Last Update: December 02, 2018
There’s nothing nicer than sipping on a warm cup of herbal tea on a cold midwinter’s day. But besides being tasty and warming, tea provides a host of different health benefits – that is, unless your tea is soaked in pesticides.
CBC News recently conducted an investigation on the pesticide levels in some of the most major tea-producing companies. Using an accredited lab, the investigators utilized testing methods employed by the National Food Inspection Agency to test pesticide residues on dry tea leaves.
Pesticides in Tea
The investigators at CBC found that over half of all teas tested had pesticide residues that were above the legally acceptable limit. Multiple chemicals were found in 8 out of 10 teas, with one brand of tea containing over 22 different types of pesticides (Uncle Lee’s Legends of China tea brand).
A large majority of these pesticides are currently being banned in several countries due to the health risks they pose to workers that handle them, and the negative effects they have on the environment (as well as the health of those that consume the products).
Environmental lawyer, David Boyd, told CBC:
“This is very worrisome from a number of perspectives…The presence of so many pesticides on a single product and so many products that exceed the maximum residue limits for pesticides, suggests that we’re seeing very poor agricultural practices in countries, which poses risk to the environment where these products are being grown; which pose risk to the farm workers who are growing these crops, and ultimately pose risk to the Canadians who are consuming these products.”
For example, endosulfan, one of the most toxic pesticides on the market today, was found in Uncle Lee’s Legends of China Green Tea and Tetley Pure Green Tea. Endosulfan is a chlorinated insecticide that is chemically similar to the infamous DDT (which was banned over 48 years ago). The biggest users of the pesticide are India, Brazil, China and Argentina, with the U.S. also consuming “significant quanities” (1). Not so surprisingly, Tetley sources their teas from India and Argentina, among others (2). Uncle Lee’s Legends of China sources their tea from, you guessed it, China. As stated on the description of their boxed Green Tea “Uncle Lee’s famous non-fermented green tea is freshly grown and harvested from a tea plantation in the Fu-Jian province of China” (3).
According to Chemical & Engineering News, while 120 nations have agreed to a global phaseout of endosulfan, it could still be used on certain crops until 2017. This means that any teas manufactured in 2017 may very well be what we see on the shelves in 2018. It’s now almost 2019, and seeing as how these studies were conducted over four years ago, it is hard to say whether they have changed up the pesticides they are using, or whether they have stopped using them at all.
Endosulfan isn’t the only pesticide to be worried about. Acetamaprid, a neonicotinoid (and agricultural insecticide resembling nicotine, which is currently banned in Canada and elsewhere), is not only linked to declines in bee health, but “may adversely affect human health, especially the developing brain” (4).
Bifenthrin is classified as a “possible human carcinogen” by the U.S. EPA (similar to glyphosate). This pesticide lasts a long time in the environment and it may accumulate in fish. It is also highly toxic to fish and small aquatic organisms, and is deadly for bees (5).
Carbendazim, a fungicide that is banned in the U.S., but still legal elsewhere (like Brazil), has been found to have adverse effects on male reproductive systems in rats (6), and is also labeled as a potent endocrine disrupting substance (7), and is highly genotoxic (8).
Monocrotophos, an organophosphate insecticide is acutely toxic to birds and humans, and has been banned from the United States, European Union and many other countries. Monocrotophos remained legal in India until late 2017, and are currently being phased out (9).
Just because a pesticide is banned, doesn’t mean that country can’t import products that contain said pesticide. But why shouldn’t there be restrictions on products containing these illegal pesticides? If they’re banned in one country, shouldn’t products that also contain them also be banned? To view the full results and pesticides used in each tea, you can find them here (CBC), here (Greenpeace), and here (Glaucus).
Greenpeace also released a study exposing many popular tea brands that contain high levels of pesticide residues – some which even tested positive for DDT, an incredibly toxic pesticide that was banned years ago.
And yet another round of tests conducted by Glaucus Research found that 91% of Celestial Seasonings tea tested had pesticide residues exceeding the U.S. limits. For example, Sleepytime Kids Goodnight Grape Herbal contained 0.26 ppm of propachlor, which is a known carcinogen under California’s Propsition 65.
Tea Bag Companies That Contain High Levels of Pesticide
– Classic Assam Tea
– Classic Lady Grey
– English Breakfast
– Earl Grey
• Uncle Lee’s Legends of China
– Green Tea
– Jasmine Green Tea
• Celestial Seasonings
– Authentic Green Tea
– Antioxidant Max Blackberry Pomegranate
– Antioxidant Max Blood Orange
– Antioxidant Max Dragon Fruit
– English Breakfast Black K-Cup
– Green Tea Honey Lemon Ginger
– Green Tea Peach Blossom
– Green Tea Raspberry Gardens
– Sleepytime Herbal Teas (Flagship)
– Sleepytime Kids Goodnight Grape Herbal
– Clear Green Tea
– Darjeeling Tea
– Pure Green Tea
– Yellow Label Black Tea
• No Name
– Black Tea
• King Cole
– Orange Pekoe
– Orange Pekoe Two Cups
Less popular brands with pesticides:
• Brooke Bond
– Red Label
– Red Label Natural Care
– Red Label Special
– 3 Roses Natural Care
– Taj Mahal
• Golden Tips
– Nilgiri Tea
– Pure Darjeeling Tea
– Assam Tea
– Chai Strong CTC Long Leaf
– Roasted Darjeeling – Orange Pekoe
– Thurbo Flavoury Darjeeling Tea
– Thurbo Flavoury Darjeeling Tea
• Kanan Devan
• Kho Cha
– Masala Chai
• Royal Girnar Cup Tea
• Tata Tea
– Tata Tea Gold
– Tata Tea Life
– Tata Tea Premium
• Wagh Bakri
– Good Morning Tea
– Perfect Premium Leaf Tea
– Strong & Refreshing Premium Leaf Tea
Here is the short video documented by CBC investigators on pesticides in popular tea brands:
What Do The Companies Have to Say?
None of the companies mentioned above have released a statement saying that they are going to ensure these pesticides don’t end up in their teas. Celestial Seasonings released a statement in stating that once they saw the results, they sent their teas for testing to the National Food Lab (NFL).
They stated that “NFL’s independent testing reaffirmed that Celestial Seasonings teas are safe and follow strict industry guidelines. In addition, NFL detected no pesticides in the brewed Celestial Seasonings teas they tested.” They then go on to say that “we reject ingredients when these substances are detected beyond acceptable limits as defined by industry-recognized and/or government agencies, including the U.S. EPA, U.S. FDA, European Union Pharmacopeial Convention, and Codex Alimentarius.”
Personally, I’d like to see a report of these levels and whether the pesticides they’re finding in their teas are ones we really shouldn’t be putting in our body. Just because there is an “acceptable limit” for a pesticide, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe. This is what used to be said of DDT and endosulfan – so where do we set the line?
According to the EWG, “The EPA’s tolerance levels are too lenient to protect public health. They are a yardstick to help the agency’s personnel determine whether farmers are applying pesticides properly. The levels were set years ago and do not account for newer research showing that toxic chemicals can be harmful at very small doses, particularly when people are exposed to combinations of chemicals.”
CBC also interviewed James O’Young, vice president of Uncle Lee’s Legends of China (whose tea had the highest number of pesticides). He said that pesticides are a reality of the tea industry and that “If you drink tea, regular tea, I don’t care it’s what brand is that, the fact of life, this agricultural product does have pesticides,” he said (12).
Unilever, which owns Lipton and Red Rose, wrote in a statement, “Unilever is fully confident in the safety of our teas.” TATA Global Beverages, which owns Tetley stated that “Consumer safety is very important to us. Upon receiving your communication, we proactively retrieved the test results from the independent laboratory that tested the raw tea used in this batch code which confirmed that our tea complies with all Canadian food safety regulations and is of high quality (13).”
Is there really a safe way to consume pesticides? Not really. That’s why I always recommend choosing organic brands over conventional.
Not Just Pesticides
It isn’t only pesticides you should be concerned about in your teas, either. A lot of these teas contain ingredients like soy, and natural flavours, which are GMO-containing and pose a great health risk to those that consume them.
Back in 2014, Food Babe uncovered some unsettling facts about 8 popular tea brands. Companies like Celestial Seasonings, TAZO, Teavana, Trader Joe’s, Lipton, Bigelow, Tea Forté and Twinings add “natural flavours” to trick the consumer into thinking they are buying better, cleaner ingredients. Ingredients like natural and/or aritifical flavours are often produced by fractional distillation and chemical manipulation of various chemicals like crude oil or coal tar. Doesn’t sound like something anyone wants in their morning tea.
Tea Bags, Too
Tea bags are another thing to look out for when purchasing tea. If you can, always look for unbleached, natural fibre tea bags. Unfortunately, a lot of the conventional tea companies out there use bleached tea bags (not the companies I mention below at the end of the article). Not only are they bleached, but some paper tea bags contain the pesticide Epichlorohydrin, a compound used to keep the bags from dissolving in hot water.
There are also increasingly popular “silk” mesh bags and sachets that are made of GMO corn-based plastic (polylactic acid), that can leach harmful chemicals that disrupt hormone function. Researchers from PlastiPure, CertiChem, and Georgetown University tested products made from polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polystyrene (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polylactic acid (PLA), polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG), and polyethersulfone (PES) and said that all show detectable estrogenic activity (EA) levels (14).
While the leaching of chemicals from these tea bags is quite low, when placing them in boiling water, their leaching potential increases.
The best thing to do is just avoid these toxic teas and tea bags altogether. Below are some options you might want to consider when purchasing tea.
How To Avoid Toxic Chemicals In Your Tea
This isn’t to say you have to stop drinking tea. In fact, there are many safe options out there for all tea lovers alike. Here are some things you can do to ensure the tea your drinking is body-safe.
1. Buy organic, non-GMO certified brand of tea.
2. Grow your own herbs and create into your own tea.
3. Check ingredient listings on teas to avoid added flavours and GMO ingredients.
4. Purchase loose leaf tea, organic tea (this will save you money in the long run, and avoid the guessing game of what your tea bags are made out of). Coastal Roots Apothecary sells some amazing loose-leaf blends that are 100% organic and crafted by their community herbalists.
5. Make sure your tea bags are unbleached, organic, and made without the use of chemicals like epichlorohydrin.
Update 12/03/2018: Snopes (a controversial fact-checking website) has reported this post as “outdated”. While this is partially true (aside from the fact that it was written back when the studies were more relevant), it doesn’t mean the studies are wrong by any means. I do agree that these studies need to be repeated. Snopes also claims that the only reason I wrote the article was to benefit from affiliate profit. This is far from the truth, and I only plug links to products when I think my reader will benefit (and I only recommend products I currently use and trust). I also decided to link to these tea companies due to the fact that a lot of you were asking where to purchase organic tea. These brands are great brands to choose from, and you can be rest assured that they aren’t laced with pesticides that harm our health, and our environment. Please read this article on Snopes, and why they perpetually try to cover up any article written on pesticides in food.