Tea Leaves

Science

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The chemical makeup of tea is quite complex, with thousands of compounds found in both the plant and the leaf itself.  Some compounds go through chemical reactions, breaking down or combining to form new compounds during the growing and processing stages, and some change again when infused in hot water.  Because processing methods have such an effect on the chemical composition of tea, different types of tea also have different chemical compositions.  It is the combined effect of these many compounds and reactions that creates the unique aromas, flavors and sensations we experience when we drink our favorite tea.  The main compounds found in a tea leaf are:

 

POLYPHENOLS These are the most common and influential chemical compounds found in a tea leaf.  Polyphenols help the plant fight pests and diseases, especially useful for the youngest and most vulnerable leaves and shoots.  Tea polyphenols include flavonoids, which break down during oxidation (see page 47) and then join with other molecules to create theaflavins and thearubigins, which are responsible for the darker color and stronger flavors that develop. during oxidation.  Other flavonoids, such as catechin, are important, as they are thought to be responsible not only for flavor and color, but also antioxidants.

 

ENZYMES Enzymes play an important role in the processing of tea leaves, particularly the oxidation stage, which is an enzymatic reaction that changes both the color and flavor of the leaves (see page 47).  This reaction can be stopped by applying heat, which is why the leaves dry after oxidation and so the first stage of green tea production is usually to apply heat, a process known as 'Killing the Green' (see page 52). ).

 

TEA AMINO ACIDS Amino acids are present in tea in many forms, but theanine is the most prominent.  Amino acids convert to polyphenols when the plant is exposed to sunlight.  Interestingly, some teas, like matcha, are dyed during the last few weeks before harvest to encourage a higher amount of amino acids.

 

Theanine compounds, particularly L-theanine, are said to have a positive effect on the mind when absorbed into the body along with caffeine molecules, an effect described as a relaxed high but no subsequent fall, as can happen when you absorb the caffeine from coffee.

 

Thearubigins As a result of oxidation, catechins are converted to thearubigins.  Due to the high level of oxidation that takes place in the production of black teas in particular, between 60 and 70 percent of this type of tea is made up of arubigins.  They are also sometimes called tannins and affect color and flavor changes, usually making the tea darker and more astringent.

 

Carbohydrates Like other plants, the tea plant stores energy in the form of carbohydrates, which it generates through photosynthesis.  The tea plant can tap into these reserves to drive important reactions in the tea leaves, both while the plant is growing and later during processing.

 

Minerals A variety of minerals are found in tea leaves, including selenium, aluminum, fluoride, potassium, zinc, magnesium and iodine, which have different effects on the human body.  Among the most notable is fluoride, which can help keep teeth healthy.  The mineral content of tea leaves varies depending on growing conditions, as well as the type and age of the leaves being processed.

 

Flavor and Aroma Volatile Compounds There are many flavor and aroma compounds in tea, and these volatiles combine to create a complex structure that is responsible for the subtle flavor notes and aromas you enjoy in your favorite cup.  Some are responsible for bitterness, others for sweetness, while others give the tea roasted aromas or energetic flavors.

 

Caffeine Caffeine is a natural stimulant found in tea leaves, created by the tea plant as a form of protection against insects and pests (see also page 101).  Caffeine can affect heart rate, brain waves, and physical function, both positively and negatively.  Like minerals, the levels of caffeine found in tea leaves can vary depending on climate and terrain, the species of plant, and the type of leaves being processed.  The main chemical reactions that take place in a tea leaf are:

 

PHOTOSYNTHESIS This is the process by which the plant creates and stores energy in the form of carbohydrates while growing in sunlight.  These carbohydrates help along the enzymatic process during subsequent oxidation and help convert amino acids into polyphenols.

 

WITHERING Water compounds are lost from the leaf as soon as they are plucked from the plant and begin to wilt.  The cell walls of the leaf break down, too (see also page 46).

 

OXIDIZATION As cell walls begin to break down, the chemistry of the leaf changes as the compounds go through an enzymatic reaction with the oxygen molecules in the air.  The main chemical change is the flavonoids converting to theaflavins (see also page 20).

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