Chai lattes—those yummy, flavorful drinks you can get at any local coffee shop—have been quite popular for many years. While this sweet but zesty drink is a recent favorite among many Americans, it has been enjoyed in the Indian subcontinent for centuries. Chai lattes are based on the famous beverage of chai masala. The word chai, in Hindi and many other languages, means tea. Latte is an Italian word, usually paired with café latte or “coffee with milk.” So, chai latte is a fancy way of saying tea milk or “tea with milk.”

The ingredients of chai masala are black tea, a mixture of spices, sugar, and milk. The spices that make up traditional masala chai usually include some combination of cardamom, ginger, clove, black pepper, and cinnamon. The sweet creamy taste is made with frothy steamed milk. When traveling throughout India or Pakistan, you’ll see vendors, known as chai wallahs, plying their trades; artfully preparing and pouring this trademark staple drink. Many chai wallahs use tea leaves that have been crushed, torn, and curled (the CTC method) with cardamom, milk and sugar, to make chai masala brewed in enormous quantities for their customers.

So how did this drink make its way to America? Emine Saner of The Guardian says, “The history of chai latte in the west could be traced back to the 1960s, in a small way, when explorers returning from the Hippy Trail brought it back with them.” The Hippie Trail was a travel route for those who belonged to the hippie subculture of America who trekked throughout South Asia; mainly through Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Nepal, during the 1950s to 1970s. Daring and adventurous young Americans, searching for enlightenment and alternative spiritualities  also found this drink in great supply. Saner also says, “It wasn’t until the 1990s, when Starbucks launched its own version, that it started becoming popular.” According to Oregon Chai, chai lattes are popular among upper middle age Americans (between 45 to 54) with slightly higher incomes than average.

Chai lattes can be prepared with minimal amounts of sugar or an alternative sweetener as a healthy and delicious treat. The black tea used in chai lattes contains caffeine and theophylline, which can speed up your heart rate and increase alertness. It also has polyphenols, which are antioxidants that can protect cells from DNA damage. Also, the herbs and spices contain heart-healthy antioxidants, anti-inflammatory properties, and can aid in digestion. According to, “Cardamom is used for digestion problems including heartburn, intestinal spasms, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), diarrhea, constipation, liver and gallbladder complaints, and loss of appetite. It is also used for the common cold and other infections, cough, bronchitis, sore mouth and throat, urinary problems, epilepsy, headache, and high blood pressure.” Ginger has a very long history of use in various forms of traditional Chinese medicine. It has been used to help digestion, reduce nausea and help fight the flu and common cold. Clove is used for an upset stomach and as an expectorant—a medicine that makes it easier to cough up phlegm. Black pepper has also been used for stomach upset and bronchitis. Cinnamon is also known to be an antioxidant.

But chai lattes lovers, beware. Today’s commercially available chai latte beverages tend to be sugar-laden. Starbucks chai lattes have 42 grams of sugar, in a 16 oz grande drink.  Dunkin’s medium-sized Vanilla Chai contains 49 grams of sugar. The lightly sweetened drink has been made sweeter by corporate coffeehouses for the American consumer. For those used to chai straight from the Asian subcontinent, the American version is too sweet for their palate. Also, the mixing of all sorts of spices into the drink has left chai aficionados unimpressed. Krishnendu Ray, an associate professor of food studies at New York University’s Steinhardt School says, “You would have some spices, like ginger in northern India, especially in the winter, or cardamom. Sometimes fennel, sometimes cloves. But I have never had tea in India with all those spices mixed together.”

To maximize on flavor and while staying health conscious, it’s best to follow a recipe that is sweet and simple. There’s no need for coffeehouse syrups or powdered milks. Save yourself the extra calories and money by making your own. You can purchase your own bags of chai from the local supermarket. Brew the tea bags and add your own desired amounts of milk and sugar. Stevia makes for a great alternative sweetener. For lactose-free options, try making it with almond milk or coconut milk. Serve piping hot or ice cold for a relaxing summer beverage.

Kelly Crosby is an artist and a freelance writer in Atlanta, Georgia.