With the possible exception of milk, there’s no better partner for tea than sugar: while tea can often be riddled with bitter-tasting tannins, the right amount of sugar can turn your cuppa into bittersweet magic. But how much sugar should you actually add to tea – and are you adding too much? Let’s find out.
As a general rule, you should add no more than two teaspoons of sugar to tea. Not only is adding even more sugar unhealthy, but your cup of tea will become too sweet for most palettes. A cup of tea with more than two sugars is liable to taste more like sugar than tea!
To explore further, we undertook a taste test to see if adding sugar is an indulgent treat… or if it ends up ruining a perfectly good brew. Plus, we answer common questions about sugar in tea. Read on to find out more!
How much sugar is naturally in tea?
Before you start adding sugar to your cup of tea, it’s worth understanding how much sugar naturally occurs in tea to begin with. After all, you’d think twice about adding several lumps of sugar if your tea is already sweet to begin with!
As a general rule, tea contains no sugar at all. That’s because most teas are made from the camellia sinensis plant, which is naturally sugar free. However, herbal infusions that use fruit pieces will contain small amounts of naturally occurring sugars (usually fructose).
You might be wondering, therefore, why certain teas taste sweeter than others if none of them contain any sugar. Well, to answer that question we need to delve a little deeper into our terminology: there are in fact several different types of sugars, and the stuff you find in bags is more accurately described as sucrose.
Licorice tea, for example, derives its natural sweetness from glycyrrhizin (a word which, while you might not be able to pronounce it, bears a passing resemblance to the word ‘licorice’), not sucrose. The health effects of glycyrrhizin are not necessarily better or worse than sucrose, but the use of sucrose as a common additive often leads to unintentional overconsumption. As in all things, a balanced intake of sugars and other foods is best.
What this means in practice is that herbal infusions and certain types of tea are naturally sweet and therefore do not require any additional sugar. Nevertheless, adding sugar to black teas is quite common in spite of the health drawbacks…
Is it normal to put sugar in tea?
If you put sugar in tea, you’re not alone. In fact, a significant portion of the population adds sugar to tea, and some people add a lot of it. According to a British study first reported in the Edinburgh Evening News, adding sugar could be more common than you think.
On average, 37% of British people add sugar to their tea – usually just under two teaspoons. Men add 2.2 teaspoons of sugar on average, with women adding only 1.7 teaspoons. 3.3% of the population adds five teaspoons or more of sugar to their tea!
What this 2,000-person study reveals is that there’s significant disagreement about how much sugar makes for the perfect cuppa, but there are reasons to doubt its findings. For example, while in this study there is a clear divide between men and women (half a teaspoon’s worth), the evidence generally suggests that – if anything – women gravitate towards sweeter flavors.
Furthermore, there are several variables that this study fails to take into account, including the amount of time for which the tea was brewed and the types of tea preferred by those taking part in the study. Brewing the tea for longer would release more tannins and create more of a bitter flavor – one that would require more sugar to counteract.
So, with questions still left to answer, there was only one thing for it: we had to conduct an experiment of our own.
The Experiment: How much sugar should you add to tea?
First of all, some ground rules. We brewed five cups of Yorkshire Tea, the most popular black tea brand in the UK. While the exact blend is of course a trade secret, it features Assam tea as well as Sri Lankan and Kenyan teas; this makes for a powerful flavor that can quickly turn bitter if over-brewed. For the sweet-toothed among us, Yorkshire Tea is a strong candidate for a little bit of sugar.
After brewing for three minutes, we added varying amounts of sugar to each cup of tea and proceeded to taste. The result? Frankly, we might never add sugar ever again.
Zero teaspoons of sugar – a perfectly good cup of tea
The Yorkshire Tea blend is a full-bodied, earthy experience. It even has some chocolatey notes to it, complementing its caffeine kick. This isn’t a tea that demands sugar or any other additive. Even without milk, it’s a good cuppa – a proper, hearty brew. What it does have is a slightly bitter aftertaste that sugar might help with.
One teaspoon of sugar – a sweet treat
The first spoonful of sugar dissolves easily, but even by the smell of the tea you can tell that something has changed. The earthy flavor is considerably lightened, allowing some of the subtler parts of the blend to come through. For example, the brighter Kenyan tea is more detectable here, and the bitter aftertaste has become a sweet tingle at the back of the throat.
Two teaspoons of sugar – verging on a dessert tea
With another teaspoon of sugar, the profile of the tea changes completely. While it’s certainly a smoother taste, the sweetness of the sugar has taken over and suppresses the briskness of the tea. It’s certainly not unpleasant – and you can see why around two teaspoons is the average amount of sugar added among those who add any – but it would feel strange to add two teaspoons for a breakfast brew.
Three teaspoons of sugar – more sugar than tea
Adding three sugars feels like uncharted territory. Every teaspoon added quietens the original flavor of the tea, but it’s at three teaspoons that this truly becomes noticeable. Even the sweetness of the sugar fails to electrify the palette in the same way that 1-2 teaspoons did; instead, the sweet taste lingers at the back of the throat a little unpleasantly. It certainly feels at this point that the sugar is detracting from the taste of the tea.
Four teaspoons of sugar – maximum sugar
At this point, piling teaspoon after teaspoon of sugar into a single cup of tea, you begin to feel like someone who’s lost their mind. You definitely feel like someone who goes through a lot of sugar week-on-week. It’s quite difficult to dissolve this much sugar into a cup of tea, and some granules remain floating, if a little translucent. The original flavor of the tea has all but disappeared, replaced by the sensation that you’re simply drinking hot sugar water. And, frankly, you are.
Even for someone with a sweet tooth, heaping on the sweetness in a cup of tea isn’t always for the best. What might be most surprising from this little experiment is just how much adding sugar changes the flavor of the tea – it’s not simply a case of the tea becoming sweeter; with each increase in sweetness, something else about the tea is lost. There’s only so much your tastebuds can detect at once.
That said, it’s easy to see different amounts of sugar functioning best at different moments of the day. You might not want to add sugar in the morning, but putting two sugars in a cup of tea after an evening meal might be quite enjoyable. Any more than two sugars, however, and you might as well cut the middleman and eat sugar straight from the bag.
Are sugar cubes better?
You might be thinking: well, spooning sugar into tea is bound to cause problems, but I enjoy three sugar cubes in my tea. Equally, you may worry that sugar cubes, by virtue of their firm shape, are different to normal sugar and perhaps contain additives.
In general, sugar cubes are exactly the same as loose sugar, and therefore they sweeten tea in the same way. The sugar is formed into cubes while the sugar is being refined, without the use of additives or binding agents. This means the only difference between cubes and loose sugar is aesthetic.
The sugar cube was invented during the Victorian era, as tea sharply gained popularity in Britain. Initially embraced for their novelty, they also came to symbolize reason and order – two prized ideals in Victorian Britain. The sugar was refined in a centrifuge and formed into large bricks, which would subsequently be sawn by hand into cubes. In contrast to the chaos of adding random amounts of sugar to tea by spoon, sugar cubes offered regularity and precision.
Unfortunately, then, any preference you may have for sugar cubes over loose sugar is purely psychological. There really is no difference apart from shape!
What can I put in tea instead of sugar?
With all this talk of sugar, you’d be forgiven for wanting a more guilt-free way to sweeten your tea. Thankfully, there are several options to suit every palette.
The easiest way to sweeten tea without sugar is honey. Naturally high in fructose and glucose, honey is just as sweet as sugar without any sucrose. You could also try agave nectar, synthetic sweeteners and even maple syrup!
We’ve presented an array of sweetening options in our guide to sweetening iced tea. These work just as well for hot tea – indeed, it’s even easier to sweeten hot tea, as honey and syrups dissolve immediately!
How much sugar is in a cup of tea with milk?
Speaking of adding things to tea, we’d be remiss not to mention tea’s favorite companion: milk. Used for its ability to make tea taste creamier and smoother, you might not have realized that milk also contains sugar. If you’re especially sugar conscious, this is something to take into consideration when drinking tea.
As a general rule, 1% fat milk is 5% sugar. Given that the average amount of milk added to a cup of tea is 5ml, that means you’re adding 0.25g of sugar when you add milk. That’s far less than a teaspoon of sugar (5.69g), but your sugar intake will add up over several cups of tea throughout the day.
If you’re surprised that sugar naturally occurs in milk, you won’t be surprised when you hear what it’s called: lactose. While you’d never add lactose to tea as you would white sugar (sucrose), it is nonetheless a complex carbohydrate and sugar. Lactose intolerance is a condition that affects many people wherein the body does not produce enough lactase to break down the sugar, which goes on to cause digestive issues.
What might be confusing is that lactose-free milk still contains sugar – the same amount as typical milk, in fact. That’s because lactose-free milk is created by artificially adding lactase, which breaks down the lactose into more digestible sugars. This can lead to lactose-free milk tasting sweeter to some, but the overall sugar content is the same.
Can you put sugar in green tea?
We’ve talked a lot about adding sugar in the context of black tea; that’s because black tea is not as naturally sweet as other teas. However, you might be considering adding sugar to other types of tea at your preference, perhaps to mellow out the grassier flavors of green tea. So: can you put sugar in green tea?
You can put sugar in green tea, just like any other type of tea. However, if you’re drinking green tea for its antioxidants, which can lower blood sugar content, it may be counterproductive to add sugar. In general, the low tannin content of green tea means that adding sugar is not necessary.
Green tea is prized for its catechins, a type of antioxidant. ‘Antioxidant’ is a trendy word these days and is typically presented as a benefit without explanation, so let’s dig a little deeper into what it means. According to the Mayo Clinic, antioxidants protect your cells against ‘free radicals,’ molecules that lead to oxidative damage of cells, leading to conditions such as heart disease and cancer. Research has suggested that an increase in antioxidants can lower blood sugar as part of protecting against heart disease. As a result, adding sugar to your antioxidant-rich green tea could cancel out this benefit, even if it does make your cup of tea taste better!
It’s always good to be conscious of your sugar intake, and different amounts of sugar will suit the diets of different people. Always consult a doctor before making significant alterations to your diet.