The 10 Healthiest Chinese Drinks — Common Natural/Herbal TCM Drinks in China

Health drinks and organic herbal drinks are getting more popular in the West. See what Chinese have been drinking for good health for centuries.

Here are the top 10 natural and traditional herbal drinks you'll find in China that are the healthiest for you.

1. Green Tea (绿茶 lǜchá)

green teaGreen tea ready for steeping.

Other than water, green tea is the most commonly drunk beverage in China. Chinese produce more green tea than any other kind of tea (black, red, green, white). About 80% of the world's green tea is grown in China.

Green tea is generally the least processed form of tea. Green teas are generally simply dried green tea leaves.

Green Tea Varieties

There is an array of green tea choices that might bewilder you at first, but you can use your trip to China to explore. For example, gunpowder tea is a very strong tasting kind with a lot of "bang" that gives a caffeine-like rush. Some teas are expensive and some only costs 3 dollars a kilo in a tea-growing region.

There are also many herbal flavored varieties such as jasmine tea (mòlihuā 茉莉花). These flower teas are simply the dried leaves mixed with dried flowers or herbal juices/oils. More about Tea Varieties.

  • Pronunciation: /lyoo-chaa/
  • Usage: It is easy to brew it. Just drop green tea in a pot, flush off dust and harmful chemicals, and refill the container with boiled water between 7090°C (158193°F). Read more about making green tea.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: Green teas are the highest in various flavonoids that neutralize free radicals and also help to heal or prevent various types of cancer, heart disease and the deterioration of the body.

The more processed the tea leaves, usually the less flavonoids content. In a report released by the American USDA, in a 200-ml cup of tea, the average total content of flavonoids is 266.68 mg for green tea compared to 233.12 mg for oxidized (red) tea.

Studies have shown that three cups or more a day of tea is necessary to have much of an effect for curing or preventing disease. An increase of one cup of green tea per day is linked with a 4% lower risk of death from any cause.

Warnings/side effects: None. Take care about brewing times and temperature. Depending on the variety, if the water is too hot, it destroys the beneficial chemicals and the flavor, and if it is too cool, it doesn't brew correctly. It is something you learn by doing.

2. Soybean drinks (豆浆 dòujiāng)

soy milkSome doujiang actually looks like milk.

Soy drinks (most types can be called soy milk) are made from soy beans and other ingredients, usually sugar and salt at least. It is a traditional drink in China and has been drunk for centuries. For many people, it is a daily staple.

Compared to just 20 years ago, soy drinks have grown fancier. It was once a poor drink suitable for peasants to enjoy daily in the morning, but now the Chinese have invented hundreds of varieties, using various kinds of beans to mix in with soybeans, various herbs, fruits, vitamins, flavors, etc.

  • Pronunciation: /doh-jyang/
  • Where to buy it: You might like to try Vitasoy that is perhaps the most popular brand of commercial bottled soymilk and that tastes quite good cold. It is available along with sodas in most stores.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: Soybeans have long been a meat and dairy substitute for Chinese, and they are high in protein and minerals. Good soy milk can lower the risk of high cholesterol, blood pressure, angina and circulations problems, cancer, and obesity. It contains saturated, monounsaturated, and polyunsaturated fatty acids.

Soy isoflavones may help in maintaining estrogen levels in menopausal women and prevent osteoporosis.

Warnings/side effects: There is some concern that the estrogen-like effect of soy products is detrimental for men. China does not allow the cultivation of GMO soybeans, so drinking Chinese-made soy products is better for your health and avoids the health issues of GMO soybeans.

3. Chrysanthemum Teas (菊花 júhuā)

Chrysanthemum teaChrysanthemum tea

You'd probably be surprised when this is first served to you. There are pretty flowers in the pot! Are you supposed to drink it? It is usually served with sugar added so it is sweet.

It is often given around Chinese New Year as a holiday drink or something to help ward off fevers and sniffles in Guangdong, and it is also widely served around China as a summer drink to cool off. It shouldn't be drunk everyday.

  • Pronunciation: /jyoo-hwah/
  • Where to get it: You can order it at many restaurants. There are commercial brands available, but they are not as good as natural freshly made tea.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: In Chinese culinary medicine, it considered a low yin herb that cools people down and makes them relax. So it is served when the weather is hot. It is a strong antibiotic, so it can help cure or prevent angina, high blood pressure, diabetes, fevers, colds, headache, dizziness, bad breath, and swelling. It can also help lower blood pressure and cure heat rash.

It is also used to cure eye problems such as blurry vision. A popular drink for improving eyesight is chrysanthemum and goji berry tea. Read more about goji berries.

Warnings/side effects: If you are allergic to flowers such as ragweed, marigolds or daisies, you'll probably be allergic to this flower also. Pregnant women should avoid it. As with all herbs new to you, drink a little at first and see how your body reacts to it.

4. Milk Teas (奶茶 nǎichá)

very tapioca milk teaBubble tea: milk tea and tapioca balls

Milk teas are very popular now especially since Bubble Tea was introduced from Taiwan in the last 20 years. In fact, milk and milk products such as cheese and pizza are all very popular now. This is a big change from even 20 years ago.

Though long loved by Tibetans and Indians, Chinese traditionally drank little milk. Then in the last century, milk tea became a standard drink in Hong Kong.

Now milk teas and milk, fruit, and tea beverages are very popular

  • Pronunciation: /neye-chah/
  • Where to get it: You can find it stores and convenience stores in cartons and bottles. Store fronts, kiosks, and stands often sell it freshly made.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: Milk tea is usually made from Chinese red teas, so you get the benefit of tea plus the benefit of milk. The tea actually helps people digest the milk.

Warnings/side effects: None.

5. Wang Lao Ji (王老吉 Wánglǎojí)

wanglaoji drinkWanglaoji carton

Many stalls in China sell homemade "cooling tea," herbal tea brews with various formulas especially on hot days. China's popular Wang Lao Ji brand of this kind of drink comes in cans and cartons, and is sold everywhere along with soda pop and is available all year long. It is more popular than Coke or Pepsi.

Wanglaoji looks and tastes sort of like a non-carbonated root beer and strangely like luohanguo below. It is popular in the summer as a cooling drink since it has yin cooling herbs such as chrysanthemum flowers, heal-all herb, and licorice.

  • Pronunciation: /wung-laoww-jee/
  • How to buy it: You can just buy it in little cartons or red cans, or order it at restaurants. It is a favorite drink for people eating food full of chili pepper, since it cools people down and soothes the tongue quite well.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: It contains healthy herbs such as heal-all (woundwort). It is antiviral and lowers blood pressure and helps reduce fever.

Warnings/side effects: None known. It contains a lot of sugar.

6. Osmanthus Tea (桂花 guìhuā)

cassia flowersThe little yellow flowers of the cassia tree taste like cinnamon too.

This is a favorite tea in southern China, and especially in Guilin — the city name is translated 'Osmanthus Forest'. You can find osmanthus teas sold in stores or tea shops, and you can also buy the osmanthus flowers loose to add to teas yourself.

Osmanthus is used to make one of China's most popular summer drinks, called guihua suanmei tang (桂花酸梅湯 'osmanthus flower sour plum soup') that is used like Wang Lao Ji for hot summer days.

  • Pronunciation: /gway-hwah/
  • How to find it: Osmanthus is available in big supermarkets in their loose herb section, and in Chinese medicine stores you can almost find on every block. Osmanthus tea is popular around Guilin and Guangxi.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: Osmanthus has a soothing effect that makes it good for after dinner and before sleep.

Warnings/side effects: Don't drink too much osmanthus tea at first to see how your body reacts to it. If you want to brew it yourself, use only a little (a teaspoon or less) for flavoring.

7. Ginseng Tea (人参 rénshēn)

ginseng rootsGinseng roots

This is a favorite herb for older people in China and is in high demand. It is thought to promote longevity, be effective for anti-aging, increase intelligence, and help people think. Nowadays, American ginseng is widely sold along with Asian Ginseng in stores and traditional medicine stores everywhere.

  • Pronunciation: /rnn-shnn/
  • Usage: Ginseng is one of the most prominently displayed herbs in most Chinese traditional medicine stores. You'll be surprised at the high prices. Be careful about fake or adulterated ginseng. People have found mercury residue in it. It is available in packets to make cups of tea and as whole roots.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: American ginseng and Panax ginseng (True Ginseng) differ somewhat. Both help people recover from stress and deal with stress, and studies have shown that taking Panax ginseng helps people with Alzheimer's.

Warnings/side effects: Don't drink too much ginseng tea at first to see how your body reacts to it. It is thought it is so high in yang that it isn't suitable for daily consumption. Taking too much at one time or daily use over a long period causes symptoms ranging from insomnia to a racing heartbeat. Be careful about ingesting caffeine or other stimulants with ginseng, and Warfarin users should better avoid it.

8. Ginger Tea (姜 jiāng)

ginger rootsGinger root

Ginger is one of the Top 10 Most Common Herbs and Spices Used to Flavor Chinese Food, and ginger tea is a popular cold remedy in China.

  • Pronunciation: /jyang/
  • Usage: You can find ginger in all markets/supermarkets. Wash it and boil it to make a tea. You can also juice a few ounces perhaps with lemon to make an invigorating drink.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: Many people boil ginger to make a tea that helps people recover from flus and strengthens the body (often mixed with blocks of brown sugar). It is high in yang and phytochemicals for antioxidant and anti-mutagenic uses.

Warnings/side effects: None.

9. Monk Fruit Tea (罗汉果 luóhànguǒ)

luohanguoLuohanguo is cheap. About 2 RMB per fruit. One makes enough for a group of 10 to enjoy.

Monk fruit is used to brew a variety of different kinds of teas and drinks. It is quite delicious and sweet if simply steeped in hot water by itself, and the brown brew looks and tastes somewhat like a root beer or a cola.

It is dried before being sold, and the dry pith inside the thin greenish brown egg-like shell tastes as sweet as sugar, so it is used to sweeten beverages and food. It does contain fructose, but the main reason it is so sweet is that there is a natural substance called glycosides. Glycosides taste 300 times sweeter than sucrose or table sugar.

  • Pronunciation: /lwor-han-gwor/
  • How to find it: It is sold along with other herbs in most supermarkets and stores.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: It grows in the south of China, and a favorite hot brew for the onset of cold weather in Guilin and Nanning to ward off sickness is made from chrysanthemum, monk fruit, and green tea or just chrysanthemum and monk fruit. It helps people when they have the sniffles, flus, sore throat, and fevers and is thought to strengthen people when the weather changes.

It is sometimes called "longevity fruit." It supports the immune system and is an antioxidant. It can ward off or heal many diseases such as allergies and cancer. Monk fruit extract was shown in animal studies to decrease blood sugar and cholesterol levels and improve liver function. In addition, it increased the HDL (“good” cholesterol). This is related to its ability to prevent heart disease and strokes and improve the circulation.

It is especially useful for diabetics as a sugar substitute. It is a fruit that is high in many useful elements and beneficial fatty acids of various kinds as well as vitamin C.

Warnings/side effects: If you are new to drinking monk fruit, drink a little, about a glass, at first to see how your body reacts to it. See how you feel hours later. But if you find it makes you feel tired or as if you are having an energy rush, than be careful. It is a drink your body can adapt to over time, but drinking too much might cause your heart to race. Also, avoid drinking a lot of it repeatedly every day.

10. Pu'er (普洱茶 pu'erchá) and Other Fermented Black Teas (黑茶 hēichá)

Pu'er teaBig good quality pu'er bricks like this can cost 1,000s of dollars.

One of the confusing things about Chinese teas is that what we call "black tea", Chinese call "red tea" (红茶 hóngchá), and what they call "black tea",  Westerners have rarely drunk. The general difference is that Chinese red teas are oxidized (the kind of teas usually drunk in the West), and Chinese black teas are fermented. This is a big difference, and leads us to the last of this list of common and healthiest drinks.

If you've never drunk good-quality pu'er tea or related teas, you are in for a surprise. It is mood altering, relaxing. You can feel the stress draining away a short while after you drink it. The reason seems to be that the microbes that ferment the teas leave behind beneficial, slightly sedating and healthful chemicals. These microbes include different kinds of molds such as Penicillium (common bread mold), various kinds of yeasts, and a wide range of other microflora.

Try it when you are in Yunnan or Tibet. Pu'er is a product of Yunnan and is drunk widely there. Tibetans both in Tibet and elsewhere in China mix it with yak or cow milk and/or butter.

  • Pronunciation: /poo-urr-chah/
  • Usage: Pu'er tea is sold in tea shops all over China, and served in restaurants. You can brew it yourself in the same way as you'd brew green tea, but use boiling water instead of cooler water and keep refilling the cup. It tastes better after the first cup.

Health Benefits and Warnings / Side Effects

Health benefits: In the same way as for making cheese, the microbes work on the tea leaves, consume some sugar and add probiotics, B vitamins, and healthful chemical compounds.

There are two types of pu'er tea. The more prized and expensive are the traditional naturally aged ones that sits for years to ripen for its full health benefits. The other is a quickly composted variety that is high in caffeine and gallic acid.

Traditionally aged pu'er has higher levels of the antioxidants and anti-carcinogen epigallocatechin gallate and other healthful chemical compounds. It is higher in beneficial compounds than black tea and composted pu'er, so try to get the better variety.

One animal study showed that animals given pu'er had less weight gain and reduced LDL cholesterol.

Warnings/side effects: None, for regular pu'er, but the cheapest pu'er such as they they might drink in Tibet is high in fluoride and bad for your health if drunk for long periods of time. Take care about brewing times and temperature.

Intrigued? Curious? Thirsty? Have a Food Tour Adventure!

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To try these drinks and more in China, let us know when you book your tour, and we'll help you find the best natural beverages for you. Are there some specific drinks you want to try from this list? We can customize your itinerary accordingly, just contact us to start planning your trip.

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