Loose leaf tea is increasing in popularity primarily because it is healthier for our bodies and the environment. There are 4 main reasons why turning to loose leaf over tea bags is a good idea. We'll discuss them below.
1. Physical Health
Most teabags are made from paper or plastic (also known as ’satin’, ‘pyramid’ or ‘nylon’ teabags). The paper ones are from bleached pulp abaca hemp and wood. The plastic ones are straight from polypropylene - that is; plastic.
Tea has been enjoyed for thousands of years as a loose leaf tea experience. It wasn’t until the early 1900s when the tea bag was discovered by mistake. A tea merchant by the name of Thomas Sullivan started sending out tea samples in beautiful silk bags. The idea was to impress potential buyers with fancy quality packaging before enjoying the loose leaf tea that was inside. One buyer mistook the packaging for a ‘tea bag’ and dunk the entire thing in hot water. He praised Tom for his ingenious design at which point Tom realised the brilliance of his accidental discovery and headed straight to the patent office (bit of poetic licence here, we’re not sure whether the patent office was really his next move). Regardless, the concept stuck and bagged tea has become the status quo for much of the last 100 years in the West.
This is changing. More people are becoming aware of the not-so-nice health implications of drinking bleached paper or plastics. The chemical bleach used for paper tea bags leaks into the tea which after consumption gets absorbed into the human body. On the other hand, plastic tea bags release a significant amount of micro plastics when hot water is added.
A Canadian research team found that steeping a plastic tea bag at a brewing temperature of 95°C releases around 11.6 billion micro plastics into a single cup. “We think that it is a lot when compared to other foods that contain microplastics,” says Nathalie Tufenkji at McGill University. “Table salt, which has a relatively high microplastic content, has been reported to contain approximately 0.005 micrograms plastic per gram salt. A cup of tea contains thousands of times greater mass of plastic, at 16 micrograms per cup.”
Overall, Tufenkji and colleagues are doing more research to identify the potential toxicity and health impacts of drinking water contaminated from tea bags. However, in the meantime, their suggestion is to drink loose leaf tea (see bottom of article for the research paper).
Ditching or limiting our plastic consumption isn’t news. Breaking up with plastic bottled water, shopping with reusable bags, skipping the straw, recycling where possible, and choosing to shop seasonal and local can have powerful benefits on our environment. Research from 2020 alone shows that plastics consistently make up 80% of all marine debris studied (see references at the bottom of the article). Eriksen and colleagues (2014) found approximately 5.25 trillion macro and microplastic pieces floating in the open ocean weighing up to 269,000 tonnes and a recent 2020 study discovered microplastics embedded deep in the Arctic ice.
The devastating reach plastic has on our environment and marine life is frightening. Over 100,000 marine mammals and turtles and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution each year. The science is clear on the environmental benefit of reducing our plastics. Removing tea bags just seems like a small thing we can do for the better; it’s a no-brainer. So what should you use instead? A reusable stainless steel strainer where the investment goes a long way.
3. Mental Health
Most people turn to tea bags for its efficiency - a few minutes saved by choosing to bin a bag rather than rinse out a tea strainer. This seems like a strange thing to do when the point of most tea breaks is just that - a break to enjoy a cup of tea. A few moments away from the madness of your desk, work or life’s stressors to pause and regain consciousness.
Enjoying the process of making tea is just as important to our mental health as the taste of the beverage itself. Tea isn’t about a destination. It’s not a race to get a quick brew down the pipe like a tequila shot. Everything about the process of drinking tea invites you to slow down, wait, be present, be patient. The nature of the boiling water that needs time to cool before drinking is an easy starting point but it extends beyond that.
The moments of waiting for the kettle to boil, the sight of steam, the feel of heat, the aroma of the tea leaves intensifying with each pour, the external warmth of the cup, the internal warmth of the liquor. It’s all part of the tea process. A sensory experience to be savoured and enjoyed. Why would you want to short change that for tea bag convenience? Tea and mindfulness is something we’re big on.
What goes into tea bags is typically the fannings / dustings of the loose leaf tea. That is, the bottom of the barrel so to speak is swept into tea bags once the good stuff (large loose leaf) is removed. There is a practical reason for companies to prefer small tea dust over large leaves in tea bags and that is for its ability to brew faster. More tiny separated pieces extract a lot faster in water than large premium grade loose leaf tea. Furthermore; fannings allow the tea producers to be more careless with the tea leaves harvested since it all gets macerated into a bag anyway. That means; bruised or diseased leaves are all fair game.
If your preference is to quickly extract maximum flavour in the quickest amount of time then yes, loose leaf isn’t your friend. However, if the preference is high grade premium leaves that take time to expand and extract in flavour then ditch the tea bag and switch to loose leaf. The key thing here is space for the tea leaf to expand (see recommendations below on how to get this right).
Loose leaf tea that can be brewed in a large tea strainer that gives the tea leaf plenty of space to expand. Some strainers are tiny and impractical - steer clear of those. We suggest a food grade stainless steel strainer that is open and large enough for the tea to expand. Large strainers also make for easy cleaning.
As for the brewing vessel (aka teapot). We recommend either putting a strainer straight into a mug and brewing the tea in there or using a glass teapot. We like glass because you can interchange it between different teas without transferring residual flavours. Furthermore, glass is easy to clean and you don’t need to deal with scrubbing tea stained ceramic spouts or strange smells from cast iron vessels. Glass is simple, clean, and effective.
- IUCN, 2020
- Kelly et al., 2020
- Eriksen, 2014
- UK Government, 2018
- Journal reference: Environmental Science & Technology, DOI: 10.1021/acs.est.9b02540