In part one of the WellBe Guide to Coffee, we dove into the environmental and health benefits of choosing organic coffee over conventional coffee. So now that you’ve got your toxin-free organic cup of joe in hand, you should be good to go, right? Not so fast. No matter how healthy the coffee itself is, what you put in it — plus how you make and serve it — has a huge impact on your health. In part two of our healthy coffee guide, we look at the four unhealthiest things to put in your coffee (spoiler: non-dairy coffee creamer is on the list) and offer good-for-you replacements, like healthy coffee creamer alternatives and the best sweetener for coffee.
Why Non-Dairy Coffee Creamer Is A Bad Choice + 3 Other Unhealthy Things to Put In Your Coffee
If you don’t drink your coffee black, you’ve got an array of options for what to put in your coffee (and we’re not even getting into the crazy coffee drinks — aka milkshakes — you see at Starbucks and cafés everywhere these days). Most households have their own unique routines around how they take their morning mugs, but some things are more ubiquitous than others and each carries its own implications for your health.
Of the most common coffee additions out there, these are the four least healthy choices:
Non-Dairy Coffee Creamer
Given that this “cream” product comes in a powdered form, it’s probably not super surprising that non-dairy coffee creamer isn’t exactly natural: if you look at the ingredient lists, you’ll see things like corn syrup solids, hydrogenated vegetable oil, artificial flavors, and colors, plus a heap of unpronounceable chemicals. So, basically the definition of a processed food, which we try to avoid as much as possible.
In terms of the specific health risks of non-dairy coffee creamer, there are a bunch. For one, they often use the chemical dipotassium phosphate as a stabilizing agent. Not only is dipotassium phosphate used in fertilizer (which is enough on its own for us to want to steer clear), but it has also been linked to kidney disease. Then there’s the corn syrup, which is loaded with sugar, leading to inflammation and other health issues.
We’ve already gone over the importance of drinking organic coffee, and the same holds true for the milk you put in that coffee. Buying organic whenever possible is always a good choice, and it’s pretty essential when it comes to dairy products like milk. That’s because the production of non-organic dairy involves feeding and injecting cows with antibiotics, which carry a ton of negative health consequences, from screwed up gut health to antibiotic resistance. Non-organic dairy farming also involves using pesticides, which means that cows eat grass containing pesticide residue. The harmful toxins from those pesticides, in turn, make their way into the milk they produce.
While you may always buy organic milk when you go to the grocery store, keep in mind that the pitchers of milk and cream you see at coffee shops are generally not organic. If you get your coffee from cafés frequently, your consumption of non-organic milk can really add up.
Vanilla, hazelnut, or pumpkin spice may sound tempting, but these flavored syrups come with consequences. First of all, they fill you up with sugar (Four pumps of the Torani brand, used at Starbucks, has around 19 grams! That’s as much as a Cookies & Creme Pop-Tart!). They also contain artificial colors or food dye, which have been linked to many health risks, including cancer, allergies, and hyperactivity in children. (Read or watch our interview with integrative pediatrician Dr. Joel Warsh to hear him discuss the evidence-backed connection between food dye and ADHD in children).
Low and zero-calorie sweeteners might seem like the “healthier” option, but they really just replace one unhealthy thing with another. We dive deep into the health risks and side effects of artificial sweeteners in a different guide, but we’ll summarize here: they can mess with your gut microbiome, increase your risk of metabolic syndrome and type 2 diabetes, and — counterintuitively — can actually cause weight gain. Plus, some studies suggest they might be addictive!
Healthy Coffee Creamer Alternatives
So given the health repercussions of non-dairy creamer and other common coffee additives, do you have to drink your coffee black for the rest of your life? No! Thankfully, there are lots of alternatives that actually do good things for your body, rather than the opposite.
First up, let’s address the milk and cream part of the question. If you love putting milk in your coffee, then the solution is simple: just choose organic milk, and your problems are solved! If you don’t have a dairy intolerance or sensitivity, putting organic milk in your coffee should have no health repercussions, plus give you a boost of calcium and protein. If your local coffee shop doesn’t offer organic milk, just bring a little thermos of your own. It’s good for the environment too!
But if you’re not into dairy milk, don’t worry, there are a lot of healthy coffee creamer alternatives. In fact, the options for non-dairy creaminess have exploded in the past few years. Choose among coconut, hemp, cashew, oat, or almond milk (and we’re guessing there’s already some new kind of non-dairy milk that we don’t know about yet!) rather than the weird powder of non-dairy coffee creamer. Just make sure to go organic, since even non-dairy milks can contain GMOs, carrageenan fillers, and pesticides.
The Best Sweetener for Coffee
We get it, sweet things taste good! And those flavored syrups are pretty fun, we admit. Unfortunately, adding straight sugar (or sugar-filled syrups) to your morning cup is not great for you. But just as there are healthy coffee creamer alternatives, there are healthy alternatives to flavored syrups and artificial sweeteners.
If you want something more traditionally “sweet,” you have options here as well. Though they have calories and sugar, more natural sweeteners like honey or maple syrup are better choices than table sugar (we especially like manuka honey for its anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties). But in general we try to add no sweeteners (even natural ones!), since we know sugar is a major contributor to chronic disease, which is why our “best sweetener for coffee” is actually a spice 🙂
But even if you’re drinking your coffee black, you might still be putting unhealthy things in your coffee — we’re talking about the sneaky little toxins that can come from the way you brew and serve your coffee. First off, those super convenient K-cups you see everywhere? We hate to break it to you, but they’re pretty destructive to both your health and the environment. Though the plastic is BPA-free, it can still be harmful when heated, throwing your hormones out of whack.
On the “ew” front, you should also consider that single-serve plastic coffee makers often harbor bacteria like e.coli. Keep yourself safe by brewing your coffee in a glass or stainless steel coffee maker, like a Chemex or French press.
Then there are those ubiquitous to-go cups you get at the coffee shop. While very convenient, they’re usually made from polystyrene, which has been found to release estrogen-like chemicals in your body. Avoid any hormone disruption (and do the environment a solid) by bringing your own stainless steel or ceramic cup, or a to-go thermos.
The WellBe Takeaway: What to Remember When You Make Your Next Mug
All of this can be a lot to remember (especially before you’ve had your coffee!), so we’ll sum up the key points for you:
Always choose organic coffee beans to make sure the coffee you’re drinking is free of toxins and not doing harm to the environment. However, what you put in your coffee is just as important as the kind of coffee you drink.
Non-dairy coffee creamer contains a variety of harmful chemicals that can increase your risk of disease. They also contain sugar and trans fats, the “bad” fat that contributes to heart disease.
Putting non-organic milk in your coffee exposes your body to the antibiotics and pesticides associated with non-organic dairy farming, both of which carry their own health risks.
Flavored syrups have a ton of sugar, as well as artificial colors that have been associated with cancer, allergies, and ADHD in children.
Despite the way they’re marketed, artificial sweeteners are not a healthy alternative to sugar. They can mess with your gut microbiome, increase your diabetes risk, and cause weight gain.
Healthy alternatives to non-dairy coffee creamer include organic dairy milk and any of the myriad non-dairy milks available today: cashew, oat, almond, hemp, coconut. Just make sure to always choose organic.
Instead of using flavored syrups or artificial sweeteners, opt for healthier sweeteners like agave or manuka honey. To skip the sugar entirely, choose cinnamon (the best sweetener for coffee in our book!) or unsweetened cacao powder, both of which have zero sugar and come with health benefits.
What’s your favorite healthy addition to your coffee? Let us know in the comments below!