Waking up to the wonders of white tea ...
By Amanda Ellison
Aussies’ love affair with coffee has been on an upward trajectory since the 1980s. Tea? Not so much. And white tea? You’d be forgiven if you didn’t even know such a thing existed. But guess what? It’s a game-changer – and here’s why.
What exactly is white tea? And how does it differ from other teas?
White tea is a very lightly processed tea. Its name derives from the silvery-white hairs on the young buds of the camellia sinensis plant, and the result is a cup of tea that appears pale, yellowish and fresh-looking.
No milk or sugar required – just pure unalloyed tea that can be enjoyed in either teabag or loose-leaf form.
Hailing from the same source as black, green and oolong tea, the crucial difference lies in the treatment of the leaves. Only the youngest buds on the tea bush are plucked. They are then left to dry in natural sunlight, helping prevent oxidisation.
The tea bush is never picked during the winter months, so all harvesting takes place during a window of only two or three weeks in springtime. Plucking the leaves when rain is falling or frost is on the ground is a big no-no, rendering this particular tea rather special.
The whole process means that white tea is naturally caffeinated and high in plant antioxidants. And these antioxidants lay claim to a range of health benefits.
If you were born between 1976 and 1990, you’re part of the generation that really embraced the coffee revolution. Tea fell out of fashion. This may not be so surprising, since the profile of a tea-drinker in the collective imagination probably resembles your nana. Not exactly appealing to millennials and hipsters, is it?
According to data unearthed by Roy Morgan Research, Australia notched up one million new coffee drinkers between the years 2014 -2018. Contrast this with only 300,000 new tea drinkers. And only half of Australia’s population drink tea at least once a week, with younger people drinking only half as much as the over-65s. It’s little wonder that it’s considered something of an old-fashioned beverage.
But this wasn’t always the way: back in 1929, Australians were the biggest consumers of tea in the world. Tea-drinking was de rigeur. Australian tea consumption surpassed even that of the tea-obsessed Brits – no small feat. Even in the 1950s, half of Australians had never tasted coffee in their lives, according to a Gallup poll. Enter the influx of post- war European immigrants – coffee machines in tow – to kick-start the nation’s love of their regular java fix.
The death knell has not yet sounded for tea, however. While good old breakfast tea may struggle to appeal to health-conscious and image-savvy younger consumers, white tea is another story. In an age beset with anxiety and depression, white tea could well be the perfect antidote. What’s more, it’s still rare enough to qualify as ‘niche’ – and that’s got to be cool…
Mary-Anne Bennett, Clinical Nutritionist at Adelaide Nutrition and Wellbeing, endorses making the switch, describing white tea as ‘a great alternative to coffee. It can help support genes involved in liver detoxification, whereas coffee can have the opposite effect’.
So what led me to encounter this hitherto pretty obscure product? Strangely enough, it was the side-effects of coffee that fuelled me.
Ask anyone to define a teacher, and no doubt the phrase ‘coffee-breath’ will crop up at some point. That was me: the full-on stench. Not to mention the soaring stress levels, throbbing headaches and brown ‘lip liner’.
Much as I loved coffee – and still do – an alternative was in order. As a ‘thermopot’ (shorthand for someone who consumes copious amounts of hot drinks … ) and a Briton, the obvious choice was tea. I like tea. But I don’t love it (hopefully none of my fellow countrymen are reading!) in the ‘British stalwart’ sense. Cue a period of experimentation with the whole bewildering gamut of teas you can choose from nowadays. None measured up.
Until, that is, I tried white tea - in teabag form! It was love at first sip.
And I’ve never looked back.
Not only did it taste delicious – delicate, subtle and refreshing – but further research brought to light a whole range of advantages.
So what are the everyday benefits of white tea?
In terms of a fundamental sense of wellness, white tea aids relaxation, helping you to ‘switch off’ from the stresses of everyday life. Expert nutritionist Mary-Anne agrees: ‘I recommend it to help with calming and relaxation, as a way to destress at the end of the day’. This impact cannot be under-estimated; the Australian Bureau of Statistics reports that 20 per cent of younger Australians – aged 16-34 – cite experiencing some form of mental distress.
Fanny Surjana, tea expert and founder of Quenchlist, points out that drinking white tea regularly can also enhance brain activity, telling me that it ‘boosts cognitive function and memory’. This makes sense: white tea contains high levels of EGCG (a plant compound believed to reduce inflammation, aid weight loss, and protect against some diseases). It also contains other catechins which perform as natural brain stimulators. Combined with the natural caffeine in white tea, the result is improved mental focus.
A further benefit, and one that I have certainly enjoyed over time, is healthier skin. This could be because white tea contains a significant amount of phenols, known for strengthening both collagen and elastin (two key components of anti-wrinkle creams) which in turn encourages smoother skin. Aussie health enthusiast Tyler Hutchinson, who converted to white tea some years ago, has high praise for its impact: ‘When experiencing skin irregularities such as acne, blemishes and discoloration, you can drink white tea and it helps ease those irregularities’.
What about protection against more serious conditions?
As well as boosting the quality of day-to-day wellbeing, white tea boasts protection against more serious health conditions.
Mary-Anne reveals the advice she gives to clients at her clinic: ‘I recommend white tea to my clients due to its high antioxidant levels that can help in cardiovascular diseases to reduce cholesterol and blood pressure. Increased antioxidant activity can help to reduce free radical that’s seen in many chronic health conditions, including immune function and cancer’.
Quenchlist’s tea expert agrees, saying that drinking white tea can not only ‘reduce the risk of heart disease and cancer’ but has ‘been shown to reduce the risk of stroke’. Many of its benefits derive from its antioxidant properties, which Fanny explains ‘scavenge harmful toxins and by-products that can damage cells’.
Australian nutritionist Court Garfoot is also a firm supporter of the health-boosting properties of white tea, citing research carried out in China and Iran. Of the 2011 Chinese study, Court told me it concluded that ‘white tea lowered blood glucose levels and increased insulin secretion’. The Iran research, published in 2021, went further, supporting the use of white tea in the management of Type 2 Diabetes. This is ‘likely due to the antioxidant activity’, Court added.
Loose-Leaf or Bag?
Loose-leaf tea tends to be fresher and stronger than tea imprisoned in that convenient little bag. The loose leaves are larger, given that the contents of a teabag consist of ‘dust and fannings’ (the scraps left over from the fresh leaves). Because the leaves are loose, the flavour profile is at its strongest.
What’s more, whole leaves are better for the planet too. This is because teabags have ten times the carbon footprint of their loose-leaf counterpart, according to The Tea Division.
However, this is 2022: while the ritual of brewing fresh white tea may be enjoyable – and better for both you and the planet – it isn’t exactly practical. Teabags ooze ease and efficiency, and negate the need for utensils such as tea infusers and teapots. Generally, teabags can only be used once – unlike loose tea – but this is a small price to pay for convenience. I tend to use teabags on a day-to-day basis and have loose-leaf at the weekend: win/win! It’s worth remembering that, even in bag form, white tea is still a healthy alternative to coffee.
Tea of choice
For me, switching to white tea was an easy decision. While the health benefits alone may not have secured my loyalty, one characteristic most definitely did: its incredible flavour.
And it’s just sitting there, on your supermarket shelf - patiently waiting to be picked out from a line-up.