For many people, sipping on a cup of tea is a good way to unwind after a long day. The drink is found to be the most widely consumed beverage in the world next to water, as approximately half of the American population drinks tea on a daily basis, says The Tea Association of the USA. The tea industry in the U.S. is expected to expand because tea continues to receive medical appraisal for its health benefits.

According to the most recent data provided by the American Tea Association, 2011 was the 20th consecutive year that consumer purchases of tea increased, with retail supermarket sales surpassing the $2.20 billion dollar mark. What's more, consumption away from home has seen a yearly increase of at least 10 percent in the past decade. More than 5,000 studies done on the health benefits of tea have many choosing what was once thought a subordinate drink to coffee. But while opting for tea may be driven by health-conscious motives, the ingredients found in your cup could make you think twice about taking another sip.

Modern tea brands such as Celestial Seasonings and Teavana are widely consumed because of the supported claims that the antioxidants found in tea can ward off chronic illnesses and diseases. "It's anti-carcinogenic. It modulates your (blood) pressure. It's good for your heart. It has antioxidants," said Sundeep Mukherjee, principal adviser to the Darjeeling Tea Association, to USA Today. The health claims have proven to be valid, but the kind of ingredients in your cup of tea can also counteract the benefits of the drink.

Vari Hari, who runs the food blog Food Babe, has performed a series of investigations that involve questioning the practices of food companies. As an avid tea consumer who has a whole drawer dedicated to tea, Hari examined the ingredients found in conventional teas. The investigation has led her to “never look at tea in the same way again,” she said in her blog.

Pesticides In Your Tea

Celestial Seasonings

In an analysis done by the Glaucus Research Group, the company found a jaw-dropping amount of pesticides in one of the most popularly consumed tea brands, Celestial Seasonings. Ninety-one percent of the teas from this brand were found to have pesticide residues that exceeded pesticide tolerances, or limits, in the U.S. Most teas are not washed before they are placed in the tea bags, putting tea drinkers at risk of being exposed to cancer-causing pesticides. Hari gave the example of Sleepytime Kids Goodnight Herbal that contained 0.26 ppm of propachlor, a herbicide and a carcinogen under California’s Proposition 65.

Celestial Seasonings has received two letters issued by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) regarding the poor quality in its tea ingredients after propargite was found in Celestial Seasonings' Wellness tea line. The carcinogen and developmental toxin, propargite, was classified as a human carcinogen based on the appearance of intestinal tumors in test animals, reports the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Teavana

The popularly consumed tea brand, Teavana, claims to provide tea consumers with “fresh, high quality loose leaf teas” on its website. The high-end loose leaf tea brand has been found guilty of having pesticides present in its products. According to Hari’s investigation, Teavana tea was tested by the Glaucus Research Group lab where 100 percent of the tea was found to contain pesticides. The lab also found that 62 percent of the Teavana teas contained endosulfan, a banned pesticide in the U.S., China, and 144 other countries because it has been linked to impaired fertility and other damage to agricultural coworkers.

Artificial Flavoring

A majority of Teavana teas, such as Wild Orange Blossom, contain added flavor. The brochures for these teas contain phrases such as “no artificial colors,” and the ingredients list says “flavoring,” but leaves it ambiguous as to whether or not these flavors are natural or artificial. The added flavors in Teavana teas possibly contain manipulations of chemicals such as crude oil and coal tar. Coal tar is an additive used in flavoring of candy, alcohol, and other foods, says Healthychild.org.

Natural Flavors

When purchasing tea, consumers will often notice that it says "natural flavors" on the ingredients list. The word "natural" is used to manipulate consumers into thinking that they are buying a product with better, cleaner ingredients compared to other products that don’t advertise the same phrase. Hari spoke with Ahmed Rahim, CEO of Numi Tea, who said, “You can breakdown anything that is found in nature and if it ends up tasting like the flavor you wish to use – you can add it to any product and call it natural flavor on the ingredient label. It could come from a stone in the ground and you’d never know.” Tea companies are not the only ones guilty of this practice; many other food companies use this technique and, without any FDA restriction, can include any “natural flavor” ingredient that they wish to put in their product.

GMOs

The link between GMOs (genetically modified organism) and tea is not often made by tea drinkers, but Hari’s investigation reveals that tea companies may be adding GMOS to their products. Modified corn starch and soy lecithin are additives in tea that are most likely made with genetically engineered corn and soy, reports Hari. Recently in March, the Republic of Tea announced that 22 teas on the market received verification from the Non-GMO Project, meaning that its products do not contain any GMOs. For a list of full-leaf loose teas and tea bag teas that are a part of this project, visit the Non-GMO Project.  

Tea Bag & Packaging Material: Paper Or Plastic?

Plastic

Brands like Tea Forte and Mighty Lead contain bags that are designed to show the tea leafs for aesthetic appeal. Hari unveiled that these bags — described as “silky sachets” and “luxurious mesh bags” — are made of plastic. PLA (polylactic acid) is a corn-based tea bag material that claims to be biodegradable. The processing of PLA is said to remove the traces of genetic material but the PLA itself is still made with GMOs. The tea bag, while not an ingredient in the tea, is still part of the tea-making process as it is placed into boiling water.

While most tea bags are made from food-grade nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), considered the two safest plastics, the molecules inside the plastic tea bags can break down and leak out when immersed in boiling water, said Dr. Mercola on his website. Glass transition, during which molecules in certain materials begin to break down, could potentially leach out harmful phthalates if your tea product contains them, said Hari.

Paper

Paper tea bags also pose a potential harm to tea drinkers. Paper tea bags are treated with the compound epichlorohydrin, which is considered a potential carcinogen by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health and is also used as a pesticide. When this compound comes into contact with water, it is found to breakdown 3-MCPD, an organic chemical compound and carcinogen that has been linked to cancer in animals, infertility in male rats, and impaired immune function.

 

For organic and non-GMO-certified tea brands recommended by Hari, look at the list below:

·         Numi

·         Traditional Medicinals

·         Rishi Tea