Merriam-Webster defines alchemy as: “A medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of the base metals into gold, the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.”
Make a small modification as it relates to tea and you come up with: “A medieval chemical science and speculative philosophy aiming to achieve the transmutation of tea for the discovery of a universal cure for disease, and the discovery of a means of indefinitely prolonging life.” This definition captures the marketing mantra of how tea has been promoted for thousands of years. The goal being to convert the humble tea leaf into a life-sustaining superfood or “nutraceutical,” and to fill the coffers of tea companies with gold.
Of course, this kind of food alchemy happens all the time across a wide variety of foods. A trip to The Hershey Story Museum in Hershey, PA, is enlightening. A chronological series of exhibits display how chocolate has been promoted as a cure-all across a spectrum of ailments and needs. One can’t help giggling at the vintage advertisements and packaging that claim that a chocolate bar is “more sustaining than meat,” contains all the health benefits of milk from special cows, and that chocolate is relaxing and makes for a soothing sleep.
If something as wonderful tasting as chocolate finds itself still needing to promote it’s magical powers as a nutraceutical, than it is hard to blame tea companies for using some of the same marketing strategies. Tea advertisements, particularly from the early 1900’s through the 1950’s, proclaim how many of life’s problems (low energy, poor health, inability to find a man, etc.) can each be solved by tea. While today’s true tea lovers may still agree with all of these tea superpowers; to the general public the claims in these old advertisements seem more than a little exaggerated.
So, what are we claiming about the alchemy of tea today? Whether we market it as a superfood packed with antioxidants or as a nutraceutical providing medical or health benefits – including the prevention and treatment of disease – the line is blurred between what science in a broader context can confirm about tea versus what “just enough” science commissioned by tea companies to provide cover for a health claim proves about tea. While there are some legal guidelines for tea as a food, much of this tea alchemy is self-policed within the tea industry. While comparisons to the past make contemporary tea marketing seem pretty tame; which of today’s advertisements will ring true and which will make people shake their heads in disbelief in the year 2040?
Hershey’s and tea advertisement images provided by the contributor.