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Tea Leaves a Sweet Taste In Doctor's Mouth

As summer comes to a close in the Northern Hemisphere, we take a look at the benefits of the unofficial required beverage for the Southern United States.

Iced tea has long been the lubricant that greases the wheels of hot Southern afternoons. But it's not just a healthy summer cooler; the Southern love of iced tea is a full-blown, year-round affair.

Strongly-brewed black iced tea not only contains natural fluoride — good for the bones and teeth, but is rich in antioxidant flavonoids (plant pigments). Flavonoids in tea are thought to prevent the onset of certain kinds of cancer as well as naturally dilate arteries, thus lowering the risk of cardiovascular disease.

A recent peer-reviewed paper summarizing tea's effects on older adults appeared earlier this year in the journal Current Opinion in Clinical Nutrition and Metabolic Care. Brad Bolling, the paper's lead author, and his colleagues cite previous research indicating that brewed black tea and its flavonoids have myriad potential benefits.

Bolling, a nutrition researcher at Tufts University in Boston, says black tea's possible payoffs include antibiotic, anti-diabetic, anti-inflammatory, immune-enhancing and anti-viral qualities. He also notes that tea's unique combination of caffeine and the amino acid L-theanine is thought to both improve cognitive function and stave off the onset of Parkinson's disease and Alzheimer's disease.

Although pre-sweetened iced tea is now commercially abundant, tea brewed at home is more flavonoid-rich than its bottled cousins. And refrigeration only helps it to maintain the flavonoid potency from the Camellia sinensis plant's ground leaves.

The Southern United States' thirst for the chilled beverage, however, is largely a result of tradition rather than a decided quest for health. With origins that date to the 1850s, Southern iced tea was available even before the onset of refrigeration, says Damon Lee Fowler, the Savannah, Ga.-based author of Classical Southern Cooking.

Fowler explains that wealthy antebellum households routinely harvested winter ice that was kept in earth-insulated ice houses. Only after the frozen stuff began to be artificially manufactured without impurities, he says, did ice and tea finally unite in the glass.

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