Can You Eat Tea Leaves? Is It Safe or Healthy?

Can you eat tea leaves

Tea is a favorite beverage enjoyed around the world in a wide variety of ways.  There are almost as many ways to enjoy tea as there are varieties.  Some teas are so tasty you almost want to eat them, which brings us to the question: Can you eat tea leaves?  In short, the answer is yes, you can.  The real question you should be asking yourself is SHOULD you eat tea leaves, and that answer is: it depends.

What kind of tea leaves do you want to eat?  How are you planning on eating them?  So lets take a look at ways tea leaves should and should not be consumed. 

What tea leaves do you want to eat? 

Let’s start with what kind of tea leaves you want to eat.  Do you want to eat whole leaf tea?  A loose leaf tea blend?  Tea straight from the bag?  Maybe you’re thinking: the tea bag broke, can I still drink it? Or maybe you want to know if it is safe to accidentally drink a tea leaf when drinking loose leaf tea.

When you look at the science, consuming small amounts of tea leaves is fine but eating tea leaves in larger quantities can have consequences. 

Why do you want to eat tea leaves?

When you ask the question: Can you eat tea leaves?  Consider why you are asking that question in the first place?  What benefits are you looking to get out of tea leaves?

Your cup of tea, regardless of type, is going to contain antioxidants and often a certain amount of caffeine.  The only way to actually get the benefits of these antioxidants is to infuse the tea using the old fashioned method of steeping it in hot water for several minutes before drinking it. 

You will get all of the health benefits out of the tea by steeping it along with its flavor and any caffeine.  You can re-steep the tea a second and third time, but with each additional steep, the benefits are reduced significantly. This means eating used, moist tea leaves would have little value when it comes to health benefits. 

The antioxidants and caffeine in the tea leaves are water soluble so the only way to extract them is by using hot water.  Eating the leaves whole will not give you any more benefits than by drinking the tea infusion and may even offer fewer benefits. 

When is eating tea leaves the norm? 

Eating tea is commonplace in some parts of the world. In Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, a special tea called Lahpet is frequently consumed.  Lahpet is fermented pickled tea leaves and a Lahpet tray is a traditional way to show hospitality to house guests.  Lahpet is typically served as a tea leaf salad called lahpet thoke or as a main snack called ahlu lahpet. 

Another way tea leaves are commonly consumed is in matcha. Matcha is a green tea powder used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies.  The green tea leaves are finely ground into a powder and then vigorously whisked with hot water to mix the powder in before drinking.  In recent years, the matcha latte has swept through coffee shops and become a popular favorite among many. A matcha latte mixes the same green tea powder into warm milk to make a creamy hot beverage.

How do you eat tea leaves?

If you want to eat tea leaves or tea dust from time to time and have done your research on the risks of eating tea leaves, you are probably asking yourself where do I start? Can you eat green tea leaves?  Should you eat the tea straight out of the bag or should you stick to loose leaf tea?  Can you eat herbal tea leaves?  Let’s look a little further at each kind of tea.

Eating Loose Leaf Tea

Loose leaf tea can often be bitter, especially if it was recently steeped.  The particles of loose leaf tea are also larger than those of a bagged variety.  If you are planning on eating loose leaf tea, we suggest you use it in a recipe.  The book Culinary Tea by Cynthia Gold can get you started. 

Benefits of Eating Loose Leaf Tea

Loose leaf tea has more concentrated nutrients and antioxidants and steeped tea.  Some schools of thought believe that the only way to truly absorb the antioxidants is to steep the tea and drink the infusion, but others swear by eating the tea itself.  

Loose leaf tea is also much higher in caffeine content.  When you steep the tea, some of the caffeine is left behind so some believe that you get greater caffeine benefits when you consume the leaf whole.  

Are all teas fit for eating?

Not all tea leaves are safe for eating.  Even organic tea leaves can be unsafe since toxins and pollutants can enter the soil and be absorbed into the plant.  When sourcing your tea, make sure you choose a brand that continually tests for things like lead, mercury, arsenic, cadmium, etc. 

Pesticides in loose leaf tea

Teas that are not organically grown can also have pesticides.  Pesticides are sprayed onto the leaves and unless properly washed off, they can end up in your afternoon cup.  Consuming the loose leaf tea means that even more pesticides can enter your body.  We recommend sticking to organic teas in general to avoid pesticides overall. 

Bacteria In Loose Leaf Tea

Bacteria is not something you often have to worry about in your morning cup of tea but can be a major concern when eating tea leaves. Bacteria need moisture to grow and since your average cup of tea is made from dry tea leaves, it is not really an issue.  The tea leaves you eat however are often moist already and should not be left to sit around and develop bacterial growth.  If you cannot eat the tea leaves the same day be sure to store them in an airtight container in the fridge or freezer to limit any bacteria. 

Eating Herbal Tea

Many of the herbs used in herbal teas such as mint and lavender as well as a variety of spices are already frequently used in cooking so eating them is not a problem.  We still suggest you use them in a recipe rather than just eat them straight up.  You can start by mixing some ground up herbal tea in with your oatmeal.

Eating Green Tea Leaves

Green tea is loaded with vitamins and minerals and its health benefits have been touted for centuries. Many of these benefits can be obtained by simply drinking green tea but some believe that you can get more benefits if you eat the entire tea leaf.  

Green tea typically comes in two forms, whole leaf and finely ground (commonly known as matcha).  

Whole leaf green tea is great as an accent to an asia style salad.  Simply sprinkle finely shredded green tea over the salad and top with dressing.  The tea will soak up the dressing making it easier to digest.

Matcha tea is a finely ground powder that is intended to be mixed with hot water.  Matcha can also be added to smoothies, chia pudding, or even ice cream.  If you are new to eating tea, matcha is a great place to start because the finely ground powder will give you all the health benefits of green tea in an easily digestible form. 

Reasons NOT to Eat Tea Leaves

Pollution affects every aspect of farming and tea farming is no exception.  Contaminants such as lead, mercury, aluminum, and other heavy metals collect into the soil and then are absorbed into the teat leaves. Be sure to purchase your tea from a brand that regularly tests for heavy metals.

In addition to heavy metal contaminants, there are other health concerns with eating tea leaves. 

The fiber in the tea leaves can cause stomach issues.  

While tea leaves are high in antioxidants and caffeine, the bulk of their content is fiber.  Eating too many tea leaves can cause constipation.  The fiber in larger leaves is very hard to digest which means that older leaves, like the ones used in black tea, are more likely to cause constipation issues. 

Eating tea, especially green tea, can also cause stomach upset.  The astringent qualities in green tea can irritate a sensitive stomach. This is especially true if consumed on an empty stomach. If a cup of green tea first thing in the morning causes you stomach issue, you should probably avoid eating it as well, or stick to the matcha variety.

Why is matcha different?

Matcha Can you eat tea leaves

Matcha is a finely ground green tea that is intended to be blended into hot water before drinking.  While you are still consuming the entire tea leaf, because it is ground so finely into a powder, you don’t have to worry about the excess fiber causing stomach issues.  If you want to venture into eating tea leaves, matcha is a great place to start.  With its boom in popularity, it is readily available in a variety of price ranges.  If you want to use it as a beverage in either hot water, a matcha latte, or smoothie make sure you choose a ceremonial grade matcha.  If you are using it for cooking however a less expensive matcha can be used. 

Better Ways to Eat Tea Leaves

As mentioned previously, there are a variety of recipes that use tea leaves in a culinary capacity.  These chai tea cookies are amazing, and if you prefer earl grey tea, try these Downton Abbey Earl Grey Cookies.  

Tea also works great in homemade ice cream, just add a little chai spice or matcha to a vanilla ice cream base and you have a gourmet treat you would pay a fortune for in the grocery store. 

We recommend using a spice grinder if you are baking with loose leaf tea.  Grinding the tea into smaller particles similar to match will allow you to enjoy all of the flavor while limiting possible stomach upset.

So can you eat tea leaves? The Final Verdict

The decision of whether or not to eat tea leaves is up to you. Even though it may sound weird, people eat tea leaves all over the world.  If you decided eating tea leaves is something you want to try, start with either match or a finely ground tea first.  If your body seems to handle it well, then you can experiment with recipes that use larger tea leaf particles.

Other Articles you may be interested in:

The Best Loose Leaf Earl Grey Teas Out There