Sweeteners For Coffee
We've made note of several studies that point to the health benefits of coffee (see here, here, and here, for example). But each and every time, we've added a significant caveat: black coffee is healthiest. Once you start adding sugar, syrups (sugar), chocolate (fat and sugar), cream (fat, and a bit more sugar) or caramel (sugar, a bit more fat), the health benefits begin to be canceled out by the ill effects of all the other junk you've dumped in the cup. With that being said, we're mindful of the fact that not everybody takes their coffee black. Today, let's look at the best coffee sweeteners.
Refined (white) sugar is the most common coffee sweetener. Because it's refined, however, it's also bland (not much flavor besides the sweetness), and can also cause blood sugar spikes that can leave you feeling tired a short time after you've had your coffee (which rather defeats the purpose, if you ask us). Unrefined cane sugar is marginally better for you, though it does have a distinct taste that's closer to light brown sugar than the white stuff. But what if you're avoiding refined sugar? After all, if you're diabetic or on a diet, they aren't doing you any favors. Luckily, there are alternatives.
Artificial Sweeteners: There are a few varieties of artificial sweeteners. The most popular are Equal/Nutrasweet* (aspartame, dextrose and maltodextrin), Splenda (sucralose, dextrose and maltodextrin), and Sweet N' Low (saccharin,** dextrose and cream of tartar). There's a large -- and often contradictory -- body of research on artificial sweeteners. Over the years, studies have shown links between artificial sweeteners and cancer, worsened diabetes, problems with the body's natural gut bacteria, and more. That leaves many people looking for natural sweeteners that don't have the negative side-effects often associated with refined sugar and artificial sweeteners.
Agave Nectar: Need a little hair of the dog after a towering hangover? Agave is the main ingredient in tequila; in its nectar/syrup guise, it delivers a sweeter punch. Often compared to honey, agave nectar (especially the dark variety) has a slightly herbal bitterness (think a less assertive yerba mate) finish that's much less pronounced if you're sweetening a dark roast, but that's still perceptible with lighter roasts.
Honey: Like the other natural sweeteners listed here, honey isn't low-calorie. But it makes up for it by having health benefits that table sugar can't match. Between its mineral and antioxidant content and its antibiotic properties (if you're using the raw stuff), honey has a lot to recommend it.
Maple Syrup: It's not just for pancakes and waffles, and it's much more than just sugar. Maple syrup is loaded with minerals and antioxidants. Just make sure you're using real maple syrup and not pancake syrup, which consists mostly of high fructose corn syrup, salt, and chemicals.
Stevia: Stevia (often seen under the brands Truvia and Stevia in the Raw***) is a natural plant derivative that's typically processed into a liquid or powder form. It's sweeter than sugar, so you don't need to use much of it, and it doesn't carry with it the side effects of processed sugar. Its main disadvantage is that you get an aftertaste much like you'd get from an artificial sweetener.
Molasses: Molasses has long been used as a coffee sweetener. The taste harmonizes well with coffee, but be aware that light molasses has a slightly spicy, slightly sulfuric taste to it. It takes some getting used to (and we do not, under any circumstances, suggest using blackstrap molasses in coffee -- the aftertaste will linger on your tongue for hours, and not at all in a good way).
Cinnamon: Cinnamon isn't a sweetener, per se, but it does have a tendency to sweeten anything it's added to. In addition to being a zero-calorie food, it also has a host of purported health benefits. Best of all, the taste of cinnamon is a great complement to coffee (as long as you don't mind the taste, that is).
Bonus dose of WTF: If your coffee is bitter and you prefer not to add a sweetener, add a very (once more for emphasis: very) small amount of salt. It will cut the bitterness without adding sweetness.
And here's the takeaway: Nearly every sweetener on this list has the potential for some kind of health issues if used in excess. The key, therefore, is moderation. Use as little as possible, and if you're concerned that you might be using too much, gradually step down the amount you're using. Like a lot of people, I started out drinking my coffee light and sweet; over time, I learned to appreciate the taste of unadulterated coffee. If you find that you really "need" sugar with your coffee, try different roasts and blends, or tweak your brewing process, to get better results. You'll appreciate your coffee more, and your body will also thank you for it.
* Grouped together because of their chemical makeup; these are the same types of sweetener even though they are sold under different brands.
** Outside the United States, sodium cyclamate is substituted for saccharin.
*** A misnomer, since stevia is only sold in processed form in the United States, per FDA regulations.
Further Reading: The Mayo Clinic: Artificial Sweeteners and Other Sugar Substitutes WebMD: Are Artificial Sweeteners Safe? Of course, it helps to start with the best coffee...