It’s odd to think of a nearly 5,000-year-old beverage as trendy, but in America tea is becoming exactly that. With annual sales growing from an estimated $1.84 billion to more than $6 billion since 1990, it’s crossed over from the Birkenstock set to the rest of us. That’s good news for anyone with the adventure bug, because traditional tea, as opposed to herbals like chamomile, can provide an all-natural boost that’s a lot easier on you than coffee or, worse, energy drinks.
Traditional tea comes from Camellia sinensis, an evergreen plant native to China’s tropical Yunnan province. It shares coffee’s pick-me-up appeal but has an amino acid, L-theanine, that causes its naturally occurring caffeine to have a milder, steadier effect that peaks after 60 minutes or so and falls to half strength over the next four to six hours. Tea expert Paul Holmgren describes the effect as a “more friendly, approachable boost” than coffee’s.
Tea’s powerful antioxidants, called catechins, may be able to repair certain types of cellular damage that can lead to cancer. And observational studies in Asia, where folks drink as many as five cups a day, point to a possible connection between green tea and reduced cardiovascular disease. Now, traditional tea is gaining traction with the endurance set, as marathoners carry diluted bottles on long runs. “Recent animal studies suggest that green tea’s combination of caffeine and a polyphenol [a healing antioxidant] called EGCG has the potential to improve endurance,” says University of Miami sports nutritionist Lisa Dorfman.