Discovered as a medicine but then condemned as poison, what is the true nature of tea?
According to tea history, Chinese emperor Shennong first discovered tea when he was compiling his treatise on herbs and their effects. Tea he used for detox after a day of accidentally poisoning himself in the pursuit of plant knowledge, hence tea’s first application as a medicinal beverage.
Despite its debut in the west as an invigorating beverage with healthful properties, tea did suffer from a mixed reputation. Taken in ‘the proper way’, it was considered a digestive aid for elites who enjoyed large meals and many glasses of wine. For everyone else – the poor riffraff, in other words – it was a nasty drink. According to British writer Simon Mason, tea made working-class women “peevish and unkind to their husbands”.
Not only that, its preparation was paramount as to whether the tea was healthful or not. The light steeping enjoyed by the elites was fine and dandy; the continual brewing in a boiling kettle practised by the lower classes supposedly extracted all the tannins, which meant the resulting tea caused gastric distress, nervous disorders and even hallucinations.
It didn’t help that tea also had an adulteration problem. Before the invention of black tea, green tea suffered from a shipping conundrum – by the time a consignment reached England from China, the tea would oxidise and arrive in poor condition, resulting in a lower price at market. Shady dealers would thus add everything from iron filings to other plant leaves dyed with verdigris, Prussian blue, Dutch pink, ferrous sulphate, copper carbonate and sheep's dung to bulk out the lot. No wonder tea-drinkers would become ill.
There was also the possibility of caffeine addiction, which is why Camellia sinensis sits in the Poison Garden at Blarney Castle. In one 19th century morality tale, a young woman warns a servant against drinking tea, or “you would be hankering after it, when you got the way of it”.
Eventually, thanks to the temperance movement and more scrupulous supply, wider knowledge and acceptance of the health properties of tea helped to salvage its reputation. Since then, health research on tea has largely been positive, with tea-drinking said to reduce risk of cancer, heart disease and diabetes (with anomalous promotion of oesophageal cancer – due to the fact that it’s a hot beverage rather than Camellia sinensis), though not all health hype is verifiable or positive: detox teas and weight-loss teas are the main culprits of health-washing claims.
So, is tea healthy for you? I guess the best answer is that quality tea is not unhealthy for you. Like all good things in life, enjoy it in moderation and it’ll treat you well, inside and out.
Sources: 'The Danger of Tea Drinking' and 'Before Green Tea Was A Superfood, It Was Feared As A Supertoxin'.