Traditional Chinese herbal remedies have been around forever but with alternative health methods gaining mainstream popularity, these teas are now available bottled in convenience stores and from franchised teashops that have popped up everywhere. Coca Cola has even gotten in on the action by acquiring a herbal tea plant in Guangdong to produce a new drink for the Hong Kong market. But are these pre-packaged drinks as healthy as their fresh counterparts? Following traditional medicinal beliefs, most Chinese herbal teas are consumed to remove “heat.” Symptoms of “heatiness” can include dehydration and a sore throat. According to Professor Liang Liu, dean of Traditional Chinese Medicine at Baptist University, herbal tea can relieve the symptoms before an actual illness occurs. Non-franchise herbal teashops are seemingly on every corner, with their bowls of black liquid laid out on the roadside table. For about $5-$10 each, they promise to relieve anything from coughs to constipation. Their bottled brethren promise the same thing, but according to University of Hong Kong food science professor C.Y. Ma, fresh herbal tea from teashops have better health benefits. “The nutrients in processed foods cannot be preserved as well as in freshly prepared foods,” he says. And while the ingredient labels trumpet a lack of preservatives, some drinks contain the vague “flavorings” in addition to an inordinately high proportion of sugar. According to the Consumer Council, on average, the bottled herbal teas available at 7-Eleven have about 35 grams of sugar per bottle, 10 percent of the recommended daily intake of sugar. Over-intake of sugar is obviously a problem and a contributing factor to diseases from tooth decay to obesity. “Given the sugar content, these drinks can do more than good, especially for people middle-aged and above, when occurrences of diabetes are more common,” Liu says. On the other hand, Liu adds, “products from big companies will go through quality assurance testing and are guaranteed to reach certain standards. In a smaller tea shop, there is little quality assurance.” And when you consider that a lot of teashops are situated near traffic, that uncovered bowl of steaming tea suddenly looks a lot less appetizing. Ma is on the fence when it comes to deciding whether regularly drinking herbal tea is beneficial to health. “It won’t do any harm but whether there are benefits is quite debatable.” If you do choose to drink herbal teas, make sure they’re right for your health condition. Especially in the winter months, you might want to stay away from the “cooling” teas that remove “heatiness“ and stick with teas that have cinnamon or ginger. Bottled drinks do have more sugar but Ma reminds us that it’s the total amount of sugar you consume everyday that could affect your health, so whether you go for bottled or fresh, keep an eye on your overall sugar intake. Smoking Hot According to traditional Chinese medicinal beliefs, there are many ways in which too much “heat” can accumulate in the body, such as strong winds and dry, hot, or cold weather. In Hong Kong’s tropical climate, the humidity is a huge environmental factor and “heatiness” is the most common health complaint. Stress and bad eating habits can also contribute, especially if you have a lot of coffee, seafood or spicy food. If you want to reduce this condition, traditional medicine practitioners recommend green vegetables and fruits such as pears and bananas (but not heavily citrus fruits such as pineapples and oranges). If you go for a herbal tea, look for ones with ingredients such as chrysanthemum, Canton Love-pes Vine, ginseng or momordica fruit. Self-medicating When diagnosing patients, Liu says traditional doctors take a holistic approach by using four methods: examining the patient’s appearance, enquiring about their medical history, using the doctor’s own sense of smell and taking the patient’s pulse. Or one of the simplest ways in traditional medicine to tell if you’re in normal health is by looking at your tongue. Obviously, if you’re not feeling well, quit staring at your tongue and consult a doctor. But if your tongue is... Yellow - This means you have a little too much “heat” in your body. You might be feeling constantly thirsty and dehydrated. It can also be a sign of “wetness,” a condition where body fluids congest in the body. Red - It’s a sign of more serious “heatiness“ and you’re probably feeling a little sick, so what are you waiting for? Go balance that yin with your yang already. Pink - Good job, you’re most likely in good health. A pink tongue is a sign of neutral and normal health.