The hottest cold drink this summer may surprise you because it isn't the usual fruit juice, soft drink or lemonade. It's iced tea and its growing popularity at full service and fast food restaurants is evidenced by consumers' thirst-quenching preference for fresh-brewed, flavored, exotic and specialty teas over more traditional beverage choices.

Helping to fuel the iced tea explosion are expanding menu offerings that go beyond instant tea to include brewed and specialty teas, as well as flavored teas that are made with spices, juice, fruit or other flavorings and often served up in a creative, eye-appealing way. Another indicator of iced tea's increased popularity is the number of fast food chains that now offer a variety of instant and brewed teas (complete with lemon slices) such as Boston Market, Burger King, Jack in the Box, McDonald's, Taco Bell, Wendy's and more.

As more Americans look to incorporate foods and beverages with potential health benefits into their diets, many people are turning to iced tea because they think of it as a healthy alternative to other beverages. Research has shown that tea is more than a great-tasting drink, but that it may have protective effects against several types of cancer and may reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke.

At New York's Cafe Centro, located in the MetLife building across from Grand Central Station, iced tea blends are served in a 24-ounce stem glass at $3.75 a glass and are among the restaurant's top-selling non-alcoholic beverages. "Iced tea is without a doubt a great seller," says Eric Penneys, manager at Cafe Centro. "It is on our menu year round and during the warm weather, we go through about 35 gallons of iced tea a week."

In the Pacific Northwest, where the specialty coffee trend began, Seattle's Ponti Seafood Grill General Manager Robert McFadden says that more and more people are asking for iced tea over other beverages. "Iced tea is a strong seller for us year round. And in the summer, it makes up 33 percent of our non-alcoholic beverage sales. In fact, we sold nearly 500 servings of iced tea just in the month of July." McFadden attributes the increased demand for iced tea to growing consumer interest in more healthful beverages, with less added sugar or carbonation. "Our diners find tea refreshing and they feel they are doing something good for themselves by drinking it."

The Tea Council of the USA estimates tea sales at all restaurants total $800 million a year, up 60 percent in a decade. And, according to the Tea Council, continuous strong growth is anticipated over the next several years, especially from the ready-to-drink, foodservice and gourmet segments of the market. An example of tea's increased popularity is the $500 million specialty tea market, which is anticipated to outpace specialty coffees, one of the fastest growing markets in the past decade, in terms of growth. Adding to the boom in tea consumption are the more than 1,200 tea salons and teahouses around the country with more opening daily.

Not bad for a drink that was discovered by accident at the St. Louis World's Fair in 1904. According to Joe Simrany, president of the Tea Council of the U.S.A., "The temperature was soaring and the staff in the Far East Tea House couldn't get any fair-goers to even look their way, let alone sample their tea. So, they poured the hot tea over ice cubes and the drink quickly became the exposition's most popular beverage."

America is unique in its tea consumption habits, the Tea Council says, in that approximately 40 billion of the 50 billion cups consumed here each year are over ice. And, says the Tea Council, Americans will be drinking more iced tea as away-from-home consumption continues to increase, more restaurants take advantage of consumers' interest in special tea brews and flavored teas, and more tea bars, tea salons and specialty tea shops open around the country. As more American's discover tea for the first time and others take a renewed interest in the brew, it's clear that iced tea, according to Tea Council President Simrany, "is truly a beverage whose time has come."