The market for natural tea and organic tea is growing as fast as the demand for other organic foods. But what exactly makes tea natural, organic or fair trade -- and is it really any better for you?
Isn't All Tea Natural Tea?
The term "natural" is used casually to describe anything that isn't man-made, and tea is no exception. While there are some teas that include artificial flavors or high-fructose corn syrup (which is so heavily processed it barely counts as natural), most teas are a natural product.
But calling it "natural tea" doesn't mean it's good for you or the planet. Tea is the world's most popular beverage after plain water, and tea cultivation requires a significant amount of pesticides, fertilizers and other synthetic chemicals -- some of which can cause significant damage to the environment. The only teas that don't use these chemicals are certified organic teas.
Benefits of Organic Tea
In order for tea to be labeled "USDA Organic tea," it has to be certified as grown without the use of most kinds of synthetic pesticides, fertilizers, soil amendments and other compounds. Not only does this spare the environment the harmful effects of these chemicals, it also keeps workers in the tea industry from potentially dangerous working conditions.
All teas -- whether green tea, black tea, Oolong tea, Chai tea or herbals tea -- can be grown organically. Flavored teas (like lemon-jasmine green tea) can be certified as organic if their flavoring additives are also grown organically.
What is Fair Trade Tea?
Some organic teas (but not all) are also fair trade teas. These teas are grown on tea plantations that provide their workers with better working conditions, like a higher degree of protection from pesticides. Workers are also guaranteed a living wage and a greater degree of community support, often including educational opportunities and basic health care, though there is some controversy over whether or not fair trade practices are actually better.
In addition to buying organic or fair trade teas, there are other things you can do to "green up" your tea. A cup that you can wash and reuse is vastly superior to using a disposable cup. You can also compost tea and tea bags.
True tea aficionados swear by using loose tea instead of tea that comes packaged in tea bags that are usually made from bleached paper or plastics. Not only does using loose tea cut down on packaging waste, it also tastes better and supposedly contains more antioxidants and other beneficial compounds. Which brings us to our final question...
Is Organic or "Natural" Tea Healthier for You?
While tea that doesn't contain added sugar, high-fructose corn syrup or other junk-food additives may be better for you, there's no scientific evidence that organic tea -- or any other organic food -- contains more vitamins, antioxidants or other nutrients that regular commercial tea.
Organic tea is, however, undeniably better for the environment, since it's grown without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides, fertilizers or other potentially hazardous compounds. And a large and growing number of tea lovers are more than willing to pay a premium for that benefit.