The Toxic History of Green Tea

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According to the Tea Association of the USA (yes, it exists), sales of Green Tea have grown by over 60% in the last decade. This is unsurprising given that Green Tea is nowadays credited for making you smarter, leaner and calmer. The real question is, who wouldn’t buy Green Tea?

But Green Tea’s popularity is relatively new phenomenon, as for the better part of the 19th century Green Tea wasn’t just undesirable, it was seen as toxic!

In his fascinating book on the Victorian era, Matthew Sweet goes about humour sly dispelling many of the commonly held assumptions about our 19th century ancestors. When it comes discussing health trends during the 1800s, Sweet’s book is downright jaw dropping. He informs us that

For most of the 19th century, there was less concern about the perils of taking cocaine than there was about the negative side effects of drinking green tea… Readers of Victorian fiction and journalism were used to seeing green tea evoked as a stomach-churning, nerve-jangling threat to health.

So what turned the tide?

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Adulteration or shoddy quality to you and me.

As the demand for Green Tea increased, suppliers began to resort to shady means of production. In simple terms, the desire for more and more money led to a series of materials being added to Green Tea, which really shouldn’t have happened. This was done both by Chinese producers and English sellers. One such method was to add the leaves from other plants to bulk up shipments. This however, was a benign form of corruption as others resorted to adding iron fillings, copper carbonate and if rumours are to be believed, sheep’s dung

Public knowledge of adulteration led to the conclusion that Green Teas must be toxic and therefore avoided. This was compounded even further in the 1840s following Dr. George Sigmond’s paper in The Lancelot detailing the positive and negative aspects of tea. Although conceding that the drink did have some medicinal properties, Sigmond warned against the drink as it could potentially cause problems in the digestive tract and also the lungs. Given the prestige in which the Lancelot was and is held, his article carried an air of respectability.

As hysteria around Green Tea began to grow, outrageous fears began to grow. A favourite was that it caused madness. Irish writer Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu famously illustrated this in his novel entitled In a Glass Darkly. A chapter of the book, aptly named ‘Green Tea’, details how an English clergyman was haunted by spectres following excessive consumption of Green Tea. When the clergyman visits the doctor, he’s told that Green Tea has unset his equilibrium, thereby opening up his inner eye to ghosts and ghouls. Given the book was published in the early 1870s, it’s fair to say that the fear of Green Tea was long-lasting.

Given that nowadays Green Tea’s praises are sung from nearly every corner of the health field, one can’t help but hope that the recent demonisation of Bacon by the WHO will may be met with a similar confusion in later centuries…

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