Still Life with a Coffee Pot

Is a Spoonful of Sugar in Coffee or Tea No Problem?

This week’s unexpected result in diet and health comes from PLOS One. In a study of mortality and diabetes risk from added sugar in coffee or tea researchers found nothing. No incremental risk attributable to sugar in coffee or tea.

But if you check with CDC, there’s no distinction for those packets of sugar people add to their coffee or tea. Sugar is sugar in sugar sweetened beverages and the CDC labels it as problematic.

So what gives with this study?

2,923 Older Men Followed for 32 Years

This was a prospective cohort study of 2,932 individuals from the Copenhagen Male Study. They all reported regular coffee and tea consumption and were between the ages of 40 and 59 when they entered the cohort in 1970 and ’71. In 1985-86 follow up visits, these subjects reported drinking coffee and tea regularly and they had no diabetes, cancer, or cardiovascular disease. That was the starting point for this particular study and follow-up data went through early 2017.

The finding was quite straightforward: no significant association between sugar in these beverages and either mortality or diabetes incidence. Not even the number of cups per day made a difference. The median number of cups per day was six, so some of these guys were drinking quite a bit of their favorite hot beverage.

Explanations, Speculation, and Causality

Of course this leaves us to wonder why there’s nothing to see here. The authors go straight to an obvious explanation:

“The quantity of sugar in tea or coffee might play a role in this phenomenon. As Gyntelberg et al note, the average amount of sugar added to a cup of coffee or tea is 5 grams (two lumps of 2.5 gram), while an average can of sugar-sweetened beverage contains 25 grams of sugar. As there is a clear dose-response relationship between sugar intake and mortality, the amount of ingested sugar via coffee and/or tea might simply be too low to substantially affect life expectancy and risk of developing diabetes.”

Does dose make the poison? Clearly enough, there is no indication here that adding a little sugar to coffee or tea is a problem. Even if a person drinks a lot of it. Perhaps these results, at odds with dominant presumptions, deserve more than just a shrug.

Click here for the study in PLOS One.

Still Life with a Coffee Pot, painting by Camille Pissarro / WikiArt

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October 27, 2023