Unraveling the Role of Tannins in Tea: Positive or Negative?

Unraveling the Role of Tannins in Tea: Positive or Negative?

Enjoying a warm cup of tea can be an extraordinarily relaxing thing, especially since tea is one of the most popular drinks nationwide. Tea, like coffee, is extremely malleable and can be enjoyed in various ways. It can be consumed hot, cold, or even baked into other treats if you have the raw materials. Even more impressive is that the average tea leaf is packed with nutritional substances that are highly beneficial to our biology. 

There is also a remarkable variety because multiple plants and flowers can be used to steep tea. While there are plants that are more frequently and consistently associated with it, there are some surprising alternatives out there. That said, casual drinkers do not commonly discuss or recognize some details about tea.

Tea leaves and flowers have multiple compounds, but one of the most important substances is tannins. If you drink tea (or wine), you might have heard the term "tannins" before, though you might not have understood their significance. The fact is tannins are extremely important for tea and have a direct effect on the drink's value and flavor. 

Understanding how tannins affect tea can help us keep our tea's quality high and improve the benefits we get from drinking it. The most prevalent question surrounding tannins is whether they are a positive or negative thing. With this article, we plan on addressing that very question so you can brew success.

What Are Tannins?

Tannins are a molecule with a particularly widespread influence, considering the number of foods or drinks that have them. In 1831, a French biochemist named Henri Braconnot discovered 3 tannins: ellagic acid, gallic acid, and pyrogallic acid. Later, a German researcher named Julius Löwe synthesized ellagic acid by heating gallic acid with arsenic acid and silver oxide. 

Despite this breakthrough, the French or German scientific communities did not fully understand tannins. Fortunately, research continued under German biochemist Maximilian Nierenstein, who studied tannins and phenols alongside his other research. As part of Nierenstein's research, he teamed up with a British chemist named Arthur Perkin and worked to prepare ellagic acid from algarobilla and other fruits in 1905. Their efforts were successful, and the tannin was synthesized successfully via this new method, but the understanding of tannins remained limited by the technology of the time.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, molecule formulae were decoded via combustion analysis, requiring researchers to literally combust a molecule sample. Fortunately, that all changed in 1943 when paper chromatography was discovered, opening the door for renewed molecule assessment.

Tannins in Tea

While the world was not in the best place at the time, the discovery of paper chromatography allowed a renewed study of tannins that surged in 1945 at Cambridge University. That said, the biggest breakthrough occurred in 1966 when an organic chemist named Edwin Haslam proposed the first comprehensive definition of plant polyphenols by combining the works of his predecessors. 

Haslam's definition is primarily scientific and difficult to follow unless you have a background in the sciences. Fortunately, our main concern is that tannins are present in hundreds of plant species. Shrubs, trees, leaves, flowers, and fruit all have the potential to count tannins among their natural ingredients. Some examples include:

  • Strawberries
  • Cranberries
  • Pecans
  • Vanilla
  • Chickpeas
  • Chocolate Liquor

The list goes on, but today's concern is that tea is a primary source of tannins and one of the many drinks where tannin concentration matters. Green tea alone has a significant tannin content, but there are still questions surrounding what that means and its role in the tea's quality and enjoyability. Most importantly, we need to know whether the tannins in green tea (or other teas) are good or something we must avoid.

Are Tannins Good or Bad?

Camellia sinensis, better known as the tea plant, is the main source of tea worldwide since it generates multiple varieties. Green tea is one of the most commonly harvested teas and is consumed frequently in multiple nations. Like all varieties harvested from C. sinensis, green tea has tannins, but the concentration is extremely low compared to other drinks. 

A cup of green tea has an average tannin concentration of 2.65% (though it occasionally has a high of 3.11%). Compared to black tea, which has a high of 15.14%, green tea seems to come up short in the tannin department. Knowing the 2 main contenders supposedly makes it easier to determine which tea is best for our health. We seemingly need to answer the question to make that decision: Are tannins positive or negative?

A Cup of Green Tea

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is slightly more complicated than it seems. The only viable answer is that it depends on how much tea you plan on drinking.

Tannins (at least some of them) offer genuine health benefits for the human body, but overconsuming them can cause unpleasant side effects. Therefore, opting for a tea with a low tannin concentration makes it easier to regulate our consumption. Ultimately, it appears that tannins are the type of substance that is good for you until you have too much, which could be said of most things. 

Insofar as tea is concerned, there are 3 major tannins that are important to the tea's quality and health benefits. Understanding how they affect us is the next step in determining how to regulate your consumption.

Tannin #1: Epigallocatechin Gallate (EGCG)

EGCG is one of the chief tannins found in green tea and is considered one of the most valuable because it is a catechin. Catechins are a type of antioxidant which have become exceedingly popular amongst practitioners of holistic lifestyles. Antioxidants protect the body from free radicals and prevent oxidative damage that might trigger chronic health issues. 

EGCG happens to be one of the most powerful catechins in modern science and is prevalent in most tea varieties. Because it is an antioxidant, EGCG's main benefit is reducing inflammation in the body, which can be extremely important, seeing as chronic inflammation is a common ailment. By reducing the rate of inflammation in the body, EGCG protects us from major health issues.

A Cup of Matcha Green Tea

One of the more impressive benefits of EGCG is that it is apparently capable of helping our hearts. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States and one of the biggest concerns for modern society. However, a study found that EGCG might reduce the risk of heart conditions by regulating cholesterol levels. 

There was an 8-week study involving 33 subjects divided into test and control groups per the scientific method. The subjects in the test group were given 250 milligrams of EGCG with green tea extract daily for the entire study. When the study was over, the subjects showed a 4.5% reduction in low-density lipoproteins (LDL).

Tannin #2: Theaflavins and Thearubigins

Technically, this is a 2-for-1 situation, but theaflavins and thearubigins are intertwined with one another and merit a single section between them. While EGCG is primarily found in green tea, theaflavins, and thearubigins are primarily found in black tea, which also comes from C. sinensis.

Black tea has a particularly high concentration of both these substances, which are believed to be the source of black tea's dark color. Like EGCG, these tannins affect the human body when consumed, but there is a problem. These 2 tannins have not been thoroughly researched, and very little is known about either one. The existing studies are either test-tube or animal studies, with almost no human studies to speak of.

A Cup of Black Tea

It is believed that theaflavins and thearubigins share the antioxidant effect of EGCG, but no other benefits have been associated with them. Ultimately, consuming these tannins provides cell protection against free radicals and can help prevent inflammation. Unfortunately, more research is needed before these benefits can be associated with them properly.

Tannin #3: Ellagitannin

The 3rd major tannin associated with tea is not associated with any particular variety but seems equally distributed across them all. Like theaflavins and thearubigins, the research on ellagitannin is light and still ongoing, but evidence suggests that it has significant benefits for our biology. 

Specifically, early-stage research claims that ellagitannin can promote the growth and activity of beneficial gut bacteria. This particular benefit requires further study but is still a promising aspect of this particular tannin. Furthermore, ellagitannin has other effects that compensate for the lack of certainty surrounding its gastrointestinal effects.

Person Drinking a Cup of Tea

Despite the lengthy name, ellagitannin shares the same common benefit with EGCG, theaflavins, and thearubigins. Ellagitannin is a potent antioxidant that can protect the cells in our bodies from oxidative damage. The kicker is that ellagitannin has received special attention since test-tube studies discovered it might reduce the growth and spread of cancer cells. 

Cancer remains one of the most devastating incurable diseases worldwide, so any substance capable of staggering its progress is essential. The research surrounding ellagitannin's anti-cancer properties is extremely promising and is considered a minor breakthrough in oncological studies. Unfortunately, further studies are still needed before it can take its place in cancer treatments.

What Are the Risks of Tannins?

The tannins found in most teas are considered beneficial to our health, but they are not exempt from the rule of "too much of a good thing." Tannin consumption impacts our bodies, but not all of them benefit our health. Our bodies need certain vitamins and minerals to function properly, including iron. 

Unfortunately, evidence suggests that tannins like those found in tea can inhibit our ability to absorb iron. By their very structure, tannins can easily bind with iron molecules found in plant-based foods. When the iron molecules bind with something else, they cannot be absorbed by our bodies and are rendered useless. 

Fortunately, the average diet includes enough iron to render this effect virtually harmless in a healthy individual. The problem is that not everyone is healthy, and some people might not have the appropriate concentration of iron.

A Cup of Tea

Iron deficiencies are common and cause significant health complications if left untreated. Fortunately, supplementing your iron levels with vitamins or iron-rich foods can help correct the issue and prevent these harmful consequences. Unfortunately, it means you must be extra careful when drinking tea since the tannins could bind to the iron before your body can absorb it. 

This could prevent you from recovering from your deficiency, making tannins a major concern for anyone with a deficiency. The good news is that you can still drink tea without compromising your health as long as you take the proper precautions. The easiest solution is to ensure you do not drink tea with your meals and instead have it between them. This gives your body the time it needs to process the tannins from the drink so they are absent when you eat your iron-rich meals.

Finding the Right Blend

Understanding tannins is essential to engaging in tea culture, despite the tannins in wine getting most of the press. Nevertheless, the 3 main tannins in tea can help or hinder you depending on the situation. Ultimately, your health will determine whether tannins are a positive or negative thing, though you must always exercise moderation when drinking tea. 

Now that we have a grasp on what tannins are and how they affect the tea-drinking experience, there is another concern. Regardless of tannins, tea is only as beneficial as the blend you use to make it. Therefore, you should make sure the blend you use is high quality and made from unadulterated tea leaves.

Teami Tea Blends

We at Teami have a longstanding relationship with tea and have made it one of the signature products we provide. While we do have green tea and other varieties harvested from C. sinensis, we also have several exotic alternatives derived from other plants. Our selection is also completely natural, with no preservatives or other harmful ingredients that might compromise the product's integrity. We encourage you to visit our website and peruse our catalog of tea blends so you can find the one that suits you best. After all, finding the right blend is a Teami effort.

Have you ever tried one of our tea blends before? If so, what did you think? We'd love to hear all your thoughts, so be sure to let us know!

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