Tea is credited with lowering cholesterol, protecting bones, bolstering the body's immune defenses, and accelerating metabolism.

Not only that, it reportedly softens your skin, adds shine to your hair, soothes tired feet and eyes, cures minor rashes and bug bites, and can be useful as a garden fertilizer.

Add it when you're cooking to enhance the flavor of rice or poached fish. Tea can even be used in fortune-telling.

But tea is perhaps best as a beverage, and tea-drinking is definitely on the rise in this country, with 55 billion cups served in 2007, the 16th year consumption has increased.

Only a taste will tell if you agree with the experts who insist that loose leaves make a far superior cup of tea.

But if you're thinking of making the switch from bagged to loose, here is a greatly abbreviated primer from the Tea Association of the U.S. (teausa.com), a Manhattan-based industry group.

Health benefits.

The "it's-good-for-you" approach doesn't always work when getting people to explore new tastes, but the Tea Association says the number of scientific studies showing tea's health properties has increased from three to more than 900 in the last 20 years.

Peggy Stephens, who runs Premium Steap on South 18th Street in Center City, says she suspects the health benefits may be overrated, but the relaxation factor is not.

Types, varieties, sources.

Tea comes in basic black, oolong, green and white, and stems, so to speak, from one plant,

Camellia sinensis

, which is grown throughout the world but particularly thrives in Asia.

(Herbal tea is not from that plant. It is a mix of leaves, roots, bark, seeds or flowers. And while research exists about the benefits of herbs, that's different from the research on traditional teas. And "red tea" or rooibos is an herbal tea from the African red bush plant.)

Like wines, teas can be said to have terroir, distinctive tastes determined by geography.

The four basic types are differentiated by how the fresh-picked leaves are fermented or oxygenated. Green tea, for example, is not oxidized at all; black oxidizes for two to four hours; oolong falls somewhere in the middle; and white, which is made from the unopened leaves of the plant, is the least processed type of tea.

From those four come thousands of varieties. Darjeeling is a black tea grown in the Himalayan Mountains in northern India; English Breakfast starts with black Keemun leaves from China, to which leaves from Ceylon and India are generally added.

Price.

Making loose tea at home is cheaper than using tea bags and cheaper than making coffee. A four-ounce tin of specialty estate-grown tea leaves may sell for upward of $10 to $15, but the single heaping teaspoon needed to make a six- or eight-ounce cup puts the price at 15 to 30 cents a cup.

Caffeine.

Your basic eight-ounce cuppa joe will have 60 to 120 mg of caffeine, versus 15 to 45 mg per cup of tea. You don't get the same buzz from tea as from coffee because the caffeine in tea is absorbed into the bloodstream slowly.

Cooking with tea.

Add brewed tea to the water when steaming vegetables or poaching fish. When making rice, brewed tea can be added to or used instead of the cooking water. Use dry tea leaves as a salad topping and brewed tea in salad dressings. Add loose tea to other spices to make a rub for meats or poultry.

Ditching the old bags.

Once you get hooked on loose tea, you may be tempted to toss the box of tea bags that's been in your cupboard for forever. Instead, try this tip for refreshing your eyes at the end of a long day or diminishing the appearance of bags under eyes: Dampen the tea bags in cool water and squeeze out the excess water; lie down with your eyes closed and the tea bags over your lids for five minutes.

But be advised: Only loose leaves work in fortune-telling.