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So...what is a herbal tea? Well...let us start out with what a herbal tea is NOT!
A herbal tea is NOT, repeat NOT, tea. So then why are herbal teas called a "tea." Good question...but one that probably goes back to some tradition or another that says anything added to hot water becomes a "tea."
But in any event...yes, a herbal tea is NOT a true tea. Technically speaking, in order for something to be considered a true "tea," the plant that is used must come from the tea plant, camellia sinensis.
To put it simply...a tea is "only a true tea" if it actually contains tea plant leaves. And thus...this is why oolong, white, green and black are considered "true teas," as their leaves come from the actual tea plant camellia sinensis. By contrast, rooibos and herbal teas do NOT contain leaves from the tea plant.
Confused? Read What Tea Is and What Tea is Not for more information.
Thus, with this out of the way, we can basically define a herbal tea as just about anything that gets added to boiling water. And by anything...I do mean ANYTHING. From lemons, to orange peel, to whole strawberries, to peppermint leaves, to candy cane pieces...and well, you get the idea.
Why Are Herbal Teas So Popular?
Drinking a herbal tea in many parts of the world is a crime considered next to treason. I have unending arguments with a friend in the UK who thinks anything but a black tea should be sunk in Boston Harbor. And really, in most places of the world, herbal teas are more a less a "non-entity," if they even exist at all.
Yet, here in the USA, herbal teas rule. Why is that? I have no clue. But I can take a few guesses.
First, tea is a rather "late-comer" to the USA. While it's been the worldwide drink for centuries, coffee and "other things" tend to be the beverage of choice in the USA. Tea is fast gaining popularity, but it has a very long way to go before overcoming the popularity of coffee and such.
Perhaps because of this, herbal teas caught on in the US long before traditional green tea or traditional black tea did. Many American's view traditional teas as a "coffee replacement," something that a coffee addicted America was slow to embrace. By contrast, herbal teas have long been considered something to "try" for one reason or another, and NOT as a beverage of choice.
In other words...coffee in the USA is the main beverage of choice. And herbal teas sort of fill in the "void" for new, unique, different, wild and exotic tastes.
And this last sentence brings us back to the second reason herbal teas are so popular in the USA...they can taste however you like them to be. You see...most Americans tend to have a sweet-tooth and/or like what most of the world would consider "odd and wild things." Let's face it...no matter how hard you try, there is only so much you can do with a green, black or oolong tea to make them taste "sweet" or to have a "wild and exotic taste," especially if the tea itself is a loose-leaf tea, not a bagged one.
This problem is neatly avoided, of course, by ditching the tea leaves altogether. Thus...instead of adding in peppermint leaves to a black tea (a REAL nasty combination by the way) to create a "flavored peppermint black tea," you can create a super-sweet tea that tastes like a peppermint lifesaver simply by adding in peppermint leaves and leaving the black tea leaves out. Oh yeah...by ditching the black tea leaves altogether, the tea is easier and less expesnsive to make too...another trademark American tradition.
Drawbacks of Herbal Teas
Of course, there are a few drawbacks with herbal teas. First off, at least here in the USA, there is simply sooooooo many herbal teas on the market...you have no clue on where to begin.
Secondly, even once you find a herbal tea "type" (such as peppermint herbal teas) that you like, the quality among teas and tea manufacturers vary GREATLY. I've had some wonderful herbal teas, along with a few I would sink in Boston Harbor myself if I happened to live there. Thus...just like in the world of "real tea," there are quality herbal teas...and not-so-great-quality herbal teas.
And finally...there is the "anti-oxidant" thing. Many herbal teas DO contain anti-oxidants, simply because what is added to the tea happens to contain them. But...by and large...most herbal teas do NOT contain anti-oxidants. And the reason for this is simple...the "real" tea plant camellia sinensis is what gives black, green, white and oolong tea their much sought after anti-oxidants. Since "real" tea leaves are not used in herbal teas, you thus get no anti-oxidants unless some other exotic ingredient that is added into the herbal tea happens to contain them...which is not common.
Thus...if you are drinking teas for their anti-oxidants, then herbal teas are probably not for you. Of course, on the flip side...herbal teas have a wide variety of health benefits all their own...benefits not found in traditional teas. But you can read about that stuff in the Tea and Health Section.
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