The coffee market is witnessing growth and new additives. One of the most popular coffee add-ons that gives your homemade coffee that barista-made taste, and saves you some money, is coffee syrup. Made by dissolving sugar in hot water to form a sweet base syrup, this liquid is mixed with natural or artificial flavorings.
While they can amp up your tea, cocktails, and even your cooking, their main purpose is to add flavor to your coffee, making it a more enjoyable beverage. But because it’s good for our taste buds, doesn’t mean it is good for our health and well-being.
Why Coffee Syrups Aren’t Good for Us
1. High Sugar Content
While they may add flavor, coffee syrups are known to present a few health risks due to their high sugar content. Below is a list of the four most consumed coffee syrups and their nutritional values per single serving (listed as 2 tablespoons).
|Torani Vanilla Syrup||Trader Joe’s Coffee Syrup||Cereality Coffee Syrup||Starbucks Caramel Coffee Syrup|
The American Heart Association advises that women consume no more than 100 calories (24g / 6 teaspoons of sugar) and that men consume no more than 150 calories (36g / 9 teaspoons of added sugar) of added sugar per day. Yet, they state that the average American is consuming about 77g of sugar per day, which is over twice the recommended daily amount. We are well aware that high sugar intake can lead to some unfavorable health reactions. On top of that, the effects of combining high amounts of sugar and caffeine can be even more harmful to the body.
Side Effects of Increased Sugar Intake
Dr. Frank Hu, professor of nutrition at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, says that while “excess sugar’s impact on obesity and diabetes is well documented, one area that may surprise many… (is) heart health.”
Increased sugar intake causes blood glucose levels to skyrocket and crash, and when combined with caffeine, the stimulant leads to a more dramatic crash. The side effects include:
- Irregular heart rate
2. Linked To Cognitive Decline
While studies have long suggested that coffee can improve cognitive health, the addition of coffee syrups can reverse this positive effect. This is due to its high sugar content. Consuming these flavored syrups can cause more than physical damage.
Research suggests a link between high sugar consumption and quicker cognitive decline. According to Vera Novak, M.D., PhD., although “the brain is dependent on sugar as its main fuel”, too much of this energy can be a bad thing.
Elevated blood glucose leads to damage to blood vessels, which is the major cause of vascular complications. Frequent exposure due to overconsumption of coffee syrups can diminish your mental capacity.
A 2016 study published in Behavioural Brain Research suggested that high sugar consumption may cause inflammation of the brain. Scientists have been able to find a link between neuroinflammation and cognitive decline, and a higher risk for age-related cognitive impairment.
In their research, it has been found that the brains of people who have succumbed to Parkinson’s Disease showed evidence of neuroinflammation.
3. Propylene Glycol Content
Propylene glycol acts as a synthetic food additive that we typically find in most coffee syrups. It is used for its ability to attach the flavors of the syrup onto the coffee beans. Propylene glycol comes from the same family of glucose that is not only present in your car’s antifreeze. However, it also comes from the same chemical group as alcohol.
The World Health Organization suggests that we ingest no more than 25 mg of propylene glycol per kg of our body weight. This is because, in excess, this “harmless” ingredient can do some damage to our bodies.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s report of the possible effects displayed no major health concerns. However, it is important to note that according to the report, “No studies were located about respiratory, cardiovascular, gastrointestinal, musculoskeletal, hepatic, renal, endocrine, dermal, ocular, or body weight effects in humans”. This makes it difficult to be sure of how safe this additive is.
One area in which the report had shown a negative impact was its impact on neurological symptoms. When taken, many people presented varying degrees of neurological issues. This included convulsions, stupor, and other unspecified “severe mental symptoms.”
So What About Sugar-Free Coffee Syrup?
It’s no surprise that brands have begun manufacturing sugar-free alternatives for their coffee syrups. But, in retrospect, this isn’t a better option, because sugar-free doesn’t mean artificial sweeteners free.
Sucralose, which is also marketed as Splenda, is a common artificial sweetener we see in these syrups. However, it is nearly 600 times sweeter than sugar, with no calories. While it’s usually marketed as a healthier alternative, studies suggest that it is linked to the following health risks:
- Increased Blood Glucose and Insulin Levels: This is common in people who use sucralose as an alternative to sugar. A study found that sucralose has increased blood glucose levels and insulin levels, while also decreasing insulin sensitivity.
- Affected Gut Health: Our gastrointestinal (GI) tract is home to bacteria. A study found that sucralose alters the gut microbiome by decreasing its beneficial bacteria content by up to 50%. It was seen that even after 12 weeks, the beneficial bacteria in the Gl had not recovered. Even after stopping sucralose consumption, the GI tract hadn’t fully recovered.
Natural Flavoring Won’t Harm Your Health
The average person drinks 3–5 cups of coffee a day. As such, it’s understandable that people want to get that Starbucks Caramel Frappuccino flavor without breaking the bank. If you decide to keep these syrups in your coffee ritual, make sure you reduce how much you’re using, and limit it to a certain number of cups a day. But what if you want to completely make a change?
There are a few alternatives you can opt for to provide this flavor boost without the health repercussions. This all depends on your taste, but you can use any natural spice (e.g. cinnamon, ginger, etc.), vanilla extract, salt, and even some unsweetened cocoa powder. The goal here is to find what you enjoy and have it more healthily.
MAIN IMAGE CREDIT: Photo by Akash Sudan
- Chonpracha, P., Gao, Y., Tuuri, G. and Prinyawiwatkul, W., 2019. Possible sugar and calorie reduction by visual cues: A case of syrup added to brewed coffee. Journal of food science, 84(12), pp.3784-3792.
- Okolie, J.A., 2022. Insights on production mechanism and industrial applications of renewable propylene glycol. Iscience, p.104903.