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The perfect cuppa or an assault on teatime?

It’s enough to make you reach for the smelling salts. Does the humble cuppa really need this?

The staple of morning and afternoon refreshment for many older Australians is now the subject of a surprise scientific “discovery”: tea tastes better with … salt.

Some may call it a storm in a teacup, but many Australians would find adding salt plain absurd. Afterall, an estimated 9.5 billion cups (of unsalted) tea are consumed each year in Australia, and 88% of households purchase tea annually.

To add insult to injury, it’s a debate stirred up by an American.

A Pennsylvania-based chemistry professor, Michelle Francl, has been studying the craft of tea-making – having read 500 papers and consumed more than 400 cups of tea – and believes to have found that a pinch of salt makes the perfect formula.

“My perfect cup of tea starts with loose black tea, usually a nice English breakfast, and then use boiling water, and I let it steep for four minutes,” she said.

“That little pinch of salt makes it ... less bitter. My perfect cup of tea.”

Professor Franci’s research has caused quite the stir in the home of English breakfast, the United Kingdom, drawing a diplomatic intervention from the American embassy there.

“We want to assure the good people of the UK 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 on X, formerly known as Twitter.

And as if to confirm that Americans probably know next to nothing about proper tea-making, the embassy added, “The US Embassy will continue to make tea in the proper way – by microwaving it.” Eeek!

“I certainly did not mean to cause a diplomatic incident,” Prof Francl, who teaches chemistry at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, told the BBC.

“My emails have been going crazy today. I did not anticipate waking up this morning to see loads of people talking about salt in their tea.”

Why add salt?

It’s not a new idea – the ingredient is even mentioned in 8th Century Chinese manuscripts, which Prof Francl analysed to perfect her recipe.

“What is new is our understanding of it as chemists,” she said.

She explained that salt acts as a blocker to the receptor that makes tea taste bitter, especially when it has been stewed.

By adding a pinch of table salt you will counteract the bitterness of the drink.

“It is not like adding sugar,” Prof Francl said. “I think people are afraid they will be able to taste the salt.”

She urges tea-loving people everywhere to have an open mind before prejudging her research, which she has documented in her new book Steeped: The Chemistry of Tea.

“It is OK to experiment,” she says. “I did experiments in my kitchen for this – channel your inner scientist.”

Prof Francl says she’s loved tea ever since her mother made her first brew when she was 10.

Related reading: BBC, SBS 


John Austin

John Austin

Policy and Communications Officer, National Seniors Australia

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