Roundtable Topic: Sweeteners and Tea

Roundtable Topics — pull up a chair and join us!
Roundtable Topics — pull up a chair and join us!

This is the first of what may be a series of “roundtable topics.” Several writers who contribute to this blog will be weighing in on various topics related to tea. We encourage you to join in with your comments.

Originally, we were all going to discuss which sweeteners worked best in a particular tea. There are a number of choices: honey, agave, sugar, aspartame, saccharin, stevia, etc. However, when I asked writers to weigh in on the topic, some of the responses were — uh, well — less than accepting of the whole concept of sweetened tea, as you will see below. (Sometimes, it’s easy to assume that others like the same things we do. It’s good to get a bit of a reality check once in awhile.) In fact, some even see sugar as to be avoided altogether as unhealthy (their opinion, since no scientific study is cited).

What each contributor had to say (unedited except for links and a comma added in here and there as needed for clarity):

Lainie Petersen of Lainie Sips!
[Lainie was originally going to write about how various sweeteners tasted in a hearty black tea, but she recommended a group approach here instead.]

The question of adding sugar, honey or other sweeteners to tea is a touchy one among tea drinkers. Some like their tea sweet, while others find it to be an abomination. I personally like my tea without sugar and try my best to encourage people to ditch the additives and learn to appreciate good tea on its own. Still, I understand its appeal to many people, and have been known to enjoy the occasional mug of “builder’s tea,” a brew of brisk black tea (Yorkshire Gold is a good one) with added milk and sugar along with a traditional British breakfast.

Yorkshire Gold Loose Leaf Tea
Yorkshire Gold Loose Leaf Tea

Part of my concern about adding sweetener to tea is that sugar isn’t particularly healthy: It adds empty calories that can wreck havoc on the metabolism. We have oversweetened palates in the United States, and this desire for sweet flavors has resulted in the addition of sugar to a lot of condiments and convenience foods that we don’t normally think of as “sweet.” By reducing added sugars and sweeteners in our diets (not just the tea we drink), we can develop a more sensitive palate that can detect the natural sweetness of foods and beverages, including teas and tisanes.

Still, I can appreciate the addition of a bit of sweetener to teas flavored with chocolate and other “dessert-like” flavorings: If adding a bit of sugar, honey or artificial sweetener enhances the flavors of the tea such that it becomes more effective as a craving buster, a person may still be able to avoid consuming a lot of added calories, even if the sweetener contributes a few calories to the cup. Another option for tea lovers is to upgrade the quality of one’s tea: Many whole leaf black teas, particularly those from China, lack the serious bitterness that cheaper, broken leaf black teas have. For a few pennies more, you can drink a tea that doesn’t need sugar to mask unpleasant flavors.

William I. Lengeman III of
When our esteemed editor asked if a few contributors would like to weigh in on what sweeteners we preferred with our tea, I was more than happy to pitch in. Since an article that consisted of one word — “none” — obviously isn’t going to cut it, I’ll elaborate a bit.

I came to tea drinking late in life – in my forties. Growing up, the only tea I was exposed to was the wretched powdered stuff that came in a big jar or the equally grim varieties that came in cartons. These tended to be heavily sweetened and for good reason, since they had a flavor that suggested that someone had steeped three-week-old used gym socks in dishwater. As a result, I chose not to imbibe.

Dutch Gold Pure Clover Honey
Dutch Gold Pure Clover Honey - great on scones!

When I finally discovered that there were other, better, varieties of tea, I started out with pretty much the usual suspects — the popular brands of tea that you’re likely to find lining your grocery store shelves. In some cases, depending on what variety I was drinking, I would sweeten these, typically with a dab of honey. This was not so much due to the fact that I grew up in a culture where it’s normal to add milk or cream and a sweetener to my tea, because obviously I didn’t. It was more out of a need to make a not so palatable tea somewhat drinkable.

As I kept exploring the great wide world of tea I soon discovered that there were plenty of teas out there that taste so good on their own that they don’t require sweeteners. Even black teas, which are typically the ones most people are likely to doctor up with milk and sugar. Nowadays, I try to pursue a policy of  buying the best tea that I can possibly afford (and even great teas tend to be a relative bargain) and save my money by not buying milk, cream, honey, sugar and the like.

Janis Badarau of
What kind of sweetener do I like in my tea? That’s an easy one, because at least 99% of the time the answer is none.

Bellagio Sipping Chocolate
Bellagio Sipping Chocolate

First, the exceptions. On occasion I’ll have a “candy-” or fruit-flavoured tea for a light dessert, usually chocolate, vanilla, strawberry, or blueberry. A touch of unrefined sugar or a drop of maple syrup adds to their “dessert-ness.” I’m just as likely, however, to mix up a cup of sweet hot chocolate or hot vanilla by itself. I mean, why bother using tea if you’re not even going to taste it? You may as well have just the additives.

On a hot summer day I sometimes mix plain iced tea with lemonade. You see, I love lemonade but would rather avoid drinking so much sugar. Adding water makes the lemonade flavourless, so I add tea. I find this mixture very refreshing, ‘tho I’m not sure whether it qualifies as sweetener, flavoured iced tea, or flavoured lemonade.

Other than these few exceptions, I much prefer to enjoy my tea – both hot and iced – as nature intended: without any additives.

As I wrote recently, I like the many varieties of pure tea. I don’t like what I consider “adulterated” teas – mish-moshed flavourings piled onto tea “bases,” completely overshadowing any actual flavour and aroma in the leaf itself.

I include sweeteners in this category too.

In my experience there is enough flavour and aroma in a good cup of tea properly made from high-quality tea leaves that no sweetener, milk, lemon, or any other additive is required. Additives actually diminish enjoyment of tea itself by re-directing, or even altering, one’s taste buds. Adding stuff to good tea ought to be a felony.

When I do occasionally partake of a sweetened tea, it’s not because I want tea but because I want something sweet, and the tea just happens to be handy. Otherwise I’ll have my sweets with my tea, not in it, thank you very much.

May King Tsang of MayKingTea
As a BBC (British Born Chinese) my tea journey started with a blend of black tea with milk and two sugars, with a variety of Chinese teas to accompany dinner or Sunday Lunch (Dim Sum). Tea with milk and two sugars served me rather well during my schooling years, but with government health recommendations over the years; I went from two sugars, down to one and eventually to none and have not looked back in over 20 years.  Sugar and honey re-entered my tea journey very briefly but they were a mere passing acquaintance.  Let me explain.

A palate-pleaser as is?
A palate-pleaser as is?

I was invited about 5 years ago to have tea with a tea enthusiast who served a green tea and as she added what looked like crystal sugar or crystal salt to her cup, I thought it polite to take my tea in the same way.  It turned out to be German Rock Sugar in the end, and unfortunately it really wasn’t my cup of tea. The flavours of the tea seemed to drown under the sweetness although I still took great delight in smelling the tea’s aroma and I had a wonderful afternoon as I chatted with my host discussing the wonders of tea.

I was recently invited to tea and the host asked if I wanted honey. Curiosi-tea stepped (steeped?) in and I thought why not? It was a different experience to my milk and two sugar days, pleasant enough, but didn’t think the tea warranted it in my humble opinion. The black tea with honey was a much better experience than the green tea with sugar but my brief re-acquaintance with sugary tea-lights were brief and will remain that way. Goodbye to sugar, honey and sweeteners.


Okay, your turn. Do you sweeten your tea? If so, which is your fave sweetener?

© Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog, 2009-2014. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this article’s author and/or the blog’s owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Online Stores, Inc., and The English Tea Store Blog with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

3 thoughts on “Roundtable Topic: Sweeteners and Tea

  1. Pingback: Favourite Tearooms in the UK — Part III « Tea Blog

  2. I don’t sweeten the oolong, green or white teas I drink nor do I sweeten any teas to which fruit has been added [dried apple or berries or the bergamot in Earl Grey] nor do I sweeten rooibos or tisanes [even though some tisanes have a very strong medicinal flavor like the De-Tox and Joint Comfort Yogi teas I sometimes drink]. I do use a bit of agave nectar in very strong black teas such as Irish breakfast or Assams to which I also add, heresy or heresies, half & half. For the rest of the black teas, I drink most without additives. There are some teas that I will probably never acquire a taste for, with or without sweeteners, Lapsong Souchong springs to mind as one of these.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s