For centuries, tea has been Britain’s favourite beverage. Traditionally, there have been two choices: black tea, with milk or without.
Now the market is overflowing with different selections that range from fruit-flavoured to green, and herbal to spiced tea.
These alternative products are now thought to account for at least a third of overall tea sales in the UK. But, recently, a new option has become available: vitamin teas.
These are tea bags — usually containing green tea — with added vitamins, designed to appeal to those who are worried they are lacking essential nutrients in their diets.
Market expansion: For centuries, tea has been Britain’s favourite beverage, but now the market is overflowing with selections that range from fruit-flavoured to green, herbal to spiced tea
The vitamins are either extracted from plant materials or are a lab-made version with the same chemical constituents.
Vitamin teas gained national attention last year, when entrepreneur James Dawson, founder of Harrogate-based start-up firm TEA+ secured a £75,000 investment on the hit BBC TV series Dragons’ Den.
The cash came from ‘dragon’ Tej Lalvani, CEO of vitamins giant Vitabiotics.
Today, the company’s products — which include vitamin teas designed to increase levels of vitamin C and D to bolster energy and improve the function of the immune system — are available in High Street shops.
Dawson says his tea bags are especially popular with those who don’t like swallowing vitamin capsules, or have busy lifestyles that mean they struggle to get the required vitamin intake through diet alone.
He told Good Health: ‘New mums, those keen to maintain their health and people who are generally time-poor are among our biggest customers.’
TEA+ says its Multea, for example, provides 50 per cent of the body’s daily needs of nine essential vitamins, including vitamins C, B6, B12 and folic acid.
Vitamin C protects healthy cells against damage from harmful molecules called free radicals and ensures blood vessels stay in good condition.
Vitamin B6, meanwhile, keeps the nervous system functioning properly; while B12 is essential for the production of healthy red blood cells.
Popular: Vitamin teas gained national attention last year, when entrepreneur James Dawson, founder of Harrogate-based start-up firm TEA+ secured a £75,000 investment on the hit BBC TV series Dragons’ Den
Other leading tea retailers, such as Twinings and Tetley, have also introduced their own ranges of vitamin-infused teas to cash in on demand.
But do vitamin tea bags really work and are they worth what some might consider a fairly hefty price tag? For instance, Multea costs £3.50 for 15 bags, or 23p each, and Tetley Super Green Immune Lemon & Honey is £1.79 for 20 tea bags, or 9p per bag. (By comparison, a box of 20 green tea teabags can cost from 75p, ie just over 3p each.)
The fact is, you would need to drink two cups a day of the vitamin C-infused Multea to hit your recommended daily intake of 40mg for a young adult — ‘which is a very expensive way to get this vitamin in your diet’, says Hilary Powers, a professor of nutritional biochemistry at Sheffield University.
Tetley Super Green Immune has roughly 9mg of vitamin C per cup, so you would have to drink nearly five cups a day to meet your daily requirement.
‘A large orange, or 250ml glass of orange juice, would provide all you need for the day,’ suggests Professor Powers.
Drinking vitamin C-enriched tea in the hope of building up a reserve does not work either, as the body does not store it — any excess is lost in urine — so it needs to come from your diet.
Helena Gibson-Moore, a nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation, says relying on vitamin tea for daily intake also carries risks.
‘It is the diet as a whole, not single nutrients in isolation, that have the greatest beneficial impact on health,’ she says.
‘Relying on supplements alone — whether in a pill or a tea — for essential vitamins and minerals may mean that you miss out on key elements of a healthy diet, such as fibre, which is essential for healthy gut function.’
And while the tea bags may contain the vitamins they claim to, making a perfect brew that actually delivers these into the body is quite complicated.
One of the drawbacks is that adding boiling water to water-soluble vitamins — including vitamins C, B6 and B12 — rapidly degrades them, stripping them of their vitamin content.
Manufacturers know this, so add extra quantities of each vitamin during the production process, so that — in theory — the end product has the exact amount as stated on the label.
Vitamin C has a relatively low rate of degradation in hot water, so an extra 25 per cent is added at the outset, but B6 breaks down a lot more quickly, and so double the amount needed is used to make the final tea bag.
However, there is still a risk that the vitamin content is further damaged during brewing.
TEA+ advises consumers to infuse each bag in water that is just below boiling point for precisely three minutes.
Leaving it for this long is supposed to ensure the maximum amount of vitamin diffuses into the water and gets consumed.
Leaving the bag in for too long, or not long enough, can significantly reduce vitamin availability — as can adding water straight from a boiling kettle.
Says Dawson: ‘We state that you should brew it for three minutes. But if you do it for significantly longer, or say less than a minute, then you are not going to get the required dosage.
‘You will still get some — but not the maximum available.’
He says that all the company’s teas are tested by independent laboratories before going on sale, to ensure a tea bag contains enough of each vitamin to allow for losing some during the brewing process.
Catherine Collins, a dietitian at Surrey and Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust, is far from convinced. ‘They are basically a refreshing drink that carries a health halo, which is largely unnecessary,’ she says.
The consumers most likely to buy these products are probably those who least need them, says Professor Powers. ‘They are simply aimed at the “worried well”. There have been several studies showing people who take vitamin supplements or eat so-called superfoods tend to be white, middle-class non-smokers who exercise lots. This is nothing more than a fad.’