UAB Medicine News


The Southern Sweet Tea Addiction: Don't Drink Another Glass Until You Read This


In the American South, sweet tea is much more than just a tasty beverage. It’s a cherished icon of Southern life and a culinary tradition passed down through generations. The oldest sweet tea recipes found in print date back to the late-1800s and were featured in cookbooks like Housekeeping in Old Virginia and Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book: What to Do and What Not to Do in Cooking.

But unfortunately, this mixture of black tea, sugar, water, and ice is loaded with excess sugar and calories, and it’s contributing to the obesity epidemic among Southerners. So, before you order another glass or whip up a fresh pitcher at home, read on to learn a few ways to kick your sweet tea addition and choose healthier options.    

The Cold, Hard Facts about Sweet Tea

There are many little-known (or simply overlooked) facts about sweet tea that are worth a closer look. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, a 12-ounce glass of iced sweet tea is mostly water and carbohydrates and has 136 calories, 32 grams of sugar, and no fat, protein, or fiber. Southern sweet tea also has about 41 milligrams of caffeine per glass.

For comparison’s sake, a 12-ounce can of regular soda has about 150 calories and 70 milligrams of caffeine. So, while sweet tea may not be as damaging to the body as soda, healthier options are certainly still available.

Effects of Sugar in the Body

The biggest health concern about sweet tea is the sugar content. Sugary beverages, including soda, sweet tea, and some juices, cause spikes in blood sugar. This is very dangerous for people who have diabetes and pre-diabetes, but for healthy individuals as well.

Over time, sugar can overload and cause damage to your liver, cause metabolic dysfunction, increase uric acid levels, and cause weight gain. Sugar contains no nutrients or enzymes and can actually create an addictive response in the brain. Sugary drinks, like sweet tea, are particularly problematic because they are easy to digest and encourage quick absorption of sugar in the body.

General Benefits of Tea

But it should be noted that tea, in general, offers many benefits and is one of the healthiest beverages that you can drink on a daily basis. Tea contains antioxidants, and various studies have linked it to the prevention of cancer, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and high cholesterol. Green teas contain the most polyphenols, and herbal teas are valued for their medicinal benefits that can be traced back to ancient times.

By simply eliminating sugar from tea, you can reap these health benefits with none of the unwanted side effects or guilt.

The Role of Alternative Sweeteners

Some people who want to cut down on the sugar contained in sweet tea but still retain that delicious sweet taste have turned to alternative sweeteners, like Splenda and Stevia. Nonnutritive sweeteners have fewer calories and a more intense sweetness than actual sugar. However, legitimate concerns have been raised about their safety.

The position of the American Dietetic Association is that artificial sweeteners are safe when consumed up to the FDA’s Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI). For example, the ADI of aspartame is 50 milligrams per kilogram of body weight, and the ADI of saccharin is five milligrams per kilogram of body weight. However, it is advised that pregnant women, children, and people with certain medical conditions should avoid or limit sugar substitutes in their diets due to the risk of adverse effects.

The current consensus is that Stevia, a natural sweetener, is safer than artificially sourced alternatives and that raw local honey, blackstrap molasses, real maple syrup are also good options.

Heathier Sweet Tea Options

Of the many types of tea available today, sweet tea is at the very top of the “unhealthy list.” If you’re looking for a healthier type of tea to ease into, try herbal rooibos tea. Rooibos has a naturally sweet taste but instead supplying you with excess sugar, it has been linked to balanced blood sugar, improved blood circulation, anti-inflammatory properties, and healthy skin and hair.

Another suggestion is to only drink sweet tea when you go out to eat at a restaurant but stick to making herbal teas when you’re at home. You can also request a glass of half sweetened/half unsweetened tea at restaurants to reduce the amount of sugar you consume while dining out.

Like any addiction, weaning yourself off of sweet tea won’t be easy but your body (and your waistline) will thank you in due time. To honor this beloved Southern tradition in moderation, save your sweet tea for only very special occasions and savor every last drop of homegrown goodness.