Should you put sugar in your coffee?
The debate on sugar, and the suggested ‘sugar tax’ has occupied the national press this week. This got me thinking about why we take sugar in our coffee, and whether it’s necessary at all.
Sugar is a daily addition to office coffee around the world. It’s a vital ingredient for many sweet-toothed coffee drinkers. But try and put sugar in your coffee at a speciality coffee shop, and you’ll often be rebuffed with disapproving looks as the barista reluctantly hands over a cup of brown (it has to be brown) sugar.
The sugar debate has raged almost as long as coffee has existed. The first recorded coffee drinkers drank their coffee black and unsweetened, while the Egyptians were the first to add sugar to coffee around 1625. Today, granulated sugar is the villain of the health and diet media, and there is lively debate in the coffee world as to whether sugar improves or diminishes the coffee experience.
In this week’s coffee column, I’ll lay out the arguments for both camps, and then let you decide whether you still want to add coffee to your better office coffee.
It’s well documented that sugar is bad for your health. Only last week, in fact, a ‘sugar tax’ came onto the national agenda, as Public England and high-profile figures like Jamie Oliver called for new measures to tackle one of the main causes of obesity and diabetes. The NHS spends £14bn a year on diabetes and its complications, and studies have shown a clear link between the disease and increasing sugar consumption. It’s bad for your teeth, too!
“The science is in: The case for a sugar tax is overwhelming”
So I think we can all agree on that point – sugar is bad for your health.
But as to the other debate – is sugar good for your office coffee? – well that’s a little less clear cut. Some, like Former Irish Barista Champion Karl Purdy, say that if your coffee is good, you should never need to add sugar:
“No, never. Good coffee doesn’t require sugar. If a coffee requires sugar to make it palatable is likely not very good to start with”
While others believe that, in some cases, sugar can enhance the coffee experience, lifting the key flavours through the drink.
“I guess the first question that needs to be answered is – are you putting sugar in your coffee to mask an undesirable flavour?”
But who is right?
Well, the truth is that no one is right or wrong. For example, depending on the origin of your bean, freshness and brewing method, different coffees will have different level of bitterness. Sugar is a perfect antidote for bitterness, offering the wetness to balance a bitter espresso and allow some of the other key flavours to come forward.
So in answer to the question, “should you put sugar in your coffee?”, my answer would be ‘no!’, not as a rule. What I mean is that you shouldn’t just throw a heaped spoonful in there before even tasting the brew. Assess whether the coffee needs it. Is it a little too bitter?
Meanwhile, I read an article a few days ago espousing the virtues of putting salt in your coffee. That’s right, salt?! Us coffee bloggers weren’t convinced…
— Abe’s Coffee Column (@Abe_Greener) October 27, 2015
Salt is, in fact, thought to reduce bitterness, too. It’s added to coffee as a matter of routine in countries like Turkey, Norway and Sweden and, according to a study in Nature, salt liberates sodium ions, which help suppress bitterness in espresso. Well, I’ll be damned!
Try it, I dare you, and share your experiences with us on Twitter, @Abe_Greener!
Look out for my next coffee column, in which I’ll be setting off on a journey around my ten favourite coffee shops in the UK (that I’ve been to!), in the company of a very special guest! See you back here, on the 16th November.