Tea is meant to be a healthy drink. You’ve probably heard of people going on a ‘green tea cleanse,’ or otherwise lauding tea as a healthier alternative to coffee, and certainly to soda. But what if you just ate the tea leaves themselves? Are there risks to ingesting any loose tea that’s escaped the infuser? Let’s clear it up once and for all.
There are no major risks to drinking or eating loose tea leaves. In fact, there are several benefits, including a Vitamin A quotient. However, be aware that many tea leaves contain more caffeine per volume than coffee beans. Always consult a doctor if you have concerns about your diet.
So if you’ve accidentally swallowed some loose tea at the bottom of your cup, there’s no need to worry – but what’s really in those leaves, and could there be benefits to eating tea leaves dry? Read on to find out.
Will drinking tea leaves hurt you?
Let’s face it, it’s not an appetizing thought to dig into a heap of loose leaf tea with a spoon, even if it is a blend with candied fruit or ginger. Nevertheless, the average person could do so without risk to their health, and it might even be good for them: all the benefits of tea are, unsurprisingly, present in the whole leaf.
Given that you’re unlikely to be ingesting a significant volume of tea leaves at once (even if you brewed your tea without an infuser and left the leaves in the bottom of the cup) drinking tea leaves won’t hurt you. That said, it will get in your teeth and generally be an unpleasant experience. As a point of comparison: you wouldn’t eat dried ramen, but you could!
That said, it’s becoming more and more common to use dried tea in cooking, particularly in baking. Why not try adding Earl Grey tea to your next batch of cake mix, or add some jasmine tea to rice for a beautifully flavoured savoury meal? In each of these cases, you can use tea much as you’d use any other herb: while the tea flavour will be intense, you wouldn’t want to overpower your dish with cinnamon or sage either. All herbs and spices – and yes, teas – should be used in moderation.
However, there is something important to keep in mind when using loose leaf tea in cuisine: the caffeine content.
Does tea have more caffeine than coffee?
It might surprise you, but tea leaves actually contain more caffeine on average than coffee. Tea leaves are 3.5% caffeine, whereas coffee beans are only 1.5%.
So how come a cup of joe gives you more of an alertness boost than tea? Well, it’s partly because the process of brewing coffee extracts more caffeine from the bean. However, by far the biggest factor is that you ingest far more of a coffee bean in the act of drinking coffee than you do tea leaves when drinking tea: you only use the tea leaves to infuse your brew, whereas coffee uses the concentrated essence of the bean, whether that be instant granules or espresso. That means there’s more caffeine in tea than coffee, but less caffeine in a cup of tea than a cup of coffee.
As a whole, ingesting loose tea leaves gives you far more of a caffeine kick than you’d get from the beverage alone. This is unlikely to have significant effects given that the volume of loose leaf tea used per cup is quite low, but it can add up!
Can you eat tea leaves?
What if you ate actual tea leaves? That is, not the dried stuff we use to brew tea, but the leafy vegetable from which tea is derived? This is when the subject really gets interesting.
Nearly all kinds of tea – excluding fruit and herbal teas that fall under the broader category of infusions, as they contain no tea plant – are derived from the camellia sinensis species. Like most leafy vegetables, camellia sinensis is entirely edible, though it wouldn’t taste very nice by itself.
You would actually gain health benefits from eating the leaves that you wouldn’t gain from drinking tea. Vitamin A, for example, is present in camellia sinensis but is not soluble in water, meaning it isn’t transferred to your brew.
In fact, there’s reason to believe that eating tea predates the beverage. The Burmese dish Laphet thoke (also known as Burmese tea leaf salad) is made by pickling tea leaves, and the production of this dish accounts for 20% of all tea harvested in Myanmar! Fresh tomatoes are combined with garlic, green chili and shredded cabbage to create a sharp and spicy dish often served with rice.
Perhaps the most common instance of tea leaves being consumed is matcha. This powdered green tea leaf is used in a wide variety of East Asian dishes, predominantly in Japan, including matcha milkshakes, tempura batters, ice creams and even Kit Kats.
But what about the tea bags that you buy in stores?
Can you eat tea bags?
It takes a special kind of mind to look at a store-bought teabag and think it would make a fine meal, but humans have eaten stranger things!
You can eat the contents of a teabag – being careful not to eat any of the teabag itself, which contains plastics. Eating tea this way offers a higher caffeine content, though the bitter taste and gritty texture makes consuming tea bags in this way inadvisable.
While it’s hard to believe, a Quora user claims that they’ve been eating the contents of tea bags for years. By saturating the tea with water and then eating the leaves while drinking the tea, they suggest, you can make a palatable snack.
What makes this easier to stomach is that the user in question enjoys Lady Grey tea, which is Earl Grey tea typically blended with orange and lemon peel – so a significant portion of what they will be eating is rehydrated citrus rind. Hardly a dish worthy of a Michelin star restaurant, but each to their own!