It's a rare person who has never taken comfort in tea. Suffering from a cold? Add honey and lemon and soothe your throat.
Feeling blah in bleak midwinter? Add a spoonful of sugar and a splash of milk, and let a cup of tea brighten your spirits.
If you think just any warm beverage could play the part, the Tea Council of the U.S.A. has news for you. Researchers are proving what our hearts have always known - tea is good for you. So good, in fact, that you might want to consider it health food.
The tea council has proclaimed January National Hot Tea Month, and I, for one, intend to celebrate. After all, there's no better time of year to sip one of life's best comfort beverages.
Council President Joe Simrany says there is especially good reason to spotlight hot tea during this year's season of colds and flu, because there is new evidence that tea drinking has a "dramatic effect" on the body's immune system.
Dr. Jack F. Bukowski led a research team at Harvard Medical School that looked at a component of tea that can boost the body's immune system, and published the results of the study this past May in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study found that the substance, L-theamine, "primes the immune system in fighting infection, bacteria, viruses and fungi," as the council describes it.
In a human clinical trial, 11 volunteers drank five small cups of tea each day (about 20 ounces in all), while 10 other volunteers drank the same amount of coffee.
After four weeks, the researchers found that the immune cells of tea drinkers secreted five times more interferon than before the trial, while the coffee drinkers showed no change. Interferon plays an important role in the body's immune system, leading the researchers to suggest that tea can provide the body with natural resistance to infection and perhaps tumors.
Note that this study was conducted using black tea, the tea of choice in this country. That's important, says Simrany, because most previous studies linking tea with health benefits have used green tea, which accounts for only about 10 percent of the U.S. tea market.
With more researchers now focusing on black tea, we're likely to see more evidence that black tea provides the same good benefits long touted for green tea. After all, both kinds come from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, a warm-weather evergreen.
Note, too, that this study focused on tea, or Camellia sinensis, not herbal brews, which technically are not teas.
Most tea lovers don't need a health reason to indulge themselves, especially this time of year. But if you're not a regular, you can add good health to all the other comforting reasons to embrace a nice warm cup of tea.
For more information about tea, or about tea and health, log on to the Web site www.teausa.com.