Rude food by Vir Sanghvi: Tea tales

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Over a decade ago, I presented a TV film about tea. It was, I said, one of the few Indian products that was truly world class. If we marketed it properly, it could be to India what wine was to France.

But since then my sense has been that the global fame of Indian tea is falling rather than growing. At most tea houses or tea shops in the Western world, Indian tea seems to occupy a smaller share of the menu and less shelf space. I drink Darjeeling tea and all too often it simply is not available.

India’s share of the world tea trade is falling and our teas no longer command the kind of respect that they deserve. There is, of course, a tiny segment at the top of the tea market where consumers ask for tea from Darjeeling tea gardens by name. But even there, the competition is growing.

Indians only really began drinking tea in the 1950s when the Tea Board made huge efforts to popularise tea

Indians only really began drinking tea in the 1950s when the Tea Board made huge efforts to popularise tea

In the branded tea market, India has grown by acquisition. Such mass market brands as Twinings and Typhoo are now Indian owned but they don’t just sell Indian tea, nor are they seen as Indian brands. Contrast that with Sri Lanka, which has been able to turn Dilmah into a globally successful brand.

I have always wondered why we do so badly when it comes to pushing our tea. The obvious answer is that we are not very good when it comes to marketing Indian food and drink to the rest of the world. (The fame of Kingfisher beer fades compared to say, Tiger, Asahi, San Miguel and other Asian beers, for instance.)

Sri Lanka has turned Dilmah into a globally successful brand

Sri Lanka has turned Dilmah into a globally successful brand ( Shutterstock )

But I think it goes beyond that. We don’t like to admit or advertise this fact, but the truth is that even most Indians do not drink what the world would regard as real tea.

Let’s start with the origins of tea drinking in India. As you probably know, the British planted Chinese tea plants in India and much of the production was exported. Indians only really began drinking tea in the 1950s when the Tea Board made huge efforts to popularise tea. The chai stalls on the roads, the cutting chai, the various masala teas etc. are not ancient Indian inventions. They are all products popularised in post-Independence India.

Because tea was relatively expensive in the export markets (where India had a reasonably strong presence in the 1950s), the tea industry looked for a cheap tea that would appeal to a wider audience. So, in the 1950s, tea companies began using a process called CTC (for Crush, Tear and Curl). This is a primitive mechanised process, used for cheap teas, that gives you a powdery tea with none of the flavours or aromas associated with real tea.

TWG prides itself on its reputation for offering luxury teas

TWG prides itself on its reputation for offering luxury teas

It didn’t matter so much because Indians ‘cook’ tea with lots of milk and add sugar. The tea itself is no longer the point of the exercise. It is merely a flavouring used in the making of this sweet milky drink. Even outside of chai shops and dhabas, when most of us drink tea at home (and it is CTC that you will still find in most kitchens) we add enough milk and sugar to destroy any of the delicate flavours that tea might contain.

If we can control our fluoride levels, then, in this post-Covid, health-obsessed world, it could be one selling point for Indian tea

The CTC share of the domestic market is estimated at 88 per cent so real tea (what the trade calls “orthodox”) hardly gets a look in. When you tell people that most of the developed world will not drink CTC and that ‘orthodox’ made from the full leaves of the plant and not from powdery junk consisting of crumbled leaves is the real thing, nobody cares.

So can a country that (no matter how much tea it produces) does not drink real tea itself, really hope to make its presence felt in the global tea market?

There are new problems too. The global tea market is now obsessed with safety issues. Sometimes these are used as part of a trade battle but the concerns are genuine. Because tea is an agricultural product, a lot depends on the soil where it is grown and the methods of cultivation used.

In 2018, the Taiwanese government refused to let a batch of products made by the luxury Singapore-based tea brand TWG to enter the country. The Taiwanese said one batch of Vietnamese tea (with the TWG branding) had unacceptable pesticide residues. A second lot – six batches from Sri Lanka – was also rejected on the same grounds.

I asked TWG, which prides itself on its reputation for luxury, for a response. They explained:. “The tea in question passed all tests in Singapore. Different territories and countries have different tests for agricultural products. Tea leaves in Taiwan are tested exactly like fruit and vegetables, as if they are going to be chewed and swallowed. However, residue concentrations would be indefinitely diluted in an infusion form, which is how teas are usually drunk.”

Slightly less reassuringly, TWG also said “Teas are put through a battery of rigorous lab tests but not every batch can be tested for every single chemical. Just as an example, there are over 300 known pesticides used on fruit and vegetables around the world.”

All of this seems fair enough but there is no denying that with so many pesticides used in modern agriculture and with it not being physically possible to test them all, health concerns will multiply.

More serious is the great fluoride scare. This first raised its head in 2013 when British papers were full of articles claiming that many of the teas available in the UK market were unsafe for consumption because of high levels of fluoride.

The fluoride phenomenon is hardly understood by most people though many of us will remember a time when our toothpastes would brag about containing added fluoride. It is clear that fluoride does have certain health benefits (it prevents cavities) but it is also true that if you go beyond a certain level of fluoride, you risk bone disorders, neurological damage and other serious health consequences.

There are fluorides in the soil in which tea is grown. But do they enter the plant and do they then remain in the tea at levels that are potentially hazardous to health?

The broad answer appears to be: yes.

The Republic of Ireland delivered the sternest warning. Its health authorities said, “According to our risk assessment it is evident that the general population in the Republic of Ireland is at a high risk of chronic fluoride intake and adverse health exposure….The cumulative dietary fluoride intake in the general population could readily exceed the levels known to cause chronic fluoride intoxication”. And so on.

In the UK, the National Health Service (NHS) has been concerned but not as worried as the Irish. After a study by researchers from the University of Derby, which found that cheaper tea contained higher levels of fluoride and that consumption of these teas beyond a limit could be bad for health hit the headlines, the NHS recommended drinking no more than two cups of tea a day to avoid the danger from fluorides.

Newby uses low fluoride levels as one of its selling points

Newby uses low fluoride levels as one of its selling points

In India, the fluoride issue seems set to become contentious because Newby, one of the world’s top luxury tea brands, uses low fluoride levels as one of its selling points.

According to the folks at Newby, some Indian tea is cultivated in areas where there are high levels of fluoride in the soil and water. Most Indians, it says, are not aware of the danger. But Newby regularly tests the fluoride levels of its own and other teas in the market.

Newby sent me the results of its tests, which showed that many familiar/popular tea brands had high levels of fluoride in their teas. The results (from an independent lab) also seemed to bear out the hypothesis that cheaper teas had the highest levels of fluoride.

I haven’t used Newby’s results in this column because clearly, they come from an interested party – though the tests they sent me came from an independent lab. I have relied instead on government surveys from Ireland and the UK.

But, it does give us something to think about.  

According to Newby, to avoid the fluoride risks, you must choose your soil and water carefully. But there is another factor. Newby claims that when the tea plant sucks in fluoride from the earth, it takes a while for the fluoride to reach the top of the plants. If you were to test the leaves from the bottom of the bush and those from the top, the ones at the top would have the lowest fluoride concentrations.

In a sense this is the popular image of tea: it comes only from the two leaves and the bud at the top of the plant. But cheaper teas use leaves from the whole bush where fluoride levels are higher. It has long been rumoured that some premium brands also do not restrict themselves to the highest level of the bush.

Newby says it only picks leaves from the top: one reason why it is a truly premium product.

What all this suggests is that there is probably a case for an independent body (say the FSSAI) to examine fluoride levels in Indian tea, given that most of the population drinks lots of very cheap CTC tea.

If we can control our fluoride levels, then, in this post-Covid, health-obsessed world, it could be one selling point for Indian tea in the global market.

And God knows we need all the help we can get to compete globally.

From HT Brunch, June 14, 2020

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