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, about 75 to 80 percent of the tea consumed in the U.S. is iced tea. And Americans guzzled more than 1.8 billion gallons of ready-to-drink iced tea in 2018, making it one of the most widely sold drinks.

But what you buy in a bottle might 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.

“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 in Pennsylvania. “And there’s no way of knowing what you’re actually getting when you buy iced tea in a bottle.”

What’s more, many bottled iced teas are nutritionally on a 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. 

More on Staying Healthy This Summer

The current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommends 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 necessarily better for you 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 sugar substitutes, such as aspartame or sucralose. Recent research suggests that consumption of alternative sweeteners 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 Tea has 24 grams of sugars and 90 calories in 18.5 ounces, compared with 48 grams of sugars and 190 calories in the brand’s Sweet Tea. 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 (such as 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,” Keating says. “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 might 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 5 minutes in hot water contained the highest amount of polyphenols—a type of antioxidant found in black tea— with more than 600 mg per cup, while bottled black tea contained the least (68 mg 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. For example, a 14.5-ounce bottle of Teavana Peach Green Tea has 21 grams of sugars and 90 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 a tea bag or loose-leaf tea (black or green), allow it to 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 vs. 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 in St. George, Utah. “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,” Vinson says. So don’t brew up a bigger batch than you can drink in a day or two.

Sugary Drinks vs. Water

People love sugary drinks, but in terms of nutritional value, these beverages really fizzle out. “Consumer 101” TV show host Jack Rico details Consumer Reports’ explanation for why it’s better to stick with water.