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Would you like some sugar in your tea? Or a little tea in your sugar?

Here’s a simple thought exercise. Imagine a standard cup of fresh brewed tea, with a sugar bowl beside it. Pick up the spoon and start adding sugar. One spoonful, two, three, four, five. Don’t stop. Six, seven, eight, nine, ten. Done.

Your imaginary tea now contains the average amount of sugar in a cup equivalent of bottled tea, iced tea, packaged chai and bubble tea, all of which are high growth segments in the beverage market. Read the ingredients. They will almost all list the sugar content per cup as around 45 grams. One teaspoon is approximately 4.2 grams.

The (RDA) Recommended Daily Allowance for sugar is 25 grams for women and 36 for men – 6 and 8 spoonfuls. The average daily consumption in the US is 80 grams (20 spoons) and over 100 for 70% of the population (24). The figures for children are fifty percent higher, with sweetened sodas the main explanation (again, averaging 45 grams).

Much of this comes from processed foods; low sodium often means high -ose: fructose, dextrose, sucrose, lactose plus the ubiquitous corn syrup. These added sugars have zero nutritional value.

More consequentially, research points to sugar as a major correlate of diabetes. This doesn’t seem to be a direct cause and effect relationship; the main risk factor seems to be weight. That said, excessive consumption of sugar is well recorded as overloading the body’s ability to break down the -oses and keep blood sugar levels in balance.

Which brings us to tea. It really doesn’t make any sense to add more sugar to your diet. Especially heaping ten spoonfuls into your tea. Or worse, not knowing that that’s how much is in it. There is suggestive but limited evidence in scattered studies that tea guards against diabetes but regardless of that, if you are drinking tea you are not drinking a sugar-saturated soda. If you are drinking just tea.

Which brings us to chais. They illustrate the sugar trap. There’s a strong case to be made that chai will be one of the most popular and healthy beverages in the world in coming years. A stronger prediction is that chai latte will be even more popular and an escalating health hazard. The same applies to green RTD – Ready to Drink – teas. It will be a high growth sector, driven by marketing of green tea as a preventative and curative and as a substitute for sodas. It will also be a high medical bill generator.

There’s no contradiction here. It’s all in the ingredients label.

At their best, chais are increasingly appealing and full of intriguing spices that offer combinations of sweetness, sharpness, astringency and mellowness, but too many branded vanilla chais, classic chais and chai lattes either don’t clearly list just what their “sweeteners” are or glide over the figures. One indicator of this is that many show the ingredients for a serving of just ½ a cup; 24 grams of sugar is more disarming, obviously, even though it’s intentionally misleading. Have you ever served or asked for half a cup of tea?

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Tea with milk and sugar: an old debate

The questions about should you/shouldn’t you add milk and sugar to tea date back well over a century to the days when tea was black, heavy, often bitter and mostly from Assam and Ceylon (Now Sri Lanka). Milk softened it and sugar offset the harshness. It’s still a matter of choice, though most tea lovers prefer their tea as just tea.

There are many tea cultures where sugar really does add to the experience: instances are Turkish, Russian and Moroccan. But again, it’s not 45 grams a cup. Even for the British and Irish (the second largest tea drinking nation per capita, way more than the English), the question was always “One spoon or two?” Not ten. Turkey has the highest rate of tea consumption in the world; two sugar cubes is typical.

The reference base for sugar and tea is, of course, Britain. It was one of the last countries in Western Europe to import tea – a century after the Portuguese and fifty years later than the Dutch. But it was first in sugar. That needs rephrasing. It was the first society to become addicted to sugar.

A little publicized element of British history is the very close diplomatic, military and trading links Elizabeth I built with the “heathen” Ottoman Sultan of Morocco in efforts to build an anti-Spanish alliance. As the bastion of Protestant Christianity, taking the side of an Islamic power against Catholic Spain wasn’t highlighted in official narratives.

The unofficial evidence is ample: Shakespeare’s plays are packed with references to sugar, Elizabeth’s blackened teeth were a notorious indicator of her intense addiction, and trade figures show the quid pro quo deal of Moroccan sugar for English saltpeter, a key ingredient in making gunpowder, naval timbers, and metal gunnery – arms for sweets.

By the mid-1700s, Britain could aptly have been termed Fructosia. Through to modern times, it led the world in consumption of chocolate and sweets. Its colonial growth and the corresponding wealth and political patterns that created the 18th century equivalent of Silicon Valley zillionaires were built on sugar and the slavery it depended on. That applies to the US colonies, too. The first British settlement was Jamestown in 1607. By 1619, slavery and sugar trading were well-established, linking to the growing Caribbean sugar plantations.

Sugar consumption grew from 4 pounds per capita in 1700, to 18 in 1800, and 90 in 1900. It’s leveled off at around 120 lbs. The US started later and caught up. It now is generally reported as averaging 130 lbs. In all countries where data is available, there is a near perfect correlation between sugar and diabetes. In the past four decades, the graph for deaths from diabetes is almost vertical.

In countries that average less than 15 grams of sugar a day (India, China, Indonesia, Israel and Morocco rank lowest) diabetes rates are under 5%. The US is currently at a level where 10% of the adult population have been diagnosed with diabetes, around the same are undiagnosed, and around half have pre-diabetes symptoms, projected to produce an overall mid-life projection of 35% of people with the disease.

Sugar is (1) a universal human addiction, (2) far too high a fraction of calorie intake, and (3) one of the main avoidable health hazards. It is also (4) not an intrinsic ingredient of tea but something added to it.

If you choose to add a spoonful or two to your morning tea, that is your choice and more a matter of losing some of the subtle flavors and aromas of tea than of health. But that is not the case when the tea comes pre-loaded without your being aware of it. Many tea drinkers are cautious about caffeine, but cavalier about sugar.

Chai: the best of tea times, and sometimes the worst

A really terrific masala chai contains some of the spices that have made Indian cuisine scientifically unique as the most flavorful in the world. Studies show that it has more taste combinations than any other food culture with fewer overlapping flavors. Here’s the Washington Post summary:

“In Western cuisines, ingredients are usually paired together for their similar flavors. However, an average Indian dish includes at least seven ingredients, most of which do not contain overlapping flavors. Cayenne, green bell pepper, coriander and garam masala are usually paired with ingredients that have no chemical overlap, but each ingredient brings a unique component when incorporated into the final meal. This creates knockout dishes for a cuisine that uses approximately 200 of the estimated 381 ingredients known in the world.”

“Chai” is Hindi for tea, so chai tea is a redundancy. “Masala” chai is spiced chai. It became the household drink and street vendor – chaiwallah – fare of India largely because of the shift from the hand processed whole leaf that formed the export base of Indian tea, with very little domestic consumption, to the lower cost CTC – Cut, Tear, Curl – method of production: essentially machine mulching. The CTC is the base for tea bags and for chai; a harsher, fast brewing and cheap commodity to which flavorings can easily be added. As with tea bags, low-end chais are… Well, like low-end tea bags but with lots of boiled milk.

The gap between fine chai and just chai is as wide as that between whole leaf Artisan and Earl Grim or Green Mystery Dust tea bags. With whole leaf, the basic rule is to do no damage: no damage to the leaf, its complex chemical interactions in nursing it from bush to cup, or its purity. The less that is added, the better.

Chais rely on the reverse: adding to it augments the base black tea, and enables the molecular chemical complexities highlighted by the Washington Post.

The main spices are cardamom, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, mace, nutmeg and pepper. Others included are fennel, lemongrass, saffron and even ajwain, also known as Bishop’s weed, a pungent and bitter herb that has been used in Ayuverdic medicine for millennia.    

In the hands of a skilled blender, these spices can be combined to create the equivalent of gourmet variations on, say, a staple pasta or fish dish. You savor the subtleties and creative surprises.

In practice, the blending for the mass market chai brands seems targeted to attracting coffee drinkers, with sweetness a temptation. For iced teas, bottled teas and bubble tea, it’s more a matter of disguise then allure. The base tea ingredient is at the low-end of quality, flavor and aroma; so, the obvious solution is sweeten it.

Here’s a collage of nutrition labels for chais plus a raspberry iced tea. Of course, there are many others that don’t read like a chemistry experiment kit, but that’s the point: read the ingredients.

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A personal postscript… The genesis of this blog post was two-fold. The first was the author’s growing awareness that most of his friends do not have a glimmer of understanding of how much sugar is creeping into their diets and not even a one candlepower of light thrown on the ingredients of the teas they drink. Many younger ones are enthusiastically trying chais and older ones tolerating bottle iced tea after their workouts. None of them knew about the 45 gram syndrome.

The second is that the author, a dyed in the something tea traditionalist who gave up sugar and milk in his tea as part of growing older if not wiser, has a mea culpa to admit. It’s this: chai was a drink he had added to his list of NNNNs: no, never, no way and no how. The best adjective for the ones he tried was “nasty.” Now, after tasting a dozen or so fine chais, he recants. They are really very good indeed. He, too, really should have read the ingredients.

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  • Peter GW Keen
    Peter Keen has been a professor at leading universities across the world, including Harvard, MIT and Stanford in the US and in Singapore, The
    Netherlands, Mexico and UK. He is the author of over thirty books on the links between business innovation and technology.
    Peter was born in Singapore, brought up in England and now lives in Virginia in the US.

    Peter loves tea and loves writing. His latest book, Tea Tips: A Guide to Finding and Enjoying Tea was published in February 2017.
  • All Posts from Peter GW Keen

2 Comments

  1. priya says

    peter, what a refreshing read!
    and congratulations on your new ‘tea tips’ book!

    thank you 😀

  2. Charmaine Creighton says

    This is a great article. We do get so much more sugar than we pay attention to. And also true there is no comparison to run of the mill tea especially chia and whole leaf with real spices in it.

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