Beware the Dark Side of Sweet Tea

Iced tea on a hot summer day. What could possibly go wrong?

According to the U.S. Tea Association, Americans collectively sip, gulp, and guzzle over 80 billion servings of tea each year, and 85 percent of that is iced. Tea at any temperature is generally touted as healthy stuff, laden with antioxidants that may help us fend off such ailments as cancer and cardiovascular disease. On the other hand, at least one recent study shows that there may be a dark side to iced tea.

Iced tea, legend has it, first saw the light of day at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair—a 184-day spectacle that drew over 20 million visitors and featured such exhibits as the world’s largest locomotive, fourteen baby incubators (complete with babies), 140 automobiles, and a life-size elephant made entirely of almonds.

For food, attendees had their pick of 35 restaurants, among them Faust’s Tyrolean Alps Restaurant, which served caviar sandwiches, and the Anthracite Coal Mine Restaurant, where waiters dressed as coal miners seated customers at tables lit by miner’s lamps. If strapped, fairgoers could pick up free snacks at the Minnesota State Building, which daily served free lunches of baked beans, pickles, and bread and butter

However, in the blisteringly hot St. Louis summer, nobody wanted to wash any of this food down with a cup of hot tea. This led Richard Blechynden, Britain’s India Tea Commissioner and director of the fair’s hot-tea-featuring East Indian Pavilion, to dump ice into his rejected beverage. The new iced tea was an instant hit.

It’s a great story, but—like many foods supposedly invented at the Fair—iced tea had been around in one form or another for decades. Cold tea punches, heavily laced with booze, were popular throughout the nineteenth century. Chatham Artillery Punch—reportedly served to President James Monroe on a visit to Georgia in 1819—combined tea with generous doses of rum, brandy, bourbon, and champagne. (“Serve with caution,” advises a modern version of the recipe.)

Liquorless iced-tea recipes—tea, sugar, ice, and lemon—were popping up in cookbooks by the late 1800s; and a report in the Nevada Noticer in September 1890 indicates that iced tea was hot stuff long before Commissioner Blechynden came on the scene. The story describes a reunion of Confederate veterans in Nevada, Missouri, during which the attendees consumed 11,705 pounds of beef, 60 gallons of pickles, a wagonload of potatoes, and 880 gallons of iced tea.

So what could be the trouble with iced tea? Research by Dariush Mozaffarian, Gitanjali Singh, and colleagues at Tufts University suggests that tea all by itself is just fine, but problems arise when we beef it up with sugar. Mozaffarian’s results, based on a detailed statistical analysis of over 600,000 people from 51 countries, show that 184,000 adult deaths worldwide each year can be attributed to sugar-sweetened drinks, such as sodas, fruit drinks, sports drinks, and (sweet) iced tea. The highest death rates—variously due to diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and cancer—occurred in Mexico and the U.S.  In Japan, where the most popular drink is unsweetened tea, deaths attributed to sugary drinks were next to nothing.

The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than six teaspoons of added sugar daily, and men no more than nine. The average American consumes 23. (Check out this infographic for more on sugar consumption.)

In other words, while lounging in the hammock or the back porch this summer, it might be best to cut the sugar from that iced tea. Try adding lemons or limes, fresh fruit, or a sprig of mint instead.