Drinking my chilled (iced) tea unsweetened is truly bucking a Southern tradition. In the Southeast U.S., “sweet tea” is not only a true tradition but almost a right of passage.
First, what is this “sweet tea” everyone around here raves about? Pretty obvious, really. It’s chilled (iced) tea with lots of sugar, at least that’s the basic recipe here in the Southeast. The secret is to add the sugar to the dry tea and let it fully dissolve in the hot water while the tea is steeping. (Tip: To reduce bitterness that can form during a longer steeping time from the tannins in the green and black teas usually used, add a generously proportioned pinch of baking soda.) Sweet tea has a reputation for making hot, muggy days seem less hot and less muggy. I’m not sure why, but it could explain why sweet tea is more common here in the Southeast versus the Northern states.
So, if sweet tea is such a relief in Summer weather, why go with unsweetened tea? Several reasons, one having to do with your health and the other with your enjoyment of true tea taste.
Starting with your health, consuming sweeteners like sugar and honey, the most common ones used in making sweet tea, can contribute to the risk of diabetes. My mother was diagnosed as diabetic a few years before she died. Since genetics can play a part in one’s susceptibility to this condition, I started cutting back on my sugar intake, starting with iced tea. Honey has additional effects. You should definitely avoid giving it to infants, and even adults can have issues from imbibing. For me, honey led to various complications that made avoiding it the only sensible option.
Artificial sweeteners in chilled tea could be an option. However, I’ve found that they can be difficult to blend in and sometimes have a chalkiness to them that comes through the taste of the tea. Weaning away from sweeteners in chilled tea seems the best option, at least for me. It can take time, especially if you’re from the Southeast and were raised on chilled tea that has a spoonful or more of sugar in it.
Sweeteners can mask other flavors, some quite subtle and delicate. They don’t let your taste buds get accustomed to the flavor of tea on its own. That’s another reason I like to go the unsweetened route. Many teas have a natural sweetness or nuttiness or fruitiness or maltiness, etc., that you don’t get to experience when you add in a bunch of sugar or honey.
Darjeelings are a prime example. They are known for their fruity flavor. Oolongs are another. Some can have a nutty flavor, while others are very planty. Roasted teas like Houjicha have a fairly unique nutty flavor with a bit of smokiness. And so on.
If you absolutely must have sweetness in your tea, try getting it from natural sources added to your tea, primarily fruits but also vanilla, which isn’t sweet but imparts the “impression” in your brain of sweetness. Some fruits add some very beneficial ingredients to the tea along with the sweetness. Black currants, for example, help stimulate digestion and improve organ functioning (liver, kidneys, spleen, and pancreas); they also may be helpful in preventing diarrhea, cardiovascular disease, allergies, dysentery, asthma, and cancer, among other things.
Of course, having a sweet treat with your tea is another alternative. A forkful of chocolate fudge cake with a gooey chocolate icing will sweeten the taste of any tea. Time to go give it a try!
You can find more great articles at Tea Time with A.C. Cargill!