In their unadulterated state, coffee and tea are virtually calorie-free, and therefore make wonderful beverages to enjoy as often as you like (at least within reason). But most Americans don’t drink their tea or coffee black, or without sweeteners. Instead, they prefer to dump a whole lot of extra calories into their tea and coffee. How many? That’s what researchers at the University of Illinois set out to discover.
The researchers, led by kinesiology and community health professor Ruopeng An, took 12 years of data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey. They pulled the numbers from adults who had consumed either tea or coffee during the previous 24 hours: 13,185 had drunk coffee, 6,125 tea. The study found that two-thirds of coffee drinkers and one-third of tea drinkers added milk, cream, sugar, or “other calorie-rich additives” to their beverage of choice.
“Many people prefer drinking coffee and tea with sugar, cream, half-and-half or honey,” An told the Illinois News Bureau. “These add-in items are often dense in energy and fat but low in nutritional value.”
The researchers’ data found that over half of the U.S. population drinks coffee every day, and a quarter drinks tea. People who don’t drink their coffee black consume an extra 69 calories every day: Around 60% of those additional calories come from sugar; the rest from fat. People seem to dump less into their tea, but not by much: A typical tea-adulterator adds 43.2 total calories per day, with 36.7 coming from sugar and the rest from fat. Given that the average American consumes around 2,000 calories per day, these numbers might seem inconsequential, but An said that the extra calories every day can add up to extra pounds–not enough to fully explain the fact that most Americans are overweight or obese, but it’s certainly a piece of the puzzle.
Popular additives for coffee are sugar, cream, half-and-half, and milk. For tea, cream and half-and-half are out, and honey is in. Even if you can’t live without fat and sugar in your caffeinated beverage of choice, there are ways to cut down on the calories you consume, the researchers note. Skim milk can be used as an alternative, and you can opt for an artificial sweetener, although those are likely to cause their own health problems.
There’s also the obvious solution: switching to black coffee and tea. We don’t add fat and sugar to other beverages, even those that, like tea and coffee, might taste bitter at first. (Just think about how strange it would be to dump half-and-half into a pint of beer.) Adding all that junk to tea and coffee, then, is a force of habit, which can definitely be broken with a little bit of effort.