Bye bye chai latte

I could not exactly avoid reading about two stories that dominated several papers recently which provoked much public outrage and some to question what they thought were fundamental principles of British society. Despite the headlines, I am not referring to the controversy and questions about Brexit, the FIFA election or even that scary American guy who shouts about ‘winning’. The first story to hit the papers is even more alarming and comes courtesy of the National Food Survey.

The National Food Survey was set up in 1940 by the government after concerns about health and access to food and it still works to provide high quality data on the dietary habits and nutritional status of adults and children in the UK. Their latest publication has been picked up by the media as the survey showed that the UK’s consumption of tea has halved since the 1970’s. It doesn’t seem possible that people could be drinking less tea but the figures don’t lie. Contrary to the widely accepted conviction that there is nothing more British than tea and the Queen (or HRH drinking tea), we are only drinking an average of 8 cups of tea per week as opposed to around 23 cups during the 70’s. I find this very puzzling as whilst I have been living in the UK, I have learned about the importance of tea and its unquestionable ability to solve every crisis. It is widely accepted that no matter what problem you come across in life, there is nothing that cannot be resolved or at least made better over a cuppa. However, the survey clearly showed that in the UK, we are now spending more money on coffee and other hot drinks, which brings me to an even more shocking story in the news.

The even bigger story that has caused much heated discussion and deep thought is the news that the beloved chai latte has been exposed as being nothing more than a sickly sugar-packed calorie-loaded pudding in a cup. The brutal truth has finally come out and I think what has hurt people the most is that no one expected to be let down by a drink once held in such high esteem.

It may be hard to believe but there was once a time when chai lattes didn’t even exist. Pre-latte, chai tea had very humble beginnings and was exclusively enjoyed by those familiar with the Ayurvedic tradition of India of preparing black tea with traditional healing spices. It slowly became available in alternative shops and in a couple of supermarket ‘world food’ aisles in the UK but it wasn’t until someone had the aspirational foresight to add latte (some call it chai latte 0 day) that a new drink was born. Over time it became the hot drink of choice and lifestyle of bearded hipsters, clean eaters and their friends and it soon evolved into the chai latte we know today. Before long, the popularity of chai latte spread to the masses and it began to shamelessly outsell cafe old guards, expresso and cappuccino. Chai latte even blew the flat white completely out of the water and this is probably the point when it finally reached its peak. Today the chai latte is ubiquitous and various chai latte flavours are always available in every coffee shop, fast food outlet, garden centre and petrol station. Which is very reassuring as this means that you never have to go far to enjoy the warm, aromatic flavours of cinnamon and cardamom…

However, like all food fads the chai latte was too good to be true and its downfall began when somebody decided to read its long list of ingredients. In another big sugar expose by the experts who like to tell the truth about what’s in our food, Action on Sugar published a study that showed that 98% of the 131 hot flavoured drinks found in the big high street chains would carry a ‘red’ warning for excessive levels of sugar if the coffee shops were forced to label them.

As someone who has witnessed the blank stare of many a barista when asked if their skinny chai lattes contained any sugar, I was surprised that the study caused such a media firestorm. Surely anybody who has tasted a sickly chai latte knows that they are sweetened with something. However, I think that it is the extent to which they are sweetened which has made everyone feel as if they have been tricked. For instance, the study showed that 35% of the hot drinks contained the same or more sugar than a can of Coca Cola. Although most people will recognise that a sugary, fizzy soft drink, by definition, contains a lot of sugar we are unaccustomed to seeing hot drinks in terms of sugar. Therefore, many people would not have expected chai lattes and their ilk to fill the sticky podium of sugary hot drinks and dominate the entire chart of shame. In fact, some of the worst culprits had 25 tsps of sugar, which is more than 3 times the recommended maximum daily amount for an adult.

The chai latte’s reputation is now truly tarnished and to top it off, it has been implicated in playing a role in the obesity crisis by encouraging even more unhealthy habits. Action on Sugar has claimed that it is guilty by association of keeping bad company with the sugar and fat laden snacks eaten alongside the drinks. Really, its reputation couldn’t get much worse which is a shame because who doesn’t love those warming spices? I think direct action is needed to save the chai before it disappears across all coffee shops with all other discredited drinks such as Orange chocolate frappuccinos and New Coke, never to be enjoyed again. Therefore, I propose a healthy makeover to rescue the chai from the brinks of extinction: the tea needs to go solo. There is nothing inherently unhealthy about the tea on its own, it is just the addition of the latte that packs in mountains of added sugar and takes it to the dark side of hot beverages. I am not just suggesting this chai revolution to ditch the latte thinking of our waistlines. I also think this is the best way to ensure its longevity and safeguard the drink for our children and grandchildren and the future generations of chai tea drinkers. And just maybe if we all make an effort to go back to chai tea we can also improve the tea figures in the UK and strengthen its tea-drinking reputation. At least I will be trying to do my bit by putting the kettle on more often to enjoy the warm, spicy flavours of cinnamon and cardamom…mmm!

And of course, the recipe this week has to involve some chai tea. This recipe for Vanilla chai tea bread is a very easy to put together and as you have to make some tea for the recipe, you might as well make an extra cup to enjoy as you cook.

Fig and pistachio

1 thought on “Bye bye chai latte

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