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Why herbal tea isn’t actually tea

Why herbal tea isn’t actually tea

Do you know how many teas in your supermarket are really tea?

Today I went to my local supermarket to find out… and I think you might be surprised at the answer.

But first, let me explain the difference.
The tea plant Camellia Sinensis
Its all about Camellia Sinensis – the tea plant
The easy-to-understand definition of tea is that it is the dried (and subsequently infused) leaves from the plant Camellia Sinensis – known as the ‘tea plant’ (pictured right).

If the leaves/dried plant aren’t from Camellia Sinensis then it isn’t tea and really, shouldn’t be named so.

So, how did Camellia Sinensis become known as the tea plant, and its dried leaves as tea?

The short story of tea
Tea has a very long history – starting in 2737BC when Emperor Shen Nung ‘accidentally’ drunk tea when leaves from a Camellia Sinensis tree he was sitting under fell into his pot of boiling water; and when he drunk the infusion, he experienced a wonderful state which ‘gave joy to the body and sparkle the eyes’. (1)

Tea has been inscribed in Chinese literature, ceremony and culture for centuries and it very much centres around the leaves from the Camellia Sinensis tea plant, not, importantly, from their preparation method. (See notes below if you want to know more about tea's history).

A tea maker’s touch
Tea isn’t simply, however, the dried Camellia Sinensis leaf steeped in hot water.

There is an incredible amount of skill used by the tea maker that goes into to crafting fine quality tea - from plant care and cultivation to determining when and which leaves are plucked, to overseeing the processes of withering, oxidising, rolling, heating, compressing, firing, drying and sorting.

Over the thousands of years of tea craftsmanship, six different categories of tea have emerged: white, green, yellow, oolong, black and dark (fermented) tea. These are all created from the Camelia Sinensis leaf, but have very deliberate processing steps (as mentioned above) that change the colour, shape, flavour and nutrient make-up of the tea and it is these steps that determine which of the six categories the tea fits into.

So you can see tea is much more than simply plucking and drying plant leaves then infusing them in hot water.

Plant-based herbal infusions – herbal ‘tea’?
Plant-based infusions have been used in traditional Chinese medicine and Indian Ayurvedic medicine for centuries, and in the West more recently in relative terms. They have moved on from being consumed purely for medicinal purposes (as happened with tea in China more than 1500 years ago) and are now enjoyed not only for their health benefits, but for relaxation and pleasure as well.

Good quality herbal infusions are very much a worthy, enjoyable, beneficial beverage in their own right (I drink them!) – they’re just not tea. And there is consensus amongst tea specialists, that any non-Camellia Sinensis, plant-based infusion shouldn’t be called tea.

In her book, Tea Classified, British tea specialist Jane Pettigrew says “Many herbs and flowers, for example camomile, mint, rosehip, hibiscus are used to give soothing, beneficial brews but if the leaves of the tea plant [Camellia Sinensis] are not included, neither the dried product nor the liquor should be referred to as ‘tea’.[…] Packaging should make it clear to consumers what is actually inside the packet.” (2)

Why we call herbal infusions ‘tea’
We don’t call anything that isn’t made from the coffee bean, ‘coffee’, so why do we refer to infusions that aren’t from the tea plant, ‘tea’?

It seems that, at some point between the introduction of tea from China to Britain in the 16th century and the 20th century, we in the West started to refer to any hot, planted-based infusion as ‘tea’.

My view of where the confusion comes from is the preparation method. Because a dried plant such as Peppermint is steeped in hot water to extract its flavour and nutrients using a tea pot, tea bag or infuser net, the leaves removed, and the infusion sipped - all in the same way as we steep and drink tea; it feels like we are preparing and drinking a tea.

Another reason for the misunderstanding may be because of the use of the tea bag being transferred to herbal infusions. The tea bag was invented by Thomas Sullivan in 1901 as an easy way to infuse tea leaves (this, incidentally, led to the large scale, machine-based manufacturing of ‘CTC’ tea in the 1930s). All manner of dried plants are now packaged in tea bags, causing understandable confusion for the consumer about what is tea and what isn’t.

For me, the giveaway, is when you look at the ingredients on a packet of flavoured tea and you see, for example, with Ti Ora’s green tea blend: ‘Green Tea, Apple, Rosehip, Hibiscus, Liquorice Root, Natural Flavours , Orange Peel, Kawakawa leaf, Passionfruit Juice Granules, Peach Juice Granules’* on the list of ingredients - so the maker is identifying the green tea as tea, but not the dried flowers or fruit.

What do we call it?
Perhaps it’s now easy to see why only leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant should be called ‘tea’; but what do we call its non-caffeinated substitute?

The correct term for non-Camellia Sinensis brews is:
1) infusion (or herbal infusion), or
2) tisane.

So, do we make the choice to respect the tea plant, the dedicated and skilled tea makers, the complex craft that goes into making tea and its incredible and natural variation and depth of flavour by only calling true tea, ‘tea’?

For me personally, I feel any eateries or companies selling herbal infusions have a duty to call them by the correct terminology. But for drinkers, as long as you understand the difference, if you ask for a ‘camomile tea’ at a café rather than a ‘camomile infusion’ or ‘camomile tisane’, I’m not going to lose any sleep over it. Let’s face it, ‘tea’ rolls off your tongue much easier that its alternatives!

Finally, can you guess how many of the 177 packets of 'tea' in my supermarket were really tea??...

81 - that’s only 46% (and that includes flavoured teas). 

I’ve had a cold for the last few days so I’m off to make a cup of ginger and lemon tea. Oops, I mean tisane 😊

~ Anna

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Notes and citations:

(1) The Camellia Sinensis Tea House. (2014) Tea, Histories, Terriors, Varieties, New York. Print.

(2) Pettigrew, Jane. Richardson, Bruce. (2008.) Tea Classified, a tea-lover’s companion. Print

* Sourced from Countdown online shopping website: shop.countdown.co.nz on 30 June 2020. 

^ I physically counted these at Countdown Meadowbank (Auckland, NZ) on 30 June 2020 - the figure includes flavoured tea where the majority ingredient is tea and has 'herbal' ingredients as well. 

This beautiful image in the header is thanks to Anna Hliamshyna on Unsplash


A slightly longer history of tea:
Tea is said to have been first discovered in China way back in 2737BC by Emperor, scholar and herbalist, Shen Nung. According to legend, he was sitting under a native Camellia Sinensis tree, boiling a pot of water, when some leaves fell from the tree into the pot. The Emperor drunk the infusion and experienced such a wonderful state which ‘gave joy to the body and sparkle the eyes’; that moment was the genesis of when tea began to permeate itself into Chinese culture.

The first official reference to ‘tea’ in print (rather than through fable) was in the 1122BC Shijing, ‘Book of Songs’, a collection of Chinese poems. And then in 780AD Lu Yu wrote Cha Jing, ‘The Classic of Tea’ (‘Cha’ translates to ‘tea’) which included a horticultural description of the tea plant, Camellia Sinensis, as well as instructions on how to prepare and drink tea. Cha Jing firmly cemented tea’s place in Chinese culture and Lu Yu went on to become known as China’s first tea master, responsible for creating the ceremonies and customs that have accompanied tea for centuries.

In the thousands of years since Shen Nung discovered tea, its preparation methods have evolved from the leaves being ground, boiled, beaten and then steeped. Its usage also advanced from being purely a medical elixir, to becoming an enjoyable, rejuvenating beverage reserved for emperors and high officials, and then a stimulating and relaxing drink to be enjoyed by all people across China. 

This history shows us that the word ‘tea’ very much comes from the Camellia Sinensis plant, not from its historical preparation (ground, boiled or beaten) or its modern-day preparation: the infusion of dried leaves in hot water.


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