In India, most of us prefer our tea or coffee with milk and sugar. We just can’t handle their inherent bitterness. There’s nothing right or wrong about a food/ beverage preference because that’s the way we’ve cultivated our taste buds. But let’s look a bit deeper to find out what happens when you add sugar to your cup of beverage from a chemical and calorific perspective.

Researchers have discovered that the sugar/ additive is not just camouflaging the flavor of these popular beverages but fundamentally changing the chemistry of a key component, caffeine, in these drinks.

The York Structural Biology Laboratory published a paper in Food and Function, where they revealed that caffeine, sugar and water interact at a molecular level in a different way. It is now understood that the bitterness is suppressed due to a change in the structure of water when sugar is added.

Coming to caffeine, it is a molecular compound known for its stimulating properties and also largely responsible for the bitterness in coffee and caffeinated tea. Incidentally, coffee and tea plants produce caffeine to discourage insects and other natural enemies from eating the plants’ fruits and leaves. Of course, these enemies are kept away by the bitter flavor of the caffeine molecules.

In a cup of black coffee or non-sweetened tea, the caffeine molecules bind to water molecules. Also the distribution of caffeine molecules amidst water molecules is more or less equal. But when sugar is added to brewed coffee or tea, the caffeine molecules distribution is affected and now the molecules of sugar bind to water molecules. Now the caffeine molecules cluster together as a response, in an attempt to avoid the sugar molecules. So you would find clumps of caffeine molecules in brewed coffee or tea, instead of them being evenly distributed.

The way other sweeteners influence the bitterness of coffee and tea depends on how their molecules dissolve in water their reaction with caffeine. So, to sum it up, we add sugar to reduce our beverage’s bitterness and not to enhance sweetness. Interesting!

Now coming to the calorific content in a cup of coffee, the USDA National Nutrient Database mentions that in one cup of regular black coffee holds only 2 calories. 1 fluid ounce of rich black espresso contains only 1 calorie. Also, one teaspoon of instant coffee powder has just 2 calories. When coffee is made from decaffeinated beans the calorie count is zero, but with decaffeinated coffee powder the calories found in 1 teaspoon increases to 4. As for tea, there are no calories when it is without sweetener, sugar or milk. Now for the interesting part, with one spoon of sugar on whole milk, coffee of 100ml will have roughly 100 calories. A 240ml cup of coffee will have 200-250 calories per cup. So, the next time you get to enjoy your cup of coffee – do the math! And also think of all the molecules that are interacting with each other to deliver that stimulating burst to energize your mind.