Sugar and tea have a love story that goes way back.
They are a "power couple” that altered the course of history. It was a marriage shaped by fashion, health fads and global economics and, of course, the slave trade.
Tea, especially black tea, is bitter. A lot of people decided it tasted better with sugar and made a habit out of adding it.
Sugar has always been added to make the strong tea more palatable and also for energy, especially where milk or cream is added. In Britain, during the Industrial Revolution, the poorer classes drank very weak tea, but added milk and sugar for sustenance.
Plenty of other tea lovers around the world concur that sugar adds sustenance and flavor: From Morocco to Taiwan to Germany to Iraq to the Deep South of the U.S., you'll find tea so sweet it'll make you wince if you're not used to it.
The trouble is, a lot of us are well-fed and don't need extra sustenance from sugar anymore. And over time, as sugar has become cheaper and more abundant, we've added more and more of it to our tea.
And so tea, which we think of as healthful, even longevity-promoting, has become pretty unhealthful in a lot of places.
Rob van Dam, associate professor of medicine at the National University of Singapore, says sugary tea is becoming increasingly popular in Asia. "It's there in the bubble teas, the ice teas – that are high in sugar. People think, 'I'm not going for a Coke, I'll take an iced tea.' But the difference in sugar content is marginal."
According to van Dam, all that sugary tea is a big part of why sugar intake in Asia and other tea-loving regions of the world is swiftly climbing. And it doesn't bode well for people's health. "We have seen Western studies showing that sugar-sweetened beverages are associated with a high risk of diabetes and excess weight gain," he says.
But despite the health risks, sugary tea is a beloved ritual around the world. Here's a brief round-up of just a few of the world's sweetest tea traditions.
Moroccan/Western Saharan Mint Tea
Green tea with fresh mint, is central to North African culture. But the quantity of sugar in each batch - huge chunks, the size of golf balls - is daunting. People will often drink tea four times a day, and maybe more if it's a day filled with meetings. That's a lot of sugar.
Southern Sweet Tea
Enter any given home in the South on a hot afternoon, and there's a pretty good chance you'll be offered an icy glass of tea. If you're accustomed to iced tea made in other parts of the U.S., be warned: This stuff is really, really sweet. Some recipes call for a quarter cup of sugar per cup of water.
As iconic as Southern sweet tea is, it's also become a marker of unhealthy dietary patterns in the region. Suzanne Judd is an associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and she has documented a strong link between the Southern-style diet - fried food, processed meat and sweet tea - and risk of stroke. In small towns in the south, Judd says, sweet tea is the default beverage. And it's really hard to wean people off it.
- 6 regular tea bags
- 1⁄8 tsp baking soda
- 2 cups boiling water
- 1 1⁄2-2 cups sugar
- 6 cups cold water
- In a large glass measuring cup, place the tea bags and add the baking soda.
- Pour the boiling water over the tea bags.
- Cover and steep for 15 minutes.
- Take out the tea bags and do not squeeze them.
- Pour the tea mixture into a 2-quart pitcher; add the sugar.
- Stir until the sugar is dissolved.
- Add in the cold water.
- Let cool; chill in the refrigerator and serve over ice.
German East Frisian Tea
The people of East Frisia, Germany take their tea seriously, too. They prefer it strong and black with thick cream and rock sugar in the bottom of the cup, which are never stirred in."The locals refer to tea made this way with the trilling alliteration 'n lekker Koppke Tee" (a delicious cup of tea). The flavor is malty, strong, spicy, and highly aromatic. Protocol demands that the tea must never be stirred in the cup, because the true sensory experience comes in three layers: first the cream (sky), then the tea infusion (water) and finally the sweetness of the sugar (land)." You can read more about the ceremony in our blog, "The German East Frisian Tea Ceremony".
Many Iraqis simmer their tea for about 15 minutes until it's very strong. Then, they pour it into glasses with sugar and dilute it with hot water. "A glass of sweet tea is handed to a guest with the sugar undissolved in the bottom of the glass.
Try one, or try them all. Enjoy!
Maria Godoy ,Senior Editor, NPR Science Desk and Host of The Salt
Jane Pettigrew co-author of The New Tea Companion,