The internet has been ablaze with a particularly nefarious news story typically titled something like, “You’ve Been Making Your Tea All Wrong!”. Are you sick of hearing this? Yeah, so are we. And not only because there’s no “right way” to make tea.

I’m currently calling this topic the Microwaving Tea Controversy. The articles about this are usually titled something like, “Expert Claims Microwaving Tea Is Best!”, or “Microwave Makes the Best Tea Says Science”. The Microwaving Tea Controversy has excited dozens of news networks because it’s the perfect maelstrom of click-baiting buzzwords, science, consumer errors, lifehacks, outrage, a popular television show, and a lovable beverage enjoyed the world over, tea.

It began April 11 when an article was published by ABC Radio Sydney and repeated on their radio station. A character played by David Tennant on the show Broadchurch was shown microwaving his tea in a recent episode, and the natural response to this perceived “outrage” was lots of clamor over how despicable this practice is. This prompted ABC Radio Sydney to turn to Dr. Quan Vuong, from the University of Newcastle, who happens to perform research into how to make household foods more nutritious. Many of those techniques involve using a microwave oven. And here’s the clincher: he published a paper in 2012 that showed an improvement in the extraction of chemical compounds from tea leaves if the tea was microwaved.

This one idea, that microwaving your tea actually makes it “healthier” by extracting more compounds, exploded across news networks like a thermonuclear bomb. And when I say exploded, I mean this article and the information contained within in it made its way to The Telegraph, The Guardian, ABC News, The Huffington Post, AOL, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, Business Insider, New York Magazine, the New York Post, Mashable, The Independent, Yahoo News, and Cosmopolitan, to mention just a couple. I’ve also seen it translated into French, German, Indonesian, Polish, and more. Equally popular, and a source of even more coverage, was the backlash against these articles, both by common Brits and by “tea experts” aghast at a recommendation of microwaving tea. In the end, everyone got to pat themselves on the back for either discovering a new way to make healthier tea or by holding fast to the perceived “wrongness” of this practice.

The contagiousness and quality of these articles emphasize in a microcosm why current news media and social media are so virulent and backward. Why do I say that?

Because every single news source got it wrong.

Our motto at World of Tea is, after all, “Well Researched Tea Information.” So I did something that apparently no other news source bothered to do: I actually read the paper Dr. Vuong published. (Here it is, if you’re interested.)

The reason they all got it wrong is very simple actually. The original ABC article claimed that Dr. Vuong’s study said the best way to extract 80% of available compounds from your tea is to:

  1. Pour hot water into a cup with a teabag.
  2. Microwave 30 seconds
  3. Let steep 1 minute.

But, what did the study actually say?

  1. Pour hot water into a cup with a teabag.
  2. Let steep 30 seconds.
  3. Microwave 1 minute.

A minor difference, yes. Inaccurate? Unless Dr. Vuong has retracted his study, absolutely. No matter what, we shouldn’t tolerate even this small of an inaccuracy in our reporting, especially when it comes to science! Because what happened? It got repeated again and again, without any fact checking, ad infinitum.

But this isn’t really the point, is it? We don’t really want the news just to tell us what is. In part, we want the news to interpret events as well. Sadly, this interpretation went as click-baity as possible by claiming this was the “best” way to make tea, or the “tastiest”, or even the “healthiest”… and the worst part, all “according to science!” Let’s look at those claims, by simply referring to Dr. Vuong’s actual paper.

Is it the “best” way to make tea?

Absolutely not. Trust us, we’re World of Tea.

Is it the tastiest?

Lots of these articles have mentioned this method creates the best taste, based on what seems to be an off-the-cuff remark in the article. Besides this being so obviously false as to not be worth mentioning here, Dr. Vuong’s paper literally finishes with this quote:

“However, it should be noted that green tea prepared in this fashion will be strong because of the high concentration of the main tea components, especially the catechins. It may be more bitter and astringent than when prepared as suggested by the manufacturers. Therefore, the taste may not be favourable to many green tea drinkers and the addition of other flavours may be required such as lemon, jasmine, pear and apple, varieties that are already available on the market.”

Is it the “healthiest” way to make tea?

The method Dr. Vuong describes increases the catechin content from 62% if brewed traditionally for 3 minutes, to 80% if brewed with his microwave method. The caffeine also increased by 15%. The theanine only increased a very small amount. Is this a significant increase? It is, in that it satisfies Dr. Vuong’s initial interest, which was to find a way to increase the water-soluble compounds in brewed tea through methods that people could use at home. There really is an increase! But is this slight increase really meaningful when it comes to health? Probably not.

“According to science!”

It’s not very scientific to not read the paper or to misquote it. In general, readers seem to have a faulty understanding of what science is, something I hope we combat here on World of Tea.

So what is the best way to get the most from your tea leaves? Unfortunately, the solution here is so achingly simple that this all could have been avoided, although it’s doubtful that many would have found this an interesting headline. What is the best way to get the most catechins, caffeine, and theanine out of your tea?

Re-steep your leaves!

Or stack steepings in a single cup, gongfu style. The basic principle is that all extractions of tea leaves in hot water start a graph that builds towards that golden 100% maximum extraction. That is, the water-soluble compounds in tea react with the hot water and begin a march towards equilibrium in your cup. Thus, multiple steepings, or stacked steepings, literally restart this process each time you add water to your leaves and stack each steepings’ percentages towards maximum extraction on top of one another, getting ever closer to 100%. Dr. Vuong was comparing his percentages to maximum extraction, but all you need to do is stack the equivalent of 6 to 8 minutes of steeping (in other words, just two European-style steeps) to extract more compounds than the microwave method.

If you’d like to know more about tea steeping and the chemical components of tea, check out our Kinetics of Steeping TeaChemical Compounds in Tea, or our article on Multiple Infusions.

P.S. The tea used for the study was Twinings and Lipton… so make of that what you will.