Coffee is my go-to choice for a cognitive boost. I enjoy a morning cup of joe (almost every alternate day), but like a lot of people I’m not a fan of coffee’s bitter flavor. So to mask it, apart from adding lots of milk, I guiltily dump in a sugar cube (or maybe two).
I’m not alone. Even connoisseurs of coffee, such as the Specialty Coffee Association of America, treat bitterness as a defect, describing it as “caustic,” “phenolic,” “creosol,” and “alkaline.”
So, recently when my dentist suggested that I cut down on sugar, I wondered, “How could I enjoy coffee without sugar?” The answer seems to be to add a pinch of salt instead.
My preference is to add salt once the coffee is brewed, but there are other methods. Serious Eats, a food blog, suggests that adding salt to coffee powder or coffee beans before brewing can work better at reducing bitterness.
Before coffee snobs reject the idea, let me tell you about the science behind it.
It works because common salt is sodium chloride, and when mixed in an aqueous solution, it liberates sodium ions. These ions, a study in Nature showed, suppress bitterness, enhancing coffee’s flavor. Because all we need is sodium ions, if you are sensitive to salty flavors, you can even use sodium acetate (which is less salty than common salt, and which you can make at home with vinegar and common salt) to do the job. Consider what sodium acetate does to a mixture of sucrose (sweet) and urea (bitter):
If the idea still sounds weird, consider that there are entire countries—Turkey, Hungary, and Sweden—where salt is added to coffee as a matter of routine. And this trick works not just for coffee, but to mask bitter flavors in other substances, such as tonic water.
Coffee has many health benefits, but only if you skip the cream and sugar. So if a little bit of salt in your coffee can make your mental boost healthier, surely it is worth a try.
This post originally appeared on Quartz, an Atlantic partner site.
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