A glass of iced tea.

Hot days and cool, crisp iced tea seem like a match made in heaven. And plenty of people agree.

According to the Tea Association of the USA, Americans guzzled an estimated 1.8 billion gallons of ready-to-drink iced tea in 2017, making it one of the most popular drinks purchased.

But what you buy in a bottle may not deliver all the benefits you’re hoping to get from drinking tea—such as its potential to improve heart health and lower risk of conditions such as cognitive decline and diabetes.

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“In order to have these beneficial effects, the tea you’re drinking must be high in antioxidants,” says Joe Vinson, Ph.D., professor of chemistry at the University of Scranton. “And there’s no way of knowing what you’re actually getting when you buy iced tea a bottle.”

What’s more, many bottled iced teas are nutritionally on par with soda—complete with loads of sugars, and artificial colors and flavors.

That’s not to say iced tea is never a good choice. Some bottles are better than others and, as always, it pays to read the nutrition label to find the best options.

Here's what to consider before choosing a bottle of iced tea:

Beware of Sugars

The biggest downfall of bottled iced tea is that many varieties are packed with added sugars.

“You may think you’re choosing a healthier option when you grab a bottle of iced tea instead of a soda, but in many cases, you’re getting about as much sugars,” says Amy Keating, R.D., a nutritionist at Consumer Reports.

The current dietary guidelines recommend that less than 10 percent of your daily calories come from added sugars—that’s less than 50 grams if you’re following a 2,000 calorie diet. The American Heart Association says that the maximum daily added sugars intake should be no more than 25 grams for women and 36 grams for men.

Drinking sweetened iced tea can get you close to or over the max. For example, a 23-ounce can of Arizona Peach Tea has 69 grams of sugars and 259 calories. An 18.5-ounce bottle of Pure Leaf Sweet Tea has 42 grams of sugars and 160 calories.

The same goes for some iced tea/lemonade brands. Snapple Half ‘n Half, for instance, has 51 grams of sugars and 210 calories in 16 ounces. Compare those numbers to the 240 calories and 65 grams of sugars in a 20-ounce bottle of Coke.  

Some brands will tout that they contain real sugar, cane sugar, or honey. But such products aren’t better for you necessarily than those with high fructose corn syrup.

“It’s still all added sugars,” Keating says.

Diet iced teas will be low in sugars and calories, but they may contain artificial sweeteners, such as aspartame or sucralose. Recent research suggests that consumption of artificially sweetened beverages may be linked to increased risk of conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

Terms such as “less sweet” or “a tad sweet” often mean that the tea has less sugars than a similar product from the same brand. But the amount can vary from brand to brand.

For example, Gold Peak “Slightly Sweet” Iced Tea has 24 grams of sugars and 90 calories in 18.5 ounces compared to 48 grams of sugars and 190 calories in the brand’s “Sweet” version. And Honest Tea’s Organic Lori’s Lemon Tea, which is labeled “a tad sweet” has 15 grams of sugars and 60 calories in a 16-ounce bottle. But in both cases, the less sweet versions still pack a lot of added sugars.

Your best bet is to look for iced teas labeled unsweetened. These may have flavors (like lemon) added, but they’ll be calorie free and won’t contain any type of sweetener.

“If you like, mix in a teaspoon of sugar or agave syrup,” says Keating. “You’ll get some sweetness but with a lot less sugar than in a presweetened version.” 

Don’t Count On Getting Antioxidants

If part of the reason you’re choosing iced tea is because you want to drink a dose of antioxidants, be warned that there may not be many in a bottle.

“Bottled teas are very low in antioxidants compared to freshly brewed tea,” says Vinson, whose lab has analyzed a variety of teas.

In his testing, black tea bags steeped for five minutes in hot water contained the highest amount of polyphenols—a type of antioxidant found in black tea— (over 600 milligrams per cup) while bottled black tea contained the least (68 milligrams per cup).

Vinson theorizes that the ratio of water to tea is higher in bottled teas than in tea you make at home, so the resulting beverage has a lower antioxidant level. Flavorings and sugars eliminate tea’s naturally bitter taste, but may also dilute antioxidants.  

Don't Think Green Is Better

There are a lot of good things about green tea. Some research suggests that the type of antioxidant in green tea, called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG), may help lower risk of certain cancers and reduce the risk of heart disease.

But don’t be blinded by green tea’s health halo. Many bottled green teas—just like bottled black teas—are loaded with added sugars and other not-so-healthy ingredients. For example, a 13.8-ounce bottle of Tazo Organic Iced Green Tea has 30 grams of sugars and 120 calories.  

Consider Brewing Your Own

A simple, and inexpensive, solution to bottled teas with too much sugar or other not-so-healthy attributes is to simply brew your own iced tea.

You can pour boiling water over the bags or loose-leaf tea (black or green), let it steep for about 5 minutes, and let it cool. You can also add tea to cold water and let it steep for about 2 hours. A 2016 study published in the Journal of Food Science found little difference in the polyphenol content of black or green tea steeped in hot water for 5 minutes versus cold water for 2 hours.

“I prefer to use hot water even when making iced tea because I feel that it makes a stronger brew,” says Chad Luethje, executive chef at Red Mountain Resort, St. George, UT. “Then I let it cool down in the refrigerator rather than adding ice—which dilutes the taste.” To make a pitcher of iced tea, he recommends steeping eight to 10 tea bags in 2 quarts of water.

He also has some healthy tricks for counteracting tea’s bitter taste without adding sugar. For green tea, he suggests mixing in some freshly brewed mint tea, then adding lemon slices and fresh mint. For black tea, try orange slices for a natural dose of sweetness.

It’s worth noting, though, that the antioxidants in tea will dissipate over time. “We found that once brewed, the antioxidant content went down about 10 percent a day,” says Vinson. So don’t brew up a bigger batch than you can drink in a day or two.