gandhiWhen one thinks of Mahatma Gandhi, peace comes to mind. When one thinks of drinking tea, a calming effect often comes to mind. So, clearly, Gandhi must have been a strong proponent of tea drinking, right?

Wrong. According to this BBC piece:

Later, Mahatma Gandhi wrote a chapter in his book, A Key to Health, explaining why tannin, the compound that gives tea its astringency, was bad for human consumption.

He called tea “an intoxicant”, in the same class of avoidable substances as tobacco and cacao.

Indeed, in A Key to Health [PDF], Gandhi devotes a short chapter to tea, coffee, and cacao. About tea he says:

None of these is required by the body. The use of tea is said to have originated in China. It has a special use in that country. As a rule one cannot rely on the purity of drinking water in China and therefore it must be boiled before use to ensure safety. Some clever Chinaman discovered a grass called tea which when added to boiling water in a very small quantity gave it a golden colour. The colour did not appear unless the water was really boiling. Thus the grass became an infallible test for seeing when a given quantity of water was boiled. The way, the test is used, is to put the tea leaves in a strainer and let the boiling water pass through the strainer. If the water is boiling it will assume a golden colour. Another quality of tea leaves is said to be that they impart a delicate flavour to the water.

Tea prepared as above is harmless. But the tea that is generally prepared and taken has not only nothing to recommend it, it is actually harmful. The leaves contain tannin which is harmful to the body. Tannin is generally used in the tanneries to harden leather. When taken internally it produces a similar effect upon the mucous lining of the stomach and intestine. This impairs digestion and causes dyspepsia. It is said that in England innumerable women suffer from various ailments on account of their habit of drinking tea which contains tannin. Habitual tea drinkers begin to feel restless if they do not get their cup at the usual time. In my opinion, the usefulness of tea, if any, consists in the fact that it supplies a warm sweet drink which contains some milk. The same purpose may well be served by taking boiled hot water mixed with a little milk and sugar.

I find the first part of this story particularly interesting, as I’d never heard about the use of tea leaves as a way to ensure that water had been boiled. I’m guessing that Gandhi was talking about fresh tea leaves since tea that’s been processed certainly doesn’t require boiling water to produce a colored liquor. I can’t find any other reference to this tea origin tale, so it’s hard to say whether much stock should be put into it.

The second part of Gandhi’s anti-tea rant is just factually wrong. As Bruce Richardson pointed out very simply: tannic acid is what’s used in the process of tanning leather, but tea contains tannins, not tannic acid. Gandhi can be forgiven for the mistake, though, as it’s a misconception that started long ago and continues even today.

It should be noted that Gandhi was not always anti-tea: indeed, it wasn’t until a friend pointed out to him that he seemed to be addicted to it that he decided to break the attachment:

Gandhi like to drink tea during the day. A friend of Gandhi once remarked ‘Mr. Gandhi you can not be without this stimulant, tea!.

Gandhi thought for a while. From that day onwards, he gave up drinking tea.

(source, #68)