The poison in your tea


by Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

‘Would you like a cup of tea?
Oh! Yes, I would love to, but no sugar please; no, I am not diabetic’

This is a conversation oft repeated whenever I visit friends and relations in Sri Lanka. Experience has taught me to declare that I am not diabetic as the response, whenever I request a cup of tea without sugar, invariably was "so, you are diabetic?" Having tea without sugar is a ‘British habit’ I acquired when I came for my post-graduate studies to the United Kingdom in 1969. Since then, I have become a discerning lover of tea, which I drink in large amounts!

For most Sri Lankans, drinking tea without sugar is an incomprehensible concept. In fact, a lot drink syrup with tea! Though we produce the best tea in the world, unfortunately, we can not boast the same for the average cup of tea we drink! Some may say that this is because we export our best teas, leaving only the mediocre ones which can only be drunk with sugar! It is absolutely not true as I have had wonderful cups of tea, of course without sugar.

Tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, being only second to water. Chinese have been drinking tea for thousands of years, mainly as a medicine, and for a long time they were the only producers, but it was the British that made it a global commodity, which was initially more precious than gold!

It is very interesting that the story of tea is so inter-twined with the history of the British Empire. Though small amounts had been exported by China direct, the real tea trade started around 1660, when the British East India company started exporting tea from Canton with the help of French Jesuit priests and ‘Tea Men’ who facilitated the transport of tea from the tea growing areas in the mountainous south east of China to Canton. They were in competition with the Dutch East India Company to start with, but soon became dominant. Though coffee had an early lead, tea was able to establish itself as the preferred beverage and for a long time was the most expensive commodity in the world. the story goes that King Charles II was gifted two ounces of tea in 1660!

Though most Brits now drink tea without sugar, it was they who started drinking tea with sugar and milk, the traditional Chinese drink being devoid of both. Tea was initially promoted as a medicinal product, though soon it was realised that it had stimulating properties, and was sold in pharmacies together with coffee, cocoa and sugar. Tea was initially the preserve of the rich and tea drinking was a ceremony, a practice prevalent in Japan even today. Tea became a commoners drink when a large number of ‘corner shops’ were set up and Britain became, as Napoleon called them, a nation of ‘small shopkeepers’. Soon the traditional British breakfast of ‘porridge and beer’ was replaced by ‘burnt bread, precursor of toast, and tea’. In the 18th century, tea was transformed from an exotic luxury to a widely consumed drink in a matter of 50 years.

Most of tea brought to London was re-exported specially to North America and was heavily taxed, which encouraged smuggling. At one stage, nearly a tenth of the British trade was from tea. When the East India Company got hold of Bengal in theh 1760s, textile exports from India were used to pay for tea, but the more sinister aspect was using opium to pay for tea! This led to a massive increase in the number of addicts in China and ‘opium wars’. Across the Atlantic it was a different problem; high taxes and the ‘American Revolt’ starting with the ‘Boston Tea Party’.

Milk may have been introduced to dilute tea as it was very expensive and sugar may have been added for the ‘sugar rush’. Psychologists have shown recently that sweet drinks reduce aggression in the workplace. May be ‘the sugar rush’ provides the brain with energy, making us feel happier.

Tea is rich in anti-oxidants and it is claimed that a cup of tea has the equivalent of three glasses of wine. I remember attending a session at the Anniversary Academic Session of the American College of Cardiology, about 10 years ago, which was devoted to tea, where the protective effects on the heart was discussed. It is disappointing that we have not capitalised on the health benefits of tea to popularise ‘Ceylon Tea’

There is data pointing to milk attenuating the anti-oxidant effects of tea, but the more worrying additive is sugar, which prompted the headline in one of the British newspapers, which I have copied, as it was this that prompted me to delve into available data.

For quite sometime now, we have been blaming fats for heart disease and in Sri Lanka, coconut oil has been a bone of contention for a long time. Coconut oil, being a saturated fat, is likely to be atherogenic (cause build up of fatty deposits in arterial walls), but there is data to show that it is not as harmful as once believed to be, though it is not likely to be protective as some have claimed. I remember Dr. Malinga Fernando, then Director General of Health Services, speaking to me when ‘Nestle’ wanted to introduce dried coconut milk powder. He wanted to be reassured that it is not a health hazard, which I was able to do, as I believed a powder could be used sparingly, more so than home made cream, and could be modified, if necessary, by adding skimmed milk powder. I am heartened to see the product in supermarket shelves all over the world. I cook curries using skimmed milk and add a little of coconut milk powder to get that wonderful taste!

It was the British Physiologist, John Yudkin who first linked sugar consumption to heart disease in his 1972 book ‘Pure, White and Deadly’. Not only did he meet strong opposition from the sugar industry, but his book was dismissed as a work of fiction. Fat as the culprit, theory proposed by the American biologist Ancel Keys held sway for many decades, but recent data shows that sugar is equally, if not more, harmful. We are seeing a world-wide epidemic of obesity and a new book, ‘Fat Chance’ written by Robert Lustig, an American Paediatrician specialising in Hormone related illnesses, lays the blame squarely on sugar. A recent systemic review published in the British Medical Journal shows a linear relationship between the intake of sugars and changes in body weight, but the question that needs answering is whether all sugars; glucose, fructose, sucrose, are equally bad. As there is no cut off-point, it being a linear relationship, what we have to do is to reduce sugar consumption as much as possible, to lower the consumption is better.

The biggest culprits are the sweet drinks and our children have been ‘trained’ to drink these than water! As a consequence, they become chubby which is made by worse by lack of physical activity. Children no longer walk to school, which was the norm in my generation, but are driven in fuel-guzzling vehicles which reduce their life-span in more than one way!

Countries like the USA, which have the highest incidence of obesity, are taking action, though slowly. New York City has introduced legislation to reduce the size of fizzy drinks and Coca-Cola has admitted the problem of obesity in US TV advertisements, but defended its policy of producing low calorie drinks. However, there is emerging data indicating that even these low calorie drinks are harmful.

It is time we started drinking tea without sugar, honouring a pledge we made long ago to Mrs B —Methini apita kiyanawanam, seeni nethuwa te bonnam.

When Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranaike increased the price of sugar and chilies, her devoted supporters shouted slogans promising to drink tea without sugar and have curries without chilies, but forgot their promises the moment they got home!

It is time to give up that poison in the tea and have a lovely cup of black tea flavoured with ginger, which also has marvelous medicinal properties!

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