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Masala Chai: A Curious Spice-Infused Black Tea

Masala Chai is a blended tea named after the Hindi word for tea (chai) that contains Black Tea, ginger, cloves, cinnamon, star anise, and black pepper. This tea is traditionally steeped with milk and sweetened with sugar, honey, or something else to take the bite off.

Chai tea contains a rich profile of vitamins and antioxidants and is the goto choice for an afternoon pickmeup for millions around the world. Limited research suggests that Chai tea may offer certain health benefits including the promotion of healthy cardiovascular function, stabilization of blood sugar, and support for healthy digestion.

History of Chai Tea

Chai Tea is traditionally known as Masala chai and is thought to have originated thousands of years ago from India. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the British-based East India Tea Company drastically shifted the origins of the world’s tea supplies through colonization of Indian territories.

Black tea wasn’t noted as being overtly popular in the colonized regions at the time. British industrialization, coupled with pro-black tea advertising campaigns, is attributed to sparking the adoption and widespread use. Leave it to the British to push tea right?

The addition of local spices such as star anise, cinnamon, and cloves weren’t part of the East India Trading Company’s original plan for Chai tea—though brewing with milk was certainly something they approved of. After strong localization of the recipe, the habit of blending several Indian-centric spices that comprise Masala Chai tea today was permanently rooted.

Health Benefits

masala chai health benefits infographic

Masala Chai tea is often attributed to a wide range of health benefits though few if any, direct scientific studies exist to support the claims. In most articles I’ve read, I see the health benefits of Chai tea being inferred through research that is focused on individual ingredients. For example, consider the following statement

“Black Tea supports heart health and Masala Chai contains Black Tea, therefore, Chai must also support heart health”

There’s no rule in nature that says the benefits to human health provided by 5 separate ingredients will remain when those ingredients are steeped together in boiling water. Below you’ll find several health benefits attributed to Masala chai—by way of individual ingredients in most cases—but no certainty of their efficacy as a collective.

Heart Health

Cinnamon contains the active compounds cinnamaldehyde and cinnamic acid, both of which help produce compounds that favor optimal heart health (R). Additionally, cinnamon extracts also provide a blood-vessel dilating effect that may also help lower the risk of heart attack or stroke.

Blood Sugar

Animal studies have demonstrated that cinnamon extracts stabilize blood sugar levels by helping to support the uptake of glucose (R). Other animal studies have also demonstrated that cinnamon can help prevent insulin sensitivity when a diet contains high amounts of sugar (R). An analysis of several human studies of patients with Type II diabetes also attributed a positive effect of cinnamon on blood sugar levels (R).

Brain Health

One study investigated the potential healing power of cinnamon on the brains of mice that had been chemically scrambled beforehand. Cinnamon was found capable of significantly reducing the amount of brain damage and lowering markers of inflammation (R). That’s a two-for-one deal I’d be happy to have a conversation with a robocaller about.

Teas contain a class of compounds called catechins that play a myriad of roles in supporting optimal human health. Among the catechins in cinnamon are epicatechin and procyanidin b2. Research shows these beneficial compounds may help fight off many age-related diseases like Alzheimer’s (R).

Cancer

Procyanidin, an active compound in cinnamon, has demonstrated anticancer activity in non-human conditions. It’s thought to exert this anti-cancer power by reducing a tumors ability to build new blood vessels as well as disrupting protein signaling critical to tumor growth (R). It’s far from being the next big thing in cancer treatment but its a step in the right direction.

Inflammation

Inflammation has a role in nearly all human disease. The ability of compounds found in Masala chai to reduce inflammation could easily qualify them as benefiting any number of health concerns on this list. But let’s try to get specific.

Cinnamon has been noted as decreasing several biomarkers commonly attributed to inflammation (R). These types of compounds are often studied as predictive endpoints of major diseases such as Diabetes, Cancer, and Heart Attacks.

Chai Tea Nutrition

As with most tea, there is not much macro-nutrient content. Chai Tea is loaded with varying trace minerals, vitamins, and polyphenols but the nutrition label looks pretty start. Below is the macronutrient content for Buddha Teas Chai Tea; a bleach-free USDA Certified Organic option.

Chai Tea Macro Nutrition (8oz. Cup)

NutrientAmount
Fat0 (g)
Carbohydrates0 (g)
Sodium0 (mg)
Protein0 (g)
Calories0 (kcal)
Sugar0 (g)
Ingredients: Organic Black Tea, Organic Cinnamon, Organic Cardamon Seed, Organic Cloves, Organic Ginger Root, Organic Black Pepper, Organic Star Anise

Data for Buddha Teas, Chai Tea from the USDA FoodData Central Database

If you made it to the product page, you may have noted this product is advertised to contain noteworthy levels of Iron, Vitamin A, and Antioxidants. It’s really hard to speak to the levels of such compounds in a given product unless there’s been a compositional analysis done. Otherwise, we’re left to make best-guesses.

In this case it pays to recognize that Masala chai is primarily black tea. There which does have a bit better nutritional data available. While the other ingredients common to Chai tea add other vitamins, minerals, and micronutrients; those of black tea are largely representative of Masala chai. Below you’ll see a breakdown of a generic Black Tea’s nutritional components. Note: amounts are taken from a 100-gram sample.

NutrientAmount (per 100g)
Calories1.0 (kcal)
Carbohydrates0.3 (g)
Iron0.02 (mg)
Magnesium3.0 (mg)
Phosphorus1.0 (mg)
Potassium37.0 (mg)
Sodium3.0 (mg)
Zinc0.02 (mg)
Copper0.01 (mg)
Manganese0.219 (mg)
Fluoride372.9 (µg)
Riboflavin0.014 (mg)
Pantothenic Acid0.011 (mg)
Folate5.0 (µg)
Choline0.4 (mg)
Saturated fat0.002 (g)
Monounsaturated fat0.001 (g)
Polyunsaturated fat0.004 (g)
Caffeine20.0 (mg)
Theobromine2.0 (mg)

Data for Beverages, Tea, Black, Brewed, Prepared With Tap Water from the USDA FoodData Central Database.

Noteworthy nutrients are Manganese, Folate, Fluoride—though the fluoride could have shown up from the water in which the Black Tea was steeped.

Unhealthy & Toxic Ingredients

Most teas are made from the extracts of plant-based compounds. In many cases, these compounds require some processing before they’re able to be shipped to consumers. At the very least, herbs must be ground up to a form suitable for packaging in tea bags.

Other cases involve roasting, boiling, or even chemical processing of compounds. These processes can leave trace amounts of carcinogenic compounds, similar to those found in grilled meats, that may have negative consequences on one’s health. These are the risks of healthy, often Certified Organic teas. If you’re considering whatever sludge McDonald’s is putting into their cups—all bets are off.

One study examined 28 samples of herbal tea from a varying range of brands. These included such varieties as Earl Grey, Masala Chai, Green Tea, and Black Tea from brands such as Tazo, Twinnings, Kirkland, and Lipton (R).

In all samples of tea, researchers found varying amounts of the following carcinogenic compounds:

  • fluorene
  • anthracene
  • pyrene
  • benzo(a)anthracene
  • chrysene
  • benzo(a)pyrene
  • indeno(1,2,3-cd)pyrene

Several of these are known carcinogens and may have a negative impact on health with long-term exposure. To be fair, the risk falls into the same ballpark risk category as eating grilled foods. Something to be mindful of—but don’t hit the panic button. The takeaway is this—find a few brands that you trust and can verify the quality of their products and buy your Chai tea from them. Buy your other teas from them as well!

Final Thoughts on Chai Tea

Masala chai is one of those scrumptious delicacies that is likely to be different wherever you go. It’s one of those menu-items that cafes and restaurants like to make their own. I’ve seen it with little more than cinnamon added and I’ve seen it in cappuccino form.

Before you get too giddy about the health benefits of chai tea, remember that a brew of tea isn’t always the sum of its parts. Just because there’s scientific support for cinnamon in helping support a healthy heart doesn’t mean drinking masala chai is going to prevent a heart attack. Drink it, love it, share it—just keep your expectations of chai tea’s role in preventative health care grounded.