Yaupon vs. tea – What are the differences and similarities?

Guest piece by Bryon White, joint CEO and co-founder of Yaupon Brothers American Tea Co.

In America, the term “tea” is often applied to virtually any infusion of herbal plant material and water, regardless of whether or not that plant material is actually derived from the tea plant. For the sake of convenience, this article will consider “tea” as being derived from the tea plant, (Camellia sinensis). 

While we market our organic Yaupon Holly as a tea, it is not actually tea. The tea plant, (Camellia sinensis), is a separate plant species that originated in China. Tea is now grown all over the world, but it is difficult or impossible to grow in most parts of the United States. 

Yaupon, on the other hand, is native to the United States from Texas to Florida and on to Virginia. Like the tea plant, Yaupon naturally contains caffeine in its leaves. It is the only caffeinated plant species native to the United States. Yaupon has been consumed as a food, medicine, and ceremonial item by indigenous people for at least 8,000 years. 

pouring tea into a glass

Tea and Yaupon have many similarities, and here are a few:

Caffeine: Yaupon and tea both naturally contain caffeine, and the amount in both can be variable. Our organic Yaupon contains around 60mg of caffeine per cup, while black tea contains 50-90mg. 

Antioxidants: Yaupon and tea are both rich in antioxidants and phytochemicals. Polyphenols are plentiful in both, which have been linked to reductions in cancer risk. Additional research is still needed on the antioxidant capacity of both tea and Yaupon, but more research has been completed on tea. 

Cultural Significance: Both tea and Yaupon have deep cultural significance in their lands of origin, however Yaupon seems to have been consumed far longer than tea. Tea consumption likely began in southwest China around 4,040 years ago. Yaupon leaves and residue have been found in burial sites in Florida that are around 8,000 years old. It is possible that Yaupon has been consumed by indigenous people in North America for 10,000 years. 

The legend of tea’s origin is that an emperor of ancient China, Shen Nong, accidentally discovered tea when some leaves blew into a bowl of water that had been boiled for him. This is alleged to have occurred around 2737 BC. Since that time, tea has been a staple beverage in Asian culture. It has also been used as a curative and status symbol. 

Yaupon had a more pronounced role in indigenous cultures in what is now the Southeast United States. In Florida, the Timucua people revered the plant for its energizing and purifying properties. They called it Cassina, and they developed from it an elaborate purification ritual which sometimes involved purging to remove impurities. Despite the ritual purging, Yaupon has no emetic properties. The Timucua also drank it on a regular basis like we drink tea and coffee today. The Mvskoke people had similar rituals and they referred to Yaupon as Asi. The Mvskoke believed that Yaupon was a gift from the deity, Yahola, who had special sovereignty over the curing of illnesses. Yahola was also considered to have provided the use of fire and medicinal plants to the Mvskoke. 

person spreading out yaupon leaves

After European colonization took hold, most indigenous cultures became extinct due to disease, famine, and genocide. The use of Yaupon waned with them, but the Europeans did consume it also; especially the Spanish, who developed a penchant for its caffeine and called it “more of a vice in New Spain than chocolate.” A Spanish friar wrote in a letter that “any Spaniard who does not drink it in the morning or evening feels as if he is going to die.” Sounds like me in the morning without my Yaupon!

Although there are some additional similarities between Yaupon and tea, we’ll move on to the differences.

Caffeine & Other Stimulants: Tea and Yaupon both contain the stimulants theobromine, caffeine, and theophylline. However, Yaupon structures these alkaloids differently, and seems to offer a higher ratio of theobromine to caffeine than tea. The resulting “buzz” is thought to produce a more jitter-free energy boost. Caffeine is also highly variable in Yaupon. The content can be very low in some plants, and high in others. Putting nitrogen in the soil can increase caffeine content in Yaupon by as much as 200%, according to a UF study. 

Carbon Footprint: Tea, (Camellia sinensis), does not grow easily in most places in the United States. As a result, the vast majority of tea is imported into the USA from Asia, over 250,000 tons every year. This tea has to be moved on giant ships for 8,000 miles or more, resulting in a large carbon footprint. Conversely, Yaupon is the tea from here. Yaupon is endemic to the southeast USA, meaning that it does not grow anywhere else. All of the available Yaupon comes from the United States, resulting in a carbon-neutral or near-neutral cuppa. 

Environmental Concerns: Yaupon does not require inputs. No fertilizer, pesticide, and little irrigation is required. By comparison, every cup of tea you drink requires about 27 liters of water to produce. A large amount of fertilizer is also used on tea plantations, while Yaupon requires virtually none. Yaupon Brothers is 100% grown in Florida and 100% certified organic. This means no junk, GMO’s or nasty chemicals, ever. 

Human Element: Tea production occurs mainly in third-world countries where wages are low, work conditions are poor, and there is often exploitation and mistreatment of the workers used to pick tea. In India, the minimum daily wage for a worker at a tea plantation is 169 Rupees, or about $2.46. By contrast a Yaupon harvester in America can make 100 times that amount in one day, resulting in a dignified living wage for American workers. 

Taste & Preparation, (Tannin): Yaupon and tea can have similar tastes, but Yaupon tends to be far less bitter because it has little to no tannin. Tannin causes tea to become bitter with oversteeping, but Yaupon’s low to no tannin content means you can steep it over and over again without the Yaupon becoming bitter. Yaupon is also not known to contain oxalates, which tea can contain in large amounts. Oxalates have been linked to kidney stones and other health problems. Yaupon doesn’t have it!

The fundamental difference between tea and Yaupon is that Yaupon is grown, harvested, processed, and packaged here in the United States. The supply chain is transparent and organic, and grown right here in the USA. We’ve tried to build a new American tea option that can provide you with all the benefits of tea, with none of the drawbacks. Yaupon is a different leaf, but a better tea. We hope you’ll agree!

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