Tea is a healthy beverage, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's completely empty. A single soda has hundreds of calories, largely from the sugar. What does tea contain, and how does it stack up?
Calories in Tea
Tea is mostly water, and it gets all of its flavor from steeping some combination of plant matter. The primary kind of tea, the camellia sinensis plant, is full of nutrients, but it doesn't impart much to the water. Or, rather, it doesn't contain much in the way of calories. The vitamins, catechins, nutrients, and minerals it seeps into the water are the basis of the flavor and health benefits of a good cup of tea.
Plain, basic tea, the kind you get from a tea store or even just a Lipton packet, is a calorie-free beverage. Well, more or less. Actual studies show that there are calories in tea, there just aren't many. Specifically, an 8-ounce cup of tea, freshly brewed and with nothing added to it, is a mere 2 calories. For reference, 8 ounces of Coca-Cola is 92 calories.
There's a reason that many diet plans start by cutting out sugary beverages like soft drinks and replacing them with healthier beverages like coffee and tea. All of those calories from soda add up. Remember, a typical bottle of Coke is 20 ounces, not 8.
Plus, remember that tea has caffeine in it. Caffeine is a natural chemical that gives you energy and has a bit of a passive effect of helping your body burn calories. The effect on its own – that is, without exercise – is minimal, only about 7 calories per day. But still, that means a caffeinated tea, like a nice cup of black tea, is calorie-negative. You aren't going to be losing a ton of weight with it (5 calories a day means it would take nearly two years to lose a pound), but it's at least not hurting your chances.
Of course, there are hundreds of different kinds of teas. You have your basic teas brewed with the camellia sinensis plant, but you also have a huge variety of herbal teas, and near-infinite blends of both.
Luckily for you, in the majority of cases, these other herbs and plants are also zero calories, or so low as to be considered zero. Tea is, by and large, a beneficial beverage because of the fact that it's full of beneficial nutrients and free of sugar additives and calories.
Carbohydrates in Tea
Tea does, technically, have some carbohydrates in it. However, the amount in a typical cup of tea is basically insignificant. A typical 8 ounce cup of tea is less than half a gram of carbohydrates normally, which is so little as to be meaningless. Even the FDA, which regulates nutrition fact labels, acknowledge that an amount that low may as well be labeled as zero because of how little impact it has.
What few carbohydrates you get in tea are essentially leeched from the plants involved in the tea blend. Some plants are higher in natural sugars than others, so some herbal tea blends may have higher levels of carbohydrates than others. Of course, that "higher level" is still probably under a gram for most basic tea beverages.
Fat in Tea
Tea is naturally a fat-free beverage. Fat typically comes from either animal fat or oils in plants. Not all fats are bad, but with tea, you don't have to worry one way or the other. Unless you're adding something that has fat in it, like butter for a keto tea beverage, your tea has zero grams of fat in it.
That's really what all of this comes down to, at the end of the day. Tea is a beverage devoid of anything but vitamins, minerals, and nutrients. It has no fat, no carbs, no calories, and nothing negative to it unless you're allergic to something in the blend. The only time those numbers rise above zero or near-zero is when you're adding something to the tea.
What Tea Does Have
So what does tea have in it? We've mentioned it before, but it's packed full of various phytochemicals (plant chemicals), vitamins, and minerals. Of course, the exact range of nutrients present in tea depends on the tea blend you're drinking.
The camellia sinensis plant, the core "tea" plant, provides basically the same range of nutrients whether it's green tea, black tea, oolong tea, white tea, or another preparation. These include:
- Catechins, which have a variety of different effects as an antioxidant, antibacterial, and cholesterol reducer. There are half a dozen or more catechins in tea, with a range of beneficial effects.
- Caffeine, which we all know as that double-edged sword of energy and crash. It's also a diuretic, helping your body process and remove waste products.
- Theanine, a phytochemical and amino acid that helps promote relaxation and lowers blood pressure.
- Carotene, a chemical that is the precursor to vitamin A synthesis in the body and is an antioxidant itself.
- Thiamine, also known as vitamin B1, which is required for breaking down fat into energy in the body.
- Vitamin B6, which helps metabolize the energy from fat.
- Folic Acid, which helps with cell division and wound healing.
- Manganese, which is critical for bone health.
- Potassium, which is important for the heart and other muscles, as well as nerves. It also helps regulate fluid levels in the body and plays a role in kidney function.
- Fluoride. Some people are terrified of this chemical, but fluoride is perfectly healthy and helps prevent tooth decay more than any other nutrient discovered in nature.
And that's all just what's in basic tea. When you get into the various herbal additives and blends you can get, the range of nutrients skyrockets. Pretty much every vitamin, mineral, or phytochemical is found somewhere in a plant, so adding that plant to your tea can give you some of those nutrients in the resulting beverage.
What Makes Tea Less Healthy
Now, pretty much all of the above relies on you brewing and drinking tea straight. However, some people don't really like plain tea. They find it too thin, or too bitter, and they want to add something to it.
Unfortunately, nearly all common additives add calories to your beverage. It's not as bad as coffee, which has zero calories brewed black, but where a Starbucks frappuccino can be as many as 600 calories, but it's still an increase.
Sugar is one of the most common sweeteners for tea, as you might expect. Sugar is, however, also a carbohydrate and is calorie-dense. One teaspoon of sugar added to your tea (that's about 4 grams of sugar) adds 16 calories to your beverage. If a single teaspoon is all you add, that's not bad, but a lot of people add quite a bit more than that.
Keep in mind, too, that different kinds of sugars might have different specific calorie counts, but they're all about the same. Using brown sugar or demerara sugar, for example, is still about the same number of calories, just a slightly different flavor.
Americans, particularly in the south, love sweet and iced teas more than hot tea. Iced tea can be unsweetened, but most of the time both of them are very sweet versions of tea. Just how many calories are in it, though, depends on the level of sweetener added to the beverage. Arizona's Iced Tea is about 140 calories, for example, but when the tea is homemade, all bets are off.
Some store-bought tea blends, particularly some of the more dessert-flavored herbal teas, might be higher in calories as well. They may have some added sugar to give the resulting beverage more sweetness, and some of them just straight-up have chocolate bits in their mixture.
What about honey? Honey is often considered a healthier alternative to pure sugar, and indeed there are some benefits to using honey that aren't just "it's not sugar". Honey might be better than sugar, but it's still a sugar-based sweetener, just processed in a different way. A tablespoon of honey, which is about normal for sweetening a cup of tea, adds 21 calories to your beverage.
Another common additive to tea is milk. Milk teas are often a 1:1 preparation of tea and milk, so an 8-ounce milk tea is 4 ounces of tea and 4 ounces of milk. As you might expect, that milk adds calories to the beverage. 4 ounces of whole milk will run you about 75 calories. Skim milk is lower, with only about 42 calories per 4 ounces.
Milk isn't always a 1:1 additive for a tea beverage, though. Starbucks and other cafes sometimes offer lattes that are more of a 1:3 ratio of tea to milk. The higher amount of milk means a higher amount of calories in the beverage. That's why you'll see a tea-based Starbucks beverage with around 150+ calories. You have calories from the milk, and calories from syrup additives.
Chai, at least in a traditional preparation, is a black tea blend with spices that is brewed in milk or heavy cream. The spices don't add any calories, but the milk or cream sure does. Heavy cream is high in fat, and is a whopping 100 calories per ounce.
Bubble or boba teas are another additive that adds calories. The bubbles in a bubble tea are typically tapioca balls. These also tend to use condensed milk rather than whole milk, which is even more packed with calories. One single ounce of condensed milk is 122 calories, for example.
A typical 16-ounce bubble tea can be anywhere from 200 to 500 calories, depending on the range of different additives you request. Then again, you're probably going for that beverage for the flavor, not for the health benefits.
How to Get the Most Benefit from Tea
Tea is healthy, but you want to get as much out of it as you can. How can you do that, while ensuring that the tea you drink is as healthy as possible?
First, brew your tea straight. As you can see up above, pretty much any additive you could want to add to the tea you brew is going to add calories and reduce the health benefits of that beverage. Drop the milk, ignore the sweetener, and just get used to the natural flavors of the tea.
Second, brew the tea strong. The stronger your tea, the more beneficial nutrients are leeched from the plants and suspended in the water. This is, though, a fine line to walk. The stronger you brew your tea, the more bitter it's likely to be, and the harder it will be to drink it. You can gradually work your way up to it and build a taste for it, like black coffee drinkers often do, or you can just dive in and treat it more like a medicine.
Try to find the point that works best for you. If you make it too bitter, the temptation to add a sweetener – or to stop drinking tea – can be too strong to bear. If you brew it too weak, though, you're not getting all the nutrients you want out of it.
Third, of course, avoid adding any sort of sweeteners, creams, or other additives. At least, be aware that whenever you add something to your tea in that vein, it's going to be bumping up the calories and unhealthy sugars and fats in your beverage.
If you absolutely must add something to your tea, consider a light milk like skim milk, or an alternative sweetener or sugar substitute. These have their own issues and are not calorie-free, but they're not as bad as the real thing.