Decoding Labels: Restaurant Iced Tea

Iced tea is a staple in my home. Maybe it’s because I was born and raised in Texas. Maybe it’s because after I kicked my soda habit, I still wanted something flavorful and cool and refreshing to drink when I ate out. Regardless of why I love iced tea, the fact remains that I do.

If you are an iced tea drinker, you know that ordering an unsweetened iced tea at a restaurant is rather hit and miss. Some teas taste like dirty laundry while others taste delightful. But regardless of how the tea tastes, I at least can enjoy the fact that I’m not pumping my body full of refined sugars.

Or so I thought, until one of my readers emailed me about the tea she serves up in the restaurant business. That led me to this week’s decoding labels post on Restaurant Iced Tea.

As it turns out, the majority of iced tea served in U.S. restaurants isn’t fresh brewed from leaves. Most of it is made from a tea concentrate. All restaurant employees have to do is add cold water to the liquid concentrate and serve.

I don’t want to malign all restaurant iced tea, as many restaurants use drip brew machines kinda like a coffee maker to make tea using bagged tea leaves. But many don’t. And for those who don’t, you may be surprised what’s in their iced tea concentrate.

There are hundreds of brands of iced tea concentrate out there, but for this example I’m going to use one of the most popular served up by Lipton, an unsweetened concentrate that is made by mixing a Tea Extract, Liquid Aroma, and water.

Unsweetened Lipton 1-2-Tea: Ingredients

Tea Extract

  • Brewed tea extract from Lipton tea leaves,
  • High Fructose Corn Syrup and Corn Syrup (as stabilizers),
  • Caramel color,
  • Green tea,
  • Phosphoric acid,
  • Potassium sorbate and Sodium benzoate (to protect quality),
  • Red 40.

Liquid Aroma

  • Tea aroma captured from Lipton tea leaves,
  • Phosphoric acid,
  • Ascorbic acid,
  • Potassium sorbate (to protect quality),

Unsweetened Lipton 1-2-Tea: DECODED

First, let’s just ignore the part about this being a convenience food — a concentrate meant to help save restaurants the few precious moments of prep time required to make hot, drip brewed tea and then cool it down with ice water. After all, even I’ve made my own tea concentrate before when helping to serve crowds. It’s more efficient, easier to store, and super easy to make. You just use more tea leaves in less water and a slightly shorter steeping time. You keep it in your limited fridge space, then when the crowd shows up, you pour one pitcher of concentrate into 4 or 5 other empty pitchers. Top off the pitchers with cold water & ice, and enjoy.

So, we’ll take no offense at the convenience. In a way, it only makes sense to do it this way.

But at what cost does this industrialized version of convenience come? Let’s check out the ingredients.

Brewed tea extract from Lipton tea leaves? Check. That’s what my home made tea concentrate contains.

High-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup? OMG! OMG! OMG! Hello, Lipton, I thought this is supposed to be unsweetened iced tea?

It is. This, my readers, is the real bombshell. Even unsweetened restaurant tea contains high fructose corn syrup! Need I say more?

Then we’ve got added colors to make the concentrate look pretty in your restaurant glass: Caramel color and Red 40. And finally, the preservatives used to keep your concentrate shelf stable for months on end: Phosphoric acid, Potassium sorbate and Sodium benzoate.

And then we add a pack of Liquid Aroma? Perhaps because without the added aroma extract, the concentrate doesn’t have the appealing scent most of us associate with our freshly-brewed iced tea?

The take home lesson here is simple: any time we industrialize convenience, we pay a price in quality. It’s true for Orange Juice. It’s true for pickles. It’s true for restaurant iced tea. We gain convenience, but we lose aroma, flavor, color.

Liption 1-2-Tea: THE VERDICT

So, how can you know what you’re drinking?

The next time you’re at a restaurant, ask them how they make their iced tea. Be specific. Honestly, based on my experience asking for butter in restaurants, I’d even go so far as to ask a few people and not just your waiter. That’s because the concentrates say things like “made from real brewed iced tea” right on the label. So someone could happily answer you with, “Yes, our tea is made from real brewed iced tea.”

If the tea is made from a concentrate the restaurant does not themselves make, then don’t order it. And, let your waiter know you’d prefer freshly brewed tea. Perhaps if enough consumers turn their noses up at these sorts of things, we can change our dining landscape.

Want Your Labels Decoded?

In this series on Decoding Labels, I’m highlighting deceptive labeling practices, hidden ingredients, and more! If you’ve got a particular label pet-peeve you’d like me to share, please feel free to email me with your idea. It may just turn into a blog post!

(Lipton tea photos by Danette Preston)

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I am a passionate advocate for REAL FOOD -- food that's sustainable, organic, local, and traditionally-prepared according to the wisdom of our ancestors. I'm also an author and a nutrition educator. I enjoy playing in the rain, a good bottle of Caol Ila scotch, curling up with a page-turning book, sunbathing on my hammock, and watching my three children explore their world.
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60 Responses to Decoding Labels: Restaurant Iced Tea
  1. Sheri Kash
    May 3, 2012 | 12:40 pm

    Re: Liptons Tea

    This just enrages me. My boyfriend is a diabetic. He dutifully drinks unsweetened tea when he dines out. I feel like this should be illegal!!

  2. David
    May 3, 2012 | 12:52 pm

    This doesn’t surprise me. What is surprising however is how little people care for what they put into their bodies. And then they wonder why they can’t loose weight or why they are sick all the time.

    • Betsy
      May 3, 2012 | 3:03 pm

      But that’s not really fair, as many people think they’re making a healthier choice by ordering iced tea instead of soda. Who would think to question something that is labeled UNSWEETENED iced tea? It’s a grossly misleading deception being forced on us.

      • Amy Love @ Real Food Whole Health
        June 20, 2012 | 1:14 pm

        That’s true! We can ask questions of the waitstaff and the kitchen, but they may not be aware of it either. While many people TRULY do not care about what they eat or drink (or use on their bodies), many do. And when they order UNSWEETENED tea, then that is what they should get. Honestly, it never would have even occurred to me to ask if UNsweetened tea contained corn syrup or any sweetener, because um, duh, it’s UNsweetened!

  3. Laura @ Stealthy Mom
    May 3, 2012 | 1:07 pm

    That’s funny. I grew up in Canada, where we considered iced tea to be pop. The first time I was ever served unsweetened tea in a glass, I was shocked. I’m not saying brewed tea is bad, it is just a surprise when you order a pop and get, well, tea. Hopefully the real iced tea trend will work its way north.

    What I find even more offensive is the “lemonade” available in soda fountains. Zero percent juice, aspartame… yummy!

    • Leesy
      May 4, 2012 | 12:15 am

      I know, right?!

      • PixieStix6669
        May 10, 2012 | 2:26 pm

        The solution is to carry along your own homemade!

  4. Savannah
    May 3, 2012 | 1:58 pm

    As someone who has worked in restaurants for most of my life, I would say that if you are picking your restaurant for its real food, it is going to have real tea. The places I have worked that serve this “tea,” are the places even I wouldn’t eat their food.
    If you ask how they make their tea, and they tell you it is from concentrate, you might as well just get up and walk out, as you have much worse things to worry about with the food.

  5. lavella Pfeister
    May 3, 2012 | 2:38 pm

    after reading the tea article and looking on bottles od UN SWEETENED tea .. i find they are all made with concentrate..
    will you please dig into Naked Juice .. another favorite

  6. hippiedippy
    May 3, 2012 | 3:06 pm

    wait… you go to restaurants? where do you go? what do you order? we have just jumped into this whole world of real, traditional foods, and i know of VERY few restaurants that serve food that way. would love to know!

    • KristenM
      May 3, 2012 | 4:20 pm

      Thankfully, I live in a place that prides itself on good food. So, a lot of local restaurants source locally-grown veggies & meats (organic when possible). Upscale places wouldn’t be caught dead using bouillon instead of broth, or margarine instead of butter. The chefs are too snooty. So, I tend to go to places that either focus on local foods or authentic cuisines. That said, a lot still use cheap GMO oil for their frying. To order, you just have to know what your priorities are and avoid common pitfalls like foods fried in cheap oil or breads made from refined flour.

      • hippiedippy
        May 3, 2012 | 7:29 pm

        Thanks! We do have a VERY few farm-to-table style restaurants in our area. They are definitely high end, and for us, special occasion places. Wish we had a good, local, soups-n-salads place with the same priorities! Good tip about the GMO oil, I’ll be sure to ask about that next time!

        • Amy Love @ Real Food Whole Health
          June 20, 2012 | 1:20 pm

          Make sure to request that your food be cooked in only REAL butter or olive oil. We’ve come up against a few farm-to-tables to use the GMO (soybean or canola) oil on their griddle or in pans. We went to a well-regarded farm-to-table for brunch one time and found out (by asking LOTS of questions and telling them we wanted absolutely NO vegetable oils) that the bacon was not cooked in a pan or griddle, but that it was dropped in the deep fryer! I never dreamed that might happen. Take good, farm-fresh, pastured pork bacon and drench it in GMO soy oil. UGH! You have to ask a LOT of questions for sure, and I find that it’s best to tell them right off the bat what we are avoiding (gluten, veggie oils, soy) and then ask about the butter, the olive oil (which is often cut with canola or soy) and that’s after we’ve already established that the meats, produce and eggs are from acceptable sources…Needless to say, once you find a good place and the things you can order there, you go there a LOT! :)

  7. Lisa
    May 3, 2012 | 3:22 pm

    I’ve worked in restaurants ranging from a Chili’s to 5 star dining for 30 years. I have never served tea that was not brewed in house.

    • KristenM
      May 3, 2012 | 4:22 pm

      That’s good news. From what I’ve gathered, the concentrates took over the marketplace a few years ago when they made a big marketing push through restaurant supply chains like Sysco. A number of restaurants that used to serve up brewed teas have switched to using concentrates just within the past two or three years.

      • Sarah
        July 17, 2012 | 3:22 pm

        I agree. I am very allergic to sodium benzoate, so I specifically watch out for brewed tea versus tea concentrates. It’s surprising how many restaurants have switched over in just the past year.

  8. Shauna
    May 3, 2012 | 3:44 pm

    As I read this, I am sitting in a restaurant drinking their tea. No clue which type it is. Sigh

  9. Perry E
    May 3, 2012 | 3:57 pm

    It cracks me up that they say the corn syrup and HFCS are added as stabilizers. Like some health conscious person is going to read the label and say.. “oh.. they’re stabilizers.. I guess it must be a healthier choice”. Some lawyer got paid good money to come up with those two words. Creative food labeling indeed.

  10. Laura
    May 3, 2012 | 4:28 pm

    I work at Olive Garden, and we brew our tea from bagged leaves. In fact, every restaurant I’ve worked at does this. Budget-wise, concentrate seems like it would be costlier for a restaurant.

  11. J
    May 3, 2012 | 4:32 pm

    Surprisingly, McDonalds actually brews their unsweetened tea, and it’s pretty good! Of course, many restaurants are franchises, so maybe that isn’t true everywhere; and, I don’t know about the sweet tea.

    • AmandaLP
      May 3, 2012 | 5:14 pm

      I used to love McDonalds sweet tea. As a Texan living in New York, it is the closest restaurant tea to southern. Unfortunately, many McDonalds here don’t have unsweet tea!

  12. Laura
    May 3, 2012 | 4:44 pm

    I am currently a waitress for a Casual Dining Steakhouse part of what I understand to be the largest Restaurant conglomerate in the US, and we fresh brew our tea. I’ve worked for this establishment for 6 years, and previously, I worked for a fairly popular southern-styled comfort food chain who also brews their own tea.

    I have no idea why they would make these concentrates: we get our tea in predispensed packs of leaves, and just open that up, put it in the filter, and press start, and the machine drip brews a concentrate which it SIMULTANEOUSLY mixes with cold water to dilute. Making that concentrate seems HARDER to me!

    Regardless, I, personally, have no problem reading or bringing out labels of things for my tables (when it’s possible to bring out the label) so they can be certain of things. While there are certainly people who may be annoyed by allergies and special requests, I just want you to be happy, safe, and know that you’re getting what you think you’re getting. Have a milk allergy? I know that our bread doesn’t have milk or eggs, can bring you the label if needed, and I’ll def bring you olive oil for it instead of butter. NBD.

    But I am off topic. But, unless your server is a jerk, just ask. It’s, ya know, kinda my job.

  13. Mrs.Buck
    May 3, 2012 | 4:50 pm

    This is so upsetting! Just goes to show, you NEVER know what you’re getting when you go to a restaurant. So sad.

  14. Kathy (aka Mrs Dull)
    May 3, 2012 | 5:17 pm

    Lovin this series Kristen! It’s very eye opening to take it one processed food item at a time one ingredient at a time. Kinda forces you to focus … Sometimes the mind just glances right past some of this stuff. I live in Austin too and would love to hear about some of the real food restaurants around.

  15. s
    May 3, 2012 | 5:22 pm

    I have never worked in a restaurant that doesnt brew tea fresh.it may be crap tea leaves andtap water but its still real tea! the drink station is usually at least partially visible so try and check for the tea brew4ng machines to be sure

  16. jLynn
    May 3, 2012 | 6:18 pm

    The solution to this is an easy one for me. I probably won’t go through the hassel of asking all the questions….after all, i still have the entree to ask about. I’ll ask for hot tea and a glass of ice.

    • Shari
      June 26, 2012 | 11:04 am

      An order of hot tea and a glass of ice works for me, too. That way, I know what I am getting (I hope).

  17. Healthy Living Val
    May 3, 2012 | 8:06 pm

    The package actually doesn’t say unsweetened iced tea (according to the photo). Generally the Lipton unsweetened iced tea mix has only instant tea powder and maltodextrin.

    • KristenM
      May 3, 2012 | 8:16 pm

      Please don’t confuse different products! Readers often tend to do that with these decoding label posts. If it uses a powder, it is certainly NOT a Lipton 1-2-Tea variety. (Perhaps it’s one of their instant tea mixes?)

      This is a Lipton product called Lipton 1-2-Tea that uses two liquid concentrates. And yes, it most certainly is for the unsweetened tea! The pic is for an individual serving packet good for a gallon and a half of tea. Restaurants don’t buy these packets individually. Rather, they buy these in boxes of 20 or more to a package and the packaging clearly mark this tea concentrate as unsweetened.

      Hope that helps!

      • Healthy Living Val
        May 4, 2012 | 1:05 pm

        Nothing about this product anywhere online says that it’s unsweetened tea. I’ve seen plenty of tea dispensers that may serve this kind of tea at casual dining places that don’t bill it specifically as unsweetened. This would be very dangerous for diabetics and people (like me) with corn intolerance. Especially because it’s obviously sweetened — I can tell the taste of high fructose corn syrup in a minute.

        • KristenM
          May 4, 2012 | 9:35 pm

          Here’s the thing. Even if a restaurant doesn’t go to the effort of labeling this “unsweetened” tea for their patrons, what else are the patrons supposed to think when it’s sitting right next to a clearly labeled “sweetened” option? If I see two tea dispensers and one says “tea” and another says “sweet tea,” I’m going to think the one not labeled “sweet” is unsweetened. The bottom line is that it’s deceptive to put sweetened tea in the plain tea container.

  18. Olinda Paul
    May 3, 2012 | 8:33 pm

    So if Tea has caramel in it…it is NOT gluten free.

  19. Olinda Paul
    May 3, 2012 | 8:33 pm

    So if Tea has caramel in it…it is NOT gluten free.

  20. Leesy
    May 4, 2012 | 12:11 am

    The restaurant I worked at was my first “real” job & it was my first real experience with real iced tea. We would brew ours just like u explained with the bags in the coffeepots.

    It is a marked improvement over concentrate & infinitely cheaper, wonder y restaurants would want to spend more on a menu item that tastes inferior?

  21. Danette
    May 4, 2012 | 2:11 am

    The Pizza Hut I work for uses the Lipton 1-2-Tea. It even came with a big tea dispenser and says in bold letters ‘Lipton Brewed Tea’. It takes less work then when we used to hot brew it, which was simply putting the tea bags in the coffee pot, pouring the tea in the dispenser and adding water. With the concentrate, you rip open the pouch, pour in and add water. Sadly, it tastes very good- can’t tell the difference. But I won’t touch the stuff! I always ask now when I order tea at a restaraunt exactly how it’s made. Fortunately, a lot seem to make it hot brewed, but be careful and ask every time because you never know when they might make the switch!

  22. Carol
    May 4, 2012 | 6:35 am

    Even better… request hot tea and a tall glass of ice!

    • GrandmaLen
      May 10, 2012 | 2:34 pm

      Yes! And be sure you get good tea bags – maybe the Renegade should check on what goes into tea bags – I believe it’s stuff that is too finely crushed to be used as tea leaves.

      • Shari
        June 26, 2012 | 11:07 am

        You can take your own tea leaves and one of those brewing bags; order hot water and a large glass of ice. That solves the tea bag problem. Easy to carry in a baggy in one’s purse or pocket.

  23. Laura
    May 4, 2012 | 6:54 am

    Wow, this is good to know. I am appauled by learning this. My first job as a teenager was with Long John Silver’s, and even they brew their iced tea with hot water from leaves!

  24. DrCate
    May 4, 2012 | 9:03 pm

    That does it. There needs to be a service group that takes up the cause of certifying restaurants as honest or not. When they say unsweetened, that’s lying. When they say olive oil and it’s Canola topped of with olive, that’s lying. Anyone know a celebrity?

  25. Hanna
    May 5, 2012 | 4:49 am

    KristenM
    whats your recipe for iced tea? always like to try new recipes!

  26. Morgan Crumm
    May 5, 2012 | 8:35 am

    Love this post! Just shared it with my followers on my facebook page. Thanks for your sleuthing!

  27. Sarah mulholland
    May 6, 2012 | 7:25 am

    Is water next?

  28. bridget
    May 7, 2012 | 9:07 am

    Wow this is one I’ve never thought about before!! I don’t drink soda either and often order unsweetened iced tea at restaurants. I can definitely taste when its not fresh brewed but I’ve never really thought about what it actually is!! Liptons is gross in my opinion! I will most definintely be asking how its made from now on!!

  29. Michelle @ Find Your Balance
    May 8, 2012 | 6:43 pm

    Love this series of decoded labels! Iced tea is definitely an offender not only in restaurants, but the powdered stuff people make at home is surely just as bad.

  30. Melanie
    May 10, 2012 | 12:21 pm

    That’s why I LOVE Newman’s Organic Royal Tea.. My family thinks its the best flavored tea yet!

  31. Thomas
    May 10, 2012 | 2:19 pm

    Holy $hit Balls! I probably drank half a gallon of this with my dinner out last night…. GAAAAHHHHHHHH.

  32. PixieStix6669
    May 10, 2012 | 2:25 pm

    This is why I don’t trust big food…especially companies that aren’t traditionally organic, but have “organic” subsidiaries like Kashi, Dagoba, Cascadian Farms, Morning Star, Nature Valley, etc…I’ve stopped eating out all together, with rare exceptions…

  33. Anne
    May 10, 2012 | 5:26 pm

    In the South, where I currently live, it’s always fresh brewed tea, usually Luzianne. You can tell who serves actual brewed tea because the apparatus used looks much like a institutional coffee maker – with the hopper for the leaves and the place where the tea comes out and into the receptical. No self-respecting sit down place in the south uses anything but brewed tea for iced tea. You run the risk of getting tarred and feathered using anything else.

  34. Lizzie
    May 10, 2012 | 6:47 pm

    Having grown up Southern, I too love iced tea. I always ask if the tea is fresh brewed, and if the answer is well yeah but it comes out of a machine, I pass. I can tell immediately the difference and do not hesitate to send back a misrepresented product! Kudos to you for exposing the crime!

  35. Anna
    May 10, 2012 | 9:21 pm

    I recently discovered Tetulia organic tea from Bangladesh. My mom likes the Black tea but I’m addicted to Tulsi with Holy Basil. It is orange in color. It is unlike any other tea I have ever tasted. We reuse the tea bags over and over. OMG, unbelievable!
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=klIQj1fMz7w

  36. Ryan
    May 11, 2012 | 6:45 am

    I can’t believe how dumb people are. It’s frustrating that sheeple read something and just take it for granted that it’s true.

    I did a quick GOOGLE search of HFCS Stabilizer and found this article: Uses in Beverages and Frozen Foods

    HFCS raises the freezing point in frozen beverage mixes which, According to the Sweet Surprise website, makes them easier and quicker to thaw and mix with water. Manufacturers also use it as a flavor stabilizer to ensure a longer shelf life in soft drinks, such as colas and fruit drinks. The Sweet Surprise website also states that HFCS provides greater stability in carbonated sodas than cane sugar. In frozen fruits, it enhances the flavor of the fruit, regulates tartness and helps maintain the texture and integrity of the fruit. It also helps reduce freezer burn.

    http://www.livestrong.com/article/265738-uses-of-high-fructose-corn-syrup/#ixzz1uYoQlYUM

    So there you go. HFCS is used in minute amounts to stabilize the flavor. Yeah, lipton is gross, what’s new? What do you expect, the shelf life is past the zombie apocalypse. But a diabetic should be fine drinking unsweetened iced tea.

    • rednikki
      May 12, 2012 | 12:33 pm

      Ryan – may not be a problem for diabetics, but it is a problem for people allergic to corn. That’s currently the 8th most common food allergy in the US.

  37. rednikki
    May 12, 2012 | 12:33 pm

    I just checked at Souplantation, because they have a setup that LOOKS like it’s a tea-brewer.

    “Do you brew your iced tea?” I asked.

    “Oh, yes we do, you can see it over there,” said the staffer.

    “Do you use tea leaves or is it something from a packet that you mix together?” I asked.

    She looked REALLY embarrassed and said, “It’s from a packet and we just mix it with water.”

    So, warning to all: if your restaurant has what looks like a tea-brewing setup it may just be there to make the product LOOK like real food.

  38. Marla
    June 25, 2012 | 9:44 pm

    I carry a lipton tea bag in my purse and ask for hot water and a glass of ice. Reward? No charge!

  39. snow4jc
    September 12, 2012 | 9:07 am

    I am so thankful that I found your website in my class to find out why McDonald’s iced tea is making me sick. I have been told that it is freshly brewed and they only use sugar. This can’t be true because when I drink it I immediately get my allergic reactions to high fructose corn syrup. So I switched to drinking unsweetened iced tea. A week ago I had a pretty severe reaction in my eyes. Extreme Puffiness, redness, itchy and the cheek right below my eye extremely puffy looking. I have been eating very clean and have been drinking unsweetened iced tea. That’s when I realized there is something in McDonalds tea that is making me sick. Of course the outward manifestation is in my eyes but I know when my eyes are inflamed and all messed up my body is totally inflamed as well. It is not just irritating it is dangerous for those that have allergies.

  40. Rose
    September 29, 2012 | 9:55 am

    I worked at a “Mexican” resturant(here in British Columbia, Canada) I thought it was great, I was “cooking” healthy food etc. And to my surprise all the meat and beans were cooked on a stove in the back,then refrigerated, and when anyone ordered we would build there burrito,taco ect. And then microwave it!! Also they used the beef fat in their beans and didn’t tell vegetarians. I had to keep the job though, I was in a small town, I worked there for a year and I don’t miss the people, I would never go back in there. They even tried to get me to cut up moldy red pepper and I completely refused. They said “a little mold is good for you” I personally like to know what I am eating!

  41. Gita
    October 31, 2012 | 12:32 am

    Not only should you ask how they brew the tea, but ask to see the tea itself. Some “fresh brewed teas” are actually “Bag in the Box” concentrated pre-brewed teas. If a restaurant is serving a high quality tea, they will be proud to show you the actual tea.

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Who Am I?

My name is Kristen Michaelis. I'm a nutrition educator, author, and mother of three. I adore hats, happy skirts, horizons full of storm clouds, the full-bodied feel of wind as I ride motorcylces, reading in my hammock, and a hearty shot of Caol Ila scotch. I'm also a rebel with a cause.
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