After water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world, research has found, and while some like it hot, the majority of Americans prefer it ice cold. Up to 80 percent of the tea consumed in the United States is chilled, according to the Tea Association of the USA (PDF).
And here’s what makes it extra refreshing: Tea is rich in antioxidants and naturally low in calories, according to the T.H. Chan School of Public Health, making it a great addition to a healthy diet. Observational studies have shown that drinking 2 to 3 cups of tea per day may help decrease the risk of stroke, type 2 diabetes, and heart disease, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, although more research is needed.
The only drawback is that many commercially made iced teas are sweetened, often significantly so. In fact, a 12-ounce (oz) bottle of sweetened iced tea contains a whopping 31 grams (g) of added sugar, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) — nearly as much as cola. The American Heart Association recommends women get no more than 25 g and men get no more than 36 g of added sugar in a day, which means just one sweet tea places you over or close to your sugar limit for the day. It’s also worth noting that research has found bottled teas are much lower in antioxidants compared to fresh tea.
Brewing your own solves both these issues. You’ll be able to control the sweetness and know you’re getting the freshest tea, and therefore maximum amount of antioxidants that tea has to offer. In fact, the following tea recipes show you how to up the antioxidants and other nutrients in your brew and add flavor naturally with select superfoods.
Start with these instructions for brewing the perfect cup, and then spike it — in a healthy way — to your taste.
How to Brew the Perfect Iced Tea
The perfect iced tea starts with well-brewed tea. While you may have brewed a cup of tea hundreds or even thousands of times before, knowing a few simple tricks can greatly improve the flavor of your tea.
Use Good Water
Water is the main ingredient in a cup of brewed tea. Because of this, it’s incredibly important to start with good water. If your tap water tastes great, then it’s fine to use for brewing. If you don’t like the taste of your tap water, however, don’t use it to brew your tea because it will only add the same flavors to your teacup. Instead, opt for filtered or bottled water as the base for your tea.
Measure the Water
Tea that’s too strong can taste bitter thanks to tannins (a type of polyphenol in tea that is an astringent and can have a bitter flavor, according to past research [PDF]), while tea that’s too weak or diluted won’t have enough flavor to be satisfying. So the ratio of tea to water is important. For consistent results, be sure to measure the water each time you brew a batch of iced tea. As a general rule of thumb, use 1 tea bag per 1 cup of water, or 1 teaspoon (tsp) of loose-leaf tea per 6 oz of water, according to Twinings of London.
Brewing time and temperature (more on this below) are two of the main factors that affect the flavor of tea. While it may stand to reason that brewing with the hottest water possible would be best, this may not be the case. In fact, a previous study found that a three-minute brew time may be ideal, yielding both the best tasting and most nutritious cup of green tea. The same study found that longer steep times, in the range of 30 to 45 minutes, made for a bitter-tasting tea. If you’ve ever brewed a cup of tea and forgotten about it for a while, you’re likely quite familiar with that bitter flavor! Similarly, a study on black tea found that the ideal brew time for extracting antioxidants such as flavonoids and polyphenols was six to eight minutes. Bottom line: The best steeping time will vary from one type of tea to another. In general, brew your tea between three and eight minutes, but not longer. If you’re looking for stronger tea, adjust the amount of tea you use rather than steeping longer.
Past research indicates that brewing at about 185 degrees F may be ideal for both flavor and nutritional benefits. The same study found that brewing at a hotter temperature, around 200 degrees F, actually extracted less of the beneficial compound EGCG from green tea. In contrast, oolong tea brewed at 212 degrees F for five minutes contained the highest antioxidant content. It seems that the best brewing temperature also varies from one tea to the next, but somewhere in the 185 to boiling range is best.
The Global Tea Initiative breaks it down further stating that brewing temperature should vary by variety for best flavor. They recommend white and green teas be brewed at 175 to 180 degrees F, oolong at 195 degrees F, and black tea at 212 degrees F. Water boils at 212 degrees, but for lower temperatures, a digital thermometer can help you to be more accurate. It’s important to keep in mind that while temperature is important, no matter what temperature you choose, you’ll be getting a nutritious cup of tea.
Choose Your Tea Type
Black tea, decaffeinated tea, green tea, herbal tea — there are so many options that make delicious iced tea, you really can’t go wrong. Keep in mind that herbal tea isn’t made from tea leaves, but rather from herbs, spices, flowers, and fruits, according to Harvard Health Publishing. While herbal teas may have health benefits, they will not be the same benefits as regular tea since they don’t contain tea leaves. It’s best to check with your doctor before adding herbal tea to your iced tea routine.
Choose a Brewing Method
There’s more than one way to brew a fresh batch of iced tea. If you brew your tea hot (as is traditional), you’ll have to decide on a way to cool it off. Not in a rush? You can simply brew your tea and then place it in the refrigerator until it’s fully chilled. If time is of the essence, brew your tea double strength by using half the water for the same amount of tea. Then, once your tea has steeped, remove the tea leaves or bags and add the same amount of cold water to cool it down more quickly. You can even cold brew your tea by adding 1 tea bag or 1 tsp of loose-leaf tea for every 6 to 8 oz of cold water. Cover the cup or pitcher and place in the refrigerator to steep for eight hours, then strain and enjoy.
Choose Your Sweetener (or Skip It!)
Added sugars are one of the main downfalls of commercially prepared iced teas. When brewing tea at home, you have full control over how much sweetener you add, or if you add any at all. Common sweeteners for home brewed tea include honey, agave, maple syrup, and granulated sugar. While sweeteners from natural sources such as honey will have a few more nutrients than granulated sugar, they still count as added sugars and should still be limited as much as possible, per Cleveland Clinic. Try adding more flavor and sweetness naturally with fresh or frozen fruits.
7 Healthy Ways to Add More Flavor and Nutrition to Your Tea
1. Add Some Zest
Looking for a flavorful cup of tea without adding any calories at all? Add some strips of lemon, lime, or orange zest while your tea steeps. This will add some of the natural citrus oils to your cup. While the flavor that citrus zest adds is certainly enjoyable, it may offer health benefits as well. In fact, citrus peels are packed with flavonoids which may have anti-cancer properties, according to previous research. Then simply strain the zest out of the tea once it is done brewing.
2. Mix in Fruit
Adding fresh fruit to your homemade iced tea is one of the easiest and most delicious ways to mix up your iced tea routine. From a squeeze of fresh citrus juice to beautiful berries or sliced peaches, nothing screams summer quite like fruited tea. Fresh fruit adds flavor and nutrition to your cup by adding fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants, according to data from the USDA. No matter how you slice it, fruit is the perfect addition to iced tea!
3. Stir in Fresh Herbs
Take a tip from mixologists and muddle some fresh herbs in the bottom of your cup. This technique, which basically involves crushing herbs such as mint, basil, sage, turmeric, rosemary, or lemon balm with a muddler or the back of a spoon, releases their flavors and nutrients. Herbs are a source of antioxidants, according to past research. Leave the herbs in your tea for added color or strain them out for easier sipping.
4. Add Some Flavored Fizz
Homemade iced tea is the perfect partner for fizz. Instead of adding the cold water to your recipe, add the same amount of flavored sparkling water instead. Sparkling water comes in a variety of calorie-free flavors and it’s just as hydrating as water, so you’ll be just as refreshed if you opt to make this bubbly swap in your iced tea recipe.
5. Spice It Up
Herbs like mint are a popular iced tea ingredient, but what about mixing things up by opting for spices instead? Spices like cinnamon, cardamom, anise, and ginger all add depth of flavor to your tea. This can be especially appealing if you’re looking to add variety to your iced tea game or as summer comes to a close and you’re in the mood for spicier flavors. Simply stir them in when you brew.
6. Make Fancy Ice Cubes
Normally, water from melting ice cubes naturally dilutes the flavor of your carefully-brewed tea. But these cubes will add flavor as they melt —genius! Just puree and freeze fruit or herbs, or freeze them whole. Raspberries, strawberries, mint, basil, and lemon slices are all great options. You could even freeze lemon juice or a lightly sweetened lemonade to create an Arnold Palmer flavor as your drink sits. Plus, you’ll get a boost of nutrition from any of these mix-ins in the form of vitamin C, fiber, and antioxidants according to the USDA. Of course, if you’re an iced tea purist, freeze some of your iced tea mixture so that you can enjoy ice cold tea without the flavor being watered down.
7. Add Some Milk
Milk is a delicious, but often overlooked iced tea ingredient. The wide variety of dairy and nondairy milks gives you plenty of options, no matter your dietary or flavor preferences. Dairy milk is an excellent way to add some protein, calcium, and vitamin D to your drink, according to USDA data. Opting for lowfat or fat-free varieties will help keep calories and saturated fat to a minimum while still making your iced tea creamy and delicious. Dairy alternatives like soy milk, almond milk, and coconut milk are often fortified with calcium and vitamin D. Just avoid mixing milk with tea that also features citrus juice as this will cause the milk to curdle. It’s one star ingredient or the other in this case.
Looking for some flavor inspiration? Try these refreshing and nutritious flavor combinations:
- Fresh mint and blackberry
- Lime and mint
- Lemon iced tea with pureed raspberry ice cubes
- Green tea with ginger and lime
- Thai iced tea with milk
Healthier Thai Iced Tea
Traditional Thai iced tea is made with saturated fat-rich half-and-half and sweetened condensed milk, which tastes lovely but is more on par with dessert in terms of calories and sugar. This healthier version features whole foods in order to deliver all of the health benefits of tea without all of the unhealthy additives. The turmeric in this recipe gives the tea its stunning orange color and a boost of antioxidants at the same time.
Serves 6 (serving size: 1 ½ cups)
- 7 cups filtered water
- 7 black tea bags or 2 tbsp loose leaf black tea
- 2 star anise
- 2 whole cloves
- 1 cinnamon stick
- 1 ½ tsp ground turmeric
- 1 tsp pure vanilla extract
- ¼ cup honey
- 2 cups lowfat milk or nondairy alternative
- Bring water to a boil and remove from heat. Stir in tea, anise, cloves, cinnamon, and turmeric and allow the mixture to steep for 5 minutes. Carefully remove the tea bags.
- Leave the tea mixture to cool for 30 minutes and then pour through a fine mesh strainer to remove the whole spices. Stir in the vanilla and honey and divide the mixture evenly between 4 glasses full of ice. Top each glass with ⅓ cup milk and serve.
Nutrition per serving: 84 calories, 1g total fat (0.5g saturated fat), 3g protein, 17g carbohydrates, 0.2g fiber, 15.6g sugar (11.6g added sugar), 40mg sodium