Micronutrients

Tuesday afternoon I went with some co-workers on a tour of the local Hy-Vee supermarket. It was part of a program sponsored by our department’s healthy committee, a follow-up to a session about using the Nu-Val scores diplayed on many shelves at the store. Nancy, the Hy-Vee dietitian, asked us about our particular concerns regarding health and food, then guided us through certain aisles, pointing out foods that were particularly healthy and convenient.

I didn’t see much that was new to me. After all, I’ve spent a good deal of time on my own checking Nu-Val scores, comparing ingredients lists, and looking for healthy foods I have trouble finding at other local stores. (I go to Hy-Vee for my tahini, chia seeds, and blackstrap molasses.) The PB2 looked somewhat interesting, but I wasn’t ready to spend over $4 for a jar to try it.

What really surprised me, though, was when we were walking down the breakfast cereal aisle, with coffee and tea on the shelves opposite the cereal. Nancy gestured at the array of tea in many different flavors. She talked about the health benefits of drinking any kind of tea – black, green, or white, hot or iced. But, she pointed out, the herbal teas next to them “have no nutritional value.”

Herbal tea without value? That went contrary to what I thought I knew about herbal tea for as long as I can remember. My mother considered herb tea the only kind worth drinking, and over the years I’ve read about the health benefits of various herbs and fruits that are used in herb teas. I suppose it’s possible for something to have health benefits without having nutrients (water, for instance, is essential for health but I don’t think it’s considered a nutrient).

But the healthful components Nancy was talking about in tea are phytochemicals, found in virtually all plants. They’re one reason fruits and vegetables are so good for us (besides the vitamins, minerals, and fiber). Why should the leaves of the tea plant (Camellia sinensis) be the only ones that also give us phytochemicals when steeped in hot water?

According to this web page, herb teas do contain phytochemicals, in some cases a great deal. It also points out, however, that not a lot of research has been done in this area due to lack of funding. Elsewhere, I read that while herbal teas no doubt do contain phytochemicals, whether they help or hurt one’s health depends on the plants they are made from.

So are phytochemicals nutrients? According to this page, they are “non-nutritive plant chemicals that have protective or disease preventive properties.” But they are considered micronutrients, which are “nutrients that don’t contain calories, but have other essential roles,” and are needed only in tiny amounts. Vitamins and minerals are also consider micronutrients.

So as far as I’m concerned, both tea and herbal tea are non-nutritive if you’re thinking in terms of macronutrients. But they’re full of micronutrients – so I made sure I had a cup of tea when I got thirsty this afternoon.

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