We like loose leaf tea. It has less caffeine than coffee and higher amounts of antioxidants, so I almost always enjoy a cup of white tea at night or a mug of my favorite toasty rice green tea on a chilly afternoon or after we've put our toddler to bed. The last time my husband was in Chicago on business, he brought me back some coconut green tea from a nice tea shop, Teagschwender, and when I had just a few cups worth left, I noticed the ingredients: Japanese green tea, shredded coconut, and flavor.
I emailed the company to ask what "flavor" means, and they replied that this particular flavor is actually made from a concentrated coconut oil. So, although this company will not use artificial flavors or "natural" flavors, it got me curious about the other teas hiding in my pantry.
Before we look at the other teas, I want to first briefly explain what "natural flavoring" is.
The definition of natural flavor under the Code of Federal Regulations is: “the essential oil, oleoresin, essence or extractive, protein hydrolysate, distillate, or any product of roasting, heating or enzymolysis, which contains the flavoring constituents derived from a spice, fruit or fruit juice, vegetable or vegetable juice, edible yeast, herb, bark, bud, root, leaf or similar plant material, meat, seafood, poultry, eggs, dairy products, or fermentation products thereof, whose significant function in food is flavoring rather than nutritional” (21CFR101.22).Whew, right? What does that actually mean? In effect, "natural flavoring" can range from the essential oil of a plant to the highly processed chemical derivative of something that was at some time found in nature, but it can be assembled in a way that seems a whole lot like artificial flavoring.
And that "something" can be really disgusting. Take castoreum, a chemical found in the anal gland of a beaver. It's a common additive in vanilla, as well as raspberry and strawberry flavored yogurt and ice cream.
Now, I'm not saying that we should stop eating foods with natural flavoring simply because they could come from beavers' hind quarters or crushed beetles; what I am saying is that these flavor sources indicate how heavily processed the foods are. The words "natural flavor" do not automatically mean "avoid," but they do signify the need for us to ask the company, "What does that mean?"
And that's just what I did. Here's a list of companies and the responses they gave to me about the natural flavoring in their teas. I used Earl Grey as a test tea.
Surprisingly, Twinings appears to be one of the safer bets for Earl Grey. I asked about their Earl Grey and was told that the "Bergamot flavoring" is, indeed, actually Bergamot. The email was quite terse and offered no additional information about their other teas.
I started investigating our teas from the popular chain, Teavana, and I was shocked with what I found. Their teas are so beautiful and their stores have a fun boutique vibe to them, which makes me think I'm getting a quality product. But, sadly, this isn't the case.
The two ingredients in Teavana's Earl Grey are black tea and artificial flavoring, instead of actual Bergamot oil that usually gives Earl Grey its distinctive flavor.
Teavana's very popular Youthberry White Tea contains the following: white tea, candied mango pieces (mango, sugar), candied pineapple (pineapple, sugar), rosehip pieces, apple bits, hibiscus flowers, red currants, rose petals, artificial flavoring, acai fruit powder (acai, maltodextrin).
In fact, out of of their 13 most popular tea blends, an astonishing 11 contain artificial flavorings, 1 contains "natural" flavoring, and 1 - only 1 - popular tea blend escapes unscathed. I didn't feel the need to ask them what natural flavoring means because they simply use artificial flavoring in almost all of their popular blends.
To be fair, Teavana's artificial additives are right on the label, but many of us wouldn't ever think to even look at the label for something as healthy as green tea, right?
The response I received back from Tazo was one of the longer ones but really did not shed any light on the issue. Tazo says that they "use the term 'natural flavors' in compliance with the labeling requirements of the Food and Drug Administration." They also state that "our flavor information is proprietary, and not something we reveal." It was a kind sounding email, but they ultimately refused to tell me anything about what makes their teas taste the way they do.
Republic of Tea
I'm so disappointed with the Republic of Tea. They were the front runner in my book because they seemed to use real, unprocessed natural ingredients in their loose teas, and I emailed them to confirm what I had found on their website. I mentioned in my email that I was working on a tea ingredients article, and they replied asking if I could provide more information and if they could come up with a formal statement for my piece. When I told them more information about the exposé, they flatly refused to make any statement or comment about the ingredients in their teas.
I may be a small fish as a writer, but I think that I deserve to know what's in the food I'm buying; therefore, the Republic of Tea will not be in my cart anytime soon.
My grandfather, who makes the best black tea I've ever had, special orders his teas from Upton. Several of their teas contain "natural flavoring." I contacted Upton and asked what this means specifically about their Earl Grey; they confirmed that it is actual bergamot oil. Novel, right?
However, when I asked if the same principle applies to all of their teas with natural flavoring, they wrote that "when we purchase a tea with any added ingredients (besides the tea leaves), the term "natural flavoring" is all of the information we recieve from our vendor as their flavorings are proprietary information."
What did I learn from these emails and phone calls about what's in my cup of tea?
Teas, like so many products that we purchase, are protected by trade secrets. Want to know what's actually in what you're drinking? Or what chemicals are in your cleaner? Or what combination of synthetic compounds make your creamer taste and smell like vanilla? They're protected as trade secrets, and unless we start asking questions and making our voices heard, companies will use the trade secrets excuse to their advantage since it means they only need to disclose two little words on the label: "natural flavor."
So, as far as tea goes, we have to read the label and ask these companies questions about our favorite varieties. If you're unsure, get the cleanest tea you can - plain tea leaves without any flavoring.
Want to read more about processed food?