Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Is "herbal tea" tea?

Among tea connoisseurs, enthusiasts, and tea companies, I frequently encounter blog posts, webpages, and other writings (most of which come across as outright rants) in which people complain about the use of the term "tea" to refer to herbal teas that do not contain the Camellia sinensis plant. The claim is always the same: the only "correct" use of the word tea is to refer to Camellia sinensis; other uses of the word are inaccurate, wrong, misleading, ill-informed.

These people invariably advocate for the usage of terms like "herbal infusion" or "tisane" that do not contain the word "tea". Some people (whom I shall not name) have even made statements that they would never buy from a company that sold "herbal tea" because, according to them, the product would obviously be inferior because the company selling it obviously didn't know anything about tea.

What does the word "tea" mean?

What does the word tea mean? We all know that it is used to refer to the actual tea plant and the beverages made from it. But does it have other valid, accepted definitions? Let's look at the dictionary definitions of tea. The Random House dictionary gives a number of definitions, among them:

5. any of various infusions prepared from the leaves, flowers, etc., of other plants, and used as beverages or medicines.

Is this particular dictionary peculiar? Let's look at the American Heritage Dictionary's definition:

3. Any of various beverages, made as by steeping the leaves of certain plants or by extracting an infusion especially from beef.

Ahh, one could object, but these are American dictionaries. Let's go for the Oxford English Dictionary's definition of tea. The British know tea after all, right?

3. a drink made from the leaves, fruits, or flowers of other plants.

But do people actually use these terms?

Let's use google to settle the score. How many hits does the term "herbal tea" get? How about other terms?

  • herbal tea - 3 million

  • tisane - 1 million

  • herbal infusion - 179,000

Herbal tea is by far the dominant term in mainstream usage; tisane is also widely used, but "infusion" just hasn't caught on; perhaps it's just too scientific sounding. As one final note, however, I want to point out that peer-reviewed scientific journals widely use the term "tea" to refer to herbal teas; check out this google scholar search for chamomile tea or a similar search for mint tea.

So...give it up folks. Herbal tea is a perfectly valid use of the word "tea"; it doesn't refer to the Camellia sinensis plant, but the use of the word "tea" makes sense because the two beverages are infused in the same way and share more similarities with each other than with other beverages. People aren't being ignorant just because they use a term like "herbal tea", "chamomile tea" or "mint tea". But people are being pedantic when they go around insisting people use words like infusion and dismissing people or companies just because they're using a perfectly valid term that is well-accepted by the mainstream.


  1. Okay, i give in - in private i always called them tea anyway. Nice article

  2. Good post Alex. Don't necessarily agree, but your argument is more persuasive than I expected.

    It is funny how militant some #teafanatics are about this topic.

    Thanks for the provocation.

  3. Glad to spark controversy!


    I love being able to disagree and engage in good dialogue. One thing that I find so exciting about tea is how people have such different tastes and opinions...I love it when someone tries a tea someone else can't stand, and it becomes their favorite. It's those differences in tastes that are responsible for all the amazing diversity there is in tea!

  4. Thanks for this post! I've always use the word "tea" for all types of infusions. It just makes sense to me.

  5. Thank you for this blog post, Alex. I am glad to know that I am not the only tea drinker on the Internet to feel this way. I have a similar article I am about to post on Tea Examiner, but have been waiting while I handle more urgent tea topics.
    The whole "it isn't tea" subject irks me for a few reasons. First, I have seen tea bloggers claim that saying herbal tea is a misuse of the English language. Well, I have a BA in the science of language and I know how English works. Saying "herbal tea" is not calling the substance tea in the sense of Camellia sinensis. It is an adjective designating the fact that the substance is something other than true tea, the way the term prairie dog distinguishes the fact that the animal in question is not a dog.
    The other thing that irks me most was that no one had a problem with the term herbal tea for well over one hundred years. But in the 1980's tea companies thought that growing presence of herbal teas in the grocery stores threatened their market. They lobbied to have it forbidden to use the term tea for anything other than true tea, but they lost badly. Since then they have been trying to win by an ongoing propaganda campaign. Some bloggers have even been paid to spread the word that no true tea lover would ever use the term herbal tea and that the correct word is tisane.
    However, tisane does not mean herbal tea in the English language. It means a decoction, a liquid created by boiling, not an infusion.
    The whole campaign is wrong from the gitgo and, in my mind, bordering on the unethical and deceitful.

  6. Thanks so much for this response, Margaret...is this article the article you were referring to, or is it another one?

    I wasn't aware that there was this aggressive a sort of marketing campaign...sounds like really dirty business to me...and if it is true, I'd like to find some reliable sources that could verify it, and perhaps write more about it. I would agree with you, if that is really what went on, that it is unethical and deceitful.

    I've always wondered what has motivated people to make such a strong case against the use of the word "tea" in herbal teas...and it wouldn't surprise me to find that there were monied interests behind it...tea snobbery alone seems insufficient to explain the zeal with which some people have advocated for that cause (especially when there are so many other worthier causes--like sustainability--to be fighting for in the tea world).