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Theine, Theanine, and Tea

It’s a bit of a paradox that a drink that contains caffeine can often impart to the drinker a feeling of calm and relaxation. That drink is tea, of course, and the calming compound contained therein is known as theanine. As I noted in an article I wrote here about theanine a few years ago, it’s “an amino acid found only in the tea plant, it was first isolated by Japanese researchers in 1949.”

Theine Molecule Model (Yahoo! Images)
Theine Molecule Model (Yahoo! Images)

To complicate things just a bit, consider that tea also seems to contain a compound known as theine. Which I don’t seem to recall reading about in all the time I’ve been writing about tea. But perhaps I just forgot. In any event, the Oxford Dictionaries offer a rather succinct definition of theine, which amounts to ” caffeine, especially when it occurs in tea.” It goes on to note that it apparently originated in the mid-nineteenth century, and comes from Thea, the “former genus name of the tea plant, from Dutch thee.”

While a cursory web search reveals that theanine indeed does not turn up prior to 1949 you can find mention of theine as far back as 1809. That occurs in a volume called Popular Books on Natural Science: For Practical Use in Every Household, for Readers of All Classes, by Aaron David Bernstein. Along with tackling such questions as how much the Earth weighs and the moon’s influence on the weather there’s a section on coffee. This notes that said beverage contains an abundance of nitrogen (news to me). The author also says tea “has been found to contain an element called theine” though beyond noting that it also contains lots of nitrogen – which is supposedly a good and healthy thing – he doesn’t really elaborate much.

In an 1873 article from The Chemical News and Journal of Physical Science the author makes the interesting observation that “most analysts had found more theine in black than in green tea.” While one does not necessarily question their analyses it’s interesting to note that one of the persistent myths about tea nowadays is that black tea contains more caffeine that green tea. Which may be true sometimes but is not necessarily always the case.

I’m not prepared to disagree with the wisdom of the author who wrote, in the Therapeutic Gazette, in 1890, that the effects of theine/caffeine could be nullified by chilling the tea. But his claim, among others, that the man who was kept up all night by a cup of hot tea but could drink a half gallon of the iced stuff in the evening with no ill effects should probably should be taken with a grain of salt.

See more of William I. Lengeman’s articles here.

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One response to “Theine, Theanine, and Tea”

  1. […] the caffeine that tea does contain is offset, in a manner of speaking, by a compound called theanine, which has been found to produce a calming […]

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