This question can be answered best by understanding more about the elements of this popular drink. Most of us use the term spice and herb interchangeably. Herbs however are traditionally obtained from the leaves of herbaceous (non-woody) plants. Spices, on the other hand, can be obtained from roots, flowers, fruits, seeds or bark and tend to be more strongly flavored. To add to the confusion, some plants produce both herbs and spices, like Coriandrum Sativum. The leaves of this wonderful plant produce the herb cilantro while we get the spice coriander from the plant’s seeds.
Let’s take a look at spices and the role they place in a well-known tea we call Chai. Chai is derived from a Sanskrit word which means “tea” in many countries around the world. One of the oldest healing systems in the world, dating back 5,000 years is Ayurveda. Masala chai is an ancient spiced tea that is actually an Ayurvedic medicinal tea, using traditional Ayurvedic spices along with black tea.
If you look on the web, you’ll find countless recipes for chai tea. The most commonly used central spices include cardamom, ginger, cinnamon and cloves. It is the antioxidant effect of all these healing spices that is at the core of their medicinal value. Oxidation is a chemical reaction taking place in our body that produces free radicals that cause cell damage. An antioxidant interferes with this dangerous chain reaction produced by oxidation. Our believed plant, camellia sinensis, is well-known as having tremendous antioxidant capabilities and is an inherent part of chai tea in the form of black tea. Tea research links increased immune function and cardiovascular benefits, to mention a few, as well regarded health benefits of black tea.
Cardamom is most noted as a safe and effective, warming, digestive aid although some believe it also stimulates the mind and provides cognitive clarity. In Germany, an organization called the Commission E, much like our FDA but focusing on natural products, approved cardamom to treat indigestion. Cardamom is commonly used in Germany to treat colds, to quiet coughs, to soothe bronchitis, to reduce fevers, to treat liver and gallbladder complaints, to stimulate appetite, and as a general immune system enhancer.
Ginger is another wonderful healing spice. It is an excellent carminative with antifungal, antibacterial, antiviral and antinausea effects. In addition, there is evidence that ginger stimulates the circulatory system.
Cinnamon had been used for hundreds of years as a perfume but today is recognized as a gastrointestinal aid with antibacterial actions. It is believed to have a synergistic effect with other herbs and spices as it appears to increase or stimulate effectiveness of herbs used in conjunction with it. Recent investigation points to cinnamon’s potential benefits controlling blood sugar and as a sleep aid.
Clove contains a chemical component called eugenol which is currently being used as a dental analgesic. Folklore recommends clove as a natural remedy for toothaches and as an effective agent to combat bad breath. Naturopaths report that clove is antiseptic, antiparasitic, antifungal and antibacterial. They also recommend it during labor to strengthen uterine contractions.
Keep in mind that most forms of commercially made chai tea that we find at the supermarket are not to be considered medicinal. The inclusion of excessive amounts of sweeteners along with spices that may not be fresh reduces this potential powerhouse of a beverage into a guilty pleasure. Why not find a chai recipe that speaks to you and makes a healthy brew that promises to improve your general health and wellness?
Most contemporary chai recipes call for a 1:1 ratio of milk to black tea. Scientific investigation cautions the use of milk in tea. According to research, the simultaneous ingestion of dairy proteins (and soy, unfortunately) appears to reduce the bioavailability of catechins in the tea. It is the catechins that provide the antioxidant benefits of tea. This supports epidemiological studies that show the protective benefits of green tea consumption in Asia, where it is had without milk, and the lack of observable health benefits for the British population who are known to be consistent black tea with milk drinkers.
According to Wikipedia, “Masala chai […] is a flavoured tea beverage made by brewing black tea with a mixture of aromatic Indian spices and herbs.” The original recipe doesn’t require milk or sugar. One can easily substitute with almond milk and stevia to make a chai drink that will look familiar and provide the sweetness that westerners have become used to.
Search the web for chai recipes without the emphasis on the inclusion of milk and sugary sweeteners. Perhaps I have inspired you to create your own healthy version of this increasingly popular drink.