A buzz has been going around the tea industry for a number of years now, claiming that Kenyan tea farmers have a new cultivar with something unique: purple leaves. All sorts of statements have been made about this new cultivar, so we looked into it a bit. As is often the case with tea, our hunt turned up both myths and realities. Part of the reality is that there are quite a number of other purple tea types out there.
Myth: “Purple Tea” is marketing jargon
“Purple tea” refers to something real: the color of immature tea leaves of certain tea plant varietals, as shown in this stock photo:
In this respect, “purple tea” (more of a mauve or deep puce) in not just marketing jargon.
Myth: “Purple tea” is only from one varietal (aka cultivar)
“Purple tea” is the name being used for a separate varietal of Camellia sinensis (aka the tea plant) from Kenya; however, it could and does apply to other varietals in China and Taiwan. One vendor selling “purple tea” from Kenya states:
“While still Camellia sinensis, purple tea is a new varietal that is propagated by grafting and cutting as opposed to seeding. This particular varietal is known as TRFK 306/1 and is rich in anthocyanin (a flavonoid), which pigments the leaves a purplish color. Purple tea was primarily developed for tea health products and is rich in antioxidants. Malvidin, Pelargonidin and Delphinidin are prominent in purple tea.”
They go on to say their tea is processed like a green tea, that is, oxidation is halted immediately after harvest, and that you can steep the tea like a green, oolong, or black tea and get similar flavor characteristics. Other vendors sell partially and fully oxidized versions of “purple tea.”
A quick search online popped up several images of “purple tea,” as shown here from other countries and therefore other cultivars (since Kenya claims its cultivar is only grown there):
Reality: Purple tea commands a higher price
The Tea Research Foundation of Kenya, who helped develop a purple tea varietal, says their new varietal currently commands a price 3 to 4 times higher than black tea.
Basically, purple tea is more rare than other types of tea and therefore the higher price is due to that rarity. Here is an example of another tea made from purple tea leaves:
Jinggu Purple-bud Pu-erh tea is made from the tender single bud of the wild, purple-bud pu-erh tea trees máochá (see 3 Key Factors in Máochá That Affect Pu-erh Quality on our blog). This tea is often referred to as three-color tea. This is because the fresh buds on the tea trees are purple, the dried tea is shiny dark, and the infused tea leaves are green for the first one or two years. The purple-bud pu-erh tea tree is actually a rare tea tree variety in the Yunnan large-leaf tea trees and is famous for its high health benefits, high percentage of anthocyanidins, and amino acids, particularly tea polyphenols.
Paying more for something is acceptable to consumers if the product is shown to be worth that additional price. Since the tea plant varietals are more rare, if you enjoy the tea flavor profile, then that is a good reason for paying extra. However, if you are purchasing the tea because of purported health claims, continue reading.
Gray Area: Health claims
While eating and drinking things that benefit your health is a good thing to do, sorting out the myriad of claims is tricky. The Tea Research Foundation of Kenya, who helped develop a particular tea varietal, points out that besides just tea to drink, the varietal can be used for extracts marketed for health aids, bottled teas, etc. But then, this seems more of a marketing promotional statement, since no real studies have been done to support the claim (that we could find).
The claims we saw related to the Kenyan purple tea included:
- It has been scientifically proven to be healthier than either black or green tea because it contains high levels of anthocyanin, a compound found in reddish purple plants like blueberries, raspberries, purple grapes, etc. that is known to have powerful antioxidant properties. [No scientific study links given.]
- Kenyan purple tea also contains antioxidant polyphenol that is not found in any other tea varieties. [We assume they mean a special one, since antioxidant polyphenols are found in all teas, as far as we know.]
- Kenyan purple tea has shown to be effective against widespread chronic diseases such as cancer, heart disease, diabetes, inflammation, hypertension, and neurological ailments. Scientific studies also show that Kenyan purple tea has more antioxidant activity than green tea or any other tea, with a radical scavenging rate over 51 percent more effective, and antioxidant activity twice as high as green tea. [Again, no actual scientific study linked to here.]
- …drinking Kenyan purple tea supports weight loss through the inhibition of lipase, the enzyme that breaks down fats for digestion and assimilation, as well as improving lean body mass and providing anti-aging benefits to the skin. [No scientific study link here, either.]
Studies of benefits to humans, according to the National Institutes of Health, “have been notoriously difficult.” The reason they give: “Anthocyanins frequently interact with other phytochemicals to potentiate biological effects, thus contributions from individual components are difficult to decipher.”
Some Final Thoughts
In the current pu-erh tea market, there are many fake purple-bud pu-erh teas. Many tea merchants use the Zijuan (紫娟) or Zicha (紫茶 purple tea) máochá and market them as pure, purple-bud pu-erh tea to increase their profit margins at the expense of the consumer. The difference between purple-bud, Zijuan, and Zicha lies in the shape, fragrance, and taste. But the easiest way to tell the difference is by the particular tea leaf shape. True purple-bud tea has no tea hair and does not have a tea saw at both sides; the Zijuan and Zicha varietals do not share these physical shape characteristics.
Bottom line: enjoy your purple tea for the unique flavor profile; take any special health claims associated with higher levels of anthocyanin with a grain of salt.