What can Six Drinks teach us about health and wellness?February 22, 2012
One of the most surprisingly entertaining and informative books I’ve read during the past few years was “A History of the World in Six Glasses,” by Tom Standage. This book is a history of six of humanity’s most popular drinks: beer, wine, liquor, coffee, tea and Coca-Cola. It discusses how each of these drinks were discovered/invented and how they came to be widely consumed.
There are interesting stories about the history and health effects of each drink, as well as the broader social trends that made each drink popular at each point in time. There’s a lot we can learn about human health and wellness by taking a closer look at these Six Glasses.
- Beer: Beer was first brewed over 6,000 years ago in ancient Sumeria, which is now part of Iraq. The first beers were brewed from barley rather than wheat, and beer was an easy way to produce a valuable beverage from grains. The builders of the Pyramids in ancient Egypt were paid in beer (and bread), and beer was a staple of daily meals in ancient Egypt. Tom Standage has been quoted as saying that beer is known today as the drink of the working man, and it was the same in Ancient Egypt as well. Ancient Egyptian beer was different from European beer or modern beer in that it was more of a gruel than a liquid – the Egyptian beer would have been cloudy and full of solids.
- Wine: If beer was the beverage of the ancient working class, then wine quickly became known as a more expensive beverage for the elites. Wine is more expensive to make and store than beer, because it requires fresh grapes and special pottery. Beer was easier to produce in mass quantities to be sold cheaply to people of all social classes, but wine was more expensive and so it became associated with religious rituals and upper-class life. Ancient Greeks used wine for medicine and for education – students at lectures were expected to drink wine to loosen the tongue and prompt them to ask questions.
- Liquor (Brandy, Rum): Rum played a major part in the Age of Exploration during the 15th-19th centuries, as European navies gave rum to their sailors. The British Navy used a beverage called “grog” made from rum, water and lemon juice. This dash of lemon juice might have helped explain why Britain defeated the Spanish Armada and had such a superior Navy for so many years – since British sailors got a bit of citrus (and Vitamin C) along with their rum, they were less likely to develop scurvy (which was a common illness among sailors, caused by deficiency of Vitamin C and fresh fruit).
- Coffee: Coffee was first brewed around 1,000 A.D. in what is now known as Saudi Arabia, and coffee spread to Europe during the 15th Century. Coffeehouse culture as we know it today has not changed much – coffee shops have always been a place to conduct business, discuss ideas and sharpen the mind. (This is one of the reasons why we love coffee shops.)
- Tea: Tea has been a daily beverage in China since 300 A.D. Since tea requires water to be boiled in order to make tea, there were unexpected health benefits to the spread of tea. As people started to live in bigger cities, getting clean drinking water was important to prevent the spread of disease. Tea served as an unexpected “water purification device,” making it possible for cities to grow (and people to live healthier).
- Coca-Cola: The word “OK” is the most widely understood phrase in the world. “Coca-Cola” is number two. Coca-Cola went from humble beginnings at an Atlanta pharmacy in 1886 to become one of the most popular beverages and most valuable corporate brands in the world. Coca-Cola is a symbol of American capitalism and globalization. A survey from the Economist has shown a strong correlation between sales of Coca-Cola and the happiness of a country’s people – the higher the sales of Coca-Cola, the happier the people. Is this a case of cause…or effect?
Most people don’t think of a cup of tea as contributing to urban growth, or a glass of Coca-Cola causing nationwide happiness, or a shot of rum preventing scurvy, but the truth is, the six most popular drinks of human history have all played a role in the growth of our civilization. In this way, maybe it’s fair to say that “We are what we drink.”