Some Versions of Tea Are Just as Sugary as Soda

Sugar offsets the bitterness of tea, but have we gone too far in how much we add and how often we drink it? Yat Fai Ooi/Flickr
Sugar offsets the bitterness of tea, but have we gone too far in how much we add and how often we drink it?
Yat Fai Ooi/Flickr

Sugar and tea have a love story that goes way back.

As The Salt’s Maria Godoy has written, 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.

“I suspect that sugar has always been added to make the strong tea more palatable and also for energy, especially where milk or cream is added, too,” Jane Pettigrew, a tea historian in the UK and co-author of The New Tea Companion, tells us. “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 to a lot of other things we consume).

And so tea, which we think of as healthful, even longevity-promoting, has become pretty unhealthful in a lot of places. A 16-ounce grande Starbucks Chai Tea Latte, for example, contains 42 grams of sugar, or 10.5 teaspoons

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, the Starbucks tea lattes – they’re all 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.”

van Dam says 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 our round-up of just a few of the world’s sweetest tea traditions.


Click here to read more.

Eliza Barclay