Got Milk? Should You?

Should you add milk to your tea? Are you committing a mortal sin against tea culture by doing so? As a member of the non-milk camp, I used to have strong opinions about this issue. But I’ve come to realize that everyone likes what they like and that’s just fine (I’m still having trouble with the concept of crunchy peanut butter, but I digress). Tea culture has gotten along quite nicely with milk for at least several centuries now and will surely continue to do so.

Ready to pour! (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)
Ready to pour! (Photo source: A.C. Cargill, all rights reserved)

So how did this all get started, I found myself wondering. Who initiated the practice of adding milk to tea? The consensus on this matter, according to a number of sources, is that one of the first Europeans to add milk to tea was the French noblewoman Marguerite de la Sablière, who first took this bold step at some point in the seventeenth century. Whether or not she was the first and whether this is another of those quaint tea legends that becomes true through endless repetition is anybody’s guess.

One might tend to assume that milk in tea got its start in Europe though you can’t ignore the fact that Tibetans have been drinking yak butter tea for quite some time now. Nor can you ignore that in their The True History of Tea, Victor Mair and Erling Hoh note that tea “prepared in the Manchu manner with milk and butter” was served to visiting Russian dignitaries as early as 1654.

But what about all those alleged health benefits derived from tea? One recent report on milk and tea suggested that combining them would negate some of those benefits. Which sounds like it might be cause for alarm for milky tea drinkers. But the real answer might not be quite that simple.

The aforementioned study focused primarily on tea’s impact on the cardiovascular system and researchers suggested that the proteins in milk might negate the beneficial antioxidant effects of tea. However, with even a very cursory amount of research I was able to find two studies that shot this theory in the foot and there might be more.

Which leads us to the moral of this particular story, which is to say that maybe you can’t always believe what you read and that if you like a little milk with your tea you should probably just continue with business as usual. After all, so much worrying about your health could be bad for your health.

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