The Tea Bag Is Dead. Long Live The Tea Bag.

14Sep06

Let me state at the outset that I’m not a fan of tea bags. At least the ones sold in most supermarket aisles. So it was with great pleasure that I read this article in yesterday’s New York Times “Dining and Wine” section by cookbook author and food columnist Florence Fabricant.

He points out what many of us in the loose leaf tea business have been saying all along:

“Look closely at a conventional tea bag in your cupboard or in the paper cup from the local deli. Chances are that instead of leaves it is filled with indistinguishable bits, the detritus left after tea leaves are sifted and graded. The tea industry calls it dust, and the beverage it makes is likely to be rusty-looking and often bitterly tannic.”

Well said. I love the word detritus.

Tea connoisseurs and gourmands have long shunned these nondescript grocery tea bags in favor of loose leaf tea. But the venerable (100 year old) concept of the tea bag is far from dead. Nylon mesh tea bags, whether round or pyramid shaped are the new “in thing”. And they’ve just gone mass market with the launch of Lipton’s new pyramid tea bags.

Personally, I like to get up close and personal with my tea. I want to see it, touch it and smell it – without the nylon, silk or whatever the tea-bag-material du jour is – in my way. But I’m not totally against this trend – it can’t be all bad if it makes more people aware of the pleasures of a good loose tea. Although Lipton (unsurprisingly) will not be selling the good stuff in their new bags (they say their teas will be “entry level”, whatever that means), the publicity will undoubtedly be a good thing for the tea business as a whole.

The health issue
It’s important to point out that silk or nylon tea bags are not new. In fact, The Simple Leaf’s very own master tea blender and taster tells us that Duncan’s Tea was interested in setting up a nylon teabag facility in India way back in the late 1970s. The market was to be the Gulf states in the Middle East. However, things went terribly wrong when a royal in one of these countries proclaimed that nylon causes cancer and promptly banned the import of nylon tea bags. Apparently he cited numerous medical studies to prove his point. Needless to say the Duncans plant cut its losses and ceased operations quickly.

So is there any meat to these health concerns? Although the tea bags are made from “food-grade” nylon, some people believe that exposure to boiling water may cause small amounts of nylon to be ingested by consumers. Hmm….

Numi tea, a US retailer, says on its website:

Why has Numi not followed the trend of “silky” nylon tea bags?

Numi does not use the trendy petroleum-based (“silky”),
nylon tea bags because they are not biodegradable, and there have been no long-term studies on the effects of drinking tea that have steeped in these bags.

So the jury’s out on this one. Anyone want to fund some research to study the long term health effects of nylon tea bags?

The environmental issue
The most cited objection to silk / nylon tea bags has been that they
are not biodegradable. Again, from the Gulf (the Khaleej Times):

We brought to the shoppers’ awareness the importance of protecting the environment from sacs made of nylon, the material which is considered among the number one enemy to the environment. It takes thousand of years for nylon to dissolve and if so it produces poisonous gases and substances that remains in the soil,” noted Abdullah adding,” We wish people will opt to use bags made of cloth, a material that is safe for the environment.

To be fair, many responsible retailers in the US claim to be using biodegradable nylon sachets.

The bottom line

Tea bags are back. And whether this trend of nylon tea sachets continues or fizzles out remains to be seen. Health and environment issues notwithstanding, these tea bags look much more attractive than those stodgy old tea bags we’re all used to seeing.

Time for me to go spoon some real loose tea into my teapot now. No nylon for me just yet.

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13 Responses to “The Tea Bag Is Dead. Long Live The Tea Bag.”

  1. 1 Suresh de Zoysa

    Please let me have details of Nylon tea bag material (For triangle bag)SUPPLIERS in China and Taiwan.

    Thank You

  2. 2 Akbar McGillicuddy

    “To be fair, many responsible retailers in the US claim to be using biodegradable nylon sachets.”

    To really be fair, these bags are not biodegradable at all. They mix biodegradable material with them so they break up into tiny fragments of nylon that does not biodegrade. We end up with the same problem except that you can’t see the teabags anymore.

  3. Thanks for sharing Akbar. That’s great information. Do you know of any good sources for information on the biodegradability (or lack thereof) of these tea bags?

  4. 4 stillhungry

    do you have any info or leads on wholesale sources for the teabags themselves (not filled with anything)? i am working with a small tea company and we’ve been using small cheesecloth sachets–they’re great, but expensive.

  5. @stillhungry –

    you may want to try paper tea sachets. Look up “Finum” and “T-Sac” on a google search. Hope that helps.

  6. I would like to know if the “silky” tea sachet is actually made from silk or if it is actually nylon or a combination of nylon and silk. Thanks.

  7. 7 Julie

    I did a search for Finum and T-Sac and neither has unfilled round tea bags. Any suggestions to where these could be found and preferabley, unbleached? Thank you.

  8. I too have been searching for round, empty, self-seal tea bags, but have had no luck so far. SURELY there must be a supplier out there somewhere?? I’m close to just going ahead and cutting my large, square tea bags (I have loads) into circles by hand. Unfortunately, this would mean wasting some of the square bag.

  9. hmm this is quite interesting…

    have you heard of Tea Forte and how they copied the japanese company NASA corporation?

    Well Tea Forte uses a nylon mesh bag as well and I’m sure I saw Lipton produce a line of pyramid shaped tea bags made of nylon.

  10. eh paper sachets really filter out the flavor of the tea..not so great

    what I really want to know is the LCA [life cycle assessment] of these mutant nylon bags and how well or poorly they let the true flavor of the tea come out.

  11. The “silky” bags seem to refer to bags made from polylactic acid. This is a product that is biodegradable and made from sugar cane or cornstarch. The flavor does not get distorted, and the bags will biodegrade. The Polylactic acid is composed of Carbon, Hydrogen and Oxygen, and decomposes into C02 and H20.
    Google search PLA (Polylactic acid) for more information.
    We at Engineering for the Earth are suggesting that Tea Companies drop the Nylon bag for a biodegradable product. PLA is a step in the right direction. We have worked with Tea Companies to change their materials. Options are out there.

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