Uncovering the Truth: Is Tea Full of Pesticides?

Truth or Fiction: Tea is Full of Pesticides
Most days the news is full of stories about the health benefits of tea. As tea sellers and buyers we are in the position of trying to weigh the value of the information. Is there strong science behind the article or are sweeping assumptions being promoted in the name of making sales? But what happens when the news instead puts tea in a negative light? How do we respond to customers who are now fearful of consuming your tea?

Earlier this month, the Care2 blog resurrected a Food Babe blog article from last summer claiming that tea was laden with toxic pesticides and that product from several major companies contained banned substances. (The article also made questionable claims about genetically modified organisms (GMO), artificial flavorings, BPA, and other topics we’ll examine in the future.)  The tea community reacted strongly, either voicing outrage about the lack of substance behind the claims or panicking over potential consumer reactions. The Tea Biz team wanted to look behind these blog posts, to consider the claims, and provide the tea community with a fuller picture of the concerns.

Claim 1: Tea is not washed when it is processed and packaged. Therefore, any pesticides on the leaves will be transferred into your cup when steeped.

Our take: The argument makes sense on its surface. A paper published in the journal Food Additives & Contaminants in 1991 examined the solubility of pesticides in tea and found that depending on the solubility of the chemical, significant transfer is possible. Given that tea is grown in a monoculture and often subject to attack by insects and other pests, pesticide use is not uncommon.

But is this cause for panic? A study in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry in 2001 looked at thirteen pesticides that are frequently used in growing tea. They found that the chemical transfer was actually very small because the most commonly used chemicals are not highly soluble. Highly water soluble pesticides are not ideal because they would be quickly removed with every rainfall. It has also been shown that certain tea types transfer lower chemical levels possibly because of the leaf’s lipid content, although further study is needed.

It is also noteworthy that in many of the pesticide studies, powdered tea is used that has been “fortified” with the pest-fighting chemicals. It is important that further studies examine the transfer from tea that has been processed in the traditional way. For example, an article in the Journal of Environmental Science and Health in 2009 demonstrates that roasting of teas during manufacturing causes dissipation of some chemicals. Roasting at high temperature for a long period actually caused complete dissipation of two chemicals. Solar withering reduced pesticide residues by 25-40% for two common pesticides. This study was done with oolong tea but others have shown similar results for green tea and black tea. Additional studies published in Food Additives & Contaminants in 2013 also confirmed that some of the applied pesticides were removed by the withering and drying process.

Claim 2: “A recent third-party analysis by Glaucus Research found that 91 percent of Celestial Seasonings tea tested had pesticide residues exceeding the U.S. limits.” “Teavana tea was tested by an independent lab and 100 percent of it was found to contain pesticides.”

Our take: The source of this information was “third-party analysis by Glaucus Research.” Glaucus Research is what is known as a short seller. This means that Glaucus makes money if stocks fall. At the time Teavana was the most shorted stock on the New York Stock Exchange. In this case, they stood to reap significant financial reward if Celestial Seasonings and Teavana took a hit. This note was printed at the beginning of the Teavana report: “We are short Teavana and therefore stand to realize significant gains in the event that the price of stock declines.” Does this make the information false on its face? Not necessarily, but it is critical to note the conflict of this organization being presented as an independent, unbiased source.

Celestial Seasonings responded strongly to the allegations, posting a statement of Product Safety Assurance on their website. Following the Glaucus report and subsequent re-posting of the information they submitted their products for testing at the National Food Lab (NFL). NFL did not detect any pesticides and gave assurances that the products meet industry standards and are safe. Celestial Seasonings also cited their  protocols for testing all of their product ingredients for pesticides, herbicides and insecticides and its industry audits for Safe Quality Foods (SQF) certifications.

Teavana also noted its ongoing program of third-party testing and its adherence to standards set by organizations including the European Union which is known to be particularly stringent. They were quick to note Glaucus’s conflict of interest and it was notable that the report was released as Teavana was preparing to be sold to Starbucks.

Claim 3: Buying organic is the only safe way to purchase tea.

Our take: Choosing organic seems a reasonable strategy, but it is important to acknowledge what organic actually means. Organic does not signify that chemicals are not used. Pesticide use is still permitted in organic growing strategies, but the pesticides must come from natural sources, not synthetic. While studies have shown that half of synthetic pesticides are potentially carcinogenic, research shows that many of the “natural” chemicals are also potentially carcinogenic or otherwise damaging to health. In addition, because many of the natural pesticides are less effective, application rates and frequency may actually be higher than with conventional chemicals.

Does this mean we are arguing against the value of organic farming? Absolutely not. Organic farming strategies make use of a number of approaches that are healthier for plants and for the environment in terms of crop rotations, green fertilizers, and more. What we would suggest instead is that knowing your growers and the strategies employed can help you best assess the safety of any food you consume.

What does this mean for tea? This means that as a retailer you should know your farmers and tea sources. If you are a customer, ask questions of your retailers about sourcing. If you are a wholesaler and importer, visiting the farms and meeting the farmers is always valuable. The European Union, Japan, and others have been active in establishing maximum residues levels (MRLs) for many pesticides which also will help guide purchasing decisions.

The pesticide problem cuts across our entire food supply. Tea is neither more at risk nor more protected from it.

— Katrina Ávila Munichiello, Tea Biz

15 thoughts on “Uncovering the Truth: Is Tea Full of Pesticides?

  1. Katrina, thank you for clarifying the pesticide in tea information. I do want to suggest that there are farmers who don’t use pesticides on their tea and we are one of them. We (Onomea Tea Co.) are certified organic and have not used any pesticides on our plants at all. We are fortunate to be starting a tea industry in Hawaii that doesn’t seem to have some of the pests that other places have. As the industry grows here, maybe we’ll have more of a problem but for now we are pesticide free and plan to stay that way. Aloha…

    Rob Nunally
    Onomea Tea Company

    • Thanks for the comment, Rob. Always great to hear from you. Yes, it is true that some farmers do not use pesticides and this is exactly why it is important to do your research and talk to growers. On another site a grower mentioned that Kenya is also pesticide-free. In the end, it helps to know who uses pesticides and who does not, but also how much risk we should attribute to the use, especially when we look at our entire food supply.

  2. Dear Katrina:
    Another well-written article and a very interesting point of view. However, it seems to imply that Glaucus has skewed their research which is a very serious allegation.

    I’d like your opinion on this very convincing video, which points out untrue statements that employees of Teavana are passing on to their customers. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sbEqT5khtyM

    I have found no research that tested Tevana’s teas that indicate otherwise. If it exists, I’d be interested to read it.

    Pesticides are well-researched carcinogens. I believe that we need to encourage people to be very careful about from whom, they buy their tea. Like you say, even Organic is not a guarantee. I think it is best to buy directly for reputable farms.

    Dr. Michael Longo, DC
    Onomea Tea Company

    • Thank you for commenting. Let me be clear. I am not saying that Glaucus skewed their data. What I am saying is that anytime research is presented, potential conflicts of interest should be acknowledged. Glaucus did this in their report. The subsequent blog posts did not.

      I will be interested to view the link you presented and I am following up on uncovering any testing done by Teavana. I will be sure to share anything else I find.

      Finally, you have highlighted one of my key points and I thank you for that. Many synthetic (and natural) pesticides are potential carcinogens. Researching your farms, suppliers and sources is the best way to ensure that you purchase a product you can believe in. I commend Onomea for its commitment to promoting Hawaiian tea and for growing it without pesticide use.

  3. I also want to point out that there’s still a debate with the so called “carcinogens”. Their discovery involves very high doses administered to rats, and that’s where the problem lies: the dose makes the poison. At sufficiently high doses most substances become harmful, but in low doses they are harmless.

    This article just came out today:
    http://www.princegeorgecitizen.com/article/20140130/PRINCEGEORGE0304/301309985/-1/princegeorge03/a-different-look-at-carcinogens

    • low doses of poisons dont make them safer since many chemicals bioaccumulate and cause or contribute to health problems later in life. In fact using the whole “its such a tiny amount of poison it wont hurt you” is not only false assurance against fears of health repercussions but its absurd on the surface: who WANTS to be eating or drinking ANY poisons at all??? So we’re just supposed to accept it as an inevitable consequence of living in the modern world??? I dont feeng think so!

      • Not all substances behave like mercury and lead, which bioaccumulate.
        But you’re right, why poison yourself? I assure you that if you eat a balanced diet of non organic food, you’ll do much better than if I eat a lot of organic food that is high in salt, sugar and fat.
        Other things to add to the long list of “poisons”: sunlight, over-the-counter drugs, cosmetics, vitamins, carbon dioxide, etc.

  4. A few years ago it was discovered a tea company was using army trucks parked above drying tea while running to facilitate dessication. This resulted in huge amounts of lead on the tea.

    Regarding the claims…

    Claim 1: The discussion is much more nuanced than this, and for myriad reasons the Chinese tea ceremony involves washing a tea first. These days, even if i believe a tea to be clean, i will wash it with cold water to preserve as much of the flavor/alkaloids as possible.

    Claim 2: It is the job of short sellers to investigate stock market participants for fraud. That IS their agenda. I too have tested US teas and Chinese “organic” teas, finding significant levels of lead(Pb) and DDT and more obscure and dangerous pesticides among Chinese sourced teas, especially from fields planted after 1960 under which were laid fabric sheets treated with pesticide. So this is a huge issue for the industry, potentially changing the world’s most healthy drink into a poison. It is about time these silly commercial labels such as organic, green, free-trade get some short sellers to their party.

    Claim 3: Agree 120%! There is no substitute for knowing where a tea comes from: the trees, water, soil, hands, tools and machines and other methods that produce it. Not only does this let one know potential dangers but it also helps one find new pleasurable tastes in a tea.

    • Thanks for your comment, Actea. Lead and other heavy metals and chemicals deliberately or inadvertently making their way into the tea supply is an important consideration. I plan on doing more research and reporting on some of these issues in the future.

      I understand your point about washing tea and it is something I do with some teas. Originally I began washing teas to “awaken” them and prepare them for steeping. Some teas I now rinse more as a matter of preference and precaution. It is worth consideration.

      Yes, short sellers are charged with finding problems with companies and some of these companies do us a service with their efforts. Again, the problem is NOT the motivation necessarily, nor is even their report as they were very upfront with their interests in the results. It is that the findings were then transmitted far and wide through blogs and websites without also communicating the company’s potential conflict.

      Thanks for reading. I’d be very interested in seeing your research and testing results if they have been published or shared somewhere.

  5. Thanks for your article Katrina. I would like to add that when pesticides are applied, naturally we assume that insects are problematic. What is never mentioned is that there is significant amounts of tea, especially tea produced in China, where insects are not a problem. These are teas of superior quality that are produced in the early spring in colder climates or at higher altitudes prior to insect season, which in most places comes later in the year during the warmer summer months. Of course these teas are more expensive than tea sold by major tea companies where price and quantity are the major purchasing considerations. There is very little cheap tea grown anywhere in the world that can not use pesticides organic or otherwise in tea production. China is always called out as the worst offender, and while it is true you can find some agregious practices in the manufactoring of cheap tea, China still weeds primarily by hand, while the rest of the world uses herbicides in tea growing to control weeds. I am always amazed that there is very little mention of this practice. China produces more tea were no chemicals at all are used than any other country in the world. Why this fact is never mentioned can only be explained as xenophobia. It is also true that no where on earth is no plant grown that does not have chemicals residues because of the atmosphere that we all share.

    While I agree with you that a company should know the sources of their tea, but that is a much more difficult thing to do than it sounds. It is true that it is one of our business principles, but it is a very inefficient way to source, very expensive for a small company, and difficult to manage for a large company where large quantities are involved, especially where blending is involved. Cheap tea and cheap food come at a cost to the environment and comprises when it comes to the requirement of pesticides to be used in production. The dangers seem to be largely perceptions supported by very little evidence that tea consumption is harmful. When Seven Cups sources tea that is grown without the use of chemicals, we are motivated by supplying quality, rather than motivated by fears of contamination.

    I want to say. How much I appreciate you objective approach to writing about tea.

  6. Pingback: The Days and the Tea March On… « Tea Pages

    • Hi Gene,
      Celestial Seasonings tea does not contain pesticides. The tea has tested positive for residue (chemical components indicating pesticides were present). The pesticide residue was below the legally defined Maximum Residue Level (MRL).

  7. Pingback: The truth behind the tea… | Be Kind. Be Well. Wrap.

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