5 health benefits of white tea
Let’s deal with the colour question first. Why is it white if it comes from the same plant as green and black tea — Camellia sinensis? Indeed, it does, but it’s made from the unopened buds, which are clothed in a fuzz of fine, silvery “hairs”, giving it a whitish colour. When it’s made into a tea, though, it has a pale-yellow, straw colour and a delicate, slightly sweet flavour lacking the grassy after-taste of green tea.
White tea is grown mainly in China’s mountainous Fujian Province, tea heartland, while some is also grown in Sri Lanka, India and Japan. It is hand-picked in early spring and only within a very small window, making it more precious than its green and black cousins. It’s also processed differently, in only two steps: steaming and drying. Black tea gets its colour from full fermentation and green tea is partially fermented, but white tea is not. White tea also does not require panning, rolling and shaking.
Although its history dates back to the Tang Dynasty (618–907 CE), white tea became popular with the royal court and a favourite of emperors during the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Back then, it was ground into a powder then whisked in ceramic bowls (somewhat like Japanese matcha, a powdered green tea) as part of the Song tea ceremony. In fact, the Japanese tea ceremony, which features matcha and ceramics, had its origins in the Chinese tradition.
Both the minimal processing and the part of the plant white tea comes from make it higher in antioxidant polyphenols than black and green tea as the antioxidants are thought to be more concentrated in the buds, though levels can vary in different teas. These high amounts of antioxidants confer many Health benefits:
Improved cardiovascular function
The catechins in tea have been found to reduce cholesterol, decrease blood pressure and improve the strength of blood vessels, leading to decreased risk of heart disease and stroke.
Antibacterial and antiviral
White tea is thought to protect from bacteria such as Salmonella by boosting immunity. A 2004 study at Pace University, NY, found that white tea extract slowed viral, bacterial and fungal growth and reduced the incidence of infections such as Staphylococcus and Streptococcus. The same study found that adding it to toothpaste enhanced the antibacterial and antiviral effect of the toothpaste.
Anti-inflammatory and anti-ageing
A 2009 study at Kingston University, UK, found white tea has high anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, anti-collagenase and anti-elastase properties, suggesting it protects against rheumatoid arthritis and other inflammatory conditions, some cancers and heart disease, as well as slow the breakdown of elastin and collagen that occurs due to ageing and free-radical damage.
Scientists from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University found that moderate consumption of white or green tea may help prevent colon cancer. At the Skin Study Centre at University Hospitals of Cleveland and Case Western Reserve University, Ohio, researchers found that green and white tea helps skin cells to repair themselves after ultra-violet damage, which leads to skin cancer.
Chinese, British and Australian studies have found tea drinkers to have significantly better bone density and strength than non-tea drinkers, making it the ideal drink for anyone with osteoporosis and arthritis.
Those are five compelling reasons to take up white tea drinking, plus there’s its deliciously delicate flavour, which may appeal to those who find green tea too grassy and black tea too strong-tasting.
White tea varieties
There are four main varieties of Chinese white tea:
Silver Needle (baihao yinzhen), the most expensive because it is made from only buds, delicate in flavour and light in colour
White Peony (bai mudan), the next highest quality, uses first leaves (only the hairy ones) along with buds and has a slightly darker colour and stronger taste
Long Life Eyebrow (shou mei), a lesser-quality tea made from the hairy leaves left after the Silver Needle and White Peony are selected, and harvested a bit later
Tribute Eyebrow (gong mei), bottom rung but nevertheless popular in Chinese teahouses and often taken with dim sum, a darker, earthier-tasting tea that is more processed than the other varieties
In Sri Lanka, pure white tea made from the buds of Camellia senensis is known as Silver Tips.
Brewing white tea