I just finished a12-oz single-serve, plastic bottle of “Nutritional Iced Tea for Women.”  At only 50 calories, this co-branded (The Republic of Tea and Luna) shelf-stable Mandarin Orange White Tea is fortified with calcium, folic acid and vitamin D.

I just finished a12-oz single-serve, plastic bottle of “Nutritional Iced Tea for Women.”  At only 50 calories, this co-branded (The Republic of Tea and Luna) shelf-stable Mandarin Orange White Tea is fortified with calcium, folic acid and vitamin D. It cost $2.99 at Whole Foods Market, where it was available chilled near the checkout lane. Yes, that’s a steep price, but the quality of the tea, the refreshing flavor and the added value made it worth every cent, according to me. 

“As with wine, coffee, chocolate, olive oil and other specialty foods, there is a huge range of quality in tea,” says Tatjana Meerman, publisher of the Packaged Facts report Tea and RTD Tea in the U.S., which was released in November 2007. “Historically the majority of tea imported to the United States had been inexpensive, machine-harvested blends of industrially produced black tea. As consumers are becoming more educated on tea and its purported health benefits, higher-quality teas are the focus of importers.

“These teas are at the other end of the spectrum and are of the highest quality,” Meerman adds. “They are typically sourced from specific estates, hand-picked, organically grown or cultivated with other sustainable methods, and processed with the utmost care and specificity. Such artisan teas require a level of connoisseurship to fully appreciate, ones slowly becoming known by Americans as quality teas become more available.”

Tea is uniquely positioned to flourish with today’s health- and wellness-focused consumers, as there is an abundance of scientific research reinforcing tea’s historic healthful halo. Black, green, white and oolong teas are all made from the same species of plant, called Camellia sinensis. (For more on these four tea varieties, as well as other “herbal” ingredients, see page 86.)

Both white and green teas undergo less processing than black or oolong tea, with white tea being the least processed. All types of tea made from C. sinensis have been shown to be high in antioxidants and to have a number of health benefits. In the past 20-plus years, most research has focused on green, and to a lesser extent white teas, due to their higher antioxidant, anti-mutagenic and antibacterial properties.

Specifically, epigallocatechin gallate and other catechins found in high-quality green and white tea have been positively linked to a range of health conditions, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and autoimmune diseases, as well as improved skin health, weight loss and enhanced immunity.

Iced tea drinkers want to reap these benefits. Many have become quite discriminating, reading labels and basing purchase on tea source, sweetener and added ingredients.

Ready-to-drink (RTD) iced tea is quite varied and includes packaged RTD single-serve and multi-serve containers-shelf-stable and refrigerated-as well as beverages dispensed on-site at a foodservice establishment. Both packaged and dispensed RTD tea beverages are typically made using one of three forms of tea: instant, leaf or liquid concentrate. The exception is some packaged RTD products that are described as tea but are only flavored with natural and artificial tea flavors, and thus really are not tea.

“Tea is one of the most underdeveloped beverages in the United States,” says Meerman. “The potential is enormous, as tea barely compares in market size to beverage categories such as carbonated soft drinks, coffee and water.

“Baby Boomers are the drivers of specialty teas, especially in the RTD form,” adds Meerman. “They have the discretionary income to pay a premium for quality. Single-serve, chilled and loaded with good-for-you ingredients appeals to this demographic.”

In conclusion, dairy processors are well equipped to capitalize on this opportunity. As processors of fluid milk and juice, they have the right equipment that’s ready to go. Producing a perishable product complements their current distribution schemes, and appeals to consumers, as these refrigerated products are void of most preservatives.

It is key, however, to think like a beverage processor and not a white milk company. Don’t fill the same plastic jugs with tea. Don’t use an inferior tea flavorant. Invest in quality. n

For more information on the Packaged Facts report Tea and RTD Tea in the U.S., visitwww.marketresearch.com.

Lab Talk trends: tea

There are four basic teas that come from Camellia sinensis. They earn their name based on how they are processed.

Black tea is the most processed of all the teas. Until the 21st century, most teas including ready-to-drink (RTD) iced teas available in the United States, were black tea blends. The harvested leaves are withered, then crushed or bruised and exposed to air to initiate oxidation (formerly referred to as fermentation), which gives black tea its full flavor and deep red color. Black teas tend to have the most caffeine of all the tea types.

Green tea once could only be found in authentic Asian restaurants in the United States. However, green tea has become much more mainstream since the turn-of-the-century. The harvested leaves are withered and dried, without oxidation. The difference in processing yields teas with less caffeine than black teas, and with a lighter and more subtle flavor.

White tea is new to the global tea marketplace. It is still rather scarce, with true white teas being fairly costly. It is made from the smallest and youngest, or “first flush” leaves. Buds are picked when tiny silver-white hairs are still visible on the leaves-thus the name white tea. White tea is the least processed of all teas, with the leaves withered and dried by steaming.

Oolong tea is often described as halfway between black tea and green tea. The leaves are partially fermented, and there is a bit of an art to knowing when to stop the fermentation process.

There is sort of a fifth basic tea called Pu-erh, Pu’er or Puer tea. These are terms that refer to the type of tea made from a large leaf variety of C. sinensis and named after the Pu’er county near the providence of Yunnan in China, the only place the large leaf plant grows. Pu-erh tea can be purchased as either raw/green (sheng) or ripened/cooked (shou), depending on processing method or aging. Sheng and shou pu-erh can in turn be roughly classified on the tea oxidation scale as either a green tea or post-fermented tea, respectively. Because pu-erh can be processed two different ways, it is difficult to classify, and thus tends to be segmented into a category by itself. What makes pu-erh unique is that unlike other teas that should ideally be consumed shortly after production, pu-erh can be drunk immediately or aged for many years. As such, pu-erh teas are often classified by year and region of production, much like wine.

The options are endless when it comes to the flowers, herbs and plants added to tea or used alone. Fruits and their juices have become a trendy way to flavor and naturally sweeten RTD iced tea. Such non-tea ingredients are referred to as tisanes.

The accompanying chart shows the top-10 flavors of RTD iced tea beverages introduced to the U.S. marketplace in 2007. The unflavored/plain category includes all base tea flavors: black, green, oolong and white. It also includes “red” tea, which is not a true tea, as it does not come from C. sinensis. However, because it is treated as a base tea, upon which other flavors and herbs are added, consumers often consider it tea.

Red, red bush or rooibos tea is a tisane. It comes from the Aspalathus linearis plant. When brewed, rooibos is a stunning orange-red color. It is often blended with other tisanes to create more body. In South Africa, where it has its origins, milk and sugar are often added to the steeped tea. Rooibos is the only natural source of the powerhouse antioxidant aspalathin, which has been associated with helping decrease allergies, digestive disorders, headaches and insomnia.

Another up-and-comer tisane worth mentioning is yerba maté, which has a long tradition of use, but is new to the United States. Made from the dried leaves and stems of the native South American Ilex paragauriensis tree, yerba maté is as popular in Argentina as coffee is in America. It is considered an energizing, stimulating drink that can serve as a coffee substitute without the caffeine jitters. Traditionally drunk from a gourd in South America, yerba maté is finding its way among health- and trend-minded consumers in the United States. The taste of yerba maté can be bitter, however, and takes some getting used to.

As you can see from the graph, RTD iced tea is a booming business. Sales of shelf-stable RTD iced tea have been and continue to boom. The refrigerated RTD category is also growing, but at a much slower rate as a result of fewer players. There’s room for a lot of growth, and tea ingredient suppliers are waiting to help dairies create a quality product.