WI am a tea addict. No, I don’t drink gallons of tea every day, but I go exploring the market for the perfect tea blend. The other day at the oldest city market of Bangalore, I found an interesting Darjeeling tea variety. When I brewed it the next day, the tea turned out rosy red. I was delighted. But the next day I had a suspicion. Was the tea mixed with colourants? If yes, was it a done-thing? Most importantly, was it safe to drink a tea laced with colours?
Processing of the beverage
All varieties of tea come from the plant Camellia Sinensis. Two varieties of the plant Camellia Sinenis and Camellia Assamica are generally used in production of tea. The Black tea, White, Green, Oolong – these are derived from the same plant. What differs is the processing technique that gets followed after plucking the tea leaves to get the final product. And the variety of plant used.
There are a few common steps like withering, oxidation, fixing, rolling, drying, ageing etc. After the tea leaves are plucked they are first withered to reduce moisture content. Withering is done drying the leaves out in the sun or in a controlled room indoors. Here hot air is used to wilt the leaves. This process also ensures that the leaf compounds break down, and intensifies the flavour of tea.
The browning of tea leaf begins in oxidation. This is done in a controlled room with a set temperature and humidity. Here, tea leaves are allowed to ferment. Depending on fermentation levels, tea leaves may retain the colour green; if oxidised further, they change to colours brown and black. Tea colour and strength depend on the level of oxidation. In the Rolling process the leaves are rolled, kneaded either by hands or via machines. This is done to release oils and further improve taste. Tea is then dried and aged. Drying helps preserve tea by improving its shelf life. Ageing is akin to fermentation and is done for some special varieties like Oolong.
The steps differ for various styles of tea. For preparation of white tea, only withering and drying is allowed. In case of black tea however, withering is followed by rolling and then oxidation.
Additives added to tea
For scented teas flowers like jasmine, rose etc., are added. The flowers are generally teamed up with the tea leaves during oxidation. Herbs like mint, spices are added to get different tea variations. Sometimes teas are also blended with other variations. Black tea could be blended with tea dust, whole leaves etc. But there is no mention of adding colours anywhere.
Colours not allowed in tea
The Food Safety and Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) allows synthetic colours in foods like sweets, but not in tea. Tea Board, India, strongly advises that FSSAI guidelines be followed and no colours be added to tea that may create problems in food safety, human health, tea trade and quality. So why are colours being added?
There are various reasons. Colours are most often added to sometimes make inferior tea look attractive. The tea also looks stronger, richer and lures customers into buying such products.
This year in January, more than 1.5 tonnes of adulterated tea was seized at Coimbatore. The trader had added synthetic brown colour to the product. Last year FSSAI had seized 2.3 tonnes at Ayanavaram, Chennai. Sunset yellow colour had been added to the tea. Black Tea could be laced with lead. Some of these chemicals could be life threatening. Banned colours, textile dyes could be added to tea products. Unfortunately in the long run, consumption of such products could lead to cancer and liver disorders.
Heavy metals in tea too
In addition to this, heavy metals too get absorbed in tea leaves from soil plantations. Tea leaves could contain metals like cadmium, chromium, lead, arsenic, selenium etc. Chromium is known to cause cancer of lungs and bronchitis, lead can lead to anaemia, selenium can cause selenosis. This though is not in our control. Organic labels too can be misleading sometimes as there may be presence of pesticides.
Detecting colours in tea
So how do you detect if a tea is adulterated or not? There is a simple test. If a tea is laced with colours then if it is added to a glass of cold water, it will change the water colour instantly. An article in the Hindu titled ‘What’s that in your coffee cup?’ mentions that a pure tea imparts colour only in hot/warm water. Another method to test an adulterated tea is to put tea leaves on a filter paper. Add few drops of water on it. If you see colour stains on the tissue then there is all probability that water soluble colours have been added to the tea powder.
Tea is rich in antioxidants. But adulteration can destroy its goodness. So as an alert consumer, be aware. Buy from a trusted source, check the labels. Jago grahak jago!