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Sweet Tea: Healthy Twists on this Southern Classic

By Blue Cross NC | May 17, 2017 | Explore NC

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In a 2010 piece, Charlotte journalist Tommy Tomlinson sang the praises of sweet tea, calling it “our love offering, poured for family, neighbors, and even the salesman” and “an amber elixir that tastes like the South and feels like home.” He went on to note, “At its most basic, sweet tea is a cold blast on a hot day, like a dip in the river from the inside out.”

In more practical (but less poetic) terms, sweet tea is a beverage that traditionally is made with bags of black tea leaves, boiled water, and sugar or simple syrup. Gussied-up versions may contain mint leaves or lemon or fruit juice. But no matter how you take it, there’s no denying that there’s something special about this classic drink.


Steeped in Southern History

Despite the fact that the first glass may have been brewed in the North, sweet tea is an icon that has helped define the South for decades. How ingrained is sweet tea in Southern culture? In the 1989 movie “Steel Magnolias”, Dolly Parton called it “the house wine of the South,” and Zac Brown Band’s hit “Chicken Fried” references sweet tea alongside other Southern classics like pecan pie and homemade wine. To put it simply, apart from warm hospitality and a liberal use of “y’all,” few things are more Southern than an ice-cold glass of the sweet stuff.


Finding Your Cup (or Glass) of Tea

The traditional companion foods for sweet tea are barbecue, summer grill-out meals and salads. But in the South, sweet tea doesn’t “go” with any particular food. It’s a staple year-round. Don’t have time to mix up a pitcher? Here’s where you can find some of the best “brews” in our neck of the woods:

  • Pam’s Farm House – Yelp reviewers specifically name the sweet tea, served in Mason jars, at this Raleigh landmark as a local favorite.
  • Big Ed’s City Market Restaurant – Sweet tea often replaces the orange juice at this quirky, downtown Raleigh breakfast gem.
  • Snoopy’s and Cloos’ – At these can’t-miss Raleigh sites, it’s all about the ice. Many sweet tea enthusiasts think sweet tea plus the “good ice” (i.e., pellet ice) found at these joints is the ultimate combo.
  • Smithfield’s Chicken ’N Bar-B-Q – Technically a chain, Smithfield’s is local to North Carolina, and the sweet tea is as much an SCNB signature item as the chain’s eastern North Carolina barbecue, fried chicken and hush puppies.
  • Pressley Park – Our State magazine claimed that this Charlotte locale has the perfect sweet tea, with a secret ingredient, that tastes just a bit different every day.
  • Bojangle’s – Surprised? At the quick-serve chain with North Carolina roots, sweet tea is the standard and comes free with many of the meals served.


More Than a Spoonful of Sugar

There’s no getting around it. Sweet tea has its name for a reason. And though refreshing, this Southern staple isn’t always the best for your health.

Depending on the type of tea leaves used, sweet tea can be high in antioxidants. However, because sweet tea contains large amounts of sugar, drinking too much can result in health issues including obesity and diabetes. New research also indicates that sweet tea might also cause kidney stones.

In light of similar findings, and as more Americans become self-disciplined about sugar intake, restaurants are starting to update their menu offerings. Restaurants in states like Alabama, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina and Georgia that may have served only sweet tea 20 years ago now offer unsweetened tea. Tea without sugar has been associated with a number of health benefits such as:

  • Fewer calories. An 8-ounce serving of brewed, unsweetened iced tea contains just 2 calories and 0 grams of sugar. Compare this to 89 calories and 22 grams of sugar in packaged sweet tea.
  • Source of manganese. Unsweetened tea contains 520 micrograms of manganese, which can promote a healthy metabolism, wound healing, and bone strength.
  • Sources of fluoride and flavonoids. Who knew tea could help fight tooth decay? Unsweetened tea contains .5 milligrams of fluoride.

Luckily, there are ways to upgrade your sweet tea to make it a bit healthier without completely kicking your sweet tooth to the curb:

  • By ordering (or making) a “half-sweet, half-unsweet” tea blend, you can cut back on the sugar and calories you’re taking in while still enjoying a sweet drink.
  • Instead of swapping plain old sugar for artificial sweeteners that may have their own health concerns, try healthier alternatives like organic cane sugar, raw honey, maple sugar or organic stevia powder.
  • Add fresh lemon juice or lemon slices to your next pitcher of tea to increase flavor but not calories.

Along with other Southern staples like biscuits and barbecue, sweet tea is more than a beverage. It’s a part of the culture. It’s infused throughout Southern childhoods and memories. By making a few modifications to make your brew a little healthier, you can still enjoy the classic drink and take it easy on your blood sugar. Your grandma will forgive you for updating her secret recipe.