Summertime Thirst Quenchers: More Than You Bargained For (Part 2)

Last week we looked at iced coffee drinks. I have to admit that, since I’m not much of an iced coffee drinker, I was a little surprised at how the calories and carbohydrate can add up — especially with the frozen cappuccino versions. This week, I thought I’d take a look at iced tea, another popular summertime drink (and one that I happen to prefer!).

First, a little bit of iced tea trivia:

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  • Tea was served cold in the U.S. probably as far back as the 1800’s — but iced tea back then, known as “punch,” was actually made with green tea, not black tea.
  • At the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, a concession stand sold more than $2,000 in iced tea and lemonade.
  • The 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis served to commercialize iced tea. The story goes that it was so hot that people opted for cold tea to cool down.
  • Black tea increased in popularity over green tea during World War II because the main sources of green tea were cut off during this time.
  • The southern states are more likely to drink sweet tea (tea sweetened with sugar syrup) and drink it year-round, whereas most other parts of the country regard iced tea, usually unsweetened, as a summertime beverage.

It’s also worthwhile to summarize the health benefits of tea. Tea is rich in antioxidants, which are thought to protect the body’s cells against all kinds of harm. Drinking tea may do the following:

  • Protect against ovarian cancer
  • Lower death rates from heart disease
  • Help burn fat by increasing fat metabolism
  • Lower LDL (“bad”) cholesterol
  • Strengthen bones
  • Improve oral health by killing bacteria that cause cavities and bad breath

(Coffee, too, has some redeeming health qualities, such as reducing the risk of Parkinson disease, diabetes, cirrhosis [a disease of the liver], and gallstones).

A new study just published in the Journal of Food Science indicates that black tea contains a substance that works just like the diabetes medicines acarbose (brand name Precose) and miglitol (Glyset), which slow down the breakdown of starch into glucose in the digestive tract.

Iced tea is thought to have the same health benefits as drinking hot tea. But, of course, drinking iced tea laden with sugar isn’t all that nutritious. Take, for example, Snapple Lemon Tea: 8 ounces contain 80 calories and 21 grams of carbohydrate (all of it coming from sugar). This doesn’t seem too bad, until you remember the cardinal rule of label reading: Always check the serving size. A bottle of Snapple is 16 ounces, and since most people would drink the entire bottle, you’d end up with 160 calories and 42 grams of carbohydrate. On the other hand, Snapple Diet Lemon Tea contains just 10 calories and 0 grams of carbohydrate in 8 ounces, so 16 ounces would contain 20 calories. (This beverage is sweetened with aspartame.)

Snapple also offers an English Breakfast Black Tea that’s “lightly sweetened” — it contains just 40 calories and 10 grams of carbohydrate for 8 ounces. But the catch is that the entire bottle is 17.5 ounces; drinking that would give you almost 90 calories and roughly 22 grams of carbohydrate.

Finally, let’s look at iced tea from Dunkin Donuts, Starbucks, and McDonald’s:

Dunkin’ Donuts
Small (16-ounce) Freshly Brewed Sweetened Iced Tea: 80 calories, 20 grams of carbohydrate
Small (16-ounce) Freshly Brewed Unsweetened Iced Tea: 5 calories, 1 gram of carbohydrate

Starbucks
Grande (16-ounce) Tazo Black Shaken Iced Tea: 80 calories, 21 grams of carbohydrate

McDonald’s
Small (16-ounce) Sweet Tea: 120 calories, 30 grams of carbohydrate

And if you’re a frappucino-lover, the Tazo Green Tea Frappucino Blended Crème from Starbucks contains 490 calories and 82 grams of carbohydrate in a Grande (16-ounce) size! Gulp that down!

The good news is that Dunkin’ Donuts offers an unsweetened iced tea. If you choose this, you can then decide to add the sweetener of your choice or to drink it straight. Another option is to brew your own tea at home. This not only allows you to control the level of sweetness, it’s a lot easier on your wallet, too.

One final note: If you drink a lot of tea or coffee (hot or cold), keep an eye on the caffeine. Too much caffeine can make you jittery and nervous, may speed up your heart rate, and can keep you awake at night, so switching to a decaffeinated variety might be a good idea.

  • Carrie

    While I was not surprised at the figures you presented, your post has renewed my resolve to start drinking more tea to help get my sugar under control. Since I have never been a ‘sweet tea’ drinker I should reap nothing but the benefits from this change in lifestyle.
    Thank you for your post…
    Carrie

  • Mike Perlman

    How about a recipe to make homemade unsweetened (or fruit juice sweetened) ice tea?

  • acampbell

    Hi Mike,

    Great idea! I can’t claim ownership of this recipe (I found it on cooksrecipe.com) but it looks quite good:

    Unwrap and remove paper from 4 tea bags (either black or green tea). Tie the strings together and place in heat-proof 2 quart pitcher. Bring 2 cups of cold water to a boil. Remove from heat and pour over the tea bags. Allow tea to steep for 20 minutes or more. Remove tea bags and discard. Fill pitcher with enough water to make 2 quarts. Cover and refrigerate until well chilled. To serve, pour over ice cubes in a tall glass. Add sweetener, as desired, and a squeeze of lemon.

    You can also add a flavored tea bag, such as vanilla, orange spice, lemon, etc. for variety.

  • Lori B

    I make sun tea by putting a large Luzianne teabag and one green tea with a flavoring of choice for each half gallon. This way we have flavor without any added sweeteners and get the benefit of green and black tea. Add lemon or lime to your glass for even more flavor and benefits.

  • Alice

    While my fiancee uses a tea maker to brew his tea, I use my coffee maker. I simply put the tea bags in the container where we are supposed to put coffee, add water and let it brew. For me it is just the right strength and quickly done.

  • David J, MD

    You left out more important information, especially to the diabetic and health conscious, than you included. To wit:

    Caffeine doesn’t just make you “jittery.” It causes over-stimulation of the pancreas, resulting in burn-out of the beta cells (those that produce insulin) and the release of unneeded insulin, causing at first low blood sugar and hunger, and over time, insulin resistance. Worth mentioning, especially since this blog targets diabetics, wouldn’t you think?

    NEVER add lemon juice or other acidic substance to tea. Tea takes up a lot of aluminum from the soil, and consuming tea with lemon juice makes the aluminum highly assimilable. Lemon extract, on the other hand, is basically lemon oil suspended in a mixture of water with a slight bit of alcohol (as most extracts are) and adds flavor and some sweetness without affecting aluminum uptake.

    Adding fruit juice to tea instead of sugar is no better than adding sugar. Sucrose is one glucose and one fructose molecule, and most fruits also contain some glucose. They’re all carbohydrates, and as such, have to be burned off. Additionally, consumption of too much fruit sugar, whether from fruit or from high fructose corn syrup (HCFS), causes Non-Alcoholic Fatty Liver Disease, which left untreated, leads to cirrhosis (scarring). Fructose does enter the bloodstream more slowly, but it will still raise blood glucose levels substantially (and dangerously) if over-consumed or if there is insufficient activity to burn it off. Also worth mentioning in a blog targeting diabetics.

  • Bob

    What and DIET Iced Tea (many are available by the gallon at many stores). They don’t seem to have sugar included. Are these ok?

  • Bob

    What about DIET Iced Tea (many are available by the gallon at many stores). They don’t seem to have sugar included. Are these ok?

  • sugs

    I make Ice tea from lemon flavored tea and black teas with fresh mint ( make it like sun tea) add equal for taste :D

    sisters recipe.

  • Cathy

    As a sweet tea drinker all my life since I live in the South I still have to watch my sugar intake now. I use 1/2 as much sugar as my family has always used and it is just sweet enough for me and the other members prefer it that way now also. Also when I go out to eat I order my tea half sweetened and half unsweetened that way these restaurants that really go overboard down here with the sugar won’t wreck my bg usually. I don’t care for any of the artificial sweeteners at all. If it is too sweet then I will ask for only unsweetened tea as a refill. That way you get the great taste of tea without going into shock from the sugar. My aunt used to add water to hers until I taught her this trick – now she loves it. My whole family orders their tea that way now. It makes you feel like you are still having “sweet” tea but not wrecking your carb count. I do drink a lot of tea and its always unsweetened or with half the sugar. We Southerners love our tea no matter how you sweeten it. Thanks for the great information on my favorite beverage.

  • Tom Sr.

    Being a Southener, I love my iced tea and drink it year round. I drink mine with a sugar substitue and lime. I see no difference in a Southener drinking iced tea than a Yankee drinking a cold coke. Both are cold drink, right?

  • Elaine

    Mike,
    During the summer I make SunTea. Take a gallon jar filled with cold water, add the number of tea bags suggested for a gallon, put on the lid and place outside in a sunny spot. Leave out until water takes on strong tea color, usually two or three hours. Voila, SunTea! Remove & discard tea bag. Repace lid and refrigerate until well chilled. Serve over ice cubes. Flavor as desired. Enjoy!

  • Glenda Whitehead

    What about Crystal Light tea mix? Is it also as good for you as regular tea?

  • airborne mom

    I use my Mr. Coffee Ice Tea machine. I have had it for at least 15 years and when I bought it I also purchased a carafe that you can brew hot tea into which is great in the winter for hot tea. The secret to clear tea is to let it cool before chilling – that is what my mom has always told me.
    Shelly’s Ice Tea
    Place 4 tea bags in the brew basket. I use a citrus green tea. I take the label and strings off and toss the bags in.
    Brew the tea and I let the bags steep for 20 minutes or longer. I then release the tea that has been steeping in the brew basket, toss the used tea bags and let it cool in the carafe. I then get a one gallon jug ready for the tea (Arizona gallon jugs work great). I use 1/2 cup Splenda (I use a Tupperware funnel) and add water to almost halfway. After the tea is cool to the touch I put a coffee filter in the brew basket hold it over the funnel that is placed on the opening of the jug and pour the tea into the brew basket – keeping the release held down to allow the tea to drain into the jug. Fill the jug if there is room with more water. Put the lid on the jug, shake and chill. One gallon of ice tea is ready. I strain the tea, because some times leaves come out of the bags during brewing and I have also used just tea leaves. The first batch I did I used one cup of slenda and it was too sweet for us. My husband and have found that we prefer the tea to soda. I keep three gallons in the fridge at all times.
    I have osteoarthritis in my hands and I can manage to filter the tea as described above.

  • Suzanne

    What I do is to make a very strong tea (5 bags/32 oz. cup), let it cool and refridgerate it. When I want a glass of tea, I pour some from the “condensed” mixure into a glass and then add water. I like mine plain and it’s getting increasing hard to find pre-made unsweetened tea. A tea that I love is Constant Comment, which is an orange spice mix, made by Bigelow Tea.

  • Greta

    How does Crystal Light Ice Tea stack up, especially for a diabetic?

  • acampbell

    Hi David,

    Thanks for your comments. My understanding is that moderate to high amounts of caffeine may worsen insulin sensitivity in some, primarily by increasing plasma concentrations of free fatty acids and epinephrine. Caffeine may certainly be an issue for people with diabetes, which is why we suggest that people check their blood glucose after consuming a caffeinated beverage in order to learn how caffeine affects them, individually. Not everyone experiences insulin resistance after consuming caffeine. I am not familiar with the warning to not add lemon to tea and would be interested in learning more, if there is a credible source you could share. As far as fruit juice goes, it’s generally recommended that people with diabetes consume fresh fruit and limit fruit juice. However, adding a small amount, such as one tablespoon of pure fruit juice (not fruit juice cocktail, which may contain high fructose corn syrup), would add a negligible amount of carbohydrate and would therefore have little impact on glucose levels.

  • Sharon Rogers

    I also would like to know if the Crystal Lite flavored teas are as good as regular tea with sweetener (like Splenda). Would appreciate some information on this.

  • melodyf

    if i want a fast cup of tea i just put a cup of water in the microwave for 3 mins then i put 2 tea bags in it let it sit for 10 mins then pour it into a mcdonalds cup with ice and put 3 to 4 splendas in it i keep my mcdonalds cup i get tea in when im out

  • acampbell

    Hello all,

    Several of you have asked about either sugar-free iced tea mixes, such as Crystal Light, or ready-to-drink diet iced tea. Sugar-free iced tea mixes typically contain maltodextrin, citric acid, malic acid, and a nonnutritive sweetener, such as aspartame, in addition to instant tea. Ready-to-drink diet iced tea contains similar ingredients. (Tea usually isn’t the first ingredient in any of these beverages.) From a calorie and carbohydrate perspective, they’re obviously very low. Prevention Magazine staff did an informal study of the antioxidant content of “convenience” iced teas and found that they contain fewer antioxidants than home-brewed iced tea. However, the convenience teas still had some antioxidants. But a more scientific study found that instant iced tea had neglible amounts of catechins (a type of antioxidant that may fight cancer) compared to brewed tea. So, the choice is up to you. If you don’t want to consume artificial sweeteners or have other ingredients in your tea besides tea, and if you want to maximize the health benefits, you might choose to brew your own.

  • Ann Morits

    I love iced tea and have started drinking it without sugar (I hate artificial sweeteners).

    I was told sun tea isn’t the greatest – most tea leaves aren’t sterile and there is bacteria in the leaves unless it’s placed in boiling water! Have you ever seen the film on the top of sun tea?

  • Larry

    I love my coffee. It’s the only drink (besides an occasional tea) I consume with caffeine. Some beverage bottlers state caffeine contents in addition to calorie and food value on their products now. Here are avg. caffeine content.
    CUP OF COFFEE 130mgs
    CUP OF TEA 50 mgs
    SHOT OF EXPRESSO 30 mgs
    I would never have thought that a double shot of expresso = just over one cup of tea…
    Each brand can vary so be sure to read the labels. My BG levels go up with caffeine intake, but doesn’t stay high once the caffeine wears off. It can be misleading with your insulin therapy, so monitor your BG accordingly.

  • Betty Ann

    I see there is much discussion about the caffeine in iced tea. You could replace some or all of the tea bags with decaffeinated tea. I used to use one regular bag to 3 without caffeine. Now, I don’t even bother with even 1 regular bag.

    My aunt uses a little Crystal Light Lemonade for the lemon and sweetener. I prefer real lemon and no sweetener unless I am some place where the tea is very strong, then a little Splenda is necessary. Oh, and don’t forget lots of ice.

  • Ed Campbell

    I enjoy “17” from Namyang out of Korea, got it at Whole Foods in Honolulu. Great on Ice.

  • acampbell

    Hi Betty Ann,

    Good suggestion! Also, another product to try is True Lemon, which is crystallized, unsweetened lemon juice in powder form. You can also use True Orange and True Lime.

  • Maria Huff

    I love iced Sechung Oolong tea.
    Oolong is a semi fermented tea leaf grown in the southern mountains of Fujian Provence .
    Besure when you make iced tea NOT to make sun tea.
    the water you use to make the tea should be boiling to kill the tanic acid.
    Oolong tea goes through a curing process that causes it to be milder and does not need to be sweetened .
    If you do make Iced tea make smaller batches so that it can be fresh every day.It seems to be okay my blood sugar.
    I order mine from a company online at about one eighth of what the tea and coffee retailers charge per pound .

  • G.Wizz, MD

    Gosh, if I put MD after my name can I post inaccurate information based on (at best) pseudo-science too?

  • Cheryl

    I have found if I use part Spenda and part Equal I get better sweetening and not the aftertaste. Hope this helps those who say they don’t like artifical sweeteners.