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DULUTH, Minn. - You don't have to know how to read tea leaves to predict the future of the tea industry.
The industry is flourishing, thanks in part to research that shows tea consumption can contribute to overall health and may reduce the risk of stroke, certain cancers and heart disease.
The most obvious proof of rising consumer interest can be found in the supermarket, where tea products are claiming more and more shelf space.
"We have tea in the coffee aisle, tea in the soft-drink aisle, and more tea in the natural foods section," said Gary Vanderscheuren, a grocery stocker at Duluth's Cub Foods.
Vanderscheuren estimates that over the past three years, store sales of tea have increased by about 25 percent. Tea also has a strong presence in convenience stores, drug stores and discount chains as well as in the vending and food service sectors.
The Tea Council of the USA, which functions as the public relations and education arm for the tea industry, reports that since 1990, total sales have grown from $1.8 billion to an estimated $5 billion. The ready-to-drink tea segment contributes more than one-third of total sales, and has been ranked as the fastest growing "new product" entry for the last several years.
Some of the growth can be credited to emerging health reports about tea, especially green tea. Those claims that are not lost on the food industry.
In 2000 alone, food companies introduced 79 foods containing green tea. Most were in the beverage category.
A November 2003 report from the Sage Group predicts continued growth in green tea sales. In its "U.S. Tea is Hot Report," the Seattle-based marketing consulting firm forecasts that green tea will outsell black tea in the United States by 2008.
HOW HEALTHY IS IT?
Like many other plant foods, tea has caught the attention of scientists, showing promise for reducing the risk of stroke, certain cancers and heart disease. Furthermore, a growing body of evidence points to tea as an important contributor to overall health.
Much of the research has focused on two antioxidant nutrients found in tea - catechins and flavonoids. Researchers from the USDA reported that in laboratory tests, tea produced greater antioxidant activity than 22 commonly consumed fruits and vegetables. Antioxidants help reduce the formation of substances in the body that may contribute to aging, cancer and cardiovascular disease.
Although most studies have focused on green tea, some have evaluated the effects of both green and black tea. Data have been inconsistent, but most laboratory studies have shown green tea to have a more potent antioxidant effect.
The difference between green and black tea is in the processing. Black tea comes from leaves that have been fermented before being heated and dried. Green tea is produced from leaves that are steamed and dried but not fermented. Oolong tea is produced from leaves that are partially fermented, creating a flavor, color and aroma that falls between black and green tea.
Tea also is a good source of fluoride, which can help strengthen tooth enamel. In countries where tea drinking is common, such as the United Kingdom, tea can contribute substantially to total fluoride intake. In addition, tea provides manganese, a mineral that is important for growth, reproduction, formation of bone and carbohydrate metabolism.
On average, a 6-ounce cup of tea contains 40 milligrams of caffeine, about half the amount in coffee. For most healthy adults, moderate caffeine consumption (200 to 300 milligrams a day) poses no health problems.
Herbal teas are made from leaves, roots, bark, seeds or flowers of various herbs, so they do not contain the antioxidant compounds found in real tea. Commonly used herbs include peppermint, chamomile, rose hips, lemon verbena and fennel.
Some herbal drinks may contain herbs that are touted to fight illness or increase energy, such as echinacea, ginkgo biloba or kava. In some cases, the herbal ingredients are present in amounts too small to have any real effect. However, if present in significant amounts, some herbs can be dangerous. Kava may possibly cause liver damage, and St. John's Wort and ginkgo biloba can interact with medications. Other herbs such as guarana and some kinds of ginseng can raise blood pressure.
For more information about the safe and effective use of herbs, visit the American Botanical Counsel at www.herb-algram.org. The council is the nation's leading nonprofit organization addressing research and educational issues regarding herbs and medicinal plants.
(Marsha Erickson is a registered dietitian at Miller-Dwan Medical Center in Duluth, Minn. Have a question about nutrition? Write to her c/o The Duluth News Tribune, 424 W. First St., Duluth, Minn. 55802 or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
(c) 2003, Duluth News Tribune (Duluth, Minn.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.