The Health Debate

Then tea first arrived in Britain it was not advertised as a beverage, but as a medicine. In 1657 it was considered an effective treatment for gout, and in 1659 the first advertisement for tea, printed by Thomas Garraway owner of the London coffeehouse Garraway's, claimed tea would not only, "...maketh the body active and lusty" but also "...removeth the obstructions of the Spleen..." and "very good against the Stone and Gravel, cleaning the Kidneys and Uriters, being drank with Virgins Honey instead of Sugar" (Ukers 1935: 39). Garaway wanted to convince the British consumers that tea was an effective cure-all, so as to increase his trade.

Dr. Cornelius Decker of Amsterdam, also known as Dr. Bontekoe, was one of the strongest advocates of tea drinking. In the late 1670's he prescribed the consumption of eight to ten cups of tea a day, and claimed to drink 50 to 200 cups daily. However, he may have been under the employment of the East India Company while making these recommendations which would have greatly skewed his professional opinion (Ukers 1935: 32). A Dutch physician wrote "Nothing is comparable to this plant. Those who use it are for that reason, alone, exempt from all maladies and reach an extreme old age" (Jonnes 1982: 101). But not all physicians of the seventeenth century agreed that tea drinking was beneficial to one's health. An unnamed German doctor wrote in direct negation to the Dutch doctor quoted above, that tea "Hastens the death of those that drink it, especially if they have passed the age of 40 years" (Jonnes 1982: 101).

The question of tea's health effects was still not settled almost a century later as tea was becoming more widespread. This increasing popularity was in spite of French physician's Gui Patin's labelling tea the "impermanent novelty of the century." He later realized his mistake and started praising tea as an effective gout treatment in 1657 (Jonnes 1982: 101). Dr. Samuel Johnson defended tea, and was known to drink as many as sixteen cups of tea at one tea party. Tea was viewed by many as a morally acceptable alternative to alcohol, partly due to the influence of Catherine of Braganza. However, in spite of her choice of tea as the official court beverage in the 1660's, many members of the temperance movement condemned tea along with alcohol. The well known preacher John Wesley spoke about tea in the same terms as he did other strong drink because of its stimulant qualities, calling it harmful to the body and soul. Jonas Hanway, a London merchant, agreed when he wrote in 1756 that tea was, "...pernicious to health, obstructing industry and impoverishing the nation" (Ukers 1935: 47). In the next year in an essay on tea Mr. Hxxxx wrote, "What an army has gin and tea destroyed." (Drummond and Wilbraham 1939: 243) By the mid-eighteenth century the overwhelming opinion was that tea drinking was detrimental to the health. In 1730 a Scottish doctor named Thomas Short claimed tea drinking caused disastrous ailments.

Many objected to tea on social or economic grounds, rather than for physical health reasons. Political economist Arthur Young objected to tea in the late eighteenth century, as he was upset by the amount of time lost to the taking of a tea break. He was also disturbed that members of the working class who could often not afford a hot meal in the middle of the day would drink tea instead. It made them feel they had eaten a meal, and this made them consume a smaller amount of nutritious foods (Ukers 1935: 47). Tea has no nutritional value, aside from the empty calories provided by the sugar that was added to the tea by this time. Previous to tea, the beverage of choice to the working class was home brewed beer. In spite of the detrimental effects of the alcohol content some argued that there was more nutritional content in beer than tea (Drummond and Wilbraham 1939). Short argued that people would spend money buying tea, a luxury good, rather than food. In fact, however, many of the working class who purchased tea bought very cheap grades, or once used tea leaves, from wealthier families.

Sugar was commonly added to tea by the early eighteenth century so many of the arguments for and against tea were caught up in the debate surrounding sugar. It is not clear when sugar was first added to tea as a sweetener. When initially introduced in Britain tea, was drunk in Chinese style, without milk or sugar, but as the popularity of both tea and sugar increased people began to add sugar to their tea. In 1678 Cornelis Bontekoe, the Dutch "tea doctor" advocated heavy tea drinking in a pamphlet, but warned against taking sugar with it at the end of the pamphlet, thereby indicating that some were engaged in this practice (Smith 1992: 263).

Thomas Tryon, an English author popular in the late 17th century, advocated sugar in moderation, as he considered it dangerous if eaten in large quantities. Tryon believed that sugar was safe if consumed with bitter herbs. The herbs contain healthful properties and the sugar sweetens the herbs so they can be consumed. Although Tryon does not mention tea it fits his scheme of safe sugar consumption. It is a bitter herb that mixes well with sugar and, especially if sugar is added in moderation, the medicinal qualities of tea would cancel out sugar's harmful effects (Smith 1992: 270).

Why and when the British began adding sugar to their tea at the beginning of the 18th century may always remain a mystery, as is the question of why the Chinese never begun. Sugar was a known sweetener in China, and often added to other foods and beverages, such as wine, so the addition of sugar to tea might have been a logical. The addition of sugar to tea in Britain reinforced the demand for both commodities, and fostered plantation agriculture in the British colonies. Sweetened tea was drunk heavily by the working classes during break periods. The caffeine in tea made it possible to work the long hours asked of the workers, and the sugar provided a short term boost of energy and some empty calories that, although not as beneficial as a meal, ensured the worker would get through the day.

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