Popular Science Monthly/Volume 26/December 1884/The Chemistry of Cookery XVIII
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The Chemistry of Cookery XVIII
By William Mattieu Williams
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This may appear to many a very strong condemnation of their favorite beverage; nevertheless, I am satisfied that it is perfectly sound. This is not an opinion hastily adopted, but a conclusion based upon many observations, extending over a long period of years, and confirmed by experiments made upon myself.
The "Pall Mall Gazette" of August 7th says, "There is balm for tea-drinkers in one of Mr. Mattieu Williams's 'Science Notes' in the 'Gentleman's Magazine.' "This is true to a certain extent, I referred to the Chinese as habitual drinkers of boiled water, and suggest that this may explain their comparative immunity from cholera, where all the other conditions for a raging epidemic are fulfilled. It is the boiling of the water, not the infusion of tea-leaves therein, to which I attribute the destruction of the germs of infection.
In the note which follows, I proposed an infusion of fried or toasted bread-crumbs, oatmeal, maize, wheat, barley, malt, etc., as a substitute for the tea, the deep color of the infusion (poured off from the grounds in this case) serving to certify the boiling of the water. Rumford's burned soup, taken habitually at breakfast or other meals, would answer the same purpose, with the further advantage to poor people of being, to a certain extent, a nutritious soup as well as a beverage. All that is nutritious in porter is in this, minus the alcoholic drug and its vile companion, the fusel-oil.
The experience of every confirmed tea-drinker, when soundly interpreted, supplies condemnation of the beverage; the plea commonly and blindly urged on its behalf being, when understood, an eloquent expression of such condemnation. "It is so refreshing "; "I am fit for nothing when tea-time comes round until I have had my tea, and then I am fit for anything." The "fit for nothing" state comes on at five p.m., when the drug is taken at the orthodox time, or even in the early morning, in the case of those who are accustomed to have a cup of tea brought to their bedside before rising. "With blindness still more profound, some will plead for tea by telling that by its aid one can sit up all night long at brain-work without feeling sleepy, provided ample supplies of the infusion are taken from time to time.
It is unquestionably true that such may be done; that the tea-drinker is languid and weary at tea-time, whatever be the hour, and that the refreshment produced by "the cup that cheers" and is said not to inebriate, is almost instantaneous.
What is the true significance of these facts?
The refreshment is certainly not due to nutrition, not to the rebuilding of any worn-out or exhausted organic tissue. The total quantity of material conveyed from the tea-leaves into the water is ridiculously too small for the performance of any such nutritive function; and, besides this, the action is far too rapid, there is not sufficient time for the conversion of even that minute quantity into organized working tissue. The action can not be that of a food, but is purely and simply that of a stimulating or irritant drug, acting directly and abnormally on the nervous system.
The five-o'clock lassitude and craving are neither more nor less than the reaction induced by the habitual abnormal stimulation; or otherwise, and quite fairly, stated, it is the outward symptom of a diseased condition of brain produced by the action of a drug; it may be but a mild form of disease, but it is truly a disease nevertheless.
The active principle which produces this result is the crystalline alkaloid, the theine, a compound belonging to the same class as strychnine and a number of similar vegetable poisons. These, when diluted, act medicinally, that is, produce disturbance of normal functions as the tea does, and, like theine, most of them act specially on the nervous system; when concentrated they are dreadful poisons, very small doses producing death.
The non-tea-drinker does not suffer any of these five-o'clock symptoms, and, if otherwise in sound health, remains in steady working condition until his day's work is ended and the time for rest and sleep arrives. But the habitual victim of any kind of drug or disturber of normal functions acquires a diseased condition, displayed by the loss of vitality or other deviation from normal condition, which is temporarily relieved by the usual dose of the drug, but only in such wise as to generate a renewed craving. I include in this general statement all the vice-drugs (to coin a general name), such as alcohol, opium, tobacco (whether smoked, chewed, or snuffed), arsenic, hasheesh, betel-nut, coca-leaf, thorn-apple, Siberian fungus, maté, etc., all of which are excessively "refreshing" to their victims, and of which the use may be, and has been, defended by the same arguments as those used by the advocates of habitual tea-drinking.
Speaking generally, the reaction or residual effect of these on the system is nearly the opposite of that of their immediate effect, and thus larger and larger doses are demanded to bring the system to its normal condition. The non-tea-drinker or moderate drinker is kept awake by a cup of tea or coffee taken late at night, while the hard drinker of these beverages scarcely feels any effect, especially if accustomed to take it at that time.
The practice of taking tea or coffee by students, in order to work at night, is downright madness, especially when preparing for an examination. More than half of the cases of break-down, loss of memory, fainting, etc., which occur during severe examinations, and far more frequently than is commonly known, are due to this.
I frequently hear of promising students who have thus failed; and, on inquiry, have learned—in almost every instance—that the victim has previously drugged himself with tea or coffee. Sleep is the rest of the brain; to rob the hard-worked brain of its necessary rest is cerebral suicide.
My old friend, the late Thomas Wright, was a victim of this terrible folly. Pie undertook the translation of the "Life of Julius Cæsar," by Napoleon III, and to do it in a cruelly short time. He fulfilled his contract by sitting up several nights successively by the aid of strong tea or coffee (I forget which). I saw him shortly afterward. In a few weeks he had aged alarmingly, and become quite bald, his brain gave way and never recovered. There was but little difference between his age and mine, and but for this dreadful cerebral strain, rendered possible only by the alkaloid (for otherwise he would have fallen to sleep over his work, and thereby saved his life), he might still be amusing and instructing thousands of readers by fresh volumes of popularized archaeological research.
I need scarcely add that all I have said above applies to coffee as to tea, though not so seriously in this country. The active alkaloid is the same in both, but tea contains weight for weight about three times as much as coffee. In this country we commonly use about fifty per cent more coffee than tea to each given measure of water, and thus get about half as much alkaloid. On the Continent they use about double our quantity (this is the true secret of "coffee as in France"), and thus produce as potent an infusion as our tea.
The above remarks are exclusively applied to the habitual use of these stimulants. As medicines, used occasionally and judiciously, they are invaluable, provided always that they are not used as ordinary beverages. In Italy, Greece, and some parts of the East, it is customary, when anybody feels ill, with indefinite symptoms, to send to the druggist for a dose of tea. From what I have seen of its action on non-tea-drinkers, it appears to be specially potent in arresting the premonitory symptoms of fever, the fever-headache, etc.
Since the publication of my last I have been reminded of the high authorities who have defended the use of the alkaloids, and more particularly of Liebig's theory, or the theory commonly attributed to Liebig, but which is Lehmann's, published in Liebig's "Annalen," Volume LXXXVII, and adopted and advocated by Liebig with his usual ability.
Lehmann watched for some weeks the effects of coffee upon two persons in good health. He found that it retarded the waste of the tissues of the body, that the proportion of phosphoric acid and of urea excreted by the kidneys was diminished by the action of the coffee, the diet being in all other respects the same. Pure caffeine (which is the same as theine) produced a similar effect ; the aromatic oil of the coffee, given separately, was found to exert stimulating effect on the nervous system.
Johnstone ("Chemistry of Common Life"), closely following Liebig, and referring to the researches of Lehmann, says: "The waste of the body is lessened by the introduction of theine into the stomach —that is, by the use of tea. And, if the waste be lessened, the necessity for food to repair it will be lessened in an equal proportion. In other words, by the consumption of a certain quantity of tea, the health and strength of the body will be maintained in an equal degree upon a smaller quantity of ordinary food. Tea, therefore, saves food—stands to a certain extent in the place of food—while, at the same time, it soothes the body and enlivens the mind."
He proceeds to say that "in the old and infirm it serves also another purpose. In the life of most persons a period arrives when the stomach no longer digests enough of the ordinary elements of food to make up for the natural daily waste of the bodily substance. The size and weight of the body, therefore, begin to diminish more or less perceptibly. At this period tea comes iti as a medicine to arrest the waste, to keep the body from falling away so fast, and thus to enable the less energetic powers of digestion still to supply as much as is needed to repair the wear and tear of the solid tissues." No wonder, therefore, says he, "that the aged female, who has barely enough income to buy what are called the common necessaries of life, should yet spend a portion of her small gains in purchasing her ounce of tea. She can live quite as well on less common food when she takes her tea along with it; while she feels lighter at the same time, more cheerful, and fitter for her work, because of the indulgence."
All this is based upon the researches of Lehmann and othero, who measured the work of the vital furnace by the quantity of ashes produced—the urea and phosphoric acid excreted. But there is also another method of measuring the same, that of collecting the expired breath and determining the quantity of carbonic acid given off by combustion. This method is imperfect, inasmuch as it only measures a portion of the carbonic acid which is given off. The skin is also a respiratory organ, co-operating with the lungs in evolving carbonic acid.
Dr. Edward Smith adopted this method of measuring the respired carbonic acid. His results were first published in "The Philosophical Transactions" of 1859, and again in Chapter XXXV of his volume on "Food," "International Scientific Series."
After stating, in the latter, the details of the experiments, which include depth of respiration as well as amount of carbonic acid respired, he says: "Hence it was proved beyond all doubt that tea is a most powerful respiratory excitant. As it causes an evolution of carbon greatly beyond that which it supplies, it follows that it must powerfully promote those vital changes in food which ultimately produce the carbonic acid to be evolved. Instead, therefore, of supplying nutritive matter, it causes the assimilation and transformation of other foods."
Now, note the following practical conclusions, which I quote in Dr. Smith's own words, but take the liberty of rendering in italics those passages that I wish the reader to specially compare with the preceding quotations from Johnstone: "In reference to nutrition, we may say that tea increases waste, since it promotes the transformation of food without supplying nutriment, and increases the loss of heat without supplying fuel, and it is therefore especially adapted to the wants of those who usually eat too much, and after a full meal, when the process of assimilation should be quickened, but is less adapted to the poor and ill-fed, and during fasting," He tells us very positively that "to take tea before a meal is as absurd as not to take it after a meal, unless the system be at all times replete with nutritive material." And, again, "Our experiments have sufficed to show how tea may be injurious if taken with deficient food, and thereby exaggerate the evils of the poor"; and, again: "The conclusions at which we arrived after our researches in 1858 were that tea should not be taken without food, unless after a full meal; or with insufficient food; or by the young or very feeble; and that its essential action is to waste the system or consume food, by promoting vital action which it does not support, and they have not been disproved by any subsequent scientific researches."
This final assertion may be true, and to those who "go in for the last thing out," the latest novelty or fashion in science, literature, and millinery, the absence of any refutation of later date is quite enough.
But how about the previous scientific researches of Lehmann, who, on all such subjects, is about the highest authority that can be quoted? His three volumes on "Physiological Chemistry," translated and republished by the Cavendish Society, stand pre-eminent as the best-written, most condensed, and complete work on the subject, and his original researches constitute a lifetime's work, not of mere random change-ringing among the elements of obscure and insignificant organic compounds, but of judiciously selected chemical work, having definite philosophical aims and objects.
It is evident from the passages I have emphatically quoted that Dr. Smith flatly contradicts Lehmann, and arrives at directly contradictory physiological results and practical inferences.
Are we, therefore, to conclude that be has blundered in his analysis, or that Lehmann has done so?
On carefully comparing the two sets of investigations, I conclude that there is no necessary contradiction in the facts; that both may be, and in all probability are, quite correct as regards their chemical results; but that Dr. Smith has only attacked half the problem, while Lehmann has grasped the whole.
All the popular stimulants, refreshing drugs, and "pick-me-ups" have two distinct and opposite actions—an immediate exaltation which lasts for a certain period, varying with the drug and the constitution of its victim, and a subsequent depression proportionate to the primary exaltation, but, as I believe, always exceeding it either in duration or intensity, or both, thus giving as a net or mean result a loss of vitality.
Dr. Smith's experiments only measured a partial result (the carbonic acid exhaled from the lungs without that from the skin) of the first stage, the period of exaltation. His experiments were extended to 50 minutes, 71 minutes, 65 minutes, and in one case to 1 hour and 50 minutes. It is worthy of note that in Experiment 1 were 100 grains of black tea, which were given to two persons, and the time of the experiment was 50 and 71 minutes; the average increase was 71 and 68 cubic inches per minute, while in No. 6, with the same dose and the carbonic acid collected during 1 hour and 50 minutes, the average increase per minute was only 47•5 cubic inches. These indicate the decline of the exaltation, and the curves on his diagrams show the same. His coffee results were similar.
We all know that the "refreshing" action often extends over a considerable period. My own experiments on myself show that this is three or four hours, while that of beer or wine is less than one hour (moderate doses in each case).
I have tested this by walking measured distances after taking the stimulunt and comparing with my walking powers when taking no other beverage than cold water. The duration of the tea stimulation has been also measured (painfully so) by the duration of sleeplessness when female seduction has led me to drink tea late in the evening. The duration of coffee about one third less than tea.
Lehmann's experiments, extending over weeks (days instead of minutes), measured the whole effect of the alkaloid and oil of the coffee, during both the periods of exaltation and depression, and therefore supplied a mean or total result which accords with ordinary every-day experience. It is well known that the pot of tea of the poor needle-woman subdues the natural craving for food; the habitual smoker claims the same merit for his pipe, and the chewer for his quid. Wonderful stories are told of the long abstinence of the drinkers of maté, chewers of betel-nut, Siberian fungus, coca-leaf, and pepper-wort, and the smokers and eaters of hasheesh, etc. Not only is the sense of hunger allayed, but less food is demanded for sustaining life.
It is a curious fact that similar effects should be produced and similar advantages claimed for the use of a drug which is totally different in its other chemical properties and relations. " White arsenic," or arsenious acid, is the oxide of a metal, and far as the poles asunder from the alkaloids, alcohols, and aromatic resins, in chemical classification. But it does check the waste of the tissues, and is eaten by the Styrians and others with physiological effects curiously resembling those of its chemical antipodeans above named. Foremost among these physiological effects is that of " making the food appear to go further."
It is strange that any physiologist should claim this diminution of the normal waste and renewal of tissue as a merit, seeing that life itself is the product of such change, and death the result of its cessation. But, in the eagerness that has been displayed to justify existing indulgences, this claim has been extensively made by men who ought to know better than admit such a plea.
I speak, of course, of the habitual use of such drugs, not of their occasional medicinal use. The waste of the body may be going on with killing rapidity, as in fever, and then such medicines may save life, provided always that the body has not become "tolerant" of or partially insensible to, them by daily usage. I once watched a dangerous case of typhoid fever. Acting under the instructions of skillful medical attendants, and aided by a clinical thermometer and a seconds-watch, I so applied small doses of brandy at short intervals as to keep down both pulse and temperature within the limits of fatal combustion. The patient had scarcely tasted alcohol before this, and therefore it exerted its maximum efficacy. I was surprised at the certain response of both pulse and temperature to this most valuable medicine and most pernicious beverage.
The argument that has been the most industriously urged in favor of all the vice-drugs, and each in its turn, is that miserable apology that has been made for every folly, every vice, every political abuse, every social crime (such as slavery, polygamy, etc.), when the time has arrived for reformation. I can not condescend to seriously argue against it, but merely state the fact that the widely diffused practice of using some kind of stimulating drug has been claimed as a sufficient proof of the necessity or advantage of such practice. I leave my readers to bestow on such a plea the treatment they may think it deserves. Those who believe that a rational being should have rational grounds for his conduct will treat this customary refuge of blind conservatism as I do.—Knowledge.