Healthy Coffee Creamer Alternatives (+ the 4 Worst Things to Put in Your Coffee)

We love coffee, and chances are, so do you. The taste, the energy boost, the comforting ritual — there are a lot of reasons that coffee is an important part of many people’s daily life. But here’s the catch: not all coffee is created equal. In fact, the way some coffee is grown and processed can be harmful to both the environment and your health, and what you put in your coffee can also do damage to your health. The good news is that with the right knowledge, you can make informed decisions that let you have your morning cup without compromising your health or the planet. Read on to learn about the various coffee benefits and side effects, why non-dairy coffee creamer is so bad (plus healthy coffee creamer alternatives), the importance of buying organic coffee beans, and much more.  

You can also listen to this guide on The getWellBe Podcast.

Is Coffee Healthy? Looking at Coffee Benefits and Side Effects

Before we get into the specifics of different kinds of coffee, we’ve got to acknowledge something upfront: coffee is a drug. It contains the stimulant caffeine, which activates the central nervous system, giving you that lovely buzz (or jitters, depending on how you metabolize it) and helping you stay alert through 8AM conference calls. But too much caffeine, as with any drug, can have serious negative consequences. Let’s take a look at some coffee benefits and side effects, starting with the bad news. Caffeine has been associated with: 

Fortunately, most of the negative health outcomes listed above only come into play when you’re drinking coffee in excess. The Mayo Clinic claims that consuming under 400 mg of caffeine each day is safe for the average adult. Remember each human body is SO different — you need to take into account factors like body size, how your body metabolizes coffee, and other health issues you may have (like adrenal fatigue, insomnia, or anxiety) when deciding how much is too much. 

Also, keep in mind that different types of coffee have varying amounts of caffeine.To give you a frame of reference, an average 12-oz cup of coffee has 200 mg of caffeine, a grande black coffee from Starbucks has 330 mg, and a single shot of espresso has 65 mg. 

What’s more, even if you cut out caffeine completely, coffee itself might pose some health risks: both caffeinated and decaffeinated coffee can increase levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol. Oof.

On the other hand, there’s some research to suggest that caffeine might have a positive impact on your health. One study showed that drinking three cups of coffee a day can reduce your risk of liver cancer by 50%, while results from another study indicated that four cups could cut your risk of throat or mouth cancer in half. Caffeine has also been associated with a lower risk of suicide in adults, as well as improved long-term memory

Dr. David Perlmutter, a functional neurologist and WellBe expert, also recently recommended that people drink 2 to 3 cups of coffee each day to improve their health. His recommendation is based on research showing that all types of coffee (in the study people drank decaffeinated, ground, and instant coffee) were associated with a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (which includes coronary heart disease, arrhythmia, cardiac failure, or stroke caused by blockage of an artery in the brain), as well as reduced overall mortality risk. 

Finally, keep in mind that caffeine is found in all sorts of things besides coffee, such as chocolate, tea, cola, coffee-flavored sweets, and even certain candies and gums. It’s important to consider your total caffeine consumption, not just coffee, to make sure you’re not going overboard.

How Do You Take Your Coffee? The Health Risks of Non-Dairy Coffee Creamer & Other Coffee Additions

If you don’t drink your coffee black, you’ve got a seemingly array of options for what to put in your morning mug (and we’re not even getting into the crazy coffee drinks — aka milkshakes — you see at Starbucks and cafés everywhere these days). And as with anything you put in your mouth, all of these options have 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: just look at the ingredient list and you’ll see things like corn syrup solids, hydrogenated vegetable oil, and artificial flavors and colors, plus a heap of unpronounceable chemicals. So…basically the definition of processed food, which we try to avoid as much as possible (since processed foods have little to no nutritional value and are linked to tons of health issues, including cancer and heart disease). 

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.

Many non-dairy coffee creamer brands also contain trans fats, one of the “bad” kinds of fat. Trans fats raise your LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase your risk of cardiovascular disease, the leading cause of death in the U.S.  

Non-Organic Cow’s Milk

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. 

Flavored Syrups

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). 

Artificial Sweeteners

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 — 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 and put a few ounces of milk in it. 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 Healthiest Sweeteners 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. 

In our opinion, one of the best sweeteners for coffee is actually cinnamon! It may sound odd, but it’s a great way to add a flavor kick to your coffee without any sugar or other weird stuff. Plus, cinnamon can help control blood sugar spikes and it’s anti-inflammatory. Remember to buy organic, since spices are sprayed with pesticides as well. Another great, sugar-free option is unsweetened cacao powder, which also contains antioxidants and can lower your blood pressure, among other health benefits.  

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. That’s why one of our best sweeteners for coffee is actually a spice. 🙂 

For a full list of WellBe-approved sweeteners, milks, spices, and other coffee additions (plus 2000+ other researched and vetted products across 20 different categories), check out our Non-Toxic Product Lists database! 

Why Choosing Organic Coffee Beans Matters

There’s also the matter of the coffee itself. No, we’re not talking about light roast vs dark roast or pour over vs drip coffee — we’re talking about whether or not the coffee beans are organic. As with the milk you might add to your coffee, the difference between conventional and organic is huge when it comes to coffee. 

Conventional farmers use chemical fertilizers and pesticides to keep up with the high demand for coffee (up to 250 lbs of chemical fertilizers per acre!). This high chemical use is made possible — and impossible to regulate — because most of the coffee beans that the United States imports come from countries where there is little to no regulation of pesticide use. This means that if you’re not explicitly choosing organic coffee beans, there are very likely pesticides in your coffee. 

The reason these farmers feel the need to rely so heavily on pesticides is because of where they’re growing the beans. Traditionally, farmers grew coffee in the shade, but they’re increasingly growing their crops in the sun because it’s faster and cheaper. However, one of the benefits of shade-grown coffee is that the trees providing the shade also provide branches on which birds can land — birds that, in turn, pick off any pests and parasites that might be attracted to the coffee plant, acting as natural pesticides.

When coffee is grown in the direct sun, there are no branches, and so no birds, which means that farmers need to apply a hefty amount of pesticides to keep destructive bugs at bay. What’s more, coffee beans grown in the shade are naturally fertilized by leaves that fall off the trees and enter the soil. Absent those leaves, farmers need to add chemical fertilizers. Both of these factors mean that coffee grown in the sun — which accounts for most of the conventional coffee out there — is laden with chemicals. 

Why should you care about pesticides in coffee? Well, for one thing, exposure to pesticides has been linked to a ton of health issues, including:

  • Alzheimer’s disease
  • Autism
  • Birth defects
  • Cancer
  • Diabetes
  • Food allergies
  • Infertility
  • Memory loss
  • Obesity
  • Parkinson’s disease

Fortunately, you can avoid all these potential health risks simply by seeking out organic coffee beans and looking for “shade-grown” on the label. And while conventional coffee might still be cheaper and more ubiquitous, it’s becoming increasingly easier to find organic coffee beans both at coffee shops and on grocery store shelves. Some of our favorite shade-grown organic coffee brands are Birds and Beans, Kicking Horse Coffee, and 365 Everyday Value.

Also note that if you drink decaf, it’s especially important that you choose organic coffee beans. This is because there are two ways of decaffeinating coffee, water-based and solvent-based. The latter uses a chemical called methylene chloride, which is an active ingredient in paint thinner and a known carcinogen. This chemical had detectable levels in numerous decaf brands! Thankfully, you can rest assured that organic decaf coffee beans don’t use this process, so you’re safe. 

How You Brew & Serve Your Coffee Matters

Sorry to add yet another thing to worry about, but how you brew and serve your coffee can also affect your health. 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, releasing endocrine-disrupting chemicals that throw 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 on Coffee and Your Health

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:

  • Coffee is a drug. It contains the stimulant caffeine, which activates the central nervous system. Caffeine has been shown to have both positive and negative impacts on your health, but the important thing is to consume it in moderation and pay attention to how you feel afterwards, both mentally and physically.
  • Non-dairy coffee creamer contains a variety of harmful chemicals that can increase your risk of disease, and 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. Healthy coffee creamer alternatives 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.
  • Flavored syrups have a ton of sugar, as well as artificial colors that have been associated with cancer, allergies, and ADHD in children, and 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. Instead of using flavored syrups or artificial sweeteners, opt for healthier sweeteners like agave, maple syrup, or manuka honey. To skip the sugar entirely, choose cinnamon or unsweetened cacao powder, both of which have zero sugar and come with health benefits. 
  • Conventional coffee contains tons of chemicals. This is largely due to the fact that it’s cheaper and quicker to grow coffee beans in the sun, which requires farmers to use lots of pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Additionally, most of the coffee in the United States comes from countries where the use of these chemicals is unregulated. The chemicals that make their way into conventional coffee are a big deal, because they can lead to tons of health issues, from cancer to birth defects to Alzheimer’s.
  • Choosing shade-grown, organic coffee beans protects you from the chemicals and health risks described above, and is also much better for the environment.
  • How you brew and serve your coffee matters, too. Single-serve K-cups contain hormone-disrupting chemicals and may harbor harmful bacteria like e. Coli, whereas plastic-free brewing methods like a French press and Chemex won’t harm your health. In addition, the disposable cups used by most coffee shops may also contain hormone-disrupting chemicals, making it a smart choice to bring your own reusable mug or thermos.

How do you make and drink your coffee? Let us know in the comments below!

Listen to this guide on The getWellBe Podcast.


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