Newly Discovered Ancient Tea Cultivar is Naturally Decaffeinated

A newly discovered tea cultivar in China’s Fujian Province is healthful and naturally caffeine free. (Photo courtesy of the American Chemical Society)
A Chinese team of scientists discovered a wild varietal of naturally decaffeinated Camellia sinensis, called Hongyacha. They used advanced-performance liquid chromatography to isolate the active elements in the leaf and published their findings in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in November 2018. In the mountainous region of southern China’s Fujian province, villagers drink a wild tea that they regard as a powerful health aid: curing colds, easing stomach pains and reducing internal heat. This Hongyacha plant is found only in a few tiny areas, at elevations of 2,300-3,275 feet (700-1,000 meters). It is a genetic mutation that may date back to one million years ago. It is real tea, not an herbal alternative like rooibos or chamomile, but it contains no detectable amount of caffeine. That makes it a potential wonder tea. Of all the blockages to the enjoyment of tea, caffeine stands out as dominant. For some people, it poses significant health risks. Others are affected by its patterns of absorption in the body, with the dreaded wide awake at night result. For yet others, it stands for “Bad Thing”, with images of over-wired geeks, gamblers and night owls on coffee highs. Of the estimated four billion gallons of tea consumed in the U.S. each year, around 18 percent is decaffeinated. The aim of the four types of processes that produce decaf teas is to maintain as much of the taste and wellness-related benefits of the original leaf as is possible, while eliminating as much of the caffeine as is possible. “Possible” here translates more to “acceptable” than “close.” The chemical processes involve washing the tea, with soaking, straining and extraction in ethyl acetate or methylene chloride, for example. This loses 75-95 percent of the anti-oxidant polyphenols that are the core of tea’s health benefits. The most common process leaves traces of potentially dangerous chemicals on the leaf. The tea loses fullness of flavor and richness of aroma. But it’s caffeine-free and thus the choice of many consumers. The molecular biology of Hongyacha suggests that it may be a far better choice. This provides a molecular profile. The highlights of the scientists’ analysis are:
  1. This is a real tea – Camellia sinsensis
  2. It is thus packed with the compounds that give tea its variety of tastes, flavors, nutrition and health-promotion
  3. It also contains some other rare varieties of the gallocatechin gallate compounds that are powerful in their positive biological effects. The most famous of these is EGCG –Epigallocatechin gallate, the anti-oxidant found in high concentrations in green and increasingly seen as “the magic molecule” of tea.
  4. Hongyacha is naturally caffeine-free. There is no level of caffeine detectable at the molecular level. Even decaf tea contains a 2.5 percent residual amount.
Hongyacha is a genetic mutation. Somewhere, sometime, the DNA coding of the enzyme cyonase, which promotes caffeine production in tea plants, was interrupted. The mutation took hold in the remote and wild mountains of the province that has produced the great Wuyi and Anxi oolongs, White Peony and Dragon Pearls. The press reports on Hongyacha describe it as a “new” tea. It is a newly discovered and very old tea with an even older heritage. Source: Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, The Economist, Science Daily