How to sweeten tea without sugar: an overview of the best sugar substitutes for sweet tea such as monk fruit, stevia, aspartame etc
Note: I am not a medical professional and this information is FYI only- always consult a qualified health professional or doctor before making changes to your diet/ lifestyle.
Sugar in tea: history
Tea, an aromatic drink made by pouring hot water over the leaves of the Camellia sinensis shrub originated in China, with records of it dating back to the 3rd century AD (in a medical text by the famous Chinese doctor, Hua Tuo.)
Initially, people drunk tea without sugar or milk. Tea reached Europe in the 16th century where it was so popular, the British started the Opium War. The English only started consuming tea with sugar, a luxury item popular with the upper class, between the 1685 and the early 18th century.
Not only were both tea and sugar luxury items, sugar also helped to cover the bitterness of the hot tea. However, as early as the 17th century, there were concerns about the impact of sugar on one's health. Today, drinking sweet tea is a practice that has spread round the world.
Sweet tea lovers beware! Today, some versions of iced sweet tea, a popular drink in the Southern States of the US and Indonesia, are so sweet that they have 2x more sugar than Coke! As sugar isn't great for you, you can see why it's important to learn about the best sugar substitutes so that you can sweeten your glass of sweet tea without sugar.
Traditionally, a cup of tea was sweetened with regular sugar but these days, simple syrup is increasingly popular as it can add flavor to the tea. However, these sugars and simple syrups still contain sugar. Making sugar-free sweet tea is increasingly popular these days due to health concerns.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that we consume no more than 10% of our daily calories in the form of sugar, as our bodies do not benefit from excess sugar. (Added sugars provide ZERO nutritional value.)
In fact, there have been many health issues associated with consuming too much sugar, ranging from tooth cavities to mood swings, fatigue, obesity and diabetes! (For sugar-free desserts, click here.)
Sweet drinks are actually the largest source of added sugars in an American's diet. The average American consumes 20 teaspoons of sugar a day, or 3 Cups a week- i.e. 3-4x the American Heart Association's (AHA) recommended amount of 6-9 teaspoons! (The AHA recommends limiting sugar intake to 6% of daily calories, so they're stricter than the WHO!)
We'll look at whether some sugar substitutes are actually healthier than others below. Moreover, besides health issues, some people want to learn how to sweeten tea without sugar to find better complementary flavours for the tea! Sugar is one-dimensionally sweet but other sweeteners, such as pure maple syrup, can have notes of caramel that better enhance the taste of black tea
Here is a list of the best ways to sweeten one's tea without sugar.
According to Harvard, for the majority of people, choosing 1 type of sugar isn't better than the other and it's best to reduce one's consumption of sugar in general. Believing that 1 sugar is better than another is, in their words, a "common misconception."
Exceptions would be people with diabetes who need to control the glucose levels in their blood, and thus may respond better to a high-fructose, low-glucose sugar substitute. (But always check with your doctor!)
Honey is 1 of the most popular sugar alternatives: it never expires and has anti-bacterial, anti-oxidant & anti-inflammatory qualities. Clover honey, for example, is high in phenolic acid and flavenols, which benefit the heart and central nervous system.
However, at the end of the day, too much filtered or raw honey is also not good for you, so make sure to add in small amounts!
If you're on a plant-based diet, there are even vegan honeys made without bees now. (But I've not tried any, so can't say if it's a good replacement for raw sugar in your sweet tea recipe.)
Note: there have been some reports that adding honey to boiling water may reduce its benefits or even be toxic but I have not been able to track down the journal that is the supposed source of this info.
Note: avoid giving honey to young infants as it may lead to infant botulism in rare cases.
Maple syrup is the sap of sugar maple trees that are native to Canada. It has a molasses flavor and works well for sweetening lattes such as spiced green tea chai latte and this Starbucks copycat pineapple matcha coconut drink.
According to Liz Weinandy, a dietician at Ohio States University, maple syrup has a similar nutritional value to honey. They have a slight advantage over sugar thanks to their trace minerals but should still be consumed in moderation.
Colette Heimowitz, vice president of nutrition and education at Simply Good Foods Co, says that if push came to shove, maple syrup is a slightly better sugar substitute than honey as it has a lower glycemic index. In other words, it causes the blood sugar level to rise a bit less quickly.
Important: Make sure you are getting real and not artificial maple syrup which is mainly high-fructose corn syrup- not good!
Note: honey has the most calories, followed by maple syrup then white sugar.
The byproduct of processing sugar cane or sugar beet, molasses was initially the top sweetener till the 1800s. (It was cheaper than white sugar.) After World War 1, sugar become cheaper and white sugar become more popular. It has a good amount of Vitamin B and minerals, so some feel it is a better alternative to sugar.
Some people suggest Blackstrap molasses as a sugar substitute but I'm not sure about that as blackstrap molasses can have a slightly bitter, almost sour taste!
Fun fact: if you add molasses to white sugar, you can make your own brown sugar.
You may be familiar with this natural sweetener that's a syrup from the fibrous core of a cactus-like plant in its fermented form- tequila! Native to the Southern US States and Latin America, agave syrup (also known as agave nectar) is mainly fructose (up to 90%.) Hence, it has a low Glycemic Index and hence doesn't cause blood sugar to spike in the short term.
Moreover, it has a neutral flavor and won't change the flavor of your tea!
However, it's not certain that agave is healthier than refined sugar as:
- refining agave diminishes its benefits
- there's a lot of controversy around fructose
The only organ in your body that can process fructose is the liver (compared to glucose, which can be metabolised by any cell in your body.) Consuming too much fructose can lead to metabolic issues, such as insulin resistance, heart disease, and even type 2 diabetes! (That's why high fructose corn syrup is so unpopular these days.)
There hasn't been enough research to confirm the side effects of agave.
Note that Agave does contain more calories and grams of sugar than table sugar (but since this sugar substitute is 1.5x sweeter, you could use less of it- ⅔ the amount- and still get the same sweetness.)
Monkfruit (Luo Han Guo)
Also known as monk fruit extract, this 0-calorie natural sweetener has been around for decades. Monk fruit, or Budhha's fruit, is commonly used in Chinese cooking, especially in cooling drinks during the summer- I actually have some dried ones in my pantry!- but has only recently become more accepted as a sugar substitute in the West. (It was only approved by the US FDA in 2010.)
Monk fruit is 100-250x sweeter than sugar. Although it contains glucose and fructose, its sweetness comes from its antioxidants (mogrosides) and not its sugars. (Note: because it's so sweet, it's sometimes combined with other natural products to reduce its sweetness, so check for allergies before consuming.)
The 1st mention of monk fruit dates back to 13th-century monks in China but because it is so new in the West, there have not been many studies done on its health benefits (e.g. it is supposed to contain anti-oxidants and some have said it can benefit diabetics but there has not been enough research done to support this) or side effects.
A Men's Health article in 2018 claimed that there are no bad side effects as does this MedicalNewsToday article but I suggest always checking with a medical and health professional before trying new foods, especially if you have underlying health conditions.
Note: monk fruit can be an acquired taste- it's not a neutral flavor, so it may change the taste of your tea! If you want a more innocuous sweetener, try 1 of the other sugar substitutes on this list.
Banned in the US in 1991 over health concerns, stevia is derived from the leaves of the Stevia rebaudiana plant, which is native to Brazil and Paraguay. Today, the FDA has still not approved the usage of raw stevia or crude stevia due to safety concerns (specifically over blood sugar control, the kidneys, reproductive and cardiovascular systems) although high-purity stevia glycoside extracts have been Generally Recognised as Safe (GRAS).)
However, the acceptance of stevia as a sugar substitute changes depending on the country: obviously, it's been used in South America for many years (over 1500 actually.) It has also been widely used for decades in Japan and stevia additives were approved by the EU in 2011.
Stevia contains steviol glycosides which can be 50-400x sweeter than sugar. As the human body doesn't metabolise these glycosides, stevia is an almost 0-calories, 0-carbohydrates, 0-sugars plant-based sugar alternative. However, according to Mayo Clinic, there's no evidence that stevia can help with weight loss and may even have mild side effects such as nausea, bloating and numbness.
If you choose to use stevia to sweeten tea instead of sugar, note that, like monk fruit, stevia may change the flavour of your drink as it can have a bitter aftertaste, somewhat similar to licorice.
Fun fact: The plant is actually fairly easy to grow and I know people who have it in their gardens in Singapore!
Xylitol is almost as sweet as sugar, which means you can use it to replace sugar in a 1:1 ratio yet consume 40% less carbohydrates and calories. It occurs naturally in plums, strawberries etc
2 friends who are dentists also told me that xylitol is better for your teeth- it doesn't lead to tooth decay like sugar does!
Side effects of this sugar substitute include bloating and diarrhoea so make sure you stick within the recommended daily amount of 6-10g.
Note: it is poisonous to dogs, so be careful if you have pets!
Artificial sugar substitutes usually replicate the sweetness of sugar but have less food energy.
However, I don't recommend using artificial sweeteners as many studies have raised issues over their safety. These range from:
- linking artificial sweeteners in diet drinks to depression
- showing that they can be toxic to the brain
- weight gain: the University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio showed that people who drank diet soda (with artificial sweeteners) were more likely to gain weight than those who drank naturally-sweetened soda
Note: some studies mark artificial sweeteners as safe, but since there are so many good natural substitutes for sugar, why take the risk? Nonetheless, if you really need to use an artificial sweetener, here are some of the more common options out there:
Aspartame (Equal/ Nutrasweet)
Discovered in 1965, this artificial sweetener is used in many diet and sugar-free drinks as it is low in calories but about 200x sweeter than sugar. Aspartame was approved by the US FDA in 1981.
This artificial sugar substitute can be completely broken down by the body into components which are found in common foods, but has caused hives & other allergic symptoms in sensitive individuals.
Aspartame has been associated with several negative side effects. According to this research paper, further research is needed to determine aspartames' impact on health.
Saccharin (Sweet n Low)
Saccharin is 550x as sweet as sucrose but has no food energy or nutritional value. At high levels, it can have a bitter, metallic taste.
Note: saccharin was once linked to bladder cancer and labelled as carcinogenic by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. However, the Agency has since changed its ranking to "not classifiable as to the carcinogenicity to humans" after reviewing subsequent research.
For more information on saccharin and its benefits/ side effects, click here.
This sugar replacement is unique as it's an artificial sweetener made from real sugar! It's been changed to make it about 600x sweeter than sugar with almost 0 calories. Hence, sucralose has a better taste than some other artificial sugars.
Unfortunately, some studies have linked Sucralose to gut inflammation, appetite stimulation and other side effects.
These are natural ingredients that can be used to sweeten tea without sugar but that are not often thought of as sweeteners.
Some flowers, such as honeysuckle (contains actual nectar) or osmanthus, have a mild sweetness to them.
Some varieties of honeysuckle have edible flowers (not all)- 1 variety is even a Traditional Chinese Medicine ingredient. However, all of the berries, except those from the honey berry shrub, are mildly toxic.
According to WebMD, honeysuckle flower extract is probably safe if not consumed for too long- they say up to 8 weeks- but warn that it may slow blood clotting and thus increase the risk of extra bleeding during and after surgery. They recommend not consuming it for a few weeks prior to any surgeries.
Note: I am not a medical professional so please consult a doctor or qualified medical professional for more advice.
If you've ever smelt osmanthus flowers- also known as sweet osmanthus and sweet olive- you'll know that even the scent is rich and honeyed!
Click here for an osmanthus sugar recipe.
Cinnamon is a warming spice also known as sweet wood- you can steep the entire piece in hot water to make a tisane. However, do make sure that you're using real cinnamon not cassia, which can be toxic in large quantities! Click here to find out more about cinnamon and for a cinnamon tea recipe.
Note: cinnamon may interfere with blood sugar and some medications, such as blood thinners, diabetes drugs etc so always check with your Doctor!
If you are making fruit-flavoured sweet tea and watching your sugar levels, I suggest using adding pure fruit juice and/ or a mixture of dried and fresh fruit. It's a healthier alternative to sweeten your tea instead of sugar.
Obviously, you have to choose your fruit well- peach sweetens tea nicely, but if you use 100% lemon juice, you will end up with a sour tea and not a sweet one! (I suggest just 1 or 2 lemon wedges if you're pairing your ice tea with citrus.)
Tip : Mix dried fruit in your jar of tea leaves so you don't have to worry about sweetening in future.
Date paste is used to replace sugar in some Indian recipes, such as chutneys. It is sweet enough to be used in place of sugar. However, as the date flavor is so strong, you would need to pair it with teas very carefully!
Vanilla comes from orchids and the real deal is expensive. Its warming flavours can help to mask the bitterness of tea and reduce the need for adding sugar.
Tip: Place vanilla pods with your tea leaves to infuse them naturally.
Licorice root- meaning sweet root- is naturally sweet. It contains a natural sweetener glycyrrhizin, which is more than 30- 50x sweeter than sucrose. However, the taste differs from sugar as it is a little tart and lasts longer.
Hence, some herbal teas which contain licorice, either alone or in combination with other herbs, are sweet without sugar. An example is Aveda's peppermint & licorice tea. (Pukka has something similar but Aveda is the best, in my opinion.)
Note: Licorice has flavor notes of anise and peppermint in it, which some people may not care for, and which may change the taste of your tea.
It is best not to take too much licorice as it has side effects. These range from slightly increasing blood pressure to edema (swelling), and congestive heart failure in some people. The British NHS advises people over 40, or with a history of high blood pressure or heart disease to be especially careful.
Licorice can also interfere with some medications, so always consult a qualified health professional.
Salt is a flavor enhancer. It may seem counter-intuitive to add salt to sweet foods, but think of salted caramel. In tiny amounts, salt could help to accentuate the sweetness of tea.
It probably couldn't replace sugar, but It could help to reduce the amount of sweetener required. Of course, this would depend on the type of tea! I would suggest adding a very little bit of salt to, say, a hot green tea latte or a matcha chai latte, but not a generic cup of tea.
Changing the temperature
The temperature of a drink changes how sweet it tastes. The same drink, when cold, will taste less sweet than when hot (and thus you may need to add more sweetener.) Hence, an easy way to reduce sugar is to drink a hot beverage instead of a cold one!
If you don't believe me, try it yourself! Divide a latte into 2, have 1 hot and the other cold, and see if it tastes the same. This is similar to why airplane food tastes less flavourful and we like tomato juice on flights even if we don't when on the ground!
Changing the temperature is probably the best sweetener around, as you can sort of satisfy your sweet tooth without consuming any additional sucrose, fructose or glucose!
Other Syrup recipes
Whilst homemade sweet tea doesn't have the preservatives that soda does, it is not a great replacement for soda as it is full of sugar, which isn't good for one's health. Some sweet teas are so sweet they have twice as much sugar than Coke!
What do you think of these sugar substitutes for sweet tea? If they've been helpful, please share them on social media and do let me know in the comments if you've a special way to sweeten tea without sugar!