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
- 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.
- 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)