Sweets for Your Tea

Valentine's Day
Valentine's Day

Valentine's Day approaches. Surely you have been wracking your brain about what you should get your main squeeze, but while you conjure ways to be sweet to your sweetie, have you considered ways to be sweet to your tea?

From sugars to syrups to artificial and natural sweeteners, there are a plethora of options for those who prefer not to drink tea plain. But what are the differences between them all? While the differences between table sugar and honey are pretty obvious, what about white sugar and raw sugar? What's about Splenda and Truvia? No matter how you take your tea, it is difficult not to notice all of the choices and wonder how they compare. So, I thought it fitting to celebrate the sweetest of holidays with a little sweetener primer of some of the most common choices.

Sugar, Honey, and Other Syrups
White Sugar: Officially known as sucrose, white sugar is the common table sugar. Sucrose is extracted from a sugarcane or sugar beet plant and subjected to chemical processing, refining, and bleaching to transform it into the familiar white sugar you have probably seen around every day of your life. Undoubtedly the most popular sweetener for tea, sugar is the standard for other sweeteners. It is also notoriously high in calories: approximately 4 calories/gram. (To put that into perspective, a teaspoon of sugar is about 4 grams and the average sugar packet is anywhere from 2 to 4 grams, making the average teaspoon/sugar packet about 15 calories). Thus, the aforementioned plethora of sweetener options is largely composed of sugar substitutes.

Raw Sugar (AKA turbinado sugar, AKA cane sugar): Raw sugar is sucrose that has been extracted from a sugarcane plant but has not been fully refined. It has a richer flavor due to its molasses content and is generally more expensive than white sugar. The granules are also larger, so serving sizes may be slightly higher in calories; packets of the brand Sugar in the Raw, for example, are typically 20 calories, not 15 calories.

Honey: Honey is a combination of several sugars and enzymes and is famously and naturally made by bees. While nutritionally similar to sugar—despite the reputation for being more nutritious and possibly containing antioxidants—honey is actually slightly higher in calories: according to the American Dietetic Association, 1 teaspoon of honey is approximately 21 calories. However, honey is 1.0 to 1.5 times sweeter than sugar, so less is needed to sweeten your tea. Unlike sugar, which has a pretty uniform look and flavor, the color and flavor of honey are variable and dictated by the flowers the bees visit (eg, clover honey, wildflower honey, orange blossom honey). In addition, there are honeys flavored with fruits, like cherry or raspberry. If you really want to get fancy when sweetening your tea, honey is certainly one way to go. For more information, visit the National Honey Board Web site.

Agave nectar: Made from the same plant from which we get tequila, agave nectar has been gaining popularity as not only a sugar substitute, but as a vegan-friendly alternative to honey. Its consistency is similar to honey, but its flavor is more mild. Agave nectar is higher in calories than sugar but it is approximately 40% sweeter, so again, less is needed. More information about agave nectar can be found at the All About Agave Web site.

Sugar syrup: Sugar syrup is basically white sugar liquefied. It is particularly useful in cold beverages, as the sugar doesn't need to dissolve. There are certainly flavored varieties, but those are often reserved for coffee-based beverages.

Artificial and Natural Sweeteners
There are a number of choices available for brand-name sugar substitutes, but I see the same four everywhere I go: Sweet n' Low, Equal, Splenda, and Truvia. While chemically different, these products have a few things in common: they're all sweeter than sugar, zero-calories, and considered safe for diabetics. In addition, their primary ingredient is considered safe for consumption by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While many people favor artificial sweeteners because they have zero calories, many do not because they can have a strange, bitter, or metallic aftertaste. Naturally, each of the major brands has their own Web site to visit for additional information.

Sweet n' Low: Sweet n' Low, or saccharine, is the original artificial sweetener in the iconic pink packets. It has been available for more than 50 years. For a time, saccharine was linked to cancer, but in recent years saccharine has been deemed completely safe for consumption. Sweet n' Low is 300 to 500 times sweeter than sugar, and one packet equals the sweetness of 2 teaspoons of sugar.

Equal: Equal, which is aspartame, is an artificial sweetener that has been available for approximately 25 years. Equal's blue packets are just as recognizable as Sweet n' Low's pink packets. Equal is approximately 200 times sweeter than sugar, and one packet is equivalent to the sweetness of 2 teaspoons of sugar.

Splenda: Also known as sucralose, Splenda is another artificial sweetener in another familiar monochrome packet (yellow). Splenda has been around for 20 years and is about 600 times sweeter than sugar.

Truvia: The new green-and-white kid on the block, Truvia is a natural sweetener made from an extract from the leaves of the stevia plant. This extract, rebiana, is 300 to 400 times sweeter than sugar, and again, one packet equals 2 teaspoons of sugar. Rebiana is also available under the brand name Stevia Extract in the Raw.

While there are certainly more options available, you get the point: Regardless of what you're looking for in a sweetener, there is something out there for you. Low-cal, no-cal, high-cal, natural, artificial, flavored or not, you can easily doctor your tea to your individual preferences. Now go forth and sweeten your tea with confidence!

If you have anything to add, if your favorite option is missing from this list, or if your preference for sweetener depends on the type of tea you're drinking, please share below. There are never enough tips about how to enhance a tea-drinking experience.

Happy Valentine's Day to you and your liquid sweetie!