Choosing sweet tea over soda may seem like a healthier choice. It's understandable that you may mistake sweet tea as the better option, but when it comes down to calorie and sugar content and long-term health effects, you're better off abandoning both for water or unsweetened coffee and tea.
Both soda and sweet tea are sugar-sweetened beverages, as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that may have negative effects on your health if consumed regularly.
Sweet tea and soda both contain large amounts of sugar that negatively affects your health.
Soda, Sugar and Your Health
You don't have to do a lot of research to find bad press for sugar-sweetened soda. Soda offers no nutrients and contains a lot of sugar or high-fructose corn syrup, which seems to be linked to the high obesity rates in the United States, notes the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
There are 65 grams of sugar in a 20-ounce bottle of Coca-Cola. That equals more than 15 teaspoons of the sweet stuff. The American Heart Association recommends you limit your intake to 6 to 9 teaspoons, depending on your gender, to protect your health.
In addition to sugar, soda contains artificial and natural flavors as well as citric acid and phosphoric acid, which are mostly chemicals that provide no nutritional value.
Studies also link chronic soda consumption with health problems. An animal study published in Molecular Medicine Reports in June 2016 showed that rats given Coca-Cola and Pepsi showed increased oxidative stress on their bones, livers and kidneys.
And an article in Current Developments in Nutrition, published in May 2018, confirmed that sugar-sweetened soda consumption was positively associated with incidents of diabetes; basically, the more soda you drink, the greater your risk of developing the chronic disease. The researchers also found that switching to diet versions may not be any better either when it comes to diabetes risk. The correlation between diet soda consumption and elevated risk of diabetes was also strong.
Soda consumption is associated with less-than-healthy behaviors, explains the CDC. Frequent consumers of soda tend to be smokers, people with irregular sleep habits, those with sedentary lifestyles, fast-food consumers and individuals who don't eat regular servings of fruit. Soda often accompanies teens who overdo screen time, too.
Sweet Tea Seems Better
According to the American Tea Association, on any given day, 159 million Americans are drinking tea, including hot, iced, sweet and unsweetened. Approximately 75 to 80 percent of tea consumed in America is iced. With all the negatives surrounding soda, tea seems a better option, and it can be — as long as it's unsweetened.
Tea is a natural product that keeps you hydrated with very few calories. It also contains flavonoids, compounds that have antioxidant properties. Flavonoids can neutralize free radicals, which increase inflammation in your body and contribute to chronic disease.
The American Tea Association states that unsweetened tea has numerous health benefits, including:
- A boost in heart health
- Lower skin cancer risk
- Slowed age-related neurological decline
- A role in weight management
Research published in the European Journal of Nutrition in October 2015 showed that unsweetened tea and coffee consumption is associated with lower incidence of metabolic syndrome, a collection of symptoms such as elevated blood sugar levels, high blood pressure and excessive abdominal fat. People with metabolic syndrome are at a far higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Tea consumption may also reduce your risk of developing osteoporosis, explained a study in Nutrition Research published in June 2017. Regularly drinking tea may actually increase bone mineral density.
Sweet Tea vs. Soda
Sweet tea, however, is not the product evaluated for providing positive health benefits. Sweet tea actually falls into the category of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), as defined by the CDC, and is comparable to soda when it comes to sugar content and negative health effect.
Sweet tea may have marginally less sugar and fewer calories than soda, but it can be just as bad in the long run when it comes to your waistline, chronic disease development and well-being. The organization We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children's Activity & Nutrition) states that an average 12-ounce serving of soda contains 10 1/4 teaspoons of sugar, amounting to 41 grams and 150 calories. The same amount of sweet tea contains 33 grams of sugar — or 8 1/2 teaspoons — and 120 calories.
Read more: Recommended Caloric Intake for Weight Loss
Sugar-Sweetened Beverages: Health Effect
Sweet tea vs. soda becomes irrelevant when considering the effect of these beverages on health since they both contain similar calories and added sugar.
According to research published in Obesity Facts in February 2018, SSB consumption greatly increases your risk of obesity. The scientists recommend, given the evidence gathered from more than 30 studies, that public health policies discourage the consumption of these drinks and encourage healthy options, such as water, instead.
Read more: A Meal Plan for Obesity
Another meta-analysis published in February 2018 in BMC Obesity found "substantial evidence" that sugar-sweetened beverages increase the risk of obesity (or just being overweight). It also found that these drinks encourage cavities and increase risk of insulin resistance and caffeine-related effects, especially in children.
Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as sweet tea and soda also increase risk of cardiometabolic conditions, such as hypertension. A study published in November 2017 in the Journal of the Endocrine Society reported that frequent sugar-sweetened beverage intake is linked to high blood pressure and other well-known cardiovascular disease risk factors.
Weight Loss and Drink Choices
If your goal is to save calories, then water, unsweetened tea or coffee or other naturally no-calorie drinks are best. The National Weight Control Registry monitors hundreds of people who have successfully lost significant weight (more than 30 pounds) and have been able to keep it off for longer than a year.
Analysis published in the journal Obesity in October 2014 revealed that just 10 percent of this group consumed sugar-sweetened beverages on a regular basis. The successful weight-maintenance participants noted that increasing water consumption was a significant step in their ability to lose weight and keep it off.
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: We Can: "How Much Sugar and Calories Are in Your Favorite Drink?"
- Tea Association of the USA: "Tea Fact Sheet"
- Obesity Facts: "Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Weight Gain in Children and Adults: A Systematic Review From 2013 to 2015 and a Comparison With Previous Studies"
- Obesity: "Low/No Calorie Sweetened Beverage Consumption in the National Weight Control Registry"
- Nutrition Research: "Tea Consumption May Decrease the Risk of Osteoporosis: An Updated Meta-Analysis of Observational Studies"
- European Journal of Nutrition: "Association of Daily Coffee and Tea Consumption and Metabolic Syndrome: Results From the Polish Arm of the HAPIEE Study"
- Molecular Medicine Reports: "Chronic Effects of Soft Drink Consumption on the Health State of Wistar Rats: A Biochemical, Genetic and Histopathological Study"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Get the Facts: Sugar-Sweetened Beverages and Consumption"
- Current Developments in Nutrition: "Diet Soda and Sugar-Sweetened Soda Consumption in Relation to Incident Diabetes in the Northern Manhattan Study"
- Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics: "The Hard Facts About Soft Drinks"
- BMC Obesity: "The Negative Impact of Sugar-Sweetened Beverages on Children’s Health: An Update of the Literature"
- Journal of the Endocrine Society: "Frequent Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption and the Onset of Cardiometabolic Diseases: Cause for Concern?"
- USDA Branded Food Products Database: "Coca-Cola"
- American Heart Association: "Added Sugars"