Drinking tea iced is an American phenomenon. It was discovered by accident when tea froze in the Boston Harbor after the historic 1773 dumping.

Drinking tea iced is an American phenomenon. It was discovered by accident when tea froze in the Boston Harbor after the historic 1773 dumping. In the early spring, some swimmers swallowed and discovered iced tea. (Just joking!)

The truth is that iced tea is very much an American thing, and its popularity is at an all-time high. According to new product tracking sources, when it comes to beverages, tea is the most active category thanks to consumers becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of consuming tea.

It is estimated that 60% of tea consumed in the United States is either cold or over ice. Because we like tea cold, and because on-the-go convenience is imperative, ready-to-drink (RTD) iced tea sales are booming. And, it appears as if new players enter the marketplace every week. (See sidebar for a review of some recent introductions.)

Here are some stunning statistics. The U.S. tea market is expected to grow by $4 billion in the next three years. In 2006 its value was about $6 billion; in 2010 it will exceed $10 billion. In 1990, less than 10% of U.S. specialty tea sales came from green tea. By 2006, this figure exceeded 20%. By 2010, experts predict that 50% of all specialty tea sales will contain green tea. The RTD single-serve category is experiencing 20% annual category growth with no signs of slowing.

Recognizing the importance of RTD tea to the dairy industry, I attended The World Tea Expo in June. This three-day event in Atlanta was brimming with tea ingredient and RTD tea innovations. Observations from the show floor, in addition to talking with various expo attendees, suggest that the greatest opportunity in the tea business is in RTD specialty tea beverages, as well as RTD blends of herbals/tisanes and Camellia sinensis.

“The primary growth in consumer demand for tea is higher quality products like specialty teas and all-natural RTD teas,” said Kim Jage, vice president of sales and marketing for the World Tea Expo. “Healthy, delicious, environmentally conscious and innovative products are leading the way, fulfilling the need and can all be found at this Expo.”

When it comes to sweetened vs. non-sweetened RTD tea, the trend in new products is in minimal to no sweetener. When sweetener is added, it tends to be all-natural, keeping with the healthful halo surrounding tea. Sometimes sweetness is achieved through the addition of fruit flavors or concentrates.

Keep in mind, sweetened RTD tea based on C. sinensis still dominates the marketplace, followed by C. sinensis RTD teas sweetened with non-nutritive sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose, but the innovation and future is with the more natural, non-sweetened or naturally “slightly sweet” RTD tea beverages.

Why is innovation so rampant in today’s tea industry? What has occurred to cause a beverage that has been commonly available for hundreds of years in the United States to behave as if it were introduced yesterday? Tea is uniquely positioned to flourish with today’s health- and wellness-focused consumers. There is an abundance of new scientific research reinforcing the healthful halo that has surrounded tea for centuries.

Adding to the already well-publicized antioxidant power of green tea, a new study published in Cancer Epidemiology Biomarkers & Prevention (June 1, 2007) demonstrates a significant risk reduction of colorectal cancer (CRC) in women who regularly drank green tea. Researchers evaluated the association between green tea consumption and CRC risk in 69,710 Chinese women ages 40 to 70 years old. Information on tea consumption was assessed through in-person interviews at baseline, and reassessed two to three years later in a follow-up survey. During six years of follow-up, 256 cases of CRC were identified.

For women who reported drinking green tea regularly, the relative risk of CRC was 0.63 (95% confidence interval, 0.45 to 0.88), compared with non-regular tea drinkers. The reduction in risk was most evident among those who consistently reported drinking tea regularly in both the baseline and follow-up surveys (relative risk, 0.43; 95% confidence interval, 0.24 to 0.77). The inverse association with regular tea drinking was observed for both colon and rectal cancers. Further, a significant dose-response relationship was found for both the amount of tea consumed and duration in years of lifetime tea consumption.

Indeed, epigallocatechin gallate (EGCg) and other catechins found in green tea have been positively linked to a range of health conditions, including reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s, diabetes and autoimmune diseases, as well as improved skin health, weight loss and enhanced immunity.

A study recently conducted at the University of Florida supports consumption of green tea and enhanced immunity. The October 2007 issue of The Journal of the American College of Nutrition will include results from this randomized, double-blind, clinical trial of 120 healthy subjects who either consumed a patent-pending proprietary blend of biologically active natural ingredients from green tea or a placebo. The results show that the green tea ingredient blend, as compared to the placebo, decreased the number of subjects with cold and flu symptoms by about one-third; decreased the number of symptom days by about one-third; decreased the need for medical treatment due to cold and flu symptoms by more than 50%; and enhanced innate immune function by about 30%.

Another University of Florida study showed the ingredient to decrease systolic and diastolic blood pressure by an average of four points; decrease low-density lipoprotein (LDL), a.k.a. “bad” cholesterol, by an average of 11 points; decrease peroxidized lipids (a measure of oxidative stress) by 12%; and decrease serum amyloid alpha (a marker of inflammation) by more than 40%.

Apparently the research is available and consumers are drinking it up. This is likely why numerous exhibitors at the 2007 IFT Annual Meeting & Food Expo sampled functional iced tea prototypes. For example, there was a lower-sugar pomegranate-berry green tea juice drink that delivered 55mg EGCg per serving. An organic blueberry green tea with 5% juice contained only 50 calories per 8-oz serving thanks to being sweetened with organic erythritol. And, here’s a double bonus for the dairy industry: a mango-flavored green tea with whey protein. (If only a cheese manufacturer had been located on the Boston Harbor and been dumping its whey during the winter of 1773 . . . )