A significant amount of people call themselves coffee drinkers. Some even joke that coffee runs in their blood.
In the United States, coffee is a frequently consumed beverage, per an April 2023 trends report from the National Coffee Association. "More Americans drank coffee in the past day (65 percent) than any other beverage," per the report.
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Starting your day off with coffee can perk you up as it's a potent source of energy-spiking caffeine, but it's not just your caffeine intake that you should monitor. Your morning cup of joe could be a regular source of sugar if you use it to sweeten your coffee.
Here, we'll break down the effect sugar has on your body, along with some expert input on whether adding sugar to your morning cup of coffee is all that bad.
Refined vs. Natural Sugars
The sugar added to your coffee isn't the same as the natural sugars found in foods that contain carbohydrates like fruit, vegetables, grains and milk, for example. Added sugars are those that have been added to foods, such as coffee creamer, as flavor enhancers and preservatives.
Refined sugars are examples of added sugars — they are processed versions of natural sugars. Examples include corn syrup derived from corn as well as granulated sugar (aka table sugar) derived from sugar cane. These foods have been processed so only the sugar remains, per the MD Anderson Cancer Center.
When you add a teaspoon of granulated sugar to your morning cuppa, you're sweetening your caffeinated beverage with refined sugars, which can have negative health effects.
How Does Added Sugar Affect the Body?
Nutrients like fiber, protein, vitamins and minerals play essential roles in the body. Without them, the body can't function.
Sugar is not a required nutrient for your diet, per Harvard Health Publishing. Avoiding sugar completely is very difficult, though. It's found naturally in foods that are an essential part of a balanced diet, such as fruits and vegetables, and it's hidden in foods like baked goods and coffee creamers.
If you don't plan on adopting a no-sugar diet as sugar can be enjoyed in moderation, here's how it affects the body.
Spiked Blood Sugar Levels
If you've ever experienced a sugar high, you're likely familiar with the inevitable sugar crash that follows shortly after. While sugar may temporarily boost your energy levels, it's not sustainable due to fluctuations in your blood sugar levels.
"Sugar is absorbed by the bloodstream. This results in a spike in blood sugar levels that provides a quick burst of energy, but it is short-lived and followed by a crash as blood sugar levels drop," says Jennifer Schlette, RD, a registered dietitian and integrative nutrition health coach.
"This spike and subsequent crash in blood sugar levels can be risky for individuals with diabetes or other blood sugar-related conditions, but for the general population, it is not considered to be harmful."
The rates of obesity have increased in the last several decades, and so has sugar intake. This leaves researchers wondering whether there is a link between sugar intake and weight gain. While elevated sugar intake isn't likely the primary cause of the obesity epidemic, it's a top contributor to weight gain, according to John Hopkins Medicine.
The average American eats 17 teaspoons of added sugar per day, which equates to roughly 270 calories, according to the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
Sugar contributes to cavities, also known as tooth decay and dental caries. Sugar-sweetened beverages are a primary source of added sugars, according to the World Health Organization. Reducing your sugar intake is beneficial for your dental health.
Replacing nutrient-rich foods with sugar-laden ones can result in missed vital nutrients, according to the Mayo Clinic. Many high-sugar foods lack essential vitamins and minerals. For example, a sugar-laden muffin lacks the fiber and vitamin C found in fruits.
Increased Risk of Heart Disease
Excess sugar can affect your heart health in many diets. Obesity due to sugar-laden diets is associated with high blood pressure, chronic inflammation, increased triglycerides and high cholesterol levels. Too much sugar also increases the risk of heart disease, according to the Cleveland Clinic.
Daily Recommended Amount of Sugar
Sugar is not a required nutrient.
The Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend limiting the number of calories from added sugars to no more than 10 percent per day. For someone who eats 2,000 calories a day, that means added sugar should be limited to 12 teaspoons (50 grams or 200 calories) each day, per the FDA.
The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that people assigned male at birth take in no more than 9 teaspoons (36 grams or 150 calories) of added sugar per day and people assigned female at birth have a max of 6 teaspoons (25 grams or 100 calories) per day.
Sugar in Coffee
Beverages are the leading category of added sugars, and coffee and tea account for 7 percent of them, according to the AHA.
Sugar is present in coffee in a variety of ways:
- Granulated sugar
- Flavored coffee creamers
- Toppings like whipped cream and cold foam
- Sugar-laden coffee drinks at coffee shops and supermarkets
Plain coffee itself is naturally free of sugar, but prepared coffee drinks can be high in sugar depending on what is added to them. A tablespoon of vanilla coffee creamer can add 60 calories and 7 grams of sugar to your cup of coffee, according to the USDA.
Sugar added to coffee
Coffee cups per day
Total added sugars from coffee
Sweeten Your Coffee With Sugar Alternatives
Known for being bitter, it's understandable if black coffee isn't your preference. If you need to spice up your coffee but want to do so in a low-sugar, low-calorie way, try these alternatives.
Stevia leaf is a popular alternative to sugar. It's naturally derived from a plant, so it's not an artificial sweetener.
"If you are looking for a healthy sugar substitute, a natural sweetener like stevia will be a good choice," Schlette says. "It is made from the leaves of Stevia rebaudiana. Unlike sugar, stevia does not cause a spike in blood sugar levels, making it a safer option for those looking to avoid the negative effects of consuming too much sugar."
Dairy products naturally contain sugar. Try swapping your coffee creamer that contains added sugars for plain heavy cream or half and half. This can be a satisfying alternative to adding sugar to your coffee due to the fat content in cream, says Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa.
Non-dairy milk alternatives are abundant, and oat milk is the latest favorite of many. It adds a creamy consistency to coffee drinks and has a slightly sweet taste, Banna says.
So, Is Adding Sugar to Your Coffee Really That Bad?
You may look forward to a warm cup of coffee in the morning, and a dash of sweetness may make it that much more pleasurable. If you added sugar to your coffee in moderation and limit your sugar intake for the rest of the day, a little sugar in your coffee is OK. Just be mindful of sugar-laden coffee creamers where the sugar content adds up quickly.
"If you enjoy having sugar in your coffee in the morning, 1 to 2 teaspoons will not do any harm. Moderation is key," says Tiana Glover, RD.
"What's really important is your overall added sugar intake throughout the day. You should aim for less than 10 percent of your daily calories to come from added sugar," Glover says. "This equates to about 50 grams if you consume 2,000 calories daily."
Making your coffee at home is the easiest way to control the amount of sugar in your drink. Coffee-based drinks like frappuccinos and lattes are a whole different story.
- Coffee continues reign as America’s favorite beverage: Spring 2023 National Coffee Data Trends report"
- MD Anderson Cancer Center: "Natural versus refined sugar: What’s the difference?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: “The sweet danger of sugar”
- American Heart Association: “How much sugar is too much?”
- Mayo Clinic: “Added sugars: Don't get sabotaged by sweeteners”
- John Hopkins Medicine: “Obesity, Sugar and Heart Health”
- World Health Organization: “Sugars and dental caries”
- Cleveland Clinic: “Is Sugar Bad for Your Heart?”
- USDA FoodData Central: “Coffee creamer, liquid”
- USDA: “Dietary Guidelines for Americans”
- FDA: "Added Sugars on the New Nutrition Facts Label"