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Cold Newman’s Own is the pucker of the litter

It may be the end of August, but there are still plenty of hot days and long drinks ahead. Americans love cold, icy drinks. Among the most popular are commercially made iced teas. Today they’re manufactured in a variety of flavors, and few are just tea, lemon, and water.

Nine thirsty people tasted seven brands of lemon iced tea (no powdered mixes) from either the refrigerator section of the supermarket or the beverage aisle. All brands were presweetened, but to varying degrees. Teas ranged from 30 calories (365 Organic Lemon Black Tea, a brand from Whole Foods) to 110 calories per eight ounces (Newman’s Own Virgin Lemon-Aided Iced Tea). All had “natural lemon” on the label, which turned out to mean real lemon juice or an undisclosed “natural flavor.” Many were too sweet. All contained citric acid, a preservative, which is sometimes extracted from lemons and limes. Citric acid also provides a tang.

Newman’s, with 7percent lemon juice, lemon pulp, and lemon oil, delivered the best pucker. It turned out to be the winning drink, though one of the tasters asked, “Is this tea trying to be lemonade?” And what about the silly name? Read the not-so-funny “fairy tale” on the side panel about a warlord and a battle between twin brothers. The short version: One is carrying a basket of virgin lemons (there always has to be a virgin in a fairy tale) and the other a basket of tea. They have a fight, and the tea and lemon get smushed together. This is the result, along with world peace, of course.

Other brands paled in comparison. ReaLemon and Lipton listed “natural flavors” on their ingredient lists, but there was no lemon listed. I called ReaLemon, which is owned by the beverage giant Schweppes, to ask if the drink contained lemon. The friendly customer rep had no idea, but checked and said it was indeed real lemon juice from concentrate. So, I wonder, why keep it secret and leave it off the list?

Tasters knew at once that 365 tea was the wholesome entry. “This is the healthy one, isn’t it?” asked one.
Many said it had a clean taste, but it still got voted least favorite by five out of nine. One taster commented, “Hello – I would like a little tea with my water.”
“I thought I liked the lemon iced tea I buy,” bemoaned one person. “Now I’m not so sure.”
Everyone agreed on one thing. You want iced tea with lemon? Get a pitcher. Brew the tea. Squeeze in lemon. Chill. Drink.

Lipton Iced Tea LemonNatural Flavor with other natural flavors
$1.69 for 1.5 liters

A company many associate with tea has tea as the third ingredient (other brands have the tea lower on the list). The word lemon doesn’t appear at all. But a lot of other stuff does, including sodium hexametaphosphate to protect flavor, potassium sorbate and potassium benzoate to preserve freshness, phosphoric acid, caramel color, and red dye 40. I’m just reading the label, folks – you should too. Many found this weak and watered down; two picked it as their least favorite. “Light color and almost no smell.” “Where’s the tea? Where’s the lemon?” “Artificial taste. Good if parched in the desert.” “Sugary” and “too sweet” came up, as did this: “The color looks a bit odd, not dark as normal tea would be, orange-y.” One person said, “There is something I don’t like in the aftertaste, I’m not sure what it is.” Scan the ingredient list and you’ll get an idea.

Newman’s Own Virgin Lemon-Aided Iced Tea Winner
(Refrigerator section)
$2.49 for 1/2 gallon

Four thumbs up as a favorite and two more as second choice. “I detect something delightful in the finish, something Caribbean, cocktail-like.” “Sweet, somewhat lemony. So far, I think this most resembles iced tea.” “Absolutely delicious, tastes like it’s mixed with ginger ale or some kind of strawberry juice.” (Neither is in the ingredients.) Others: “Lots of lemon flavor and natural taste. A little pucker but not too tart.” “It’s the perfect balance between iced tea and lemonade.” One taster thought the lemon was overpowering and chose it as the worst: “It’s Lemon Pledge! Ugh!”

365 Organic Lemon Black Tea
$1.19 for 16-ounce bottle

Whole Foods’ brand is sweetened with cane juice, which didn’t cut it for most. “Not at all sweet or lemony. Does sort of taste like tea. Is this supposed to be presweetened?” (It actually contains 5percent organic lemon juice.) “Oh no, this one is not too tasty. Has a clean natural taste to it, but is somewhat bitter. Good for those looking for less sugar.” Another person couldn’t quite decide, and wrote, “Good thing: It is less sweet and smooth. Bad thing: Does not taste much like lemon tea.” Another said it has “the smell of a horse barn. It tastes more natural.” One summed it up: “If this is water, I’d like iced tea. But if this is iced tea, I’d like water.”

ReaLemon Iced Tea
$2.99 for 1 gallon

This company makes bottled, shelf-stable lemon juice concentrate, and now this new product, the cheapest of the tasting. If you can make lemon juice, you can make good iced tea, right? Not necessarily. “It’s drinkable, but you can taste it’s artificial. Nestea?” (No.) “Sweet, too lightweight.” “Needs more flavor, very light in flavor and color.” “Don’t like the smell! Taste is OK.” “At least there is no aftertaste.” “Very undistinguished.” “The lemon is subtle, and yet still has an unnatural aftertaste.” And more: “Very nice color. Probably nice enough to get it picked off the shelf. BUT, no taste, so I’d want my money back. Really, just sweet water.”

Snapple Lemon Iced Tea All Natural Real Brewed
$2.99 for 1/2 gallon

Chosen best by two, second best by several. The pucker factor figured in here. “More lemony, more punch, more interesting. Lightly tart and zesty. Tastes more like tea.” “I smell the sweetness, a nice lemon bite.” “I like the lemon-lime flavor. Not too sweet. It didn’t seem like iced tea, more like lemonade.” “Has a zing to it. This is great if you want something other than plain tea.” “Refreshing with a slight, tangy lemon appeal. Just what tea should be.”

Trader Joe’s Iced Tea Natural Lemon Flavor
(Refrigerator section)
$1.99 for 1/2 gallon

Sweetened with cane sugar. Tasters said, “Has such a full taste. Almost buttery and sweet. A bit heavy.” “Overly sweet, but gets better the more you drink.” “Very syrupy tasting. There is a smell of tea, but not TASTE of tea. Really not much lemon either.” The lack of lemon flavor showed up in comments like “a more distinct lemon taste, please!” Two chose this as a favorite, saying it was “light and refreshing” and “smells like tea bags. It has no aftertaste, no false sweetener taste.” One noted, “Definitely an original iced tea taste, just the right amount of sugar.”

New! Zeigler’s Lemon Tea
(Refrigerator section)
$2 for 1/2 gallon

The apple cider guys are in the iced tea business. One whiff and the tasting crew knew there was something fruity here. Tasters guessed they were sampling grapefruit, apricots, pear, and apples. Close. The ingredient list revealed grapes. Yes, grape juice in lemon tea. The package says 5percent juice (lemon is listed before grape). The front of the jug shows a lemon, so that’s the taste you’re expecting. “Am I crazy? It smells metallic. Tastes nothing like iced tea. Gross aftertaste too. Also smells like apple juice.” And another, “Tastes like apple juice, not tea.” And this: “Looks like cider, a bit cloudy. Doesn’t really taste like tea. Has a bit of a sparkling kick to it. Not much color. Looks like beer.” “Too sweet. Too fruity. Foul tasting.” “Tastes like the Kool-Aid we had to drink at camp.” Maybe Zeigler’s uses the same machines for this tea as they do to make apple cider. If so, the label should come with a warning.

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