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Herbal tea without the tea bag

“I would try herbs….but I don’t like tea.” As an herbalist, I hear this comment all the time. My first question in response to this is: Have you ever had an herbal tea that wasn’t in a tea bag?

I’m using the term “tea,” but truly, herbal blends aren’t teas unless they incorporate leaves from Camellia sinensis, the actual tea plant. The vast majority of commercial tea bags use the fannings of broken tea leaves. What is a fanning? It is the lowest grade of tea leaf available, made by crushing the leaves, which results in tiny particles and dust that go into those convenient little bags. Teas that receive the highest grades are obtained from fresh picking, and are whole leaf/flower. The taste difference can be surprising – I used to think chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla) had no flavor at all, until I tried my first cup of whole flower tea. What a difference from a tea bag!

The majority of herbal blends are caffeine-free, and should be steeped in near boiling water (approximately 212° F), or infused over a long period of time in cold water or sun-heated water. One of the important issues is the steeping time – unlike green tea (<2 minute steep time) or black tea (2-3 minutes), most herbal teas require 8-10 minutes or more in order to get the best flavor and best therapeutic effects (antioxidants are extracted during steeping, for example). Some – such as barks and roots – are even better when simmered on a low heat for a longer period of time. However, there are some herbs – such as lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and hibiscus (Hibiscus rosa-sinensis) – can become bitter if allowed to steep more than about 3-5 minutes, so it takes time to get to know the “best” brewing for each herb.

When you put herbs into a bag (or into a mesh strainer that is small) they aren’t able to expand as they can when allowed to steep using a larger tea strainer – resulting in a fairly flavorless tea, and one which you can only use once. Additionally, if you are looking for a therapeutic benefit and not just a good tasting blend, the inability of the herbs to expand prevents as much surface area of the herb from coming into contact with the water, which decreases the active ingredients that end up in your cup. Researchers found the majority of loose-leaf tea versions still showed antioxidant activity after the sixth brew! For a tea bag, this disappears after the first cup.

Another reason to avoid the tea bag is that some of the best known commercial tea brands available today have chemicals in the tea (which result from pesticide contamination and other carcinogenic chemicals), not to mention the concerns with the tea bags themselves. Many of these are made with plastics, most notably food-grade nylon or polyethylene terephthalate (PET), viscose rayon, or thermoplastic; it has been found that chemical from plastics can leach into water and that heat compounds the effect. Paper tea bags, you say? Most of these are treated with epichlorohydrin, a carcinogenic compound that helps prevent the bag from breaking down; or, they may be sealed with glue or polypropylene plastic.

So, how about giving whole leaf herbal blends a chance – pick or purchase whole leaf/flower herbs, that are not stored in plastic, and brew them in a strainer that allows enough room for the herbs to absorb the water and expand. Cover the cup/pot to hold in the volatile oils that may be in the herbs to get the best taste and therapeutic effect. Add a little honey or maple syrup, if you want some sweetness – or add herbs that give natural sweetness, such as cinnamon chips (Cinnamomum cassia) or rose hips (Rosa canina; Rosa rubiginosa). And take a moment to enjoy the ritual – preparing the herbs, smelling them as they steep, and then tasting them – hot or cold, whatever your preference (for iced tea, I recommend you brew at double strength, since the ice will water down the flavor). You might just find that you like herbal teas, when they are freed from the bags!

T. Heather Herdman, RN, PhD, FNI, FAAN is a nurse, clinical herbalist and aromatherapist, who believes that a combination of traditional (herbalism, for example) and allopathic (Western) health care practices provide the strongest possibilities for health and well-being. She is the owner of Sweet Willow Wellness and Sweet Willow Herbal Co-Op (De Pere).

She holds nursing master’s and doctoral degrees from Boston College, and an undergraduate degree from University of South Carolina. She has authored numerous publications in peer reviewed journals, and her academic interests include clinical reasoning, spirituality, cultural health care practices, and integrative health care. Heather provides clinical herbal consults and custom blends herbal products for clients.

References: How to steep tea like an expert – https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/how-to-steep-tea
The nasty chemicals lurking in your cup of tea – https://thenewdaily.com.au/life/wellbeing/2018/07/28/chemicals-in-tea-and-teabags/
Trouble Brewing – https://wayback.archive-it.org/9650/20200402203827/http://p3-raw.greenpeace.org/india/Global/india/image/2014/cocktail/download/TroubleBrewing.pdf
Pesticide traces in some tea exceed allowable limits – https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/pesticide-traces-in-some-tea-exceed-allowable-limits-1.2564624

“Researchers found the majority of loose-leaf tea versions still showed antioxidant activity after the sixth brew!”

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