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Why your morning coffee could leave you craving for sugar

Researchers find that caffeine temporarily alters our taste buds

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Just about any doctor will tell you that cutting down on sugar is a great first step to losing weight. But a recent study shows that this can be a lot harder for some consumers who enjoy their morning coffee.

Researchers from Cornell University have found that coffee can temporarily alter a person’s taste buds to make foods and drinks taste less sweet. While this isn’t necessarily a debilitating side effect on its own, senior author Robin Dando says that it may also make consumers crave sugar more, which could lead to overeating or consuming unhealthy snacks.

"When you drink caffeinated coffee, it will change how you perceive taste -- for however long that effect lasts. So if you eat food directly after drinking a caffeinated coffee or other caffeinated drinks, you will likely perceive food differently,” Dando said.

Sugar cravings and alertness

To test this effect, the researchers conducted a blind study where participants were either given the equivalent of a strong cup of coffee or decaffeinated coffee, both of which contained sugar. Overall, panelists who were given the caffeinated beverage were more likely to say that their drink was less sweet.

In a second part of the study, participants were once again split into two groups and received either a caffeinated or decaffeinated coffee. After drinking their beverage, the panelists were asked to estimate how much caffeine was in their drink and report on how alert they felt.

The researchers found that all participants reported the same increase in alertness after drinking their beverage, regardless of whether it was caffeinated. The team believes that the trial may have discovered a sort of placebo or conditioning effect tied to the act of drinking coffee.

“Think Pavlov’s dog. The act of drinking coffee – with the aroma and taste – is usually followed by alertness. So the panelists felt alert even if the caffeine was not there,” Dando said. “What seems to be important is the action of drinking that coffee. Just the action of thinking that you’ve done the things that make you feel more awake, makes you feel more awake.”

Whether that finding will have consumers reaching for decaf is more doubtful, but it could be a viable option for consumers who want to avoid sugar cravings.

The full study has been published in the Journal of Food Science.