Earl Grey Tea and Oil of Bergamot from Calabrian Oranges
The Joy of Earl Grey Tea
Earl Grey tea is a black tea with 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 - and delicious - but the oil may not be safe when applied to the skin because it makes skin photosensitive. This means that ultraviolet radiation in sunlight is more likely to 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!
Who was Earl Grey?
Earl Grey tea is 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 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. However, it's most likely that applying the prime minister's name to the tea was simply a way to honor him.
Do you drink traditional Earl Grey tea?
Lady Grey Tea
Lady Grey tea is named after Mary Elizabeth Grey, the wife of Charles Grey. This 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 or Bergamots
The bergamot orange plant grows as a small to medium sized tree and 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 color of a lemon when they're ripe. They also have a pale yellow flesh. Most 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 like to use the name Citrus bergamia, while others call the plant Citrus aurantium (the same scientific name as bitter orange) and put 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 and bitter.
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
Oil of Bergamot Dangers and Possible Health Benefits
Oil of bergamot adds a delicious flavor to foods and drinks and lovely scents to perfumes and cosmetics. 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. One chemical in the oil that induces photosensitivity is bergapten, but 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.
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.
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.
Harvesting Bergamots and Other Citrus Fruits in Calabria
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. HDL cholesterol is often called the good cholesterol because it reduces the buildup of plaque and lowers the risk of circulatory problems.
Earl Grey Tea, Bergamot, Cholesterol 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 proclaim. Statins are widely used drugs that reduce cholesterol and lower the risk of heart disease and strokes. There is some evidence that 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 (not humans). The chemicals also raised the level of HDL cholesterol in the rats.
In 2013, information published in the International Journal of Cardiology reported that a group of chemicals known as polyphenols that were extracted from bergamot fruit lowered LDL cholesterol in humans. Combined with the results of the rat experiment, it does seem that bergamot should be investigated further with respect to its effect on cholesterol level.
People should realize that in both of the cases described above, extracts containing specific chemicals were used, not whole bergamot oranges, not oil of Bergamot and not Earl Grey tea. Many plants contain chemicals that are medicinal but are far too dilute to act as medicines until they are extracted and concentrated.
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.
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.
Earl Grey Tea and Heart Disease - Examining the Evidence from the National Health Service
Polyphenols from Bergamot from the International Journal of Cardiology
© 2012 Linda Crampton