Iced Tea: How To Get More Health Benefits From Your Brew

Fresh brewed black tea. (Lisa Landers)

Drinking tea is good for you. Scientists seem pretty sure of it. Thousands of studies conducted around the globe suggest that the phytochemicals found in all teas (black, oolong, green, and white) offer a variety of health benefits, amping up our ability to defend against a wide array of diseases.

Having a few cups of tea a day can significantly increase antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activities in our bodies, which has been linked to everything from building stronger bones, to sharpening our brains, to burning more fat. Particularly notable is the mounting evidence that tea helps protect our hearts by reducing blood pressure and cholesterol, and improving blood flow.

Although more research is needed to confirm some of tea’s suspected benefits, it seems like a no-brainer to brew ourselves a few mugs of hot tea every day – except, of course, during the warm summer months when cooler elixirs are in order. The obvious solution is to drink iced tea instead, but the health bestowing powers of tea are often vastly and unnecessarily diminished when we make the switch.

One of the main reasons for the lost benefits is that we opt for convenience over freshness. While you can’t really stock up on pre-made hot tea, it’s easy to fill your pantry with pre-bottled teas to be consumed cold. But what we gain in terms of time, we lose in terms of potency.

According to nutrition scientist Dr. Jeffrey Blumberg, the Director of the Antioxidants Research Laboratory at Tufts University, those health-promoting chemical compounds found in tea known as flavonoids are most potent when the tea is freshly brewed.

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“Tea is not stable,” explains Blumberg. “You know that cloudy stuff that you see at the bottom of a bottle of ice tea or a gallon batch that you made a few days ago? That’s precipitated flavonoids – and that doesn’t do you any good.”

When bottled teas sit on a shelf in the store or in your fridge for months, those flavonoids can dissipate to the point of vanishing. “Studies conducted on some commercial, ready-made teas showed that they no longer contained any flavonoids in them,” says Blumberg.

After a little digging around on my part, I learned that the bottled tea brand Snapple doesn’t test for flavonoid content. I also discovered that Arizona iced tea is periodically tested for flavanoids, but only before the tea is bottled (not after its been sitting around for a few weeks). Organic tea maker Honest Tea, used to include information about levels of flavonoids and other beneficial compounds on bottles of their green tea. But they no longer include these details on their labels, and it’s unclear how and if they still conduct testing. No one at Honest Tea was available to answer my questions.

 All true tea varietals are derived from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, and contain health-promoting compounds.
All true tea varietals are derived from the same plant, Camellia sinensis, and contain health-promoting compounds. (AxelBoldt)

Dilution is another factor that impacts our ability to reap the full benefits of tea when it’s served cold. Bottled iced teas are often more watered down than anything you would brew yourself, and café-made teas are notoriously loaded with ice, drastically reducing the flavonoid content in a single drink. So, while you’ll get hydration, you won’t reap the health benefits of flavonoids unless you drink a tremendous amount of it. This is particularly noteworthy in light of studies that suggest that more is more when it comes to the benefits of consuming tea.

“When you look at the data, people who drink several cups [of hot tea] a day do better on all of the potential health outcomes than those who drink just one cup a day,” says Blumberg.”

Store-bought iced teas may also have unwanted sweeteners and other additives, and can vary in terms of the caffeine content. Buying decaffeinated iced tea is sometimes an option, but the decaffeination process removes about 10-15% of the flavonoids, says Blumberg. “If you really don’t want the caffeine, a simple adjustment is to make your tea a little stronger or just drink a bit more of it.”

Loose Leaf black tea.
Loose Leaf black tea. (Lisa Landers)

The bottom line is that the only way to really control what’s in your iced tea and ensure that you’re maximizing the potential health benefits is to brew it yourself, daily. Sound like a hassle? It’s actually very easy once you get yourself into the habit of doing it.

My strategy is to boil a kettle full of water first thing each morning. I pour the water into a large Pyrex measuring cup with a curved spout (I use the 4 cup size), along with 2-3 tea bags or a few heaping spoonfuls of loose leaf tea.* Let it steep on the counter for about 5 minutes and then stick it in the fridge or freezer for about an hour or until it gets cold. When it’s ready, pour yourself a tall glass (using a strainer for loose-leaf tea) and transfer the rest into a lidded pitcher to keep in the fridge for later. If you need to dash out before the tea is chilled, pour it into a thermos and throw in just enough ice to raise the temperature to your liking before hitting the road.

Drink it straight up or add lemon, honey, mint or any other infusions you like. If you prefer your tea with milk as I do, it’s worth noting that some studies have suggested that adding milk may reduce our bodies’ ability to absorb flavonoids, while other studies contradict these findings.

The bottom line is that no matter how you take your tea, making a fresh batch every day will help ensure that you’ll be drinking to your health with every sip.

* Store unbrewed tea bags and leaves in airtight containers in a cool, dark spot for up to a year.

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Disclaimer: This article is not intended to promote tea as a treatment for any kind of illness or disease. If you have any known health conditions, consult a doctor.

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