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LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Worldwide, tea is the second-most-popular drink,after water. But in this coffee-crazed nation, it's long been asubordinate brew.

Until now.

Tea's popularity is growingacross America as scientists and the public learn more about itsbountiful health benefits. An ever-growing body of research thatincludes more than 5,000 studies says tea can help block cholesterol,prevents cardiovascular disease and cancer and burns calories.

"Peopleare more and more conscious that they should be drinking more tea,"said Hazel Forsythe, associate professor in the Department of Dieteticsand Human Nutrition at the University of Kentucky. "The word is out, andit's spreading."

According to the Tea Association of the USA, aNew York-based industry group, consumer tea purchases have increased for20 consecutive years; retail supermarket sales have surpassed $2.2billion; and away-from-home tea consumption has grown by at least 10percent a year over the past decade.

On any given day, the group says, 160 million Americans drink tea. Tea shops such as Teavana are popping up all over.

Ona recent day, longtime tea drinker Peggy Buchanan made her daily visitto the Louisville Tea Co. in Jefferson County. The 47-year-oldLouisvillian has high blood pressure and multiple sclerosis and said shedrinks tea partly for its healing properties.

"I'll have astomachache or a headache, and they'll brew something up and it helps,"said Buchanan. "I have a friend with breast cancer. She said tea helpsher feel better. ... The health benefits are wonderful."

People inother parts of the world - such as India, China and Japan, where muchof the world's tea is grown - have been aware of its benefits forcenturies.

In India's Darjeeling region, tea plants dot therolling foothills of the Himalayas, and tea shops and stalls areeverywhere. Darjeerling tea is famous across the globe; Nick Spears,co-owner of Louisville Tea, called it "the champagne of tea."

SundeepMukherjee, principal adviser to the Darjeeling Tea Association, saidthree-quarters of the tea from the region is exported, with up to 10percent going to the United States - a portion that's been rising ashealth benefits become more widely known.

"It's anti-carcinogenic.It modulates your (blood) pressure. It's good for your heart. It hasantioxidants," he said. "The qualities of nature are retained throughtea."

Steeped in research

Tea is classified into fivetypes - black, white, green, oolong and puerh. All are created fromleaves of the same warm-weather evergreen, and all contain polyphenolantioxidants, which work to neutralize damaging free radicals.

Many studies have examined tea's role in reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease.

"There'spretty good evidence that tea decreases absorption of cholesterol inthe system," said Todd Porter, associate professor of pharmaceuticalsciences at the University of Kentucky and a tea researcher. "This ismore true with black tea than green tea. That is counter to commonthinking."

Some recent cardiovascular research was presented atthe Fifth International Scientific Symposium on Tea & Human Health,held in September at the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington,D.C.

One Italian study, for example, found that black tea reducedblood pressure in all subjects and counteracted the detrimental effectsof high-fat meals in people with high blood pressure. That studybolstered findings of a 2001 analysis of several studies showing an 11percent lower risk of heart attack among those drinking three cups oftea a day.

Scientists also presented research on other healthconditions. One study said caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine in teamay improve mental cognition and clarity, as well as work performance.

Areview of studies, published in the Journal of Cancer Research andClinical Oncology this year, suggested that consuming five cups of greentea each day helps prevent several cancers and protect against therecurrence of colorectal cancer.

Recent studies have also found benefits for the elderly and the weight-conscious.

AJapanese study published this year in the American Journal of ClinicalNutrition found that elderly subjects who drank more tea had asignificantly lower risk of functional disability such as stroke,osteoporosis and cognitive impairment.

A 2004 Japanese study foundthat caffeine, theanine and perhaps other components in green teapowder suppressed weight gain and fat accumulation. Other researchconcluded that people drinking green tea and caffeine lost an average ofalmost three pounds in 12 weeks while eating their regular diet.

UK'sForsythe said the list goes on and on. "Tea drinkers are likely to agemuch slower than other beverage drinkers," she said. "Tea reducesinflammation. It increases bone strength."

Still, experts said it's not a cure-all, and isn't the only beneficial beverage.

Astudy this year in the New England Journal of Medicine, for example,found those who drank coffee, compared with those who did not, had lowerdeath rates from heart and respiratory diseases, injuries andaccidents, diabetes and infections, but not cancer.

Other studies suggest coffee helps protect against Parkinson's disease and Type 2 diabetes.

"Thereare some benefits to coffee, surprisingly, but tea and coffee are verydifferent," Porter said. "Coffee doesn't have any of the lipid-loweringbenefits tea does."

Art of tea

Experts saidrelatively low caffeine levels in tea make it possible to drink largeamounts; black tea, which has more caffeine than green, oolong or white,still has about half the caffeine of coffee.

Forsythe suggesteddrinking at least two cups of tea a day, while Porter said five or morecups of black tea daily would be best to lower cholesterol.

NicoletteBoese, who co-owns Louisville Tea Co. with Spears, her fiance, said shedrinks 10 or more cups every day, and has loved the beverage since shewas a little girl holding tea parties with her stuffed animals.

Boese,who holds classes on tea, said there's an art to it. For one thing, shesaid, loose-leaf teas allow for a wide array of tastes, compared withthe supermarket tea bags to which most people are accustomed.

Also,ideal water temperatures and steeping times vary for different typesof tea. Black tea requires the hottest water, for instance, and certaintypes of Chinese green tea should be steeped about two minutes.

Boese and Spears said tea can be enjoyed like fine wine and is a similarly social beverage.

"I've seen people talk over tea for three hours," Boese said.

Thesocial aspect of tea has long been part of other cultures. There aretea ceremonies in Japan and "high tea" in England, and Indians share teaseveral times a day at home, during get-togethers and even duringbusiness meetings. At an outdoor tea stall near a sprawling tea gardenin Darjeerling, India, recently, customers lingered on benches, sippingsmall cups of tea and chatting.

Forsythe said a widening "cultureof tea" would be good for America, too. Besides making us healthier, shesaid, it would connect us, since "we make friends over tea."

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Comparison of benefits

Two cups of tea have the same antioxidant activity as:

  • 1 1/2 glasses of red wine.
  • 12 glasses of white wine.
  • 7 glasses of orange juice.
  • 12 glasses of beer.

Making the perfect cup of tea

  • Warm the teapot with boiling water.
  • Pour that water out.
  • Using one teaspoon of tea for each cup, place the tea leaves in the warmed pot.
  • Pour fresh boiling water on the tea.
  • Let it infuse for 3 to 5 minutes (for most types).
  • Use a tea cozy to cover and keep the tea warm.
  • Strain the tea into the cup.

Sources: Hazel Forsythe and Jessica Coffie, Department of Dietetics and Human Nutrition, University of Kentucky

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