Milk is a surprisingly complex subject and controversial when it comes to tea. Healthy? Not healthy? Hides the flavor of tea? Enhances the flavor of tea? The first two only science can answer. The last two are up to you and your tastebuds.
Personally, I find that the percentage of fat in my milk makes quite a difference in the taste of my tea. This sent me off to my favorite online search site to look up any scientific reason for this. The search results brought up a lot of other milk info.
First, there are all kinds of things out there being called “milk” — made from almonds, soy, taro, etc. — in addition to the kinds that come from cows, goats, and other mammals. For my purposes, I stuck with the cow kind. I also ignored hits about those fake creamers, some of which are rather tasty.
Then, I came across a bunch of charts about the various values in milk, such as calories, types and amounts of fat, and vitamins. I combined these into one chart for ease of reference. There are several versions of 2%, so I included them all, since their values are different.
Another trend that popped up in the search engine hits was that milk is enjoyed in tea around the world, even though the UK, France, and Italy are best known for this. The milk is not just a flavor hider as some claim. It also works with the tea flavor to create a new taste. But not all teas are suitable for adding milk to them, especially the light-tasting teas such as whites and greens (I did come across a “milk tea” recipe that used green tea and even oolong tea, though).
Bunches of hits came up about how milk in tea blocks you getting any of the health benefits that are supposed to be in tea. None had any links to actual scientific studies, though. The issue of lactose intolerance also popped up. Oddly, higher fat content tends to result in a milder reaction among those with this condition.
I also saw information on flavored milks out there, not just chocolate, but things like banana. You can add these to your tea for an extra bit of flavor. Also, milk contains its own kind of sugar (lactose) so you can cut back on the sweetener when using milk in your tea.
As for fat content affecting tea taste, I must confess that there were no real scientific studies one way or another. On one blog, a mother who helped her daughter conduct a taste test as part of a class project says that the test subjects could not tell the difference between full fat and low fat food items (a testament to how far these have come). But that’s not tea. One study showed that fat increased our perception of some flavor elements such as sweet and salty. Again, not tea.
Whole milk is recommended in various tea recipes, such as a nice spiced tea (masala chai), “thé au lait” (pronounced “tay-oh-lay” — tea with lots of milk and usually sugar), and bubble tea. The reason they give is that it tastes better due to the amount of fat in standard whole cow’s milk. But they don’t say why. Argh!
So I am back to my tastebuds versus yours. And my own theories.
It seems that fat globules really impact one’s tastebuds and the more of them, the more the impact (just my humble layperson’s opinion). Half-and-half (half whole milk and half cream) is considered the thing to use in tea by the British, but I find the taste odd (sort of like putting butter in my tea — a “butta cuppa”) due to the higher fat content. Too many fat globules bouncing around?
Both whole milk and half-and-half give a creamy texture to tea, making it smoother on the tongue, which may enhance the taste experience. Skim and non-fat milk, which have zero fat content, are watery and will change the color of your tea but not add a smooth texture or keep the bitterness of tannins from impaling your tastebuds the way fat does. Speaking of impact, casein, one of the proteins in milk, can douse the fires when you have consumed something a bit overly spicy, another reason milk is recommended for spiced tea!
Sorry not to be more precise here, but we have to fall back on your tastebuds and, of course, your own health situation. Whichever fat level you use, start with the best tea and you can’t go wrong. Enjoy!
On a final note, the good news for many of you is that a bit of fat in your diet is actually beneficial, and that has been scientifically shown. It aids brain function and some other things. If you want to keep your fat intake down, forego things like those fast food cheeseburgers. A tablespoon or two of whole milk or even half-and-half in your tea will be just fine instead.
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