The tea plant C. sinensis produces a wide range of “colored” teas: white, green, yellow, black, and blue (oolong). However, you may have heard of purple tea, as it's everywhere now! This once-obscure tea is quickly gaining popularity thanks to its antioxidant levels and lovely color. But what is it?
Today I'll explore:
- Is it a new category of tea?
- Where is purple tea from?
- What are the main purple tea cultivars?
- What makes purple tea purple?
- What are the health benefits of purple tea? What is GHG?
- How much caffeine is in purple tea?
Is Purple Tea a New Category of Tea?
The short answer: it is not a new category of tea, but it is a type of tea cultivar. The purple tea sold at Matcha Alternatives, for example, is a green tea in its processing methods. What?!? I'll explain:
For all 'true' teas (from the tea plant), the main difference between the different types teas is the processing: length of fermentation (or lack thereof), oxidation, method of roasting, sun-drying, etc.
Then further differences appear between tea estates and tea products due to where they are grown - the terroir (the overall environment of the tea bush such as the soil, topography, height above sea level and climate). However, it's also down to the sub-species of tea plant (the cultivar), and how it has been developed over the millennia. Or, in the case of Kenyan purple tea, over the past few decades.
Cast your mind back to Biology 101 and the basics of plant cultivation: A natural form of genetic “modification” discovered by Johann Gregor Mendel (the guy with the pea plants) 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.
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 violet-tinged colored tea, with a flavor reminiscent of certain green tea (though more earthy and a bit sweeter).
The tea leaves can be processed to make any type of tea, whether green, black, oolong or white. Most purple tea leaves are made into green tea, though, to preserve the highest level of antioxidants.
Where is Purple Tea from?
Purplish tea plants are native to India and Yunnan, China (Yunnan tea fields pictured above), and have been cultivated in Japan and Sri Lanka as well. Both the Indian and Chinese types of tea plant (Camellia Sinensis assamica and Camellia Sinensis sinensis, respectively) can produce purple tea, and have been selectively grown to produce more and more purple leaves.
That being said, Kenya is now the world producer of purple tea, due to their intensive research and development of a specific purple tea cultivar. Look how pretty its purple leaves are!
What are the Main Purple Tea Cultivars?
China naturally grows two types of purple tea cultivar:
- Zi Ya / ‘purple bud'
- Zi Juan / 'purple beauty'
Zi Ya is only grown in China with limited production. Although its leaves are purple, the tea liquor doesn't have a purple tinge. Its taste is smooth and rich. This tea grows naturally in Menghai, Yiwu and Lincang, among others - anywhere with high altitudes and plenty of sun.
The second purple tea cultivar, Zi Juan, was only discovered in 1985, when one tea bush in a Yunnan was found to be purple instead of green. Its leaves are a deep purple, and its liquor has a delicate violet hue.
It tastes slightly thinner than Zi Ya, but with a lighter flavor that makes it a satisfying tea to drink without milk. (Treat it like a green tea and you won't go wrong!)
Top Tea Tip: Add a few drops of lemon to your purple tea, and it will turn light pink!
After Zi Juan's discovery, Kenyan tea researchers ran with it, breeding and developing the cultivar to enhance its purple color and further develop the Kenyan tea industry. Thanks to their decades of research, they have made Kenya the lead cultivator of purple tea in the world.
It has also helped elevate the quality of tea produced in Kenya and revenue for local tea gardens as they now have a market for a higher-end tea rather than only producing CTC (crush-tear-curl) and dust tea for teabag blends (e.g. Lipton).
What Makes Purple Tea Purple?
The leaves from purple tea cultivars (especially the Zi Juan cultivar) are rich in purple and red anthocyanins. These are antioxidants which are also found in purple foods, such as blueberries, blackberries, red cabbage, red wine and acai berries. The concentration of these antioxidants are responsible for the unique purple color these leaves yield.
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.
Purple tea has more anthocyanins than blueberries!
The anthocyanins found in purple tea have powerful free-radical scavenging properties (as that's the job of antioxidants, of course). 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. You've probably already heard of blueberries being referred to as a superfood.
The ORAC level of purple tea has not been tested. However, the Food Chemistry journal stated that "the purple leaf coloured cultivars produced aerated teas whose levels of total polyphenols were not significantly different from those of the ordinary green leafed cultivars."
In other words, it is a type of green tea with its usual polyphenols plus the added fun of anthocyanins. More research is needed to tell if it has greater levels of other antioxidants compared to green tea, as often claimed by purple tea growers (polyphenols are only one type). (Full reference below, or click here to read the entire study.)
What are the Health Benefits of Purple Tea? What is GHG?
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. GHG is a type of polyphenol, which as mentioned is a type of antioxidant (that's 1,2-di-galloyl-4,6- hexahydroxydiphenoyl-D-glucose for any scientists reading!).
Interestingly, GHG has only been found in purple tea (not even green tea!). Some research has found that GHG can help reduce obesity, as it inhibits lipase production, allowing fats to pass through the body without being absorbed (lipase is the enzyme in our intestines that the body uses to break down fats) (Shimoda).
One of the most famous polyphenol antioxidants contained in our Kenayan purple tea (as it's processed into green tea) is EGCG and other catechins, one of the most famous antioxidants with various widely-recorded health benefits. You can learn more about EGCG here in our article on green tea's antioxidants.
To dive into a full, in-depth description of GHG and the other antioxidants in purple tea, read our post Purple Powerhouse: Antioxidants in Purple Tea & Their Health Benefits.
How much caffeine is in purple tea?
Purple tea caffeine content is relatively less than that in green and black tea (antiC). While the exact amount isn’t listed in most research, many studies place its caffeine content just below green tea, which contains 25-28 mg per 8 oz. This is much lower than black tea which contains ~45 mg per 8 oz and coffee, which is around 95 mg per 8 oz (MayoClinic).
Caffeine is incredibly water soluble and sensitive to heat, so the amount you get from a cup of tea is directly related to a) how much of the leaf's surface touches the water and b) how hot your water is. As most purple tea is sold in whole leaf form, this reduces how much caffeine comes out with steeping, and as it is a type of green tea and tastes best when brewed in cooler water (75-80C / 167-175F), that also helps limit how much caffeine you'll get from a cuppa.
If you’re looking for a morning-pick-me-up but coffee or a cup of English Breakfast makes you a little hyperactive, purple tea is a great substitute!
To really dig into the science of caffeine, our article Caffeine in Coffee and Tea: All You Need to Know will answer all your questions!
A Note From The Herbalist...
Additionally, purple tea is a nice tea to pair with other foods. Have you heard of synergy? This is one of my favorite topics! 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. 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 lemon juice to your taste (start with only a few drops). 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.
Now, give it a try!
Last Updated: March 2021, originally published June 2019.
From Kenya, small batch. Overtones of black plum and a mildy woody nose. It tastes like a tannic green tea, with an incredibly sweet aftertaste in the throat like a boiled sweet.
All of the information regarding the herbs, botanicals, minerals, vitamins, etc., is information drawn from traditional use data or academic research and should be regarded as such. If you, the reader, has a health or medical concern, please consult your healthcare professional. The information found here is not meant to diagnose, treat, prescribe or cure and has not been evaluated by the FDA. This information is for educational purposes only.
Purple Tea Further Reading & References
Shen J, Zou Z, Zhang X, et al. Metabolic analyses reveal different mechanisms of leaf color change in two purple-leaf tea plant (Camellia sinensis L.) cultivars. Hortic Res. 2018;5:7. Published 2018 Feb 7. doi:10.1038/s41438-017-0010-1
Shimoda H, Hitoe S, Nakamura S, Matsuda H. Purple Tea and Its Extract Suppress Diet-induced Fat Accumulation in Mice and Human Subjects by Inhibiting Fat Absorption and Enhancing Hepatic Carnitine Palmitoyltransferase Expression. Int J Biomed Sci. 2015;11(2):67–75. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4502735/
Amos MS, RDN, A. Introducing Purple Tea. Amos Institute. Published 16 July 2018.
L.C. Kerio, F.N. Wachira, J.K. Wanyoko, M.K. Rotich (2012). Total polyphenols, catechin profiles and antioxidant activity of tea products from purple leaf coloured tea cultivars. Food Chemistry 136 (2013) 1405–1413.
Marla Hahn, Marília Baierle, Mariele F. Charão, Guilherme B. Bubols, Fernanda S. Gravina, Paulo Zielinsky, Marcelo D. Arbo & Solange Cristina Garcia (2017) Polyphenol-rich food general and on pregnancy effects: a review, Drug and Chemical Toxicology, 40:3, 368-374, DOI: 10.1080/01480545.2016.1212365
Zielinsky P, Busato S. Prenatal effects of maternal consumption of polyphenol-rich foods in late pregnancy upon fetal ductus arteriosus. Birth Defects Res C Embryo Today. 2013;99(4):256–274. doi:10.1002/bdrc.21051
Kadey, MS, RD, M. Taste the rainbow: For the healthiest pregnancy possible, seek out a full spectrum of food. Pregnancy & Newborn Magazine.
Watkins, S. Is it safe to drink green tea during pregnancy? Baby Centre. October 2017.
Khan, F., Bashir, A., & Mughairbi, F. A. (2018). Purple Tea Composition and Inhibitory Effect of Anthocyanin-Rich Extract on Cancer Cell Proliferation. Medicinal & Aromatic Plants, 07(06). https://doi.org/10.4172/2167-0412.1000322