Tea and the health debate

Tea and health

For a product that has been recognized for its health benefits for over 5000 years of its history, one would imagine that the ‘health-angle’ was perhaps one of the major reasons, if not the most important, for the growth in popularity of tea. At least that’s how most of the tea related articles published online would like you to believe.

Over the last few decades, tea drinkers, tea planters, retailers, tea boards of various governments have all done their bit in forwarding the thought of tea being a healthier alternative to coffee.

However, many tea drinkers, including myself oppose the idea of projection of tea purely as a healthier alternative to coffee; a beverage whose existence is solely to serve as antithesis to coffee. There’s so much more to tea, we argue.

So how important was the “healthy beverage” argument in furthering it’s popularity over the last couple of centuries? Turns out, not much. What follows is the fascinating history of the health debate that has lasted over 350 years and continues to be written about.

Hanway Vs Garraway – Putting tea on the map

Let’s start from the beginning, shall we. In 1657, tea was first introduced in Britain as a medicinal product. The first advertisement for tea, printed by the owner of a coffeehouse in London, projected tea as an exotic product that would not only, “…maketh the body active and lusty” but also “…removeth the obstructions of the Spleen…” also “it vanquisheth heavy dreams, easeth the frame and strengtheneth the memory”.

Apart from it reading like a Shakespearean version of a sales pitch of a modern pharmaceutical miracle (which, if reproduced as an email, would land straight into your spam folder), there was one critical difference. Garraway, the owner of the coffeehouse, really did believe in the story himself.

Despite it’s growing popularity since introduction, not everybody really believed in these qualities of tea. In 1756, one notable voice of dissent came from a London merchant, Jonas Hanway who published an essay on the effects of tea drinking calling it ,”…pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation” and went as far as saying that the due to women drinking tea ‘there is not quite so much beauty in this land as there was’.

 

Samuel Johnson, a revered public intellectual and devout tea lover replied to Jonas Hanway’s essay by publishing a funny, satirical response. And this sparked off a public feud, with neither willing to back down on their arguments. Of course, neither had any scientific proof to back them.

A side effect of this incident and the argument about tea entering the space of public discourse was that it inevitably made people more curious and interested in tea.

Some like it hot…and sweet.

Hanway and Johnson may have warred on the health benefits of tea, but the success and failure of tea sales was largely driven by extraneous factors. The most important of them was the cheaper and easier access to sugar.

Although tea was gaining popularity since introduction, the first major inflection point in it’s sales arrived when the prices of sugar fell. This is now the subject of many anthropological and historical studies. The most popular and often quoted being Sidney Mintz’s Sweetness and Power.

Mintz links sugar to Britain’s growing colonial strength, but also to mercantilism. Within a matter of a century, sugar, produced by extensive use of slave labour, went from being the privileged food of the very rich to becoming the staple of the fairly poor.

As sugar prices fell between 1650 and 1750, sugar and it’s meanings percolated downward through English society. The concurrent downward percolation of tea during the eighteenth century created a new, important mode of consumption for the poor: Tea sweetened with sugar was now finally accessible to all.

And as a consequence of this, the working class had started to forsake their traditional rural diet to white bread, butter and healthy supplements of tea. While tea was just a non-nutritional supplement to the diet of the rich, it unfortunately came to be the mainstay of the working class.

Same old tea, all new story.

By the end of 1800s, the whole of Britain was drinking tea everyday. And soon as the industry stabilized, overproduction brought lower prices and profits. However, the number of plantations only continued to grow. Planters, importers, and retailers now encouraged Britons to drink more and more of their “national beverage.”

Despite their efforts, towards the end of 1800′s it had become clear to the tea planters of South Asia that they were running out of new consumers to sell tea to.In the decades that followed, the tea traders and planters put enormous efforts in reaching out to customers in Europe, Australia, United States, Canada and the natives in India & Ceylon.

But post World War II  North America, driven by aggressive advertising of other beverages, combined with improved roasting technology, and mass merchandising, coffee came to eventually monopolize the market for beverages. Also, funnily, India, once written off by the planters, steadily increased its consumption until the 1970′s when it’s gross consumption outpaced that of Britain – a result of institutionalization of tea breaks and growing popularity of a spicy-sweet chai; yet again unrelated to health.

The real thirst tea quenches – approval. 

Over the last 30 years, there has been a stunning amount of research done to evaluate the health promoting properties of teas. These studies have, in many cases proved conclusively that tea does indeed promote weight loss, prevent chronic illnesses and improve mood.

However, deep beneath this vapid labyrinth of misinformation is a simple truth – the growing needs of a consumer population whose pursuits are driven by popular media, internet and a constant need for approval. The same reasons that spread the idea of tea as a sign of opulence and superior choice; like how real art and kitsch coexist with an unspoken approval of each other’s existence. Because neither can live when the other dies.

 

4 Common Myths on Organic Farming

Organic debate

To organic or not organic, that is the question.

Let us face it, the word “organic” itself is weird. It seems to extend from “organ”, another word you never want to use in association with the stuff you eat. As you probably guessed by now, I wasn’t a big believer in organic food. I wrote it off as one of the many fads made crazy by the vast and wonderful creature called the internet.

But something kept nagging at me; I honestly didn’t know squat about organic food or practices to make that judgment. So before I went Spanish-inquisition on organic, I decided to educate myself. And information was quite easy to access, because we have Rajiv, whose degree in Agriculture is only an adornment to his 16 years of experience in the field.

Without further ado, I present to you the findings of a former food-bigot (me, of course).

Myth #1 Organic farming is totally and completely devoid of chemicals

Status : False.

Shocker, right? Turns out, the difference between organic and inorganic farming is decided by the government. Every country’s government extends organic certification to farms that use chemicals that are approved by them. Which means you can spray fifty different pesticides in a month and still label it organic, as long as those fifty have the “Okay” stamp from the government.

Myth #2 Organic farming is better for the environment

Status : True. For now.

Say I give you a slice of chocolate cake and a leaf of lettuce. I am guessing you will take the warm, sweet cake instead of the lettuce. Would you like another slice? Of course yes. How about another? Around the tenth slice of cake, the lettuce starts looking very appealing.

This is the current state of the environment, especially soil.

Organic farming methods do show a significant improvement in soil quality but whether or not it is good for long-term, remains debatable. The soil is so abused with chemicals now that any even a mild change in methods is a great relief. However, to continue using organic methods till the top soil’s quality stabilizes, is recommended.

Myth# 3 Shifting to organic methods is a good idea

Status : False

The population of the world in 2014 stands at 7.17 billion. Organic farming maybe eco-friendlier, but the crop growth is much slower and the yield is roughly 25% lesser than crops produced conventionally. So while the switch in some crops makes sense, food grains produced organically cannot feed the population. This may cause a catastrophic food shortage.

Myth# 4 Organic food tastes better

Status: True for teas

Taste in general is subjective. And the placebo effect for health, called the “health halo” still stands true. But fact is that organic plants take longer to grow. Which means in tea, the time it takes for the enzymes responsible for flavor to percolate is higher. So while we can’t promise this for all foods, organic tea is more flavorful than its conventional counterparts.

To conclude, running to adapt a new trend isn’t going to save the world or keep you healthy; it is just striking a balance between how much we take and how much we give back. Rajiv believes a switch to organic method for a short period, followed by a measured incorporation of both, organic and conventional farming maybe a better strategy towards sustainability.

Teabox Team Picnic

Some of our colleagues from Siliguri team drove up to the woods last weekend for a picnic. One of the picnickers, Prachi from our design team has the inside scoop on the event.

siliguri team picnic

Living near the woods, surrounded by nature, is a fantasy of many city dwellers.

While the technology and the marketing teams located at Bangalore can gloat over a more stable Internet connection, nothing comes close to the experience of having your office located only a short distance away from the majestic tea plantations & scenic beauty of Darjeeling. All of us at the Siliguri office had been planning an office  picnic for a long time now and the plan finally materialized last weekend.

Picnics have for long been a sort of tradition here, established since the British Raj times. Located amidst the picturesque landscape of the exotic mountain ranges of the great Himalayas, Siliguri is a big hit with many tourists and offers numerous options for people looking for outdoor camping trips.

Teabox_teapicnic

We drove up to the place in Jeeps to Jagadamba Botanical Garden, near Rohini Mandir. Located about 25 Kms away from the picturesque Mirik Hills, the views from this place are breathtaking.

And to top it, the weather was gorgeous; we couldn’t have asked for a nicer day. We cooked some great food outdoors, played games and  listened to music.

Teabox team picnic

While the working environment at our offices is pretty relaxed, the working stress could at times get to you. This was a great opportunity for us to bond outside the workplaces and  spend some quality time getting to know each other better.

The picnic was a great success and we can’t  wait to plan for the next one.

The base camp

The Shears & Saws Are Out. Its the start of pruning season.

Pruning work in a Darjeeling plantation

Its winter in Darjeeling. And the gardens are busy trying to get things ready for the upcoming season in March- April. And part of these preparations is pruning.

As I walked along the muddy arteries in the estates, I could see small groups of women with pruning shears in their hands, scattered around different parts of the garden, working on the tea bushes.

Pruning is an annual operation, carried out in tea gardens all over the country, whereby the tea is pruned, and cut across to a height of 40 cm to 55 cm from the ground level or 4- 5 cm above the last prune.

The reasons for pruning are many- it renews the wood, reduces the pests and regulates the crop distribution.

Although its important to prune the plants every year, it also causes huge crop loss in gardens. So its really a double-edged sword, a sort of necessity that comes with a bit of destructive side to it.

 

DSCN0293

As you can see in the pictures, a male supervisor generally directs the female workers in the garden as they prune the tea bushes.

DSCN0292

Here in Darjeeling, the bushes are pruned once in a five year cycle on a single bush. So the tea bushes pruned in 2014, will be then pruned in 2019. The bushes are very lightly pruned in the middle of the five year cycle (called skiffing) to give an early start to the crop or generally improve the health of the plant. The gardens in North Eastern plains, such as Assam follow a shorter cycle of 3-4 years.

As the season progresses, we’ll continue to bring in updates from the tea gardens across Darjeeling as the region readies itself for the first harvest of the year.