Monday, June 14, 2010

Does Drinking Tea Change the Palate?

Pictured below is a pasta salad. I'm a big salad person. One of my ex-girlfriends liked to refer to an "Alex Salad"...which could be based on anything from pasta to rice to seafood, to just vegetables, just fruit, or some combination...but never containing any lettuce. These diverse salads all had a distinct character based on my own preferences and palate, which has developed in strange ways over the years.

This pasta salad is typical: pasta, feta cheese, beans, cucumber, red pepper, onions. What you can't see as easily are the seasonings and dressing: fresh spearmint, orange mint, ground coriander, olive oil, and a dash of sambal oelek (a type of Chili paste that is one of my favorites). No salt is added (not even in cooking the pasta) other than that in the sambal oelek and the feta cheese.

Not everyone likes my salads, although when people like them, they usually love them. They are frequently described as "strange" or "different". But people also remark that I tend to eat (and prepare) relatively healthy foods.

I did not like foods like this when I was younger. As a child, I was an embarassingly picky eater. I only came to develop a taste for food like this over time.

What in the world does this have to do with tea?

Lahikmajoe pointed out in his recent blog post that I like to talk about how drinking tea can develop the palate. I think that the simple act of drinking tea changes the way you perceive tastes. Tea is an acquired taste, for the simple fact that it is bitter, and also for the important quality that it is, in most cases, more aromatic than it is flavorful. Pictured below is a basic cup of black tea, brewed from a teabag, the brand of which shall remain unnamed:

It was a decent cup of tea, but nothing special. But I think that drinking even decent, somewhat generic tea on a regular basis changes the palate. I think this is especially true if we drink the tea unsweetened. Humans have a natural propensity to be cautious with bitter foods: many poisons are bitter, and our taste of bitterness serves to help us avoid poisoning in our natural environment. But over time, if a bitter food or drink makes us feel well and not ill, we will come to enjoy it. This is the very essence of an acquired taste.

Going back to the salad ingredients:

Mint, like tea, is a bitter, aromatic plant. The two plants have much in common, and it is no coincidence they are frequently blended, as in Moroccan Mint Tea. But most seasonings, spices, and herbs are similarly bitter and aromatic. Most of these spices are acquired tastes. Even the onions, a vegetable ingredient in the salad, can be seen as a flavoring, and share the bitter, aromatic qualities of the other spices and herbs.

Interestingly, nearly all of these seasonings have health benefits. These benefits vary widely from spice to spice, and range from antioxidants to antibacterial, antifungal, and even antiviral activity, to stress-reducing properties, and properties positively affecting the absorption of various minerals and nutrients. Lately I've been working a lot on the RateTea page on mint tea, and I've been pleased to find that mint has a myriad of health benefits--great news because I love it and use it frequently both in cooking and to make herbal tea, but the other spices used in the salad also have their benefits.

Also of note is the absence of any sweetener or added salt in the salad. Acquiring tastes isn't just about including ingredients but is also about omitting them.

Another way tea can improve health?

Perhaps the health benefits of tea are not limited to the chemicals in the tea itself...but rather, extend to the fact that drinking tea develops our palate to prefer bitter, aromatic ingredients such as herbs and spices, which ultimately improve our health in a number of ways.

This development of palate is of particular importance in the United States of America, where many of us have been conditioned to prefer bland food, devoid of spices, sweet, devoid of bitterness and aromas...heavily processed, full of empty calories. Salt is the one flavor that is often included, and many Americans have a diet that is too high in salt.

Tea is the very antithesis of this bland, unhealthy food culture. Tea is bitter, aromatic, and contains very little to no sweet or salty tastes. Tea provides a means to train the palate to prefer healthy foods, a way to break out of our homogenized, industrialized food culture and return to our roots--a food culture of rich aromas, healthy doses of bitter herbs and seasonings, and fresh, healthy ingredients. This is closely related to the main premises of the slow food movement, which is another interesting, and related topic that I hope to explore more in the future.

So drink up!


  1. Excellent observation. I find that those who eat a less healthful diet are much less likely to enjoy tea. They complain it has no flavor, and instead prefer coffee, usually with lots of cream and/or sugar (or just black with a cigarette!). It is ironic that Americans tend to eat a bland diet compared to many parts of the world, but are so overwhelmed by salt and sugar that they have a hard time perceiving the relatively subtle flavors in tea. When I'm talking to people who are just getting into tea, and they report that they didn't care for a particular type of tea, I always suggest that they try it again in about a year. Frequently, if they keep drinking tea, after a year's time they will have a better appreciation for all kinds of tea and may grow to enjoy the one they didn't like at first. It would be interesting to ask them if they notice their preferences in other foods expanding as well!

  2. Very, very nice article, Alex. I agree with both you and Lori 100%. People use salt and sugar way too much in order to 'flavor' food when actuality they eat so fast that they can't taste what certain foods have to offer without added ingredients. Keep it simple and slow down.

    Also, I wish people would learn more about spices in cooking. Throw out the salt and pepper shakes; they shouldn't be on the table. Spices like mint, cloves, cinnamon, dill, oregano, etc. are out there just waiting to turn an old recipe into something completely different.

    There is a show on the Cooking Channel called "The Spice Goddess." I believe you would like it. I do.

  3. Yes! Spices are so wonderful; it's amazing what even a single spice can do to an otherwise bland dish. There are times when I've made something very simple, like a single vegetable sauteed in oil, or just cutting up fresh tomatoes...but then I'll add one or two spices, and people suddenly think that it's some sort of artful creation!

  4. Hi Alex,

    I saw a comment you had posted a few months back in response to a guest column I wrote on Julien Smith's blog. In your comment you mentioned that you had developed a taste for bitter foods, in addition to your appreciation for tea.

    I have had a similar inkling for these types of flavors, but recently came across some interesting research that explains the hormetic benefits of phytochemicals, and thus why our metabolism may "need" bitter foods and tea. I recently posted an article about this on my blog, and thought you might enjoy it. The "answer" to the puzzle comes at the very end of the article:

  5. Hi Todd! That's an interesting theory about plant toxins. I haven't seen any other science validating it but it's something I'll keep in the back of my mind.

    I definitely have seen a lot of similar research on antioxidants, finding that the benefit of plant chemicals that act as antioxidants may not be due to their antioxidant activity, but rather, is due to other properties. There's certainly evidence for this in tea's antioxidants, and the article on about antioxidants in tea definitely covers this point and cites some relevant studies as well.