purple Tea

All tea comes from the Camellia sinensis plant, and historically is from two established varietals: Camellia sinensis var. assamica (Indian tea) and Camellia sinensis var. sinensis (Chinese tea). However, a relatively recent innovation in tea cultivation has produced a new third variety: Camellia sinensis var. Kitamura. Purple tea is from this varietal (Wang, 2017).

Purple tea is unfamiliar to many tea drinkers. This is understandable given that purple tea is comparatively new, not yet widely available on the market, and isn’t grown in many regions. However, if you consider yourself a tea connoisseur or are interested in tea’s health benefits, purple tea should capture and hold your interest.

Overview.

The first section of this article offers an overview of the general flavour of purple tea, preparation and health benefits. The second section provides in-depth information on the history of purple tea, how and where the tea grows, specific health benefits, and how purple tea plays an essential role in the sustainability and economic empowerment of tea farmers. The fourth section summarizes the article’s key points.

The Flavour, Preparation, and Health Benefits of Purple Tea.

Flavour Profile of Purple Tea.

Purple tea has a mild, sweet and fresh flavour. Straight purple tea has a complex, smooth, clean mouthfeel, with the barest hint of plums in its taste.

How To Brew Purple Tea.

You should brew loose-leaf purple tea with water that is 77-82 °C (170-180°F) and steep it for around three to five minutes. Purple tea may have a darker appearance and will often possess a slightly pinkish hue. If lemon is added, the acidity changes the tea’s colour from pinkish to purple.

Health Benefits of Purple Tea.

Because purple tea is the only tea containing anthocyanin, a flavonoid, purple tea is an unparalleled source of antioxidants. It has many health benefits ranging from anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial to anticarcinogenic effects. 

Social Benefits of Purple Tea.

Purple tea is more resistant to drought than other tea plants, meaning the livelihoods of tea farmers may be better protected against climate change. Purple tea also allows tea farmers to earn better profit margins and improve their income level, producing benefits for their families and communities.

A Comprehensive Discussion of Purple Tea. 

Origin Of Purple Tea.

Purple tea is a varietal of the Camellia sinensis var. assamica plant (Wang, 2017), and the scientific name for purple tea is Camellia sinensis var. kitamura. The Tea Research Foundation of Kenya (formerly known as TRFK) developed the purple tea plant variety over twenty-five years ago.

Purple tea grows at an elevation between 4,500 and 7,500 feet, where cooler conditions prevail (Maypro, n.d). Selective breeding and environmental factors both influence the high amounts of anthocyanins in purple tea. Intense exposure to ultraviolet light in high elevation equatorial regions has caused the purple tea plant to adapt and protect its leaves from damage. In response to the high UV exposure, the purple tea plant produces increased amounts of anthocyanins and polyphenols.

Purple tea is a cultivar, a plant variety produced in cultivation by selective breeding. Purple tea plants, as anthocyanin-rich cultivars, create teas with unique colours, flavours and health benefits (Shen, 2018). Purple tea can be processed and treated in the same way as other types of tea.

There are two established types of purple tea cultivars - Zijuan and Zixin. Zijuan tea is a particular cultivar of Yunnan broad-leaf tea (Camellia sinensis var. assamica) with purple buds, leaves, and stems (Wang, 2017), and is more common than its counterpart Zixin.

However, recently, a new purple-leaf cultivar, Baitang purple tea (BTP), has been discovered in the Baitang Mountains of Guangdong, China (Rothenberg, 2019). The flowers of this new cultivar are naturally pink, not white; this colour difference allows researchers to investigate how the concentration of anthocyanins in purple tea accumulates. When research provides a better understanding of how anthocyanins build up in Camellia sinensis var. kitamura plant, we will be better able to more expertly extract the health benefits of this tea.

Health Benefits of Purple Tea.

High Concentration of Catechins.

Purple tea contains a high concentration of catechins (Joshi, 2017). Catechins have antioxidant activity, especially epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), which is in green and purple tea (ScienceDirect, 2019).

The specific catechins in purple tea cultivars include epigallocatechin (EGC), catechin (+C), epicatechin (EC), epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), and epicatechin gallate (ECG) (Kerio, 2012). The table below shows the specific compounds found in purple tea and how they can benefit your health.

Compounds In Purple TeaPercent
What The Compound Is

Health Benefits of the Compound
Polyphenols50%Polyphenols are rich in antioxidants.Polyphenols may improve digestion, weight loss, diabetes, neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases and prevent cancer.
Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG)9.8%Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) is a type of catechin. Catechins are antioxidants.Epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) may improve weight loss, cognition, focus, inflammation, and prevent heart and brain diseases as well as cancer.
Epigallocatechin (ECG)5.8%Epicatechin gallate (ECG) is a catechin and antioxidant.Studies suggest ECG helps with weight loss.
Hexahydroxydiphenoyl-β-D-glucose (GHG)
7.4%GHG is a polyphenol, an antioxidant.GHG helps with gene expression and has anti-obesity and anti-ageing effects. GHG is found only in purple tea.
Anthocyanins1.5%Anthocyanins are a type of flavonoid, an antioxidant with pigments that give red, purple, and blue plants their rich colouring.Anthocyanins offer anti-inflammatory, anti-viral, and anti-cancer benefits. Purple tea has more anthocyanins than blueberries.
Caffeine4.4%
Caffeine is a central nervous system stimulant.Caffeine helps with weight loss, mental focus, and increased energy

High Amount of Anthocyanins.

Purple tea is the only known tea cultivar to contain anthocyanins (Stash Tea, 2017), and, as a result, is receiving interest as a functional health beverage (Wei, 2018). Anthocyanins are naturally occurring flavonoids (He, 2018), which have an antioxidant effect. Flavonoids fight free radicals and offer anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic, anti-thrombogenic effects, as well as anti-cancer and neuroprotective activities (Linus Pauling Institute, 2019)(Wong, 2019).

More specifically, evidence suggests that the anthocyanins in purple tea play a preventative and protective role against a range of pathologies, including different cancers and metabolic diseases (Chaves-Silva, 2018). Purple tea anthocyanins are also associated with having neuroprotective effects, reducing the risk of coronary heart disease (Rashid, 2014), as well as stimulating the body’s immune response (Joshi, 2017) and boosting the brain’s antioxidant capacity (Rashid, 2014).

Anthocyanins protect against free radicals in two ways. First, anthocyanins are highly reactive radical scavengers that destroy existing free radicals, helping protect against disease and ageing. Second, anthocyanins proactively protect the body against free radicals: they are effective at binding heavy metals (i.e. zinc, iron and copper), thereby preventing the formation of free radicals.

Purple tea’s anticarcinogenic properties include helping regulate apoptosis - the death of cells occurring as a regular part of an organism’s growth or development. In cancer cells, purple tea can induce apoptosis of malignant cells and significantly inhibit cancer cell growth (Khan, 2018). However, in cases where apoptosis is caused by adverse oxidative stress, compounds in purple tea protect against apoptosis, preserving cellular heath (Garg, 2011).

Purple also has an abundance of anthocyanin synthesis-related enzymes (Wang, 2017). A study examining Zijuan purple tea identified twenty proteins in the tea leaves that were associated with anthocyanin metabolism. This combination means purple tea offers a high concentration of antioxidants and the enzymes needed by your body to process these antioxidants.

Science and common sense both suggest that drinking purple tea is like eating a bowl full of superfoods rich in antioxidants and health benefits. Purple tea contains higher levels of anthocyanins than most fresh produce, which has small amounts and mostly limited to the plant’s skin (Chaves-Silva, 2018). The percentage of anthocyanins in purple tea is 1.5%, as opposed to blueberries in which the percentage of anthocyanins is only around 0.1% (Dutta, 2018).

Weight Loss.

Recent research has found that fatty acid metabolism is higher with the consumption of purple tea than green tea (Shen, 2018). Another study found that purple tea may help prevent fat absorption in humans (Nakamura, 2011). Together, this research suggests that purple tea may help with weight loss, perhaps more than green tea. 

A Great Radical Scavenger.

Antioxidants are free radical scavengers that help protect cells from damage caused by free radicals. Purple tea is a great radical scavenger as it has more antioxidant activity than all other teas, including green tea. Research shows purple tea has a radical scavenging rate of 51%; green tea by comparison only has a rate of 34%. Purple tea’s potent radical scavenging activity makes it useful to help reduce the effects of ageing and the risk of chronic disease.

Effectively Breaks Superoxide.

Superoxide is produced as a by-product of oxygen metabolism. However, if superoxide isn’t reduced by superoxide dismutase, it can cause cell damage. One of the most potent benefits of purple tea is that it is better at breaking down superoxide than any other tea. The superoxide dismutase antioxidant activity of purple tea is 24%, which is twice as high as that of green tea.

Health Benefits of White Tea.

Due to white tea's minimal processing, many people refer to white tea as "raw." Because of its raw state, white tea's impressive health benefits diminish with time (Xu, 2019). 

Contains Antioxidants And Helps Fight Aging.

White tea is rich in antioxidants and helps eliminate free radicals that can lead to signs of premature ageing (Kim, 2004)(Oneda, 2003)(Camouse, 2009), including pigmentation and wrinkles. Researchers and tea drinkers believe the minimal processing of white tea results in a higher concentration of beneficial properties than other, more processed teas (Zhang, 2019).

Protects Against Some Forms of Lung Damage. 

An exciting and unique benefit of white tea is its potential ability to protect against some forms of lung damage (Dhatwalia, 2019). One study found that white tea killed lung cancer cells (Mao, 2010), although more research is needed before definitive conclusions can be made. However, for those who live in areas of high air pollution, or with a smoking history, drinking white tea may be beneficial.

Helps Prevent Alcohol Damage.

White tea demonstrates an ability to help prevent alcohol gastric injury (Liu, 2019), as well as help prevent damage to the liver (Wang, 2019), which may be of particular value to those who drink regularly.

Helps Protect Against Alzheimer's Disease.

Recent research suggests that white tea's anti-aggregative and neuroprotective properties may help protect against dementia. One study examined the relationship between white tea and Alzheimer's disease, and the results showed that white tea had a protective effect against Aβ, the hallmark toxic Alzheimer's protein (Li, 2019).

Helps Fight Cancer.

White tea may be particularly beneficial in fighting cancer. White tea has a high concentration of antioxidants that can prevent cancers. And, while other teas also claim a similar benefit, what differentiates white tea is that studies have shown white tea can kill cancer cells (Mao, 2010), and prevent it from spreading (Carter, 2007)(Hajiaghaalipour, 2015).

Helps Minimize Chemotherapy's Negative Side Effects.

It has also been shown that white tea can benefit those who are undergoing chemotherapy. Cisplatin is a chemotherapy medication used to treat many cancers (Cancer Research UK, 2018). However, a significant negative side effect of cisplatin is nephrotoxicity - toxicity in the kidneys and renal damage (Saral, 2019), along with nausea and vomiting. It has been shown that white tea infusions can significantly decrease the nephrotoxicity caused by cisplatin (Saral, 2019). 

Where Purple Tea Is Grown. 

For the last twenty-five years, purple tea (TRFK 306) was grown exclusively in Kenya, primarily in the Mt. Kenya, Thika and Kerugoya areas (Shimoda, 2015). It is a crucial tea crop, and purple tea is positioned to account for approximately 5% of Kenyan tea exports (World Bank, 2017).

As of 2018, India has started cultivating purple tea in the Assam region (Patel, 2018). Purple tea crops will likely thrive there, given the areas longstanding prominence in tea production.

It is worth noting that Japan has long had its variety of purple tea called Sunrougue (Schweikart, ND). Unlike its Kenyan counterpart, however, Sunrougue is bitter and not intended for direct consumption. Instead, Sunrougue was developed by researchers as an ingredient to use in other products. Early natural mutations of purple tea occurred in China, but the mutations were not heavily expanded on through selective breeding, or used in the market as Sunrougue was. 

How Purple Tea Can Benefit Tea Growers.

Kenya is the largest tea producer in Africa and the third-largest globally (The World Bank, 2020). Kenya’s large tea plantations employ around 100,000 workers and account for approximately 40% of the nation’s tea production. Small scale farmers account for the remaining 60% of production, totalling 560,000 small farms.

Small and large tea farms both play an essential role in employment; roughly 3 million Kenyan families rely on tea for their livelihoods. The Tea Research Institute of Kenya found that purple tea can generate three to four times the revenue of regular black tea. By offering farmers the opportunity to diversify their crops, purple tea allows farmers to generate a higher income and achieve a better quality of life. This, in turn, often creates virtuous spirals, where farmers can invest more in health, nutrition and education for their families, elevating communities over time.

Purple Tea Is Better Positioned To Endure Climate Change. 

Many of the countries expected to be impacted most dramatically by climate change are developing nations (The Economist, 2018). What makes purple tea uniquely innovative and impactful is how well it seems to thrive even in the face of rising temperatures and worsening drought conditions. Some studies show that purple tea may be more resistant to drought than older tea cultivars, and in some cases, drought-resistant plants may allow crop production to continue during the dry season.

For countries like Kenya and India, two of the world’s largest tea exporters, this would have two significant benefits. First, it would help create a more robust tea supply chain for global markets, and second, it would give farmers and field labourers, often living in poverty, a chance to earn a living in the decades to come.

Kenya’s government should get credit for the research, development and investment they have placed in purple tea. While not a magic-bullet solution, purple tea production represents a valuable way to help protect Kenya’s people and the country’s GDP. The World Bank (2020) estimates that purple tea will increase Kenya’s export earnings by up to $60 million by 2022.

“Since the official release of purple tea, the Tea Research Institute (TRI) has distributed over 17 million tea plants to Kenyan tea growers. This action matters because purple tea is better for farmer’s livelihoods than black tea. In 2018, purple tea prices varied from producer to producer. At markets, bulk purple tea fetched between USD 15 - 25. Local packers of purple tea were able to get higher returns, up to USD 25-30 per kilo. By comparison, the average global price for Kenya black tea in 2018 was USD 2 per kilo.

TRI has also doubled its effort in improving the purple tea plant. We have second-generation purple tea cultivars getting piloted in the 2019 planting season. Our initiatives to continue innovating matters not only in the short term but also in the long run.

The tea-growing environment is not positioned well to deal with global temperature changes, which will have adverse effects on tea production and farmer revenue. Purple tea cultivars are likely going to be the panacea, enabling the tea industry to benefit environmentally and economically.”

Samson Kamunya, Ph.D.

Plant Breeder & Centre Director, Tea Research Institute of Kenya

Read “Kenya tea: The Tea of Your Choice For Better Health” an article Dr. Samson Kamunya wrote for The Tea Tribe.

Summary.

Purple tea (Camellia sinensis var. kitamura) is a new type of tea that finds its roots in black tea (Camellia sinensis var. assamica). Many tea drinkers have little familiarity with purple tea because it’s new, not widely distributed yet, and was only grown in a small region of Kenya, East Africa. However, India is now starting to grow purple tea.

The six main compounds in purple tea are polyphenols, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), epigallocatechin (ECG), hexahydroxydiphenoyl-β-D-glucose (GHG), anthocyanins and caffeine.

Below are the four main health benefits of purple tea:

 BenefitsEffectsActive Compounds

Helps Your Brain
Improves focus and cognition.
May protect against long term neurological disorders.
Polyphenols, EGCG, and caffeine.
Helps You Lose WeightImproves digestion.
Prevents fat accumulation.
EGCG, ECG, polyphenols, GHG, caffeine.
Helps Protect Against Diseases
Helps prevent neurodegenerative and cardiovascular diseases.
Helps manage diabetes.
Helps with gene expression.
Polyphenols, EGCG, anthocyanins, GHG.
Helps With Anti-AgingGHG and other compounds help reduce the signs and effects of ageing.GHG makes up 10% of purple tea. No other tea has it.

The most important thing you need to know about purple tea is that it could be a game-changer for your health, with a similar health profile to matcha tea, only better.