There’s a Scientific Reason You Always Want Dessert with Your Coffee (and It’s Not About Cutting the Bitterness)

Hint: It doesn't happen with decaf.

coffee and cookiesaleknext/ShutterstockSure, a rich piece of chocolate cake practically begs to get washed down with a cup of coffee. But have you ever noticed the opposite happens, too? The minute you sip a cup of coffee to get out of your mid-afternoon slump, you suddenly start craving something sweet to go with it.

A study published in the Journal of Food Science might have answered why coffee makes you crave dessert—and it’s not just about balancing out the bitterness. Cornell University researchers gave volunteers decaf coffee with either 200 milligrams of caffeine (about the amount in a cup of regular coffee) or nothing added. Both types had sugar to add a bit of sweetness. (Take your coffee without sugar? Learn the disturbing personality trait black coffee drinkers share.)

When the researchers asked the volunteers how sweet the coffee was, they found some interesting results. Those who’d had the caffeinated cups rated the brew as less sweet than the decaf drinkers.

Normally, a chemical called adenosine binds to nerve cell membrane receptors and makes you feel sleepy. Caffeine binds to the receptors to block them, which is why you feel less tired when you drink it. But that process also has the strange effect of making it harder to taste sweetness.

“When you drink caffeinated coffee, it will change how you perceive taste—for however long that effect lasts,” study author Robin Dando, assistant professor of food science, says in a statement. “So if you eat food directly after drinking a caffeinated coffee or other caffeinated drinks, you will likely perceive food differently.”

Ironically, that dulled sweetness actually makes sweets more appealing, so you end up craving them more, the researchers say. (Find out what else food cravings say about your health.) And if you ask us, it doesn’t hurt that chocolate and coffee just so happen to be a dream team either. But if the calories in your dessert are adding up, use these tricks to kick a sugar addiction.

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Marissa Laliberte
Marissa Laliberte-Simonian is a London-based associate editor with the global promotions team at WebMD’s and was previously a staff writer for Reader's Digest. Her work has also appeared in Business Insider, Parents magazine, CreakyJoints, and the Baltimore Sun. You can find her on Instagram @marissasimonian.