What is Purple Tea?
This obscure tea from Kenya is quickly gaining popularity. The tea plant C. sinensis produces a wide range of “colored” teas: white, green, yellow, black, and now, the aesthetic, antioxidant-rich purple tea. The main difference between the above mentioned teas is the processing: length of fermentation (or lack thereof), oxidation, method of roasting, sun-drying, etc. Purple tea is processed similarly to green tea - so what makes it different?
To answer that, we need to get back to the basics of plant cultivation. A natural form of genetic “modification” discovered by Johann Gregor Mendel in the 19th century paved the way to understanding gene inheritance and dominancy. Simply put, plants will exhibit characteristics of the dominant gene. These plants can be selectively bred to maintain those genetic characteristics.
Purple tea was first discovered in India, and in Yunnan, China, initially cultivated in Japan and Sri Lanka, but Kenya is currently the lead cultivator. When the C. sinensis plant produced purple leaves, these were cultivated and bred so as to maintain that quality. In doing so, it was discovered that these leaves produce a rich violet colored tea, with a flavor reminiscent of green tea (though more earthy and a bit sweeter).
Health Benefits of Purple Tea
The leaves from these cultivars are rich in purple and red anthocyanins, antioxidants which are also found in purple foods, such as blueberries, blackberries and acai. The concentration of these antioxidants are responsible for the unique purple color these leaves yield.
Purple tea has more anthocyanins than blueberries! The anthocyanins found in purple tea have powerful free-radical scavenging properties. Studies exploring the health benefits of anthocyanins suggest that they may be cancer-preventative, neuroprotective, beneficial for the cardiovascular system, protect against diabetes, anti-inflammatory, and act as a powerful antioxidant. Anthocyanins are water soluble (a fancy way of saying that they are easily extracted into water), and therefore when prepared as tea they become immediately bioavailable-- making it easier for the body to absorb and utilize.
Fun Facts About Purple Tea
Purple tea is gaining the attention of the medical field and is a contender for clinical trials! In fact, some small pilot studies have been performed, supporting the health benefits ascribed to the GHG content.
Have you heard of synergy? Notably applied to plants, this concept suggests that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Plants contain thousands of phytochemicals, like antioxidants. But when these components interact, they can have greater benefit than what is expected based on an analysis of its parts. The same is true when certain plants are combined (and is a common theme found in the art of blending herbs for Chinese herbalism). Purple tea is no different.
With this in mind, you can perform a little at-home experiment. When you brew purple tea and see its lovely violet coloring, try adding a drop of lemon. Not only does the lemon enhance the action of the antioxidant properties, but it adds a richness and shimmery luster to the tea, deepening its purple hue and adding a visual component to its plethora of benefits.
A Note from the Herbalist
Questions have been raised regarding how safe it is to consume purple tea during pregnancy. While there is no official evidence stating not to consume green tea (which hails from the same plant), drinkers are cautioned to not consume large amounts due to caffeine content. Purple tea has been noted as containing less caffeine than green tea, so consumption in moderation is unlikely to cause adverse effects.
And while anthocyanins are healthy for pregnancy, it is still best to avoid purple tea in the 3rd trimester. This is due to the content of polyphenols and their potential to cause fetal complications in the last trimester if consumed in amounts greater than those found in food. Generally, it is best to play it safe and avoid purple tea during pregnancy until you have spoken to your healthcare professional.
Further Reading & References