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Guest Column: Fall 2016

Infusion confusion

September 1, 2016
By Raelene Gannon

Photo: Thinkstock

Is it tea or what?

With the explosion of tea, or thé, or cha, as you may call it, the number of tea-type beverages on the shelf in the past five years may astound the traditional tea drinker. When I grew up there were maybe two or three boxes of bagged tea on the grocery shelf and it was just “tea flavoured” at that. There was only one type of tea that I grew up on: black, and basically it was dust in a bag. But today there is a remarkable difference on the grocery store shelves. What once was just two or three boxes on the shelf and only in one size (there were no super-sized boxes) is now a four- to eight-foot section in an average grocery store and 20 feet or more in specialty grocery and health food stores. This is a remarkable increase in what is basically a commodity on our store shelves and in our lives and, of course, in our cups!

That being said, one of the biggest issues with this influx of products is that even things that are not tea are being labelled as tea. Technically, to be called tea the beverage must contain, well . . . tea – that is leaves of the camellia sinensis bush. Camellia sinensis comes in several varietals but the two main ones are camellia sinensis sinensis (mostly from China) and camellia sinensis assamica (mostly from India). You will not likely see either of these extensions, but suffice it to say you should see camellia sinensis, green or black tea (possibly with the addition of the word leaves). You may also see more clearly defined names – such as oolong tea leaves – but those are likely specialty brands and loose leaf teas. So if a product does say tea in the ingredients it might not be tea at all. This could be a good thing or a bag thing. If you are buying your beverage choice for caffeine – remember, tea has approximately 1/3 of the caffeine of coffee – and it does not have tea in it, then you will be disappointed. Also if you are looking for the antioxidant and polyphenol benefits of tea, again you may be disappointed. And if you are looking for the taste of tea, once again you will be disappointed. Yes, you will get the benefits of whatever ingredients are in the herbals or tisane, but likely not what you were expecting.

Now that I have mentioned herbal, some further clarification can be made. Herbal teas should be labelled just herbal infusions or herbal beverages or, for short, herbal. These are loose or bagged combinations of dried fruits, herbs, barks, roots, and/or spices, one or several or none of the above list, but no camellia sinensis or tea leaves in it at all. There are likely infinite combinations of herbal blends, and as such the recipes of these will vary from brand to brand. Even a simple combination of mint can be so confusing. Some brands use all peppermint, some use all spearmint and some use a combination of the two, and they are quite different. Spearmint is sweeter and has a totally different taste than peppermint. If you go to the garden centre you will see several different types of mint that would actually make some really great mint teas, but it would be best spelled out on the package label or in promotional material. For example, there is a chocolate mint so if that was in a beverage and you didn’t know it you would be pretty surprised with your new infusion!


You may also see “tisane” on some packages. This word is often used interchangeably with herbal, but note that herbal indicates herbs are in the blend, which they usually are in these types of non-tea blends, but if the product doesn’t have any herbs in it, it should be called a tisane.

Well, all of this talk of tea makes me want to go steep a cup . . . of genuine tea, that is! Cheers!

Raelene Gannon is a certified tea sommelier and owner of loose leaf tea manufacturer: tea and all its splendour. Raelene’s specialties include tea manufacturing, menus, food pairings and merchandising. She is the author of tea: from cup to plate. To learn more about tea, visit

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