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Does Sugar Ruin Coffee’s Health Benefits?


From caramel macchiatos to a simple cream and two sugars, sweet coffee combinations are endless. The creativity surrounding the caffeinated beverage exists because so many of us don’t enjoy our cup of joe without sugar. But does extra sweetener outweigh coffee’s potential health benefits? A new study suggests that it might not, in moderation.

The news comes from research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine on May 31, 2022. As shown in the study, drinking a moderate amount of coffee with or without sugar was linked to a lower risk of death.

The Study Setup

Led by Dan Liu, MD, first study author, the researchers wanted to find out if drinking coffee with sugar is bad for your health. It’s true that previous studies have suggested that moderate coffee consumption has some health benefits — including research that linked the drink to better digestion, and an investigation that found it may lower your risk of endometrial cancer. However, not many studies have considered the health benefits of sweetened and unsweetened versions.

So, Liu and his team used data from the UK Biobank to conduct a study. (The UK Biobank is a database that collects medical and genetic information from volunteers. Researchers around the globe use it to conduct their own studies.)

The study authors followed 171,616 participants with an average age of 55 years. None of the volunteers they chose had cardiovascular disease or cancer at the beginning of the research. (This is important because the presence of these diseases could have skewed the data.)

The researchers split participants into four main groups, including:

  • Those who drank no coffee at all (many of these participants drank tea instead)
  • Unsweetened coffee drinkers
  • Sugar-sweetened coffee drinkers
  • Artificially-sweetened coffee drinkers

Those who sometimes drank one version and other times drank another were classified as “overlappers.” In addition, the researchers further classified coffee drinkers based on the type of coffee they drank — instant, ground, decaf, and caffeinated.

Coffee With Sugar and Coffee Without Sugar: The Study Results

The researchers followed the participants for an average of seven years. During that time, 3,177 volunteers died — 628 from cardiovascular disease and 1,725 from various cancers. (The remaining 824 people died from other causes.)

After analyzing the data and accounting for other risk factors, the study authors found that drinking a moderate amount of coffee (about one to three cups) with or without sugar correlated with a lower risk of death resulting from cancer, cardiovascular disease, and other causes.

The authors couldn’t determine the potential benefit or risk of drinking artificially-sweetened coffee because the data was less consistent and precise. (Also, those who drank coffee with fake sweetener were more likely to be older, obese, and suffering from certain health conditions like high blood pressure and depression. These factors made it difficult to determine whether fake sugar increased the risk of death or other health issues.)

Now, Liu and his team couldn’t definitively say coffee with sugar is just as healthy as coffee without, because the study had its limitations. Also — as corresponding author Christina C. Wee, MD, MPH noted in a separate statement — coffee drinkers in the UK tended to add only about a teaspoon of sugar per cup.

In contrast, Americans tend to add more. A caramel macchiato has a little over three teaspoons of sugar per cup, for example.

Still, the study is a good reminder to never overdo it with your sugary beverages. An extra-sweet treat once in a while is okay — but on the regular, just a teaspoon is all you need.

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