Processing, properties, and benefits of green tea

Green tea is an infusion of processed leaves of tea plant, Camellia sinensis, a member of the Theaceae family.
It is the most consumed beverages in Asia, particularly in China and Japan.
Western populations consume black tea more frequently than green tea. However, in recent years, thanks to its health benefits, it has been gaining their attention.
Currently, it accounts for 20% of the tea consumed worldwide.
As all other types of tea, it is produced from fresh leaves of Camellia sinensis.
The peculiar properties of the beverage depend on the type of processing that the leaves undergo. In fact, they are processed in such a way as to minimize both enzymatic and chemical oxidation processes of the substances contained in them, in particular catechins.
Therefore, among the different types of tea, it undergoes the lowest degree of oxidation during processing.
At the end of the processing, tea leaves retain their green color, thanks to the little chemical modifications/oxidations they have undergone. The infusion shows off a yellow-gold color.
Finally, the processing of tea leaves ensures that green tea flavor is more delicate and lighter than black tea.


Processing of tea leaves

After harvesting, tea leaves are exposed to the sun for 2-3 hours and withered/dried; then, the real processing starts.
It consists of three main steps: heat treatment, rolling and drying.

Heat treatment

Heat treatment, short and gentle, is the crucial step for the quality and properties of the beverage.
It occurs with steam (the traditional Japanese method) or by dry cooking in hot pans (a large wok, the traditional Chinese method). Heat treatment has the purpose of:

  • inactivate the enzymes present in the tissues of the leaves, thus stopping enzymatic oxidation processes, particularly of polyphenols;
  • eliminate the grassy smell in order to stand out tea flavor;
  • evaporate part of the water present in the fresh leaf (water constitutes about 75% of the weight of the leaf), making it softer, so as to make the next step easier.


The rolling step follows the heat treatment of the leaves; this step has the purpose of:

  • facilitate the next stage of drying;
  • destroy the tissues of the leaves in order to favor, later, the release of aromas, thus improving the quality of the product.


The drying is the last step, which also leads to the production of new compounds and improves the appearance of the product.

Benefits of green tea

All types of tea are rich in polyphenols, compounds that are also present in fruits, vegetables, extra virgin olive oil, and red wine.
Fresh tea leaves are rich in water-soluble polyphenols, especially catechins (or flavanols) and glycosylated catechins (both belonging to the class of flavonoids), molecules which are believed to be the responsibles of the benefits of green tea.
The major catechins in green tea are epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG, see figure), epigallocatechin, epicatechin-3-gallate, epicatechin, epicatechin, but also catechin, gallocatechin, catechin gallate, and gallocatechin gallate are present, even if in lower amount.

Skeletal formula of gallocatechin gallate, a catechin present in green tea
Gallocatechin gallate

These polyphenols account for 30%-42% of the dry leaf weight (but only 3%–10% of the solid content of black tea).
Green tea caffeine accounts for 1,5-4,5% of the dry leaf weight.

Catechin absorption and lemon juice

In vitro studies have shown the high antioxidant power of catechins, greater than that of vitamin C and vitamin E. In vitro, EGCG is generally considered the most biologically active catechin.
In vivo studies and several epidemiologic studies have shown the possible preventive effects of green tea catechins, especially EGCG, in preventing the development of:

  • cardiovascular disease, such as hypertension and stroke;
  • some cancers, such as lung cancer (but not among smokers) and oral and digestive tract cancers.

For these reasons, it is essential to maximize the intestinal absorption of catechins.
Catechins are stable in acidic environment, but not in non-acidic environment, as in the small intestine; also for this reason, after digestion, less than 20% of the total remains.
Studies with models of the digestive tract of rat and man, that simulate digestion in stomach and small intestine, have shown that the addition of citrus juice or vitamin C to green tea significantly increases the absorption of catechins.
Among tested citrus juices, lemon juice is the best, followed by orange, lime and grapefruit juices. Citrus juices seem to have a stabilizing effect on catechins that goes beyond what would be predicted solely based on their ascorbic acid content.


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Blood pressure, hypertension and dietary sodium

A high sodium (Na+) intake (the main source is salt or sodium chloride NaCl) contributes to blood pressure raise, and hypertension development.
Many epidemiologic studies, animal studies, migration studies, clinical trials, and meta-analyses of trials support this, with the final evidence from rigorously controlled, dose-response trials. Furthermore, in primitive society Na+ intake is very low and people experience very low hypertension, and the blood pressure increase with age does not occur.
Probably, sodium intake effect sizes are to be underestimated!


Recommended daily intake

Sodium’s physiologic requires are very low; in fact, the minimum recommended Na+ intake for maintain life is 250 mg/day (Note: iodized salt is an important source of dietary iodine in the United States and worldwide).
An Americans consumes the mineral in great excess of physiologic requires: despite the guidelines from the Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services, during the period from 2005 through 2006 the average salt intake in USA is of 10.4 g/day for the average man and 7.3 for the average woman, amount in excess regarding preceding years.
A study published on February 2010 on “The New England Journal of Medicine” have shown that “A population-wide reduction in dietary salt of 3 g per day (1200 mg of Na+ per day) is projected to reduce the annual number of new cases of coronary heart disease (CHD) by 60,000 to 120,000, stroke by 32,000 to 66,000, and myocardial infarction by 54,000 to 99,000 and to reduce the annual number of deaths from any cause by 44,000 to 92,000″ (Bibbins-Domingo et all., see References). These benefits are similar in magnitude to those from:

  • a 50% reduction in tobacco use;
  • a 5% reduction in body mass index among obese adults;
  • a reduction in cholesterol levels.

These benefits regard all adult group age, black and nonblack, male and female. The benefits for black are greater than nonblack, in both sex and all age group. It’s estimated an annual savings of $10 billion to 24 $ billion in health care costs.
Clinical trials have also documented that a reduced Na+ intake can lower blood pressure in the setting of antihypertensive medication, and can facilitate hypertension control.
But, in USA dietary salt intake is on the rise!
So, it is recommended, to prevent hypertension development, a reduction in its intake and, in view of the available food supply and the currently daily Na+ intake, a reasonable recommendation is an upper limit of 2.3 g/day (5.8 g/day of salt).
How achieves this level? It can be achieved:

  • cooking with as little salt as possible;
  • refraining from adding salt at the table;
  • avoiding highly salted, processed foods.

Food sources of sodium

They include:

  • salt used at the table: up to 20% of the daily salt intake;
  • salt or sodium compounds added during preparation or processing foods: between 35 to 80% of the daily sodium intake comes from processed foods.A major source of sodium is salt, or sodium chlorideWhich foods are?
    Processed, smoked or cured meat and fish e.g. sliced salami, sausage, salt pork, tuna fish in oil etc.; meat extracts and sauce, salted snack, soy sauce, barbecue sauce, commercial salad dressing; prepackage frozen foods; canned soup, canned legumes; cheese etc.
    There are also many sodium-containing additives as disodium phosphate (e.g. in cereals, ice cream, cheese), monosodium glutamate (i.e. meat, soup, condiments), sodium alginate (e.g. in ice creams), sodium benzoate (e.g. in fruit juice), sodium hydroxide (e.g. in pretzels, cocoa product), sodium propionate (e.g. in bread), sodium sulfite (e.g. in dried fruit), sodium pectinate (e.g. syrups, ice creams, jam), sodium caseinate (e.g. ice creams and other frozen products) and sodium bicarbonate (e.g. baking powder, tomato soup, confections).
    So pay attention to ingredients!
  • Inherent sodium of foods. Generally low in fresh foods.

The blood pressure response to lower dietary Na+ intake is heterogeneous with individuals having greater or lesser degrees of blood pressure reduction. Usually the effect of reduction tend to be greater in blacks, middle-aged and older persons, and individuals with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease.
Furthermore genetic and dietary factors influence the response to sodium reduction.

Diet modifies response of blood pressure to sodium

Some components of the diet may modify response of blood pressure to sodium.

  • A high dietary intake of calcium and potassium rich foods, such as fruit, vegetable, legumes (e.g. Mediterranean diet), and low-fat dairy products (e.g. DASH diet), may prevent or attenuate the rise in blood pressure for a given increase in sodium intake.
  • Some evidences, seen primarily in animal model, suggest that high dietary intake of sucrose may potentiate salt sensitivity of blood pressure.

Note: high Na+ intake can contribute to osteoporosis: they result in an increase in renal calcium excretion, particularly if daily calcium intakes are low.


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Foods high in anthocyanins, their absorption and metabolism

Together with catechins and proanthocyanidins, anthocyanins and their oxidation products are the most abundant flavonoids in the human diet.
Examples of anthocyanin rich foods are:

  • certain varieties of grains, such as some types of pigmented rice (e.g. black rice) and maize (purple corn);
  • in certain varieties of root and leafy vegetables such as aubergine, red cabbage, red onions and radishes, beans;
  • but especially in red fruits.

Example of anthocyanin rich food
Anthocyanins are also present in red wine; as the wine ages, they are transformed into various complex molecules.
Anthocyanin content in vegetables and fruits is generally proportional to their color: it increases during maturation, and it reaches values up to 4 g/kg fresh weight (FW) in cranberries and black currants.
These polyphenols are found primarily in the skin, except for some red fruits, such as cherries and red berries (e.g. strawberries), in which they are present both in the skin and flesh.
Glycosides of cyanidin are the most common anthocyanins in foods.


Anthocyanin rich fruits

  • Berries are the main source of anthocyanins, with values ranging between 67 and 950 mg/100 g FW.
  • Other fruits, such as red grapes, cherries and plums, have content ranging between 2 and 150 mg/100 g FW.
  • Finally, in fruits such as nectarines, peaches, and some types of apples and pears, anthocyanins are poorly present, with a content of less than 10 mg/100 g FW.

Cranberries, besides their very high content of anthocyanins, are one of the rare food that contain glycosides of the six most commonly anthocyanidins present in foods: pelargonidin, delphinidin, cyanidin, petunidin, peonidin, and malvidin. The main anthocyanins are the 3-O-arabinosides and 3-O-galactosides of peonidin and cyanidin. A total of 13 anthocyanins have been detected, mainly 3-O-monoglycosides.

Anthocyanin absorption

Until recently, it was believed that anthocyanins, together with proanthocyanidins and gallic acid ester derivatives of catechins, were the least well-absorbed polyphenols, with a time of appearance in the plasma consistent with the absorption in the stomach and small intestine. Indeed, some studies have shown that their bioavailability has been underestimated since, probably, all of their metabolites have not been yet identified.
In this regard, it should be underlined that only a small part of the food anthocyanins is absorbed in their glycated forms or as hydrolysis products in which the sugar moiety has been removed. Therefore, a large amount of these ingested polyphenols enters the colon, where they can also suffer methylation, sulphatation, glucuronidation and oxidation reactions.

Anthocyanins and colonic microbiota

Few studies have examined the metabolism of anthocyanins by the gut microbiota in the colon.
Within two hours, it seems that all the anthocyanins lose their sugar moieties, thus producing anthocyanidins.
Anthocyanidins are chemically unstable in the neutral pH of the colon. They can be metabolized by colonic microbiota or chemically degraded producing a set of new molecules that have not yet fully identified, but which include phenolic acids such as gallic acid, syringic acid, protocatechuic acid, vanillic acid and phloroglucinol (1,3,5-trihydroxybenzene). These molecules, thanks to their higher microbial and chemical stability, might be the main responsible for the antioxidant activities and the other physiological effects that have been observed in vivo and attributed to anthocyanins.


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