Coffee and sugar: An unhappy couple


Sugar’s on a lot of people’s minds. It’s an ingredient we love yet struggle with. Sugar is a key target on all current eat-less-of lists, and we’re all trying to cut our consumption. It’s not easy.

Coffee, on the other hand, is enjoying some good press. As a coffee lover myself, I’m on the lookout for this welcome evidence, reinforcing my habit of a daily cup. Or two, or three. Coffee by itself, research shows, may even benefit your health, providing protection from type 2 diabetes, stroke, Parkinson’s and dementia.

Now, let’s look at these two beloved foods together.

A lot of people do. They drink their coffee sweetened. Many cold coffee drinks come already sweetened – Starbucks’ Bottled Frappuccino and their Iced Vanilla Coffee have as much sugar as soda. They’re really a candy bar with caffeine.

I’ve always liked coffee without. Actually, I’ve never tried it with sugar. Adding sugar and sweeteners to espresso blunts its already gorgeous taste, in my mind. Unlike cocoa, which we fall in love with in its sweet chocolaty incarnation, I’ve accepted and fell for coffee as a slightly bitter, rich, non-sweet food.

But coffee and sugar are connected in more than one way. So today, two recent bits of research about the coffee sugar connection.

Sneaky extra calories

Coffee and tea are virtually calorie free. More than half of the American population drinks coffee daily, but few Americans drink their coffee plain. A study in Public Health found that two thirds of Americans add sugar, cream and other calorie-rich additives.

How much does this contribute to caloric intake? Although just a spoonful of sugar doesn’t seem like much, it adds up, and this study, that included more than 13,000 Americans, found that adding stuff to your coffee adds about 70 calories daily on average.

If these calories are unaccounted for and are just extra, they can translate to another pound of weight every 2 months.

Does coffee make you reach for cake?

Researchers from Cornell University showed that coffee might increase our sugar intake because it reduces the perception of sweetness. The results of their new study of 107 participants appear in the Journal of Food Science.

Volunteers drank a caffeinated and a decaf drink, unaware of the drink’s caffeine content. The caffeinated drink was perceived as less sweet that the decaf one.

Caffeine blocks adenosine receptors in the brain. This is why coffee helps with alertness; adenosine promotes relaxation and blocking it awakens us. We have adenosine receptors in our taste buds, too. Suppressing adenosine reduces our ability to taste sweet foods, potentially altering our perception of sweetness and making us reach for more sugar.

Our growing coffee habit – coffee consumption is on the rise – might be adding extra fuel to our sugar cravings.

So watch out! There’s nothing wrong with a cup of coffee. On the contrary: coffee by itself is actually part of a healthy diet and lifestyle, and much better than many other drink options.

But try to resist the temptation to accompany it with a sweet treat or a sweetener.

Let coffee speak for itself.

Dr. Ayala