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Tea trap: The dangers of a badly-brewed cuppa

There could hardly be a more quintessentially English undertaking than an incredulous debate about the merits of tea.

But a university study which concluded that four in five Brits were making their tea incorrectly has put noses out of joint in ol' Blighty, and prompted suggestions that the clumsily-crafted national beverage could be causing health problems.

Researchers at University College London and the British Science Association found that most tea-makers were failing to allow the tea to infuse for long enough. A good tea should steep for five minutes, they argued, while the average Brit only waited for two – thereby sacrificing flavour.

Not content to stop there, experts also contended such impatience could lead to nosebleeds. The steam from a cup of tea not left to cool could weaken or rupture the blood vessels in the nose, Henry Sharpe, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, told the British Daily Mail.

"People prone to nosebleeds are particularly vulnerable, so allow your drinks to cool," he advised.

But wait – there's more. Researchers at the University of Tehran found a link between piping hot tea and throat cancer. Drinking tea at temperatures above 70 degrees celsius was associated with an eight-fold increase in the risk of developing oesophageal cancer, compared to consuming tea at 65 degrees and below, the study contended. The findings were published in the British Medical Journal in 2009.


Another study, this time at the University of Glasgow in 2012, found men who were heavy tea drinkers had a 50 per cent greater risk of prostate cancer. The data, collated from more than 6000 Scottish men, only showed correlation and not causation, lead author Kashif Shafique said.

"We don't know whether tea itself is a risk factor or if tea drinkers are generally healthier and live to an older age when prostate cancer is more common anyway," he said.

The same study also found that heavy tea drinkers were more likely to have healthy cholesterol, be within a healthy weight range and eschew alcohol.

And in a case published in the New England Journal of Medicine, a woman who had consumed a pitcher of 100 to 150 tea bags daily developed skeletal fluorosis, thought to be due to the high level of fluoride in tea.

Clear and present dangers notwithstanding, Britain remains a nation of tea-lovers. The average Brit consumes 1.94 kilograms of a tea each year, according to Euromonitor and World Bank data compiled by Quartz. That was just behind the Irish but significantly less than the Turks, who consume 3.16 kilograms a year on average. Australians drink about 0.75 kilograms.

And being Britain, the nation actually has guidelines on this sort of thing. The British Standards Institute, a body established in 1901, dictates tea should be left to infuse for a full six minutes. Tea should also be brewed in a pot "of white porcelain or glazed earthenware, with its edge partly serrated", with no more than five millilitres of milk added to a large cup.

But the presence of strict procedure does not necessarily mean the British know their kettle from their tea leaves. Mark Miodownik, a professor at University College London who worked on the recent study of brewing habits, had no stiff upper lip when it came to condemning his country's abilities.

"What frustrates me is the British think they know about tea, but most people have no idea what they are doing," he told the British Telegraph.

"I think of all the people who grow and pick these plants in order for you to experience this wonderfully complex drink, and at the last minute Brits throw that all away by brewing it badly."