Pumpkin spice lattes, also known as PSLs, might be all the rage in the fall, but one highly underrated drink that's available year-round and has all the heartwarming goodness of classic autumn spices is the chai latte.
Chai tea has roots in Indian cuisine and is a cultural staple. Chai simply means tea, says Sarika Shah, RD, a dietitian based in San Ramon, California, who's passionate about making Indian cuisine a mainstay in the American diet.
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What Is Chai Tea?
Chai with spices is referred to as masala chai. "Masala chai is a black tea with spices, including cardamom, cinnamon, cloves and black pepper," Shah says. "Chai is always black tea with milk and usually masala — it is never referred to as plain black tea."
Chai is enjoyed in the morning with breakfast and usually in the afternoon, too. It's traditionally served as a hot beverage and made with loose-leaf black tea, water, milk, grated fresh ginger, fresh mint leaves and spices. Each region in India has its own way of making chai, Shah says.
"In the afternoon, it is usually accompanied by savory Indian snacks and biscuits. Growing up as a child, I could not wait to drink chai as an adult. I loved the smell of it and treasured the times I was allowed to dip a Parle-G biscuit (a popular Indian biscuit) in my mom's cup of chai and eat it during breakfast," Shah says.
Aside from its deeply rich sweet and spicy flavors, chai tea boasts a bevy of benefits for your health. Here are all the reasons why you should be sipping on some chai.
5 Health Benefits of Chai Tea
1. It's Linked to Healthy Blood Sugar Levels
Many of the benefits of chai tea stem from its spices, including cinnamon, which is associated with lowering blood sugar, Shah says.
Whole cinnamon and cinnamon extract has been shown to significantly lower fasting blood glucose in people with type 2 diabetes or prediabetes, per a September 2011 review in the Journal of Medicinal Food.
In another small June 2012 study in Nutrition Research, people with type 2 diabetes were given cinnamon supplements as part of their treatment. After three months, their A1C levels (average blood sugar levels over three months) and fasting blood glucose levels (blood sugar levels after an overnight fast) were significantly lower than those in the placebo group, which had unchanged levels.
Studies suggest that cardamom — another key spice in chai tea — can help with regulating blood sugar and reducing inflammation, says Mary Mosquera-Cochran, RD, a dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
A January 2019 study in the Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture found that cardamom reduced A1C, insulin levels and triglyceride levels in people with type 2 diabetes.
2. It May Benefit Your Heart Health
"Cinnamon has also been associated [with] supporting heart health, lowering blood pressure, lowering LDL (bad) cholesterol and total cholesterol. But more research needs to be conducted on the association of cinnamon and heart health," Shah says.
Taking cinnamon short-term is associated with lower systolic blood pressure (measures pressure in your arteries when your heart beats) and diastolic blood pressure (measures pressure in your arteries when your heart is at rest between beats) in people with type 2 diabetes and prediabetes, according to an October 2013 review in Nutrition.
A small double-blind, placebo-controlled randomized trial in people with stage 1 hypertension also found that cinnamon lowered their systolic blood pressure, but only a moderate amount, and it was observed to significantly improve their cholesterol levels by increasing HDL (good) cholesterol and lowering LDL, per a January 2021 study in Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine.
3. It Can Help Relieve Nausea
Cinnamon, ginger and black pepper are all powerful digestive aids, Mosquera-Cochran says. Eating ginger can help relieve bloating, gas and constipation by reducing fermentation in the gut, per Johns Hopkins Medicine.
Plus, cardamom and cloves have antibacterial, antiviral and antifungal properties.
"So, theoretically, drinking chai regularly could be one way to help improve digestion and strengthen immunity. Just make sure to go easy on the sugar and consider how caffeine affects you. If caffeine affects you, it would be best to stick with herbal chai [instead of black tea]," Mosquera-Cochran says.
A January 2019 review in Food Science & Nutrition found that ginger can be beneficial for nausea relief, especially for pregnant people with nausea and vomiting.
4. It Can Help Boost Your Energy Levels
Chai is a black tea, which contains the stimulant caffeine, Shah says. One cup of chai has about 25 to 35 milligrams of caffeine — in comparison, coffee has around 100 to 120 milligrams, she says.
Because chai has less caffeine than coffee, it's a good option for those who are sensitive to the effects of caffeine while still providing energy, Mosquera-Cochran says.
In addition, "those who regularly drink black tea are found to have improvements in cholesterol, blood pressure and blood sugar regulation. Many of these benefits are thought to come from black tea's high content of antioxidant compounds that help the body fight inflammation," Mosquera-Cochran adds.
5. It Can Help You Maintain Good Oral Health
Cloves have been traditionally used in many cultures to maintain good oral health, Mosquera-Cochran says. The sweet-tasting spice has been used as an oil in many different types of herbal mouthwash and rinses.
For example, herbal mouth rinses formulated with clove, tea tree and basil oils were beneficial in preventing bacteria-causing plaque and gingivitis, according to a small May 2014 study in the Journal of the Indian Society of Periodontology.
How to Order a Healthy Chai Latte
When ordering a chai latte at a cafe, Shah recommends asking the barista to steam the chai tea bag in the milk of your choice without sugar, vanilla syrup or liquid cane sugar. If you want some sweetness, you can add sugar to taste — this way you don't get a load of added sugar in your drink.
If you're trying to avoid sugar, a calorie-free, natural option is stevia, say Tammy Lakatos Shames and Lyssie Lakatos, RDN, dietitians and founders of The Nutrition Twins. "You can add a drop or two of liquid stevia, which mixes well with liquids so that you can add to taste, if necessary. Alternatively, you can add a teaspoon or two of either maple syrup or honey to avoid getting a lot of extra unnecessary sugar."
Or you can ask to have your chai latte with just one pump of syrup or sugar-free syrup instead of the four pumps that most cafes will add in a medium-sized latte, the Lakatos twins say.
Although most store-bought lattes are made with whole milk or oat milk, the Lakatos twins recommend using unsweetened nut milk. "Oat milk typically packs a lot of carbs (and calories) that most people didn't bargain for since they expect to eat their carbs, not drink them. And whole milk is high in calories and saturated fat," they say.
That said, low-fat cow's milk and unsweetened soy milk can be great sources of protein, making it feel more satisfying. Cow's milk is also a great source of calcium and vitamin D, Shah says.
A Healthy Chai Latte Recipe to Make at Home
Preparing your own chai latte is actually quite easy and allows you to tweak the flavors according to your preferences.
Try Shah's at-home recipe:
- Boil the spices and loose-leaf black tea in water
- Add milk and bring to a boil again
- Strain and add fresh ginger, mint and spices to taste
"My favorite ratio is about half water, half milk, black loose-leaf tea, a 1-inch cube of shredded ginger, four to five mint leaves and spices to taste," she says.
Another option, from the Lakatos twins, is to brew the chai tea bags in hot water. Meanwhile, warm your milk and sweetener in a small pan and whisk it to create foam. When the foam is set, stir it into the tea and add a sprinkle of ground cinnamon.
Chai Teas and Lattes to Try
- Vahdam Masala Chai ($12, Amazon)
- The Chai Box All Chai'd Up ($13, The Chai Box)
- Clevr Blends Chai SuperLatte ($28, Amazon)
- Chai Spice Tea Drops ($15, My Tea Drop)
- Oregon Chai Sugar-Free Chai Latte Concentrate ($25.59 per pack of 6, Amazon)
- Nutrition Research: "Cinnamon Extract Improves Fasting Blood Glucose and Glycosylated Hemoglobin Level in Chinese Patients With Type 2 Diabetes"
- Journal of Medicinal Food: "Cinnamon Intake Lowers Fasting Blood Glucose: Meta-Analysis"
- Nutrition: "Effect of Short-Term Administration of Cinnamon on Blood Pressure in Patients With Prediabetes and Type 2 Diabetes"
- Avicenna Journal of Phytomedicine: "Cinnamon Effects on Blood Pressure and Metabolic Profile: A Double-Blind, Randomized, Pacebo-Controlled Trial in Patients With Stage 1 Hypertension"
- Food Science & Nutrition: "Ginger in Gastrointestinal Disorders: A Systematic Review of Clinical Trials"
- Journal of the Science of Food and Agriculture: "Beneficial Effects of Green Cardamom on Serum SIRT1, Glycemic Indices and Triglyceride Levels in Patients With Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: A Randomized Double-Blind Placebo Controlled Clinical Trial"
- Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Ginger Benefits"
- Journal of Indian Society of Periodontology: "A Comparative Study of Antiplaque and Antigingivitis Effects of Herbal Mouthrinse Containing Tea Tree Oil, Clove, and Basil With Commercially Available Essential Oil Mouthrinse"