Earl Grey Tea and Oil of Bergamot From Calabrian Oranges

Updated on December 31, 2017
AliciaC profile image

Linda Crampton is a teacher with an honors degree in biology. She enjoys exploring nutrition as well as the culture and history of food.

A cup of Earl Grey tea
A cup of Earl Grey tea | Source

Tea and Bergamot Oil

Earl Grey tea is a variety of black tea. It has a distinctive taste and aroma that I find very appealing. The flavor comes from oil of bergamot, which is extracted from the peel of bergamot oranges, or bergamots. These sour citrus fruits are grown in several countries but are most abundant in the region of Calabria in southern Italy. Oil of bergamot is used to flavor desserts, confectionery, and liqueurs as well as beverages. It also supplies a pleasant scent to perfumes and lotions and is used in aromatherapy.

The small quantities of bergamot oil used in drinks and foods are safe as well as delicious. The oil may not be safe when applied to the skin, however, because it causes photosensitivity. In this condition, there is an increased likelihood that ultraviolet radiation in sunlight will damage skin cells. Some people have developed rashes, blisters, and increased pigmentation after exposure to concentrated bergamot oil and ultraviolet light. Topical (skin) application of the oil may also increase the risk of skin cancer.

The word "bergamot" is used to refer to herbs in the mint family as well as a type of orange. The herbs are very different plants from the bergamot orange, but their leaves do have a flavor that is reminiscent of oil of bergamot.

Captain Jean-Luc Picard Loves Earl Grey Tea!

History of Earl Grey Tea

The history of Early Grey tea is uncertain. It seems to have first appeared in the nineteenth century. It may have been named after Earl Charles Grey, who was prime minister of Britain from 1830 to 1834. There are several stories that attempt to explain how the Earl was connected to the tea. One of the most fanciful is that the Earl played a role in saving a Chinese mandarin's son from drowning. (A mandarin was a government official in the Chinese Empire.) The grateful father supposedly created the tea as a present for the Earl. Another story says that Earl Grey's family asked a Chinese mandarin to create a tea that would neutralize the lime present in the water around their home.

Applying the prime minister's name to the tea may have been simply a way to honor him. It's also prossible that the origin of the tea had no connection to the Earl and that his name was used merely to make the tea sound more respectable. Some researchers suspect that oil of bergamot was first added to inferior teas with little flavor in order to make them taste better.

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Lady Grey Tea

Lady Grey tea is named after Mary Elizabeth Grey, the wife of Charles Grey. Unlike Earl Grey tea, it's a modern creation by the Twinings tea company. The tea contains oil of bergamot, lemon peel, and orange peel, as well as cornflower or lavender, which are both blue in color. The flowers are sometimes omitted from the tea. There are other non-traditional varieties of Earl Grey tea available in stores today. Sometimes oil of bergamot is added to green tea instead of black tea. Jasmine may be added to a tea containing oil of bergamot as an additional flavor.

Bergamot oranges
Bergamot oranges | Source

Bergamot Oranges or Bergamots

The bergamot orange plant grows as a small to medium sized tree. It produces its fruit in winter. The leaves are oval with pointed tips. The aromatic fruits are the size of edible oranges and have the yellow or yellow-green color of a lemon when they're ripe. They also have a pale yellow or yellow-green flesh. Some are slightly pear-shaped due to a small "neck".

The plant is thought to have developed as a hybrid between a sour orange and another citrus fruit, probably a lemon or a lime. The first description of bergamots comes from the early eighteenth century. There are two versions of the bergamot's scientific name. Some researchers use the name Citrus bergamia, while others call the plant Citrus aurantium (the same scientific name as sour or bitter orange) and classify the plant in the subspecies bergamia. Bergamot oranges are used to produce oil of bergamot and a marmalade, but they're not eaten as fruit or used to make fruit juice. They're far too sour for this purpose.

Calabria is the most popular area for bergamot oil production, since the bergamot trees there consistently produce fruits containing a high-quality oil. Calabria is the region that forms the "toe" of Italy. Bergamot trees grow mainly near the coastline.

The Calabria Region in Southern Italy

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Calabria, Italy
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Uses of Oil of Bergamot

Oil of bergamot adds a delicious flavor to foods and drinks and lovely scents to soaps, lotions, shampoos, and perfumes. However, it should probably be avoided in products designed to be left on areas of the skin that will be exposed to light because of its potential to cause skin damage. The oil should always be used in small quantities, especially in children, as the quote below shows.

Some alternate health practitioners claim that oil of bergamot has many health benefits, including helping to treat psoriasis and vitiligo, treating fungal disease on the skin, killing insect pests such as lice, killing bacteria, controlling anxiety and relieving depression when used in aromatherapy, aiding digestion, and relieving fever and pain.

At the moment, there isn't much—or sometimes any—scientifically acceptable evidence to support the above claims. The oil may be helpful for certain skin diseases, but even if it does cure a skin problem there's always the danger that it will create a more serious problem than it solves.

There have been serious side effects, including convulsion and death, in children who have taken large amounts of bergamot oil.

— WebMD
A bergamot plant at the Missouri Botanical Garden
A bergamot plant at the Missouri Botanical Garden | Source

Potential Dangers of the Oil

The main chemical in bergamot oil that causes photosensitivity is bergapten, though other substances may be involved as well. Bergamot oil has been used in sunscreens and tanning lotions in the past, which is definitely not a good idea now that we know more about the oil.

Bergapten is a type of psoralen. Psoralens belong to a larger group of chemicals known as furanocoumarins. In the past couple of years, some companies have started using FCF bergamot oil in their cosmetics. FCF stands for furanocoumarin-free. As the name implies, the furanocoumarins have been removed from the oil. This sounds like a good idea with respect to skin safety.

Bergamot oil might lower blood sugar. WebMD recommends that people stop ingesting the oil at least two weeks before surgery. Since the oil is found in the peel of a bergamot orange, eating the flesh should cause no problems. You should seek a doctor's advice if you eat bergamots or their products and you have upcoming surgery, however.

Oil of bergamot
Oil of bergamot | Source

Bergamot Oil and Medications

Bergamot oil is made up of a complex mixture of chemicals. In addition to bergapten it contains a substance called bergamottin. This chemical is also found in grapefruit juice and is the reason why the juice has to be avoided by people taking certain medications. Bergamottin inhibits an enzyme that breaks down the medications in the body. This can cause a medicine to stay in the body for longer than normal and perhaps reach a dangerous level if more doses are taken.

It's unknown whether ingesting bergamot oil affects medications as seriously as drinking grapefruit juice does. If you ingest foods or drinks containing the oil and have to avoid grapefruit juice due to medication use, you should discuss the situation with a doctor or a pharmacist.

Harvesting Bergamots and Other Citrus Fruits in Calabria

Cholesterol in Our Body

There is some evidence that chemicals in bergamot oranges can lower the cholesterol level in our body. Cholesterol is an essential chemical that has vital functions. In specific circumstances it can cause problems, however.

When doctors refer to "lowering cholesterol", they are generally talking about LDL cholesterol. Although this form of cholesterol is a normal component of our body, an excessive amount can contribute to the buildup of deposits known as plaque in blood vessels. Plaque can interfere with blood flow and increase the risk of a heart attack. HDL cholesterol is often referred to as the "good" cholesterol because it reduces the buildup of plaque and lowers the risk of circulatory problems.

The flesh of bergamot oranges
The flesh of bergamot oranges | Source

Earl Grey Tea, Bergamot Polyphenols, and Heart Disease

There is no evidence that Earl Grey tea lowers the blood cholesterol level or protects people from heart disease as well as statins do, as some newspaper headlines have proclaimed. Statins are widely used drugs that reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease and strokes. Certain chemicals in bergamot may have benefits related to the cholesterol level in the blood, however.

The misleading newspaper headlines about the benefit of Earl Grey tea appeared after a research report was published in the Journal of Functional Medicine in 2014. The report showed that chemicals from bergamot peel (not Earl Grey tea) lowered LDL cholesterol and triglycerides (fats) in the blood of rats. The chemicals also raised the level of HDL cholesterol in the rats.

In 2013, the International Journal of Cardiology published a significant report related to humans. The researchers found that polyphenols that were extracted from bergamot fruit enhanced the effect of a statin with respect to lowering the LDL cholesterol level in human subjects.

In 2015, a report published in Frontiers of Pharmacology showed that a bergamot extract on its own could lower the cholesterol level. The extract contained flavonoids, which form a subgroup of the polyphenol family of chemicals. Interestingly, the 2013 rat experiment involved bergamot flavanones. Flavanones are a type of flavonoid.

It should be noted that in all of the experiments mentioned above, extracts containing specific chemicals were used instead of whole bergamot oranges or bergamot oil. Many plants contain chemicals that are potentially medicinal but are too dilute to act as medicines until they are extracted and concentrated.

The chemicals in bergamots are interesting. Perhaps in the future we will discover some wonderful—and safe—medical uses for oil of bergamot, the bergamot fruit, and perhaps even Earl Grey tea. Until then, we can at least enjoy the lovely taste and aroma of the tea.


History of Earl Grey tea from the Foods of England project

Information about bergamot oil from WebMD

Bergamottin facts from the HMDB (Human Metabolome Database)

An examination of the report about Earl Grey tea and heart disease from the National Health Service (NHS).

Information about the effect of polyphenols from bergamot on LDL cholesterol from the International Journal of Cardiology

Toth, P. P., Patti, A. M., Nikolic, D., Giglio, R. V., Castellino, G., Biancucci, T., … Rizzo, M. (2015). Bergamot Reduces Plasma Lipids, Atherogenic Small Dense LDL, and Subclinical Atherosclerosis in Subjects with Moderate Hypercholesterolemia: A 6 Months Prospective Study. Frontiers in Pharmacology, 6, 299. http://doi.org/10.3389/fphar.2015.00299

© 2012 Linda Crampton


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    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you, Maggie.L. It's nice to meet you! I enjoy Earl Grey tea, too. I love its taste.

    • Maggie.L profile image

      Maggie.L 3 years ago from UK

      Earl Grey tea is my favourite tea. I really enjoyed your article and the interesting stories as to how Earl Grey tea might have got its name.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      That's a shame, Torrs13, since tea has many health benefits. I didn't like the taste of tea as a child, but luckily I do now. Thanks for the visit!

    • Torrs13 profile image

      Tori Canonge 3 years ago from California

      Some days I wish that my taste buds actually liked tea. For some reason, they just don't :(

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 3 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks, ologsinquito. It's interesting how different brands of the same type of tea can taste so different. I'm glad that you found a version of Earl Grey tea that you enjoy.

    • ologsinquito profile image

      ologsinquito 3 years ago from USA

      I once really disliked Earl Grey tea. But then I had a different brand and now I think it's exquisite. Very nice article on how this type of tea is produced.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you so much for the kind comment, the votes and the shares, Peggy. I appreciate them all!

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      What an interesting hub, Alicia. Of course I always expect that from you. I wonder if the sour oranges grown in the southern parts of the U.S. mostly for decorative purposes are actually Bergamot oranges? Very interesting history about the tea being named, and the information about the oranges and oil of Bergamot was both useful and interesting. Many votes up and tweeting and sharing. Thanks!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment, teaches. I used to love watching Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Captain Picard was one of my favorite characters. I liked his habit of asking for "Earl Grey tea, hot" too!

    • teaches12345 profile image

      Dianna Mendez 5 years ago

      Earl Grey is one of my favorite teas. I had to chuckle at your posting of Captain Picard as I always loved his habit of asking for :Earl Grey tea, hot." Excellent hub article!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you very much for the comment and the vote, mecheshier! I love drinking tea, too, and I enjoy studying its history.

    • mecheshier profile image

      mecheshier 5 years ago

      Lovely Hub. I love my tea and definitely adore history. There is always something to learn. Thank you for sharing. Voted up for awesome.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thanks for the visit and the comment, drbj. Oil of bergamot does have a distinct taste. I love its addition to teas!

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      A lovely exploration of Earl Grey tea and the distinctive Bergamot orange, Alicia. So it's oil of bergamot that gives this tea its very distinctive flavor. Who knew?

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      Thank you for the comment, GoodLady. I agree, Earl Grey tea is very nice to drink. It's one of my favorite types of tea.

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 5 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

      That's funny, Steel Engineer. I wonder how many other people started drinking Earl Grey tea because of Jean-Luc Picard!

    • GoodLady profile image

      Penelope Hart 5 years ago from Rome, Italy

      It is a lovely taste and a wonderful aroma and I did enjoy reading your hub and learning so much I did not know about the bergamot orange. I'll look out for infusions and things next time I go to my local herb shop! Thanks

    • Steel Engineer profile image

      Steel Engineer 5 years ago from Kiev, Ukraine

      I actually started drinking Earl Grey because of Picard!