An American professor's proposal to add a pinch of salt to the cup of tea caused uproar in the United Kingdom and made the United States embassy intervene. A nutritionist says adding salt may pose health risks for excessive tea drinkers.
Dr. Michelle Francl, a chemistry professor and the author of the book Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea, recently shared the recipe for a perfect cup of tea — using loose leaves instead of bags and constantly stirring the drink for the tea to achieve a good exposure to the water and milk.
But it was the suggestion to add a pinch of salt — not enough to taste — to reduce the bitterness of tea that caught the attention of media, social network users, and even diplomats.
The U.S. embassy in London called Francl's proposal "outrageous" and said it threatened the foundation of the relationship between the countries.
"We want to ensure the good people of the U.K. that the unthinkable notion of adding salt to Britain's national drink is not official United States policy. And never will be," the embassy said in a lighthearted statement published on X.
An important statement on the latest tea controversy. 🇺🇸🇬🇧 pic.twitter.com/HZFfSCl9sDundefined U.S. Embassy London (@USAinUK) January 24, 2024
Francl's recipe for tea became the material for memes and entertainment news reports rather than the reason for a diplomatic conflict.
However, as the World Heart Organization calls for massive efforts to reduce salt intake globally, could the perfect — or at least less bitter — cup of tea harm our health?
No benefits to adding salt to tea
Jo Travers, BSc, R.D., a London-based nutritionist, says research does not suggest the health benefits of adding salt to tea. As the amount suggested by Francl is very small, the health risks associated with a tiny pinch are low.
"The trouble comes when you get someone who drinks 10 cups a day, and the amount is no longer tiny. Additionally, diets of the average U.K. person are already high in salt, so I would persuade people not to get into the habit of adding another source," Travers tells Healthnews.
A salt intake that is too high is also a matter of concern in the U.S., where an average American consumes 3,500 mg of sodium daily. While sodium has many forms, most of the sodium we consume comes from salt.
Eating too much sodium can increase your blood pressure and the risk of heart disease and stroke.
Francl said salt as an ingredient of tea is mentioned in 8th-century Chinese manuscripts and works by blocking the bitter receptors in the mouth.
Travers says her experiment revealed that adding a pinch of salt to tea made it taste slightly less bitter. However, as a fan of bitterness, she says she is not a convert.
Use a kettle, scientists say
The U.S. embassy in London said in the statement that it will continue to make tea "the proper way" — by microwaving it. This again goes against Francl's advice never to heat up the water in a microwave, as the method is less healthy and can spoil the taste.
Boiling water in a kettle versus heating it in the microwave is another issue dividing the community of tea lovers.
According to a 2020 study published in the American Institute of Physics journal AIP Advances, using a kettle allows one to maintain a uniform temperature.
Heating water from below, like in a kettle that is put on a stove, involves a process called convection. As water toward the bottom of the container warms up, it becomes less dense and moves to the top, allowing a cooler section of the liquid to contact the source. As a result, the temperature remains uniform throughout the glass, the study authors explain.
Inside a microwave, the electric field acting as the heating source exists everywhere. As the entire glass itself is also warming up, the convection process does not occur. This makes the liquid at the top of the container much hotter than the liquid at the bottom.
Adding a pinch of salt to tea if you drink a couple of cups a day won’t benefit or harm your health. Nevertheless, Francl’s well-researched recipe is worth trying — after all, the Chinese were perfecting the beverage long before it was introduced in the U.K.