Last month, David Tennant’s character in the British drama Broadchurchplaced a cup of tea in a microwave. It was apparently quite a controversial gesture, as evinced by the reaction it sparked in many alarmed viewers who were unable to process the fact that there are some humans who warm their tea in microwaves. But this chatter—some may call it an incident—has sparked a renewed interest in a study conducted five years ago, with findings that suggest Tennant’s character wasn’t so crazy after all.
In 2012, Dr. Quan Vuong, a food scientist at Australia’s University of Newcastle, conducted multiple experiments that concluded microwaving black and green tea may be the most surefire way to activate its most desired chemical compounds—certainly more than the traditional stovetop method would yield. In the study, published in the Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, Dr. Vuong determined that the microwave method coaxes out 80% of the tea's natural catechins (antioxidants) and 92% of its caffeine content, compared to the measly 62% and 76%, respectively, gained from steeping tea leaves in kettle-boiled water for two to three minutes.
Vuong's suggested method for heating tea? Put warm water in a cup with your tea bag, heat the cup in the microwave for 30 seconds on half power, let it sit for a minute, and sip. I should note that aggregated reports of his study spreading across the internet over the past 24 hours have declined to mention how the water gets warm in that first step. Peeking at the study's abstract, though, suggests that the water must have already been boiled before it's put in the microwave. Likweise, though other outlets have referred to black tea in addition to green tea, this particular study refers only to green tea.
Vuong is something of a microwave scholar; just last year, he determined that sticking lemon pomace in a 480-watt microwave for five minutes amplified its phenolic content and antioxidant activity significantly, and he's got a body of work all about microwave-assisted heating and what it does to certain foods. If you’re interested, dive in to the rest of his research. As for his findings about tea, he’s assumed a somewhat radical position to go along with his chemical claims. Vuong's argued that sticking it in the microwave makes for a tastier cup of tea. More nutritious, okay. But delicious? I don’t know, doctor. Not so fast.
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Do you microwave your tea? Let us know in the comments.
Mayukh Sen is a James Beard Award-winning food and culture writer in New York. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, Bon Appetit, and elsewhere. He won a 2018 James Beard Award in Journalism for his profile of Princess Pamela published on Food52.