Thanks to science, the health benefits of tea are now front and center in the public consciousness. For most, the assumption is that hot tea is the “healthy” tea, while iced tea is little better than soda, nutritionally speaking. But much of that assumption is based on the ingredients of commercial iced teas, which are often high in sugar (or its more disreputable sibling, high fructose corn syrup) and may contain a variety of additives. But the fact is, tea, brewed simply and without (or with limited) sweetener, is just as healthy iced as it is hot.
The Science of Tea
The most famous health benefit of tea (hot or iced) is its high content of cancer-fighting antioxidants known as polyphenols, and particularly a certain class called catechins. A specific catechin, EGCG, was found by one study to suppress lung cancer cell growth and by another to inhibit breast cancer tumors. These amazing compounds help destroy free radicals (unstable molecules that attack our DNA), improve bone strength, lower the risk of metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease, boost endurance and mood, and may even combat Parkinson’s disease. They also act as a kind of reinforcement sunscreen to protect us from ultraviolet rays.
Tea also contains caffeine—a small amount of caffeine. The caffeine content is typically less than 75mg per serving for black tea—comparable to decaffeinated coffee—and even less for green tea. And while no doctor would recommend consuming too much of this (or indeed any) stimulant, moderate caffeine consumption is scientifically linked to many different health benefits—increased alertness, stamina and memory; reduced risk of Alzheimer’s, kidney stones and liver fibrosis; and the possible prevention of weight gain. Clearly, a reasonable amount of caffeine is healthy for the body.
Best of all, iced tea is hydrating. Health authorities have historically recommended drinking half a gallon of water each day; drinking iced tea delivers all the hydration of water, along with the aforementioned health benefits.
What can quickly transform iced tea from a superfood to a junk food is its sugar content. A small iced tea from a franchise fast-food restaurant can contain as much as 40 grams of sugar (and too often that sugar is actually corn syrup).
The solution? Avoid commercially-sweetened iced tea. While there are a number of sweeteners more nutritious than sugar, the best is probably honey, which alleviates allergies, boosts memory and can even function as a cough suppressant and a sleep aid.
Speaking of adding honey to your glass, another compelling reason to reach for iced tea is it can serve as a vehicle for dozens of other equally nutritious foods. Fresh ginger (provides anti-inflammatory and gastrointestinal relief), mint (relieves nausea, headache and congestion), lemon (countless health benefits including purifying blood, strengthening immune defense and lowering body temperature), and other fruits that might be used as a garnish, such as blueberries (highest amount of antioxidants of any fresh fruit), can all enhance your iced tea beverage to ensure its healthy potential is operating to the hilt.
One final tip: If you want to keep a batch of cold tea in your refrigerator, the citric acid and vitamin C in that squeeze of lemon (or lime) you’ve added will also help preserve the flavonoids, a class of antioxidants which are most potent when tea is freshly brewed.