The Tea Industry's Dirty Little Secret

How do you take your tea? With cream, sugar, carcinogenic chemcials or plastic?

Packaged tea.

Packaged tea.

When I first started Circular Living, I switched to organic loose leaf tea bought in bulk to cut out the single-use packaging, chemicals and plastic. Yes, the majority of tea bags contain plastics and/or chemicals. So, every time we make tea, we are most likely steeping toxins and then drinking them. This is the tea industry's dirty little secret, because it's not disclosed on their product packaging. We look at organic packaged tea and think "YES, this is so healthy;" however, with a little bit of research, it turns out that's not always the case. 

I work in a natural foods store, so naturally I have become very interested in the "natural" and certified organic packaged teas that we carry. I contacted many of the tea companies on our shelves so I could share the information with you.

Tea prongs in action. Loose leaf for life! 

Tea prongs in action. Loose leaf for life! 

I e-mailed companies and called them on the phone, often receiving conflicting information. For example, some companies swore they never use the chemical epichlorohydrin to treat their tea bags; however, upon further investigation, I discovered most actually do use it. Furthermore, even when trace amounts are found in the finished product, a company can legally claim it's "epichlorohydrin-free" if its below a certain parts per billion. 

Personally, I don't want to drink tea (or coffee) from a tea bag filter that was treated with toxic chemicals, even if it's claimed there are no trace amounts in the final product. I've made this decision for my health (chemicals that leach out of plastic are found in blood and tissue of nearly all of us), for ethical reasons (the people using these chemicals are at risk), and for environmental reasons (our earth has been through enough). In addition, what if there are low levels of these chemicals in tea bags, and a person drinks 3-4 cups every single day. Do these chemicals bioaccumulate in the body? The irony is so thick, especially when tea bags have little messages like "the gate to happiness is self -compassion." 

Loose leaf organic earl grey, chai, & peppermint chamomile. 

Loose leaf organic earl grey, chai, & peppermint chamomile. 

Remember, it's super easy for companies to make claims when they aren't regulated.  "All natural", "sustainable", and "eco-friendly", "green", and "healthy", can mean absolutely nothing, but help to sell a product. This is a form of greenwashing, and it happens all the time. 

In this post, I'm only focusing on the tea bag materials (filter, string, staple, adhesive), but it's equally important to consider whether or not the tea you're drinking is organic. If not organic, toxic pesticides which are used in conventional tea farming can end up in your cup and body. Also, the material that most tea bags are packaged in is made up of a tri-layer of paper, aluminum, and polyethylene, which cannot be recycled. Loose leaf organic tea is the safest and best option! 

Tea bag materials/processes: 

Packaged tea. 

Packaged tea. 

  • Polylatic Acid (PLA): Derived from plants (usually corn, most likely GMO). PLA is not the same as traditional thermoplastics that rely on petroleum as a base. PLA is generally regarded as safe by the FDA when used in contact with food. I couldn't find significant research about it being safe to heat up (drinking tea) and to eat. It is my understanding that bioplastic items are made using 3D-printers, which can contain other chemicals that can contaminate bioplastics during production.  
  • Manila Hemp (Abaca Fiber): Abaca is a native plant to the Philippines and a close relative of the banana. It's durable fibers are widely used for paper and rope production.
  • Wood Pulp: Wood pulp is made from wood, and is also called "cellulose." In addition to teabags, it's added to a ton of food products (like parmesan cheese) to cut costs and add "fiber." Wood pulp can be made from multiple types of wood like spruce, pine, fir, aspen, birch, etc...The FDA allows "cellulose" to be added to foodstuffs and regards it as safe. I don't know that much about it, but I have questions that I couldn't find the answers to yet. Like, "Has the wood been treated before it's made into pulp?" And "How the eff is this regulated?" 
  • Epichlorohydrin:  It is a chlorinated epoxy compound used as an industrial solvent and pesticide, and used to coat tea bags to improve "wet strength." It is a strong skin irritant and carcinogen. The EPA has classified epichlorohydrin as a Group B2, probable human carcinogen. 
  • Epi Resin: An epoxy resin. 
  • 3-MCPD: A type of resin that is added to tea bags to increase "wet strength." It's carcinogenic and also a genotoxin. 
  • Chlorine Bleached: A very white tea-bag has most likely been chlorine bleached. This process has been around since the 1950's. Chlorine bleach poses serious health risks and is an environmental toxin. 
  • Oxygen Whitened:  An alternaive to chlorine bleaching, this process forces oxygen between the fibers to make them appear whiter. I couldn't find a lot of information about this process, so I don't know if its devoid of chemicals. 
  • Heat Sealed: Many of the stringless, unstapled tea bags that are currently on the market employ filter paper that is coated with a polyamide plastic that allows the paper to seal together using heat.

Tea findings: 

  • Yogi: 
  • Tea bags are a mixture of manila hemp and wood pulp (cellulose). 
  • Did not confirm use of chlorine bleach or Epichlorohydrin.
  • Use the chemical 3-MCPD to treat their tea bags, but is not in finished product. "We can ensure you on the basis of our batch-related analyses certificates from accredited laboratories that this potentially toxic substance (3-MCPD)  is not found in our teabags." 
  • Organic India: 
  • Tea bag made from organic manila hemp that is coated with a highly purified polyamide epichlorohydrin-based resin. The polymer resin bonds into the paper as an inert (non- reactive) substance, making it strong enough to withstand very hot water; the same is done for many coffee filters.
  • The staple is made from food grade, non-reactive, stainless steel, and the string is made from unbleached cotton fiber. 
  • Celestial Seasonings: 
  • Teabags are chlorine-free and they use an oxygen whitening process. 
  • The teabag is made from food grade cotton, soy and acrylic (plastic). They would not confirm whether or not they use epichlorohydrin or 3-MCPD. 
  • Tazo: 
  • The bag is made from oxygen-whitened hemp cellulose.
  • The tea bags tested negative for epichlorohydrin, but could contain Epiresin. 
  • Choice: 
  • Their teabags are staple-free made with 100% unbleached natural paper/abaca fibers sewn shut with an unbleached natural cotton string and paper tag.
  • Epichorlohydrin is used for "wet strength." Supposedly non-detectable (less than 2 parts per billion present). 
  • Newman's Own: 
  • Chlroine-free bleaching process, and no Epichlorohydrin in final product (could still be used). 
  • Teabags (filter paper) are made from natural components and the primary component is Abaca or manila hemp. They did not know what the "natural components" are in the filter paper. They didn't know what their string is made out of or what kind of metal their staple is made from either. 
  • Numi: 
  • Teabag made from manila hemp & cellulose (non-GMO verified), aluminum food-grade staple, & teabag/string/tag do not contain any plastics. 
  • For tea bag to achieve wet strength, they cross-link epichlorohydrin with a polyamide polymer, which when linked, causes a reaction that uses up all of the epichlorohydrin chemical. They have had their suppliers perform tests to make sure that no epichlorohydrin remains in the tea bags and they have verification that their tea bags contain no traces of this agent.
  • Good Earth: 
  • The tea bags are made of a non-heat sealable unbleached tissue comprised of cellulosic fibers (most likely wood pulp). 
  • The sachet tea bag material complies with the FDA 21CFR regulation for direct food contact. The material is 100% PLA and does not contain Epichlorhydrin or 3-MCPD. However, the string & tag tea bags uses a wet strength agent that contains an epichlorohydrin compound, but no free epichlorohydrin or 3-MCPD has been detected in final product. 
  • Traditional Medicinals: 
  • Teabag made from manila hemp and wood pulp.
  • The string on the bag is made from non-GMO verified cotton, and they do not use any chemical sealants. They say they use an environmentally-friendly non-chlorine bleaching process. I'm guessing they use an oxygen whitening process?
  • They wouldn't confirm whether they use of Epichlorhydrin or 3-MCPD.
  • Gaia: 
  • There are no synthetic ingredients in the pulp that is used to make the tea filter papers. They are made from plant cellulose fibers. Cotton yarn is used to secure the tab.
  • Only ECF (elemental chlorine free) bleached paper pulps are used for the production of the filter paper. 
  • The tea filter paper used for Gaia Herb teas do not contain epichlorohydrin per written documentation by the supplier of the paper. 
  • Mighty Leaf:
  • Pouches are made from polylactic acid (PLA). 
  • Each tea bag is stitched with 100% unbleached cotton using a proprietary process. They do not use staples or glue to seal the pouches.
  • "PLA has been proven to show no trace evidence of epichlorohydrin and/or other phthalates that can be found in petroleum based plastics and nylon. Further, testing shows no recordable levels of leaching in water temperatures up to the boiling point (212 F) for a duration of 30 minutes."
  • They said that I may also want to "consider using loose leaf teas to eliminate any question of potential contamination, leaching or molecular breakdown from tea bag materials including paper pouches."
  • Stash: 
  • Unbleached tea bags. Made from cellulose (wood pulp).
  • Staples made from aluminum and coated with a proprietary food grade coating (they could not tell me what this was). 
  • The filter paper is not coated with the compound epichlorohydrin, and does not contain any free epichlorohydrin. Stash tea bag filter paper is machine folded and pressed, therefore no glue is needed or used and thermoplastics are not used.
  • Two Leaves:
  • Tea bag is made from cellulose (wood pulp) and it goes through a chlorine-free bleaching process. 
  • No staple, and they were not sure if they use an adhesive or not to attach the string to the bag. 
  • Epichlorohydrin-free (could still be used). 
  • Pukka Tea:
  • Tea bag is made from abaca and wood pulp. 
  • Tea bag strings are made from 100% organic, non-GMO, un-bleached cotton.
  • The teabags are not heat sealed; therefore they do not require a glue of any kind to keep them closed. 
  • Epichlorohydrin is used in the manufacturing process, but supposedly not present in the finished product.  

Overall, it was time consuming to get this information from these companies, and I was not surprised how many "I don't know's" and vague information I got. I had to double check all the responses via phone or e-mail, because most companies didn't seem to have a connection with their teabag filter supplier/manufacturer. This was concerning, and I'm therefore very suspicious of any packaged tea company that says it doesn't use chemicals. If you drink a packaged tea that's not on this list, I encourage you to contact the company and inquire about the materials, processes, and chemicals used to manufacture the tea filters (tea bags) and the string. 

Loose leaf organic tea RULES!

Loose leaf organic tea RULES!

We have more power as consumers and retailers than we are aware of. If more people started calling these companies and telling them they are no longer going to carry or buy their product until they stop packaging their tea in plastic, using chemicals to treat the teabags, and adding plastics to the filter paper, they might be more inclined to make the change. In the mean time, the safest tea to drink is organic loose leaf  (bought in bulk if possible in your own jar).

Drinking loose leaf tea is simple, healthy, reduces single-use waste, and provides a hands on tea experience and ritual. There really isn't a need for individually packaged tea. Sure, some say it's convenient, but so is using a reusable tea ball/prongs, with loose leaf organic tea. Give it a try!