Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Old School Tea Additives

Did you know that many European and American tea drinkers in the 1700's and 1800's were drinking dyed teas? I recently learned this peculiar factoid while doing a bit of tea research and I came across the following quote:

"There is now no doubt that all these faced teas are dyed with Prussian blue and gypsum, or plumbago, to suit the taste of the foreign 'barbarians.' The process may be seen any day, by those who give themselves the trouble to seek after it. Black teas are coated with gypsum to give weight and a sticky nature to the leaf, plumbago and lampblack to cover the white of the gypsum, and ferruginous earth to deepen the red of the liquor. The Chinese never use these dyed teas themselves." - Robert Fortune

Yuck! Can you imagine? I wonder how long this ghastly practice continued? I started to poke around the Internet for some more information and stumbled across a scary chapter on tea adulteration in an 1873 journal called: Cyclopædia of India and of eastern and southern Asia, commercial and scientific products of the mineral, vegetable and animal kingdoms, useful arts and manufactures, edited by Edward Balfour. This publication, along with Baron Ernst Von Bibra's fascinating 1855 work: Plant Intoxicants: A Classic Text on the use of Mind-Altering Plants, have revealed to me a vast conspiracy of old school tea icky-ness! Not only were Western tea drinkers once subjected to different, unnecessary, and sometimes dangerous, crap in their tea... but at times dishonest tea merchants were even known to "restore" and resell previously steeped tea leaves.

Sadly there are still a lot of potentially dangerous additives being used in foods and beverages all around the world and as long as people can find buyers for all that junk it's likely to continue.

Thank goodness things are now much better as far as premium tea is concerned. I have no
doubt that the leaves I enjoy daily are safe and pure. I believe we're currently in an age where tea people of all nationalities are working together to build a healthy and prosperous international tea culture.


Alex Zorach said...

I find this rather disturbing...but I think it's interesting and valuable to get this sort of information out into the open. It makes us realize that there is perhaps a longer history to food additives than some of us might want to admit at first, and I ultimately think that getting in touch with this sort of history helps, as you put it, "to build a healthy and prosperous international tea culture" -- or food culture in general.

Green Stone said...

Surely that must have been actually dangerous - like lead makeup, I guess.


Jackie said...

Interesting post Brett! I had heard about this before, because I read about it in his book "A journey to the tea countries of China[...]" Here's an extract which talks about the dye. http://lfbx.us/gbooksrf
I looked a little more into "Prussian Blue", thought it was amusing to see that it's actually used as an antidote to heavy metal poisoning. Perfect if you're drinking "lead" tea for example. It is supposed to be non-toxic but I go with you, I don't want any dyes in my tea! Thanks for sharing.

Steph said...

Yes, this is a very scary thought!

LOVA Tea (Maureen Chesus) said...

The pre-steeped tea bags thing really surprised me! That's pretty gross/sad. Really interesting article, though! Thanks for posting your findings!

Shai Williams said...

And now we uncover the real reason coffee is more popular than tea. Nñ

mbanu said...

Tea facing is still practiced today. For instance, most "Thai Iced Tea" tea blends contain food coloring dyes.

Paula (Oriental Tea) said...


No the average life expectancy those days was around 40..

These days I just to the 'natural' check to decide whether to read the ingredients of a food. I ask myself if that food is found naturally in the wild.

Farmer's market cucumbers? Safe. No check.

Hostess twinkies? You'd better believe I'm checking the label! (not that i'd ever eat those)