Author: Dr. Hsiu-Ying Huang, PhD
Professor of International Business
Feng Chia University @ Taiwan
10+ years research of Taiwanese teas, farms & farmers
Original publish: Expert talks at Food Therapy West Meets East
Thousands of years since ancient time, human and animals ate wild plants. The farming started to "plan" the food we eat/ drink, but we might start lose nutritions/ minerals because of the levels of artificial interruptions. I've been researching teas in Taiwan for more than ten years, and I've been a tea taster since 1990. It's getting more and more hard to find wild teas or even wildly-grown teas nowadays. Those wild teas become a luxury not only in their tastes but also in their nutritions. I am going to use the wild tea as a case to explain the benefits of wild plants in this article.
Definition of Wild Tea
It is important to distinguish the difference between wildly-grown tea (野放茶) and wild tea (野生茶). In academic terms, wild tea is defined as tea made from the leaves of wild tea trees, which are members of the Camellia sinensis plant species, growing in their natural habitats. These wild tea trees must have grown without any human intervention, meaning they are not cultivated artificially. They thrive in areas untouched by human interference, typically in remote or rarely visited mountainous or wilderness regions.
The uniqueness of wild tea lies in its original growth in nature without human intervention, maintaining intact natural ecosystems that reflect the characteristics of the growing area. The tea leaves retain the properties of the original soil, microclimatic features, and the influence of diverse wildlife. However, truly wild tea trees are quite rare in practice and are usually found in forest reserves, often protected as national treasures with harvesting restrictions. Additionally, without official certification, verifying their wild status can be challenging, making genuinely wild tea an extremely scarce commodity in the market.
Recognising the value of wild tea, some tea farmers who prioritise environmental sustainability and tea quality have started to adopt wildly-grown (野放) methods to grow and produce the wildly-grown tea (野放茶). These pioneers of wildly-grown tea abandon traditional agricultural practices and opt for remote natural environment for tea-plants using a wild approach. Unlike conventional farming, which aims for maximum yield and standardization of quality, wildly-grown tea minimizes human interference, allowing tea plants to grow naturally with the changing seasons and without fertilizers or pesticides. This cultivation method preserves the ecological environment and diversity of the growing area. Tea produced using this wildly-grown method not only lets tea plants integrate into their natural habitat and grow naturally, but it also faithfully reflects the unique terroir and taste of the production area, retaining the energy and nutrients from the earth.
Degree of Wildness Continuum
The term wildly-grown (野放) is used to describe both the cultivation method and attitude toward agricultural products. However, there is no universally recognised definition, which means that there are no exact criteria for distinguishing it. Based on my years of research and experience, I believe that using the "degree of wildness"can be a more appropriate criterion for assessment. Apart from personal subjective taste preferences, I propose three key dimensions for measuring the "degree of wildness," which can help establish foundational criteria for evaluating wildly-grown tea.
1. The degree of human intervention
2. The duration of wild growth
3. The biodiversity of the land
These three aspects can be objectively measured, helping to prevent the misuse of the term wildly-grown tea in the market, which might mislead consumers by a tea which is not genuinely produced through a wild approach. Therefore, it those mis-labelled "wild teas" overshadow the genuine efforts of tea farmers who adopt a wildly-grown method.
Teas with lower levels of human intervention, longer periods of wild growth, and higher level of biodiversity of the land, mean a higher degree of wildness. Consequently, these teas tend to be more valuable because of preciousness. On the contrary, teas with a lower degree of wildness, or those grown using conventional farming methods, are relatively less valuable.
Health Benefits of Wild Tea
A. Rich Trace Elements & Minerals
Wild tea leaves are rich in macro-minerals such as phosphorus, calcium, potassium, sodium, magnesium, Sulfur, as well as trace elements including iron, manganese, zinc, selenium, copper, fluorine, and iodine, which are essential for the human body.
Tea plants need to obtain adequate nutrition and moisture from the soil to grow, and soil nurtured within a complete ecosystem is the healthiest, containing the nutrients necessary for both tea plant growth and human health. Compared to other cultivation methods like conventional, non-toxic, organic, or natural farming, the wildly-grown tea cultivation method involves the least human intervention in the soil. This approach helps maintain soil integrity and health, providing tea leaves with rich trace elements and nutrients. Tea plants grown in this manner produce more phytochemicals, which enhance their resistance to pests and diseases. Moreover, wildly-grown tea, primarily propagated from seeds, develops deeper root systems, leading to better soil and water conservation and a wider range of nutrient absorption. Therefore, even in times of drought or adverse conditions, when other tea plants rely heavily on fertilizers and irrigation for survival, the robust wildly-grown tea plants can thrive without significant human intervention.
Tea plants grown in a healthy, fertile soil environment should produce tea leaves rich in beneficial trace elements and minerals for the human body. However, the majority of tea leaves are currently cultivated using modern agricultural methods, or conventional farming. This practice, along with the inevitable environmental pollution, leads to increasingly nutrient-depleted soil, resulting in a significant reduction in the nutritional content of tea leaves. Conventional farming aims to maximise the yield and standardise crops. Due to frequent harvesting of tea leaves, they lack the necessary time to absorb nutrients and grow healthily. To compensate for the increasingly infertile soil, conventional tea plants require the use of more fertilizers and pesticides to maintain yields and consistent taste. While tea leaves grown through human intervention may have a perfect appearance, vibrant color, and consistent taste, they noticeably lack nutritional elements, minerals, and plant compounds. As a result, their nutritional value for humans is significantly reduced.[*]
B. Varieties of Microorganisms for Gut Health
The diversity of soil microorganisms has a significant impact on human gut health. Recent scientific research has shown a close relationship between the quantity and diversity of gut bacteria in the human body and the immune system. This microbiota plays a vital role in preventing chronic diseases. Scientists have noted that a substantial portion of microorganisms, up to 95%, resides in the human gut. These microorganisms are crucial for the immune system and overall health because the gut is the primary residence of immune cells. Recent studies have revealed a link between gut bacteria imbalance and conditions such as metabolic syndrome, autoimmune diseases, cancer, and even psychological health. However, the overuse of antibiotics, consumption of highly processed foods, and industrialized agricultural practices have severely damaged the gut bacteria health in humans, making it one of the leading factors behind the global epidemic of chronic diseases.
Conventional farming methods pose a threat to the diversity of soil microorganisms, primarily due to the excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Scientists estimate that due to farming practices, soil microbial diversity may have decreased by as much as 40% due to the loss of topsoil and chemical fertilizers. Moreover, monoculture practices further disrupt the symbiotic relationship between tea plant roots and soil microorganisms. Humus is essential for soil fertility as it facilitates the exchange of energy and nutrients between plants and soil. In contrast, conventional farming using chemical fertilizers cannot replicate the variety of microorganisms and minerals present in humus in a natural ecosystem, potentially disrupting the ecological balance between plants and soil. As a result, plants cannot absorb a sufficient and diverse range of micronutrients, which, in turn, affects the absorption of these elements in the human body, nurturing gut microorganisms.
Compared to conventional farming, which often results in nutrient-poor soils and lower microbial diversity, wildly-grown tea cultivation significantly provides the ample nutrition needed by gut microorganisms. While organic or natural farming methods produce tea leaves that are pesticide-free and nutritionally rich, they may still require organic fertilizers to encourage growth, potentially overlooking the issue of soil degradation. In summary, consuming wildly-grown tea not only benefits human health but also helps maintain diverse ecosystems with minimal interference in the natural environment, making it crucial for soil health and the ecological systems.
in today's tea consumption, apart from focusing on tea types and flavour profiles, it's essential to pay attention to the tea cultivation method to achieve a higher quality of healthy life.
[*] Recent scientific studies have demonstrated that the nutritional quality of our food has significantly declined. The nutritional content of fruits and vegetables we consume today is much lower than what it was fifty years ago. In other words, despite our efforts to consume more fruits and vegetables, we may feel full, but our nutritional needs are still not adequately met. According to a report published in 2019 by the EAT-Lancet Commission, composed of leading global scientists, agricultural production methods and unhealthy dietary habits have resulted in over 2 billion people worldwide lacking essential micronutrients. In Taiwan, based on the results of the National Nutrition Survey, there is a common issue of mineral deficiencies among adults. Over 90% of people lack potassium, more than 83% lack calcium, over 73% lack zinc, and 65% lack magnesium. Furthermore, among women of childbearing age, over 51% are deficient in iron.
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