There is an ancient Latin saying, De gustibus non est disputandum, meaning that there is no disputing about tastes. Is this statement true? Perhaps it is true to a point, but in this article I will argue the opposite--that there is a degree to which taste and preferences in food and drink have an objective component to them. In particular, preferring sweet, salty, but bland foods leads us to make poor health and nutritional choices. In addition, I will argue that drinking tea actually retrains your taste buds to prefer food and drink which is healthier for you.
The Evolutionary History of Human Taste:
Humans evolved in an environment where certain foods were scarce. Our ancestors faced conditions where it was often difficult to consume enough calories and protein to get through the day; salt was also often a limiting factor. An active lifestyle in the hot sun leads to intense sweating and a great need to replenish salt and other electrolytes. It is no mystery then why we prefer sweet, fatty, and salty foods. The savory or umami flavor is a signal that a food is protein-rich, which ensured that we got enough protein daily, and our preference for sweet and fatty foods helped ensure that we consumed enough calorie-rich foods.
Food in Our Modern World:
The conditions we live in nowadays are vastly different from those faced by our ancestors. Calories, especially those from sugar, refined starch, and fat, are abundant, and many people consume too many calories daily, leading to epidemics of obesity, type II diabetes, and other problems associated with poor diet. MSG enables nutrient-free foods to fool our taste buds into perceiving these foods as nutritious and protein-rich. Our preference for sweet, fatty, and salty foods leads us to seek out highly processed foods, devoid of other essential nutrients. Our diet is low in fiber, vitamins, and minerals, not to mention the myriad of healthful phytochemicals that function as antioxidants or have other health-promoting properties.
Tea Offers a Solution to This Conundrum:
When people discuss the health benefits of tea, they usually focus on the chemical components of tea itself. While some of these have been studied extensively and demonstrated by rigorous research to have tangible benefits to human health, there is another, much overlooked way in which drinking tea can promote health. Tea is a bitter and aromatic drink. In stark contrast to the processed foods dominating our modern society, tea is almost completely devoid of sweetness and saltiness, and contains no fat. The predominant flavor in tea is bitterness, and the main complexity and depth of tea lies in its aroma, the beautiful smells that rise from the cup and ultimately define the experience of drinking a cup of tea.
Do Not Sweeten Your Tea; Confront Your Fear of Bitterness:
People often sweeten their tea and dilute it with milk because they find its bitterness unpleasant. Humans have a natural tendency to be cautious with bitter foods--and for good reason--most poisons are bitter. But we can naturally grow to enjoy bitter foods after we have been exposed to them for a period of time. Tea is no exception.
Bitterness is not to be feared. If we train ourselves, we will come to prefer bitter foods. It is actually a well-known phenomena that over their lifetimes, most people come to move away from sweet foods and develop a greater appreciation for bitter and aromatic foods. This development serves us well as many healthy vegetables are bitter, and many spices and other aromatic foods have numerous health benefits.
Our environment has changed considerably since the ancient times in which our innate biological taste preferences were formed. We would now be well-served to seek out foods that are less sweet, less salty, and more intensely aromatic. By drinking tea, and by refraining from sweetening our tea or adding milk to it, we will come to naturally prefer those foods which are healthiest for us in the context of our modern world. We will naturally shun the empty calories and chemical additives of processed foods, and develop an appreciation for truly natural flavors and aromas.
This change has the potential to yield even greater health benefits than any chemical in tea ever could. Drink up!
Alex Zorach has an M.A. in statistics from Yale University, and is an avid tea drinker and the creator of http://RateTea.net/, a website for rating and reviewing teas, with a wealth of information about different tea companies, varieties of tea, and tea-producing regions. Learn more about different varieties of tea on this site.