Finding a tea for what ails you

Can a cup of tea boost energy, stave off colds, curb insomnia and keep people slim? Yes, says a group of functional tea buyers


The great Japanese scholar okakura Kakuzo, author of the tea lovers’ classic The Book of Tea, wrote, “Tea began as a medicine and grew into a beverage.” That was in 1906, and today, his words are even more relevant. Canadians are turning to tea for more than a hot drink.

“There is a lot of research on the health value of tea itself, especially green tea,” says Desiree Nielsen, a registered dietitian in Vancouver. “We know peppermint is good for digestion and ginger is good for nausea. We also know herbs like passion flower help for sleep.”

As consumers strive to live healthy, Nielsen expects more functional teas for specific concerns, such as digestion, sleep issues and energy boosters, to hit the mainstream market. “It started in vitamin water and it will cross over into functional teas,” says Nielsen.

“In the last five to 10 years, we’ve had this concept of superfoods, and I think consumers are looking for greater benefits from all their foods, including teas.”

Canada might be a sign of things to come. There, teas targeting weight loss, stress relief and more fill up long tea aisles.

At Korean grocer Galleria Supermarket in Toronto, tea favourites include ginseng, ginger and yuja (citron), which is high in vitamin C. In winter, when customers seek to prevent colds, the grocer dedicates an entire aisle to sniffle-stopping products.

“Consumers now have more choices in organic functional teas to safely protect their body and prevent side effects,” says Jerry Park, Galleria’s category manager.

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According to a 2013 Nielsen survey commissioned by the Tea Association of Canada, 40% of tea drinkers associate herbal teas with health benefits, up from 28% in 2009.

The most common include curbing anxiety (30%), help with sleep (25%) and weight loss (18%).

At Toronto’s Carrot Common, holistic dispensary manager Jane Greenlay says customers are looking for teas to target all of the above issues, in addition to others such as liver and bowel ailments and help for healthy lactation.

“As alternative medicine becomes more popular, so do medicinal teas,” says Greenlay, noting that the range of products in this category has been increasing year to year. With about 15% of the store dedicated to herbal tea products, she says teetotalers are primarily females between 25 and 45.

However, even teens are now showing an interest in functional teas. “We’ve seen a shift in younger consumers of medicinal teas especially with all the different formats and different devices for tea [brewing] available,” says Tebbie Chuchla, senior brand manager for Hain Celestial, which sells a “wellness” line of teas that includes the popular Sleepytime brand.

Recent additions to the line include a blend with echinacea, to boost the immune system; and a Sleepytime tea with licorice root and elm bark, to sooth sore throats.

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Companies such as Trans- Herbe in Montreal, which have traditionally sought pharmacies to carry their functional teas, are now targeting grocers, too.

This year, its FDA-approved Four O’Clock medicinal teas are rolling out to grocery stores. “I think our products have done so well in pharmacies because there is some- one there who can answer questions about ingredients,” says Roche Cyr, Trans Herb’s director of marketing. “The more educated a retailer is, the better it is for the customer.”

Sobeys is putting that advice into practice at its new Sobeys Extra in Burlington, Ont. The store employs a well-being counsellor, Courtenay Legacy, who addresses customer questions around health and holistic products.

“Unless we can educate customers on what these specialty products do, it’s hard to see them move off the shelves because of their often-higher price point,” she says. Legacy, a registered holistic nutritionist, says her Sobeys carries some eight brands of medicinal teas.

“I’ve done workshops in the store on boosting the immune system and increasing energy, and I suggest these teas as part of that,” she says.

At Sobeys, the positioning of the well-being section at the front of the store, with vivid signage, has proven helpful for shoppers seeking medicinal teas.

“Plus all the employees know to direct customers who have questions to me,” Legacy says. Grocers don’t necessarily need a dedicated wellness section for their teas. But as the functional-tea trend gains steam, they may wish to broaden assortment in the regular tea aisle, says Jim Kavanagh, director of marketing, natural and organic, at Tree of Life, distributor of Traditional Medicinal and Uncle Lee’s Body Balance herbal teas.

A common mistake, says Kavanagh, is cutting back on stock in warmer weather.

“When you drive by Tim Hortons in the summer- time, people are still lined up,” says Kavanagh. “You’re taking these teas for a purpose and the time of year shouldn’t matter.”