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The Art and Science of Botanicals

As intriguing and delicious as herbal blends may be to drink, interest in the health benefits derived from various botanicals is driving sales in today's tea and beverage market. There are brands proclaiming benefits such as weight loss, memory improvement, antioxidant protection, lowering blood pressure, and the list goes on.

Whether you call them herbal teas, tisanes or botanicals, plant-based 'tea' blends are comprised of flowers, herbs, leaves, roots, bark, and spices, and most are naturally caffeine-free. Colorful flower petals mixed with leaves and spices create a visually pleasing mélange that is used to infuse water, like tea, resulting in a flavorful beverage, an artful sum of all its parts.

The word 'tea' generally refers to a beverage made only with leaves from the camellia Sinensis plant. An herbal ‘tea' (more accurately called a 'tisane') traditionally implied a beverage without caffeine. Today, however, some herbal blends may contain caffeine, such as Latin American botanicals like yerba mate, ilex guayusa, or porangba leaves. If your intent is to avoid caffeine, be sure to read the label.

Many botanicals contain antioxidants and phytonutrients (naturally occurring substances found in plants) that may have health benefits. For instance, in the news right now is turmeric, a rhizome related to ginger, that contains a bioactive compound called curcumin, recognized as a powerful anti-inflammatory. In fact, many people choose to drink herbal concoctions based on their perception of health benefits.

Most are familiar with the more common herbs and flowers used in herbal teas, generally known for their relaxing or soothing properties, such as lemon verbena, chamomile, mint, lavender, lemon balm, or rooibos. Barks and roots such as cinnamon, licorice, ginger, and turmeric are used as aromatics as well as for medicinal properties attributed to them. Today, new ingredients such as seaweed and hemp are making their way into innovative herbal blends. Flowers such as linden, lavender, roses, hibiscus, honeysuckle, osmanthus, and elderflowers add floral, sweet flavor notes as well as some medicinal benefits.

Dried fruits, particularly apples, are sometimes used to provide or as carriers for additional sweeteners or flavoring. Dried berries and fruits such as strawberries, blueberries, currants, apricots, or peaches are also used to provide fruit flavor and sweetness.

Many regions in the world make unique beverages using local herbs and plants — in Greece, herbaceous infusions made from thyme, oregano, sage, dittany, ironwort, or olive leaves are very popular. In Latin America, a popular highly caffeinated herbal concoction is made from yerba mate and is a very popular drink. In Africa, rooibos (or 'bush tea') or honeybush are the preferred 'tea.'

Botanicals As Medicine
Before pills, capsules, salves, and tinctures were made by pharmaceuticals for healthcare, physicians relied on compounding botanicals to treat disease. Historically, medicines made from plants were the backbone of remedies, not only in Western medicine but all around the globe. And, as medicine moved into the 19th century, plants played a critical role in new drug development. Modern organic chemistry and technology revealed an almost inexhaustible array of molecules in plants that pharmaceutical labs have been able to isolate and recombine to create powerful medicines. For instance, the active ingredients in many common drugs are derived from plant sources such as digitalis (acetyldigoxin), artichokes (cynarine), licorice (glycyrrhizin), willow bark (aspirin), Cinchona ledgeriana (quinine), and about a hundred more. At least 74% of pharmaceuticals are derived from plants. And of course, modern pharmaceutical technology developed precision dosing for optimal safety and therapeutic efficacy.

Much like the supplement market, many people assume 'natural remedies' or beverages made from plants as 'safe' and well, 'natural.' Few realize that the beautiful foxglove plant and flower (which contains digitalis) that commonly grows in many gardens is a deadly poisonous plant — however in the correct dosage, digitalis (or digoxin) is used as a beneficial cardiotonic. It can't be emphasized enough that it's critical to understand that herbs and flowers are not simply 'eye candy' — nor should they be used as 'functional medicine' for self-treatment.

Before purchasing any new 'herbal tonic' or a 'weight loss tea,’ read the label carefully and then look up the various ingredients if you aren't familiar with them. And, if you are taking any medications or supplements whatsoever, check with your doctor or pharmacist to see if there are any potentially unsafe interactions. Recently a woman was diagnosed with a rare liver disease that stumped her healthcare team. She had neglected to mention that she had started to take a new turmeric supplement. Most would assume that turmeric, a common spice, would be safe — but the active compound curcumin interfered with other medications she was taking. Luckily, after discontinuing turmeric, her liver enzymes returned to normal. (See: Woman's Turmeric Supplement Likely Caused Uncommon Disease.)

The art of blending botanicals, each with their own unique flavor and molecular profiles, is an acquired skill. Understanding compatible ingredients and flavors allows master tea blenders to create a new tea experience with each blend, from herbaceous or spicy blends to delicate flower blends. When choosing a new herbal tea, use your nose. If you like what you smell, chances are very good that you'll enjoy the taste. But, also use your head and read the label — be sure you understand the ingredients. Then, go enjoy a delightful cuppa!