Assessing Terminology: What is 'Functional' Tea?

Assessing Terminology: What is 'Functional' Tea?

What is a "functional" tea?: Untangling the terminology of Wellness vs Function

There is a new buzz word in the world of tea. Can you guess what it is??

It’s a surprisingly bland word: functional. I’ve been noting its rise in usage over the past few years in the tea industry, and until recently, I had mostly ignored it because it seems redundant (more on this later). But, while the word itself may lack both mellifluousness and poignancy, I think it signals something both positive and interesting in the world of tea and health trends, overall. 

It’s important to be curious, so let’s be curious together by asking a few basic questions: first, what does “functional” attempt to convey as a tea descriptor, and why choose the word “functional” over other possibilities? Second, does its usage point to something inherently new being offered in the tea world? Or, does “functional” simply attempt to redefine and repackage something old in an attempt to make it sound more relevant and new?

To be honest, I think the answer lies more heavily on the side of redefinition; yet, I also note that the word “functional” may signal a collective movement toward a more authentic (and traditional) engagement with health and healing in general.

Let’s start with the first question: what does “functional” mean in the context of tea, and why use this word over other options?

A “functional” tea is a tea or tisane with noted health benefits, typically due to the use of botanicals in that tea or tisane. Aaaand, I’m afraid that’s it! This is what functional tea refer to. I expect you’re noting how similar this sounds to the moniker “wellness” that has, until recently, been used to describe and categorize teas/tisanes with health benefits. 

So, is it really that simple? Functional = Wellness? We’re just swapping one term for the other?


In fairness, there are some interesting nuances we should try to tease out, here—which brings us to the second part of the question: why functional?

I think the answer is fairly simple here, too: “Wellness” has become an all-encompassing umbrella term to denote anything that is essentially good for you, intentionally or unintentionally. The word “functional” attempts to draw that radius back in, and to center it on, I think, intentionality and expertise

The word “functional” harkens to “Functional medicine”—a rapidly growing area of medical practice that seeks, perhaps more than any other branch of western medicine to date, to bridge traditional/alternative/holistic health concepts and practices with standard allopathic care. Functional Medicine is practiced by M.D.s, but is unique in that it seeks to find and heal the root cause of disease, rather than focus on symptomology.

Functional medicine is attractive to mainstream American culture because it acknowledges and utilizes the basic principles of Traditional, holistic health systems (like Traditional Western Herbalism, Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda, etc.), which are to seek out and heal the underlying causes of disease, and use herbs, diet, vitamin and mineral supplements, and lifestyle changes to help heal these imbalances. The difference is that in the case of Functional medicine, these holistic practices are being systematized and utilized within the broader umbrella of Western medicine—which in essence means herbalism and some traditional alternative health practices are, generally speaking, being re-legitimized by Functional (Western) medicine. 

The historical relationship between herbalism and western medicine is a long, and mostly unsavory one, unfortunately. I’m not interested in delving into that here, beyond an acknowledgement that Western medicine has, for the past 150+ yrs., worked very hard to de-legitimize the practice of herbalism and plant medicine. This is why I mentioned earlier that the adoption of the world “functional,” when it comes to herbal teas, is a primarily positive evolution. It signals that mainstream American culture is that much closer to acknowledging the value and potency of traditional herbalism and whole plant medicine. 

So, the question remains: do functional teas offer us anything different or new?

Here’s how I see it: 

  1. A functional tea distinguishes itself from an “herbal” tea/tisane in that an herbal blend simply means it uses fruit and/or botanicals. “Functional” goes further, denoting that a tea using herbs/fruits has health benefits.

  2. A “wellness” tea is any tea/tisane that is aware that it has health benefits. It may or may not go into further detail about the nuances of those health benefits.

  3. A functional tea is perhaps more aware of its specific health properties, and perhaps more conscious in its formulation for health benefits. I also think it wishes to align itself with Functional medicine in an attempt to further legitimize its health claims.

  4. I would say a “functional” tea is another way of saying “medicinal” tea, though a medicinal tea is not a therapeutic tea. (Therapeutic doses are potent, and only used in clinical settings).

  5. Few if any teas on the market, medicinal, functional, herbal, or otherwise, are blended at doses that would be regarded as “therapeutic” by herbal health practitioners.

You may wonder where Artemis is positioned in all of this, and thankfully, that’s an easy question to answer. 

At its heart, Artemis is rooted in the principles of both Traditional Western Herbalism and Traditional Chinese Medicine. We believe in holistic health principles that emphasize healing the whole person. And, while there are always important similarities, cross-overs, and over-arching patterns to medical diagnosis, prognosis, and treatment, we believe that the healing path for each individual is unique, and requires an individualized approach. In this, we are aligned with the tenants of Functional medicine.

Our blends are consciously medicinal (not therapeutic), they are functional, and they are considered ‘wellness’ teas because they focus on the nuances of healing every bit as much as they focus on principles of comfort, inspiration, and taste.

For us to say our teas are “functional”—while true—seems a bit redundant. Nevertheless, if you see us adopt a slash category: functional/wellness — at least now you’ll know why!

Copyright © 2024, Andrea Lawse. All Rights Reserved.

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