Coffee and sugar: 1 reason why is not a great combination

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Updated February 2022

When talking about coffee and sugar we are opening a kind of old debate.

For the speciality industry, it’s sound pretty annoying: you wake up every day ready for your shift and you’re already set to weight every single shot of coffee.

You have carefully ground fresh coffee beans, set the perfect level of the coffee puck with the help of your distribution tool, ready to be pressed. But wait a moment: your customer is adding sugar into your lovely double espresso shot and you’re fighting a battle inside yourself. You’re not giving up, you’re used to but it still feels you annoying though.

Coffee and sugar

Well, there are many reasons to explain why people mix coffee and sugar and, according to the country in question, the percentage of the people that add sugar to coffee may drastically change.

In Italy for example, there are much more people that drink their coffee along with sugar. Let’s say around 70%. But why is that much? Well, that’s quite an easy one.

It could be for the dark roast style, for the part of robusta that made up the blend on the menu, for the strong Italian culture or perhaps, it’s just a matter of ignorance.

As Italian, I have to say I struggle a lot when it comes to talking about this topic. And as baristas, I think we are actually failing in communicating with customers about why you should not add sugar in coffee.

But the thing is that in the last 5 years we were in the same boat together with France, Spain and Greece (to name a few). In these countries, the demand for speciality coffee was much lower compared to northernmost countries such as Scandinavian ones, UK, Denmark and so on.

So, coffee and sugar were much appreciated at that time (it’s been drinking like that for 500 years). And nothing has changed in Italy as, five years later, that’s the only country that still doesn’t see any significant change.

I was then thinking during this period about this situation and I had to reconsider my thought: It’s just because of darker roast style or because of poorer coffee beans?

I came down to the conclusion that in most the cases it’s just a matter of ignorance. People really think that coffee has to taste bitter and do not have so much interest in coffee except for the fact that need an extra kick to start the day or to fight “sleeping time”. But here’s the thing: if baristas told the customer that one-seventh of what they drink is made of sugar (one fifth if two sugar packet), would they still add it?

I bet the percentage will be much smaller (even more if we would consider that sugar is not that healthy).

I’m obviously talking about the older generation that grew up drinking burnt Moka pot at home and still finds equal taste when standing at the bar of most of the Italian bar. This really bothers me, believe me. But there will be a better time when the younger generation will replace the older ones.

Fortunately, in the UK we do not have to fight against any culture. The demand for speciality coffee is pretty solid now since it started after the early 2000s. We can say that the proportion is quite the opposite of the Italian one with more than 70% of the people preferring their coffee (mostly milk-based) without adding sugar (thank god).

But let’s get into this question: why coffee and sugar should be avoided?

I like to answer the question with another one: would you rather be drinking a glass of wine or a pint of beer with sugar or without?

I think the message is clear: we should always appreciate things for what they taste and not for what we think they should taste. Unless you have a scientific reason to bring to the table that tells me to add sugar in coffee.

So, let’s see it from a scientific point of view then. What happens when mixing coffee and sugar?

According to several scientific pieces of research, adding sugar to coffee causes a molecular change that results in a less bitter taste.

Dr Seishi Shimizu of the York Structural Biology Laboratory in the University’s Department of Chemistry found that “sugar doesn’t just mask coffee’s bitterness with sweetness, but it actually changes the molecular structure of a brewed cup of coffee”. According to his study, “sugar affects the dimerization of caffeine molecules in coffee and caffeinated tea, which ultimately has an impact on how bitter the beverages are. “

This explains why people are adding sugar when drinking darker roast style coffee, which results in a bitter, ashy, woody beverage.

So, here it is. Coffee and sugar should be avoided not just for being unhealthy. The problem is: you’re drinking a low-quality coffee, roasted darker to cover the unpleasant taste. This obviously results in you bitter and so you’re adding sugar.

The amount of sugar you’re adding is huge. Let’s take one of the most common espresso recipes: 18g in and 36g out. In that 36 g of beverage, you’re adding 5 to 10 grams of sugars which means you drastically change the drink into something that cannot be considered coffee anymore.


Just by a matter of taste, adding sugar in coffee ruin the balance and results in a coffee that, in many cases, will taste over-sweet, sour and so, unbalanced.

I hope you would think twice now before underestimating both coffee as a drink and the job done by a skilled barista that has made all the passion to bring a sweet, balanced coffee to you. It’s probably time for most of the people to reconsider what they have been drinking so far and to trust baristas and the entire coffee industry if we want, together, to make a change in this sector.

Remember that just because you think it’s right to you it doesn’t mean that it has to be like that. I highly prefer customers complaining about not drinking their regular (speciality) coffee as the real expectation of what they are used to is not respected.


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