The answer to this question should be easy. All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. It is not grain. It contains no gluten.
For those casually following the gluten-free lifestyle, that answer should be enough. But for those with celiac disease, a bit more detail may be required:
A lot of things are called tea that aren’t tea
As the first paragraph said, real tea comes from Camellia sinensis. But many (most?) people refer to anything that involves steeping leaves or flowers in hot water as tea: yerba maté, rooibos, chamomile, honeybush, and so forth. Technically, they are tisanes or infusions, but they are often sold as tea.
So if you’re buying actual black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying “herbal tea,” you’d better take a closer look at that label (Tazo Honeybush from Starbucks, for example, contains gluten).
Flavored teas have all kinds of additives
You may be getting a nice black tea that’s totally 100% gluten-free, but many flavored blends are sweetened. One of the things they may be sweetened with is malted barley, which does contain gluten. There’s not going to be very much of it, but it’s enough to cause problems for celiac patients.
So if you’re buying unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying flavored teas, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Gluten in teabags? Really?
A number of tea companies use sealants for their teabags that contain gluten. There’s no gluten in the tea itself, but once you dip that bag in boiling water and the glue starts to melt, you’re picking up a tiny bit of gluten. By “tiny bit,” we’re talking a few parts per million in the brewed tea here, which is a tiny fraction of what it takes to cause reactions in someone with celiac disease. But if you’re actually looking for ZERO gluten content, we’re not quite there yet.
So if you’re buying loose-leaf unflavored straight black tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh, or white tea, all is well. If you’re buying teabags, you’d better take a closer look at that label.
Now we’re getting into incredibly small amounts, but some tea companies (including Mighty Leaf, according to this article) use the same facility for manufacturing tea as they use for manufacturing products that contain gluten. There is a possibility of airborne cross-contamination from those products.
At this point, we might as well be talking about any other food product on the planet. Can we guarantee that there wasn’t a wheat field next to the farm where your tomatoes were grown? A big mug of tea might use 7 grams of tea leaf. Cross-contamination at 1 ppm means 7 micrograms of gluten. That’s about one millionth of the gluten you’d get from a couple of slices of bread or a pint of beer.
According to this article, “research has suggested that a daily gluten intake of less than 10 milligrams (mg) is unlikely to cause significant damage to the intestines in most people with celiac disease.” The gluten you’d pick up from teabag glue or cross-contamination is less than a thousandth of that amount.
That same article says that, “In most parts of the world, regulations say that to be labeled gluten-free, a product can contain up to 20 parts per million (ppm) of gluten.” That means a slice of gluten free bread could still contain 100 times the gluten of a cross-contaminated cup of tea!
I am not a nutritionist, medical practitioner, or scientist, but I think those numbers make it pretty clear that if someone with celiac disease wants to drink a few cups of tea every day, it’s going to be just fine.
As I write this, I’m sipping on a cup of Jinxuan Jade Oolong, a rich buttery semi-oxidized tea that has replaced Iron Goddess of Mercy as my regular morning cup. I steep it 3:00 in boiling water, and then get three more cups out of it, adding a half-minute of steep time to each successive infusion. Although it is of the “milk oolong” style, it contains neither milk nor gluten.
There’s a big difference between the way tea is usually served in U.S. tea shops, and the way it’s served in Asia. I’ve been trying for a while to come up with the right words to describe it, and my friend Kory did the job for me last week.
Kory was sitting at my tea bar, trying to decide what he wanted as I was preparing myself some wild shu pu-erh in a gaiwan. I offered him a taste, and he said he’d give it a try. He watched as I went through the ritual and filled a small cup for him. He tasted it and said, “I’m looking for something more passive.”
My first thought was that he was referring to the process of preparing the tea (he wasn’t, but more on that later), and I realized that he’d just given me the words I was looking for. American/European tea drinking is passive, while Asian tea drinking is more active.
When my son and I went to Bellingham and Seattle last month, two of the tea shops we visited exemplified this perfectly.
The first was an English-style tea house called Abbey Garden Tea Room. We sat at a table and ordered our food and tea. They steeped the tea in the kitchen, and brought us teapots (with the tea leaves removed), tea cozies, and cups. All that was required of us was to pour the tea in a cup and drink it. The pots were large enough that we didn’t need refills during our meal.
The second was a Chinese tea house called Vital Tea Leaf. We sat at the counter and talked to the tea expert on staff (her name was Fang). She asked what kind of tea we liked, and set up a gong fu tray in front of us with an assortment of teaware. For each tea, we smelled the dry leaves and the wet leaves, and watched as she prepared a few ounces of tea in the gaiwan, gently agitating the leaves and fanning the aroma toward us.
The Abbey Garden experience was passive tea drinking. We picked tea we liked, and it became secondary to the rest of our lunch. We focused on the food and chatting with each other. With the larger British-style cups, we only had to refill a few times during the meal. At most American-style tea houses, those cups would have been even bigger — probably 12 to 16 ounces, and there would have been no refills required.
The Vital Tea Leaf experience was active tea drinking. There were no distractions, and we only got a couple of ounces of tea at a time. We were engaged in the process the entire time, and it was all about the tea.
Most of the time, passive tea drinking is fine with me. I am sipping on a large mug of houjicha as I write this, and although I’m enjoying it, the tea in my mug isn’t my primary concern at the moment.
But there’s a lot to be said for the active tea drinking experience. Watching the tea steep (experiencing the “agony of the leaf”), comparing the changes from the first infusion to the next, smelling, sipping, tasting, and concentrating on the tea you drink. I think after I press the “post” button for this article, I shall pull out the gong fu tray and gaiwan and actively drink some tea!
Sidebar: What Kory really meant
In my opening paragraphs, I spoke about my friend who gave me the idea for the terms active and passive, and mentioned that the whole subject of this article isn’t really what he meant.
What he was trying to say is that the taste of the tea itself can be active vs. passive. For you beer drinkers out there, here’s a comparison. You’ve gotten together with a bunch of friends to watch the game on TV. Your friend hands you a glass of beer just as there’s some great action going on. You drink the whole beer without having any idea what it was (it was probably Bud Light). There just wasn’t enough taste to get your attention. That’s a passive drink.
On the other hand, if he had handed you an oatmeal stout, a lambic, or a double IPA, you probably would have stopped what you were doing to focus on the beer. “Wow. What is that?” You would have smelled and sipped, savoring the beer and missing the touchdown that put your team in the lead. That’s an active drink.
The wild shu pu-erh I spoke of at the beginning of the article is most definitely active. There’s a lot going on in that tea. It’s rich, deep, and complex, with flavors and aromas that are very hard for me to identify. Kory was interested in a good, but passive tea. Perhaps a Keemun black. You taste it, notice it, and then drink the rest of the cup without paying attention.
Okay, Keemun tea lovers. I’ve painted the target on my back. I await your wrath.