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2007 Jun 13;55(12):4889-94. Epub 2007 May 10.Catechins: natural free-radical scavengers against ochratoxin A-induced cell damage in a pig kidney cell line (LLC-PK1). Costa, S., Utan, A., Cervellati, R. Department of Pharmacology, Bologna University, Bologna, Italy. Food and Chemical Toxicology, 2007 Oct;45(10):1910-7. Epub 2007 May 4.. Sounds lovely and all, but it turns out there are ways we can kill tea’s potential, like by adding a splash of milk or buying it at the store. Read on to find out what to add (a fresh squeeze of lemon!) and subtract from tea time for an optimal sipping experience — both for taste and health!

Boosting Tea

1. So Fresh Over time the oils in tea can break down. This can affect the way it tastes, so it’s best to buy tea from a store with high turnover. Tea can last up to two years if it’s stored in a cool, dry place (try an airtight container). It shouldn’t make us sick after it passes the expiration date, but tea will taste best if you use it within six months.

2. Get Loose Since tea needs room to expand to release its entire flavor potential, try out the loose-leaf variety. If you want to stick to tea bags (for ease and efficiency’s sake) pick larger ones, like these (often shaped like pyramids), which provide the leaves more room to bloom. But keep in mind tea bags may inhibit the extraction of vitamin B9, which is crucial for brain function, so try steeping loose-leaf tea in a tea ballFolacin content of tea. Chen, T.S., Lui, C.K., Smith, C.H. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 1983 Jun;82(6):627-32..

3. Test the Waters Since a cup of tea is (you guessed it!) mostly water, it’s not a bad idea to opt for spring or filtered tap water. Water’s pH level as well as chlorine, minerals, and compounds like metals, calcium, and sulphates can change the taste of tea.

4. Heating Up Just like the content of the water makes a difference, so does its temp. Black teas require boiling water (212 degrees) to steep, while green, white, and oolong teas need it a bit cooler (170-180 degrees) because they contain fewer tannins (the polyphenols that give wine or tea an astringent taste).

5. Not Too Much, Not Too Little

Stick to 1½ to 2 teaspoons of tea per cup of water for bigger tea leaves (generally the green variety) or herbal teas. Just 1 teaspoon works for most black teas that are more compact and have an extended drying time (a tea-preparation process in which the leaves shake over a heat source until they dry and the flavor is locked in). If you’re looking for a stronger flavor, add more tea, not time.

6. Watch the Clock

If tea is oversteeped it will taste pretty bitter because it starts to release tannins. The drink is still safe (oversteeped tea is sometimes used as a home remedy for diarrhea) but it won’t be so tastySteep your genes in health: drink tea. Matthews, C.M. From the Division of Gynecologic Oncology, Department of Gynecology and Department of Oncology, Baylor University Medical Center and Baylor Charles A. Sammons Cancer Center, Dallas, Texas. Baylor University Medical Center, 2010 April; 23(2): 142-144.Descriptive analysis and U.S. consumer acceptability of 6 green tea samples from China, Japan, and Korea. Lee, J., Chambers, D.H. Hospitality Management, Culinary Arts, and Food Science, Drexel Univ., Philadelphia, PA. Journal of Food Science, 2010 Mar;75(2):S141-7.. Black teas need about three to five minutes to steep in the water, while green, white, and lighter oolong teas need just two to three minutes to achieve max antioxidant powerEffects of infusion time and addition of milk on content and absorption of polyphenols from black tea. Kyle, J.A., Morrice, P.C., McNeill, G. et al. Rowett Research Institue, Scotland, U.K. Journal of Agricultural Food Chemistry, 2007 Jun 13;55(12):4889-94. Epub 2007.. Herbal teas have fewer tannins (and isn’t really tea, but actually an infusion of herbs) so it’s OK if you get caught up in folding the laundry while it’s steeping.

7. Don’t Cry Over Spilled Milk While milk makes tea a creamy, dreamy, sit-by-the-fire-wrapped-in-a-blanket kind of beverage, it can also take away some health benefits because milk proteins bind with polyphenols in the food and drinks we consumeInteraction of dietary polyphenols with bovine milk proteins: molecular structure-affinity relationship and influencing bioactivity aspects. Xiao, J., Mao, F., Yang, F. Department of Biology, College of Life and Environment Science, Shanghai Normal University, Shanghai, PR China. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 2011 Nov;55(11):1637-45.Oxidation of tea extracts and tea catechins by molecular oxygen. Roginsky, V., Alegria, A.E. N. Semenov Institute of Chemical Physics, Russian Academy of Sciences, Moscow, Russian Federation.. Adding whole, low fat, and skim milk reduced black tea’s antioxidant capacity, but skim milk reduced it significantly more than the other twoAddition of whole, semiskimmed, and skimmed bovine milk reduces the total antioxidant capacity of black tea. Ryan, L., Petit, S. Functional Food Center, School of Life Sciences, Oxford Brookes University, Oxford, United Kingdom. Nutrition Research, 2010 Jan;30(1):14-20.. Non-dairy creamers, like the soy milk variety, can also decrease tea’s health potentialTea enhances insulin activity. Anderson, R.A., Polansky, M.M. Nutrient Requirements and Functions Laboratory, Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Beltsville, Maryland. Journa of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2002 Nov 20;50(24):7182-6..

8. Iron Man (or Woman) Drinking tannin-containing beverages like tea with meals can contribute to iron deficiency for people eating a veggie-based diet (or people with low levels of iron)The effect of tea on iron absorption. Disler, P.B., Lynch, S.R., Charlton, R.W. Gut, 1975 March; 16(3): 193-200.. Other studies say tea shouldn’t affect iron absorption all too much, but to be safe, drink tea between meals or wait at least one hour after eating before sippingImpact of tea drinking on iron status in the UK: a review. Nelson, M., Poulter, J. Department of Nutrition and Dietetics, King’s College London, London, UK. Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics, 2004 Feb;17(1):43-54..

9. Skip the Bottle Store-bought teas typically lose 20 percent of EGCg content (that’s the catechins) during the bottling process. If you really want tea (and you want it now!) then shoot for bottled versions with an acid like lemon juice or citric acid, which help stabilize EGCg levelsDegradation of green tea catechins in tea drinks. Chen, Z., Zhu, Q.Y., Tsang, D. Department of Biochemistry, The Chinese University of Hong Kong, Shatin, New Territories, Hong Kong, The People’s Republic of China. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, 2001 Jan;49(1):477-82..

10. Squeeze on the Citrus Adding lemon increases tea’s antioxidant potentialComparative study of antioxidant potential of tea with and without additives. Tewari, S., Gupta, V., Bhattacharya, S. Department of Physiology, K.G. Medical College, Lucknow. Indian Journal of Physiological Pharmacology, 2000 Apr;44(2):215-9.. Vitamin C provides an acidic condition for catechins inside our bodies, making them more available for absorption. Normally tea’s catechins become super-unstable in the high acidity of our intestines. Adding a citrus can also help make tea tastier as it cuts some bitterness. Any citrus juice (lime, orange, grapefruit) will do!Common tea formulations modulate in vitro digestive recovery of green tea catechins. Green, R.J., Murphy, A.S., Schulz, B. Department of Food Science, Purdue University, West Lafayette. Molecular Nutrition & Food Research, 2007 Sep;51(9):1152-62..

11. Ice-T While there are concerns ice can dilute not only the flavor of tea but also its health superpowers, research shows iced tea still hangs on to its antioxidants. The important thing to remember is that homemade ice tea (not made from the powdered stuff) usually has more antioxidants than most store-bought teas.

12. Get Yo’ Drink On Drink four cups a day — that’s not even four tall-sized cups at Starbucks — for optimal health benefits like controlling body weight and reducing the risk for diabetesTea Consumption and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes in Europe: The EPIC-InterAct Case-Cohort Study. The InterAct Consortium. PLoS One. 2012; 7(5): e36910.Green Tea Supplementation Affects Body Weight, Lipids, and Lipid Peroxidation in Obese Subjects with Metabolic Syndrome. Basu, A., Sanchez, K., Leyva, M.J. Nutritional Sciences, Human Environmental Sciences, Oklahoma State University, Stillwater, Oklahoma, USA..

How do you like your tea? What else do you like to add to tea that we missed? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.