Best And Worst Ingredients To Add To Your Coffee, According To Experts

What's healthy and what's not, including sugar, artificial sweeteners, creamer, plant-based dairy alternatives and more.
We asked nutritionists to rate whether your coffee additions have a positive, negative or neutral effect on your health.
RyanJLane via Getty Images
We asked nutritionists to rate whether your coffee additions have a positive, negative or neutral effect on your health.

There are few things more personal than your coffee order. My grandmother insists on the first cup of a freshly perked pot when we share Sunday brunch, black. My mother microwaves her coffee for a mouth-numbing 1 minute, 35 seconds, with half a Splenda packet and a third of a cup of 2% milk. My friend Maddy orders an extra-hot cappuccino with an extra shot and oat milk.

Whatever your extra-special order is, we asked nutritionists to rate whether your coffee additions have a positive, negative or neutral effect on your health. And don’t worry ― if your current order isn’t nutritionist-approved, they have suggestions for healthier options to try.

1. Artificial Sweeteners (Neutral)

Sugar substitutes have many names, from Sweet’N Low (saccharin) to Splenda (sucralose) to Equal (aspartame). But they all do one thing, which is to provide a lower-calorie alternative to traditional sugar, which contains 16 calories per teaspoon. Depending on the brand, artificial sweeteners can actually taste 200-700 times sweeter than table sugar, so a little goes a long way.

While artificial sweeteners did receive a bad rap from studies conducted in the ’70s linking consumption to bladder cancer, these substitutes are generally thought of as safe, nontoxic alternatives. “Sugar substitutes not only increase the palatableness of coffee, but they can prevent tooth decay and even blood sugar spikes for individuals who have diabetes,” registered dietitian Kimberly Rose-Francis advises.

But be warned, excess consumption can cause digestive issues such as diarrhea or discomfort. If you’re looking for a low-calorie option, Rose-Francis recommends trying a natural sugar substitute like stevia or monk fruit sweetener.

2. White Sugar (Negative)

Sweetening the bitterness of your morning joe with a spoonful of sugar is a classic method to bring balance to the drink. Unfortunately, sugar doesn’t fulfill any nutritional need, and consuming too much can lead to many health risks, including diabetes and weight gain, according to registered dietitian Stefani Sassos.

Even if you don’t think you add a lot of sugar to your coffee, the trouble is when it adds up after multiple cups per day.
Peter Dazeley via Getty Images
Even if you don’t think you add a lot of sugar to your coffee, the trouble is when it adds up after multiple cups per day.

If you drink multiple cups and add multiple sugar packets, the calories can really add up. A double-double (the Canadian coffee order of choice) is two creams and two sugars, equating to about 8 grams of sugar and 32 calories. “The American Heart Association recommends men get 9 teaspoons of added sugars daily and women no more than 6,” Rose-Francis explains. “If the average person drinks one to two cups of coffee daily and adds roughly 2 teaspoons of sugar, that could be approximately 20-65% for women or roughly 30-40% for men. That is a lot!”

If you need some sweetness, Sassos recommends adding coconut sugar to your cup, which contains more vitamins and minerals than the more refined white sugar and has a lovely caramel-like flavor. And sugar substitutes, as mentioned above, can also provide sweetness without the calories.

3. Plant-Based Milk (Positive)

Whether you’re looking to lower your carbon footprint or lessen your dairy consumption, plant-based beverages can be a delicious choice to add to your morning brew. The category has expanded to include grains, nuts and legumes, like oat, almond and soy. There is a version for every preference with high protein, flavored, sweetened and plain options. Rose-Francis recommends this ultra-versatile addition because “plant-based milk contains three major nutrients: carbohydrates, fats and protein. These macronutrients enable the body to function properly; moreover, they can reduce coffee acidity,” which can make your morning drink easier on your teeth and your gut.

4. Powdered Creamer (Negative)

A combination of sweeteners, flavoring agents and partially hydrogenated oil (i.e., trans fat), coffee creamers can be a flavorful yet calorically dense addition to your cup. But they’re also incredibly flammable, which should be a red flag.

“Coffee creamer also comes with a lot of bells and whistles that you may not want,” Rose-Francis notes. “It can easily pack on extra calories and fat that may not be ideal for some people.”

If you’re looking for the addition of sweetness and flavor, Rose-Francis advises a combo of plant-based milk and sugar-free substitute to mimic this option.

5. Cow’s Milk (Positive)

The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends 3 cups of dairy per day for adults, and registered dietitian Amanda Frankeny says adding milk to your coffee can be an easy way to inch toward that goal. A source of calcium, vitamin D and protein, milk ― whether that be skim, 2% or even half-and-half ― contains less saturated fat and sugar than processed creamers. Frankeny explains that the direct impact of milk isn’t clear, saying, “Some research warns against consuming too much dairy while other studies show benefits of eating it regularly. Again, milk in your coffee, alongside a relatively balanced diet, doesn’t seem to bring on any negative effects.”

If you’re experiencing side effects like bloating, gas or diarrhea after consuming dairy, you may have an intolerance and find that a plant-based option is better. Talk to your doctor.

Bulletproof coffee gets its creamy color from butter that’s been blended into the drink in a high-speed blender.
t.maz via Getty Images
Bulletproof coffee gets its creamy color from butter that’s been blended into the drink in a high-speed blender.

6. Butter Or Coconut Oil (Neutral)

Bulletproof coffees, a favorite of those on the keto diet, are made with 1 to 2 tablespoons of fat ― either coconut oil or grass-fed butter ― whipped up and consumed as a breakfast substitute. Fans boast the benefits of the medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) found in coconut oil, which can aid in satiety and prevent fat accumulation. Unfortunately, commercially available coconut oil isn’t made of pure MCTs.

This drink can equate to nearly 500 calories with almost 50 grams of fat, the equivalent of 14 pieces of bacon. While fat is an essential component of a healthy diet, overeating fat can raise cholesterol levels. “The problem with this drink is the claim that it’s the secret to losing weight and eliminating hunger,” Frankeny says. “No non-industry-based peer-reviewed studies support the idea that drinking hot buttered coffee in the morning sets you up to shed pounds.”

If you love the richness that butter or oil adds to your drink, Frankeny suggests adding half a teaspoon or trying a plant-based creamer like coconut milk, which would provide fewer calories and less saturated fat.

7. Spices (Good)

A shake of cinnamon on your cappuccino or a swirl of turmeric in your golden milk latte can amp up the flavor and provide some additional health benefits. Cinnamon may help balance blood glucose due to the chemical cinnamaldehyde, which lowers blood sugar. We love the addition of cinnamon to bitter drinks like coffee. “The theory is that cinnamon brings out the sweetness in the food without adding sugar,” Frankeny explains.

Another trendy spice to mix into coffee is turmeric, which is packed with the antioxidant curcumin. The wellness community loves this spice for its anti-inflammatory qualities, as well as its performance in early clinical trials demonstrating that it reduces pain and potentially slows the development of dementia. Adding black pepper to your golden milk latte can aid in curcumin absorption.

If you love spicing up your beverage, Frankeny says spices “can be strong and complex, slightly floral, a bit sweet and of course, delicious. They’re a perfect addition to any coffee.” A small sprinkle shouldn’t cause any side effects.

8. Supplements (Neutral)

Popular health brands, like Four Sigmatic, boast the benefits of supplements like reishi, cordyceps and lion’s mane in their brews, ingredients that have been used in traditional Chinese medicine for thousands of years. These are adaptogens that claim to help regulate your body’s stress response. Limited animal studies have proven that reishi has benefits to the immune system, but registered dietitian Tamar Samuels, co-founder of Culina Health in New York City, stresses, “There is little to no research on humans that have proved conclusive of such benefits.”

Collagen, typically seen in skin care products, is now being hyped in collagen creamers. It claims to help you glow from the inside out by boosting collagen, which is a key component of our bodies in our muscles, organs and connective tissues. A 2015 study demonstrated just how beneficial this supplement is for our skin, aiding in hydration, elasticity and reducing wrinkles.

But Samuels recommends looking for whole food sources of this ingredient, which can be found in chicken, bone broth and fish, among other foods. “I always encourage my clients to get most of their nutrients from food, rather than powders and supplements,” she says.

The caramel syrup in your caramel macchiato contributes a significant amount of sugar and calories.
Kseniya Ovchinnikova via Getty Images
The caramel syrup in your caramel macchiato contributes a significant amount of sugar and calories.

9. Flavored Syrups (Negative)

Caramel, vanilla, crème brulée, peppermint and white chocolate are a few of the yummy options we can pick from to add some variety to our coffee. A perfectly formulated mixture of simple syrup and extracts, these flavoring agents are fine in small doses but can add up. According to Samuels, many specialty coffee drinks pack in the added sugar and calories with around six shots of syrups or flavorings. “For example, a typical four-pump serving of caramel syrup contains about 100 calories and 25 grams of sugar ― that’s the recommended daily limit of sugar for adults,” she says.

If you love the sweet stuff but want to limit your sugar intake, consider a natural sweetener like maple syrup or honey or stir in some spices or vanilla extract. Flavored coffee beans are another fun way to mix up the flavor of your joe without adding extra calories.

10. Whipped Cream (Negative)

Whipped cream is a delicious treat, but Samuels cautions against adding it to your coffee: “Similar to flavoring agents, whipped cream will add calories, fat and sugar to your morning coffee ― starting your day off with an inflammatory sugar high. I say skip it!”

While a squirt of whipped cream won’t dramatically increase your calorie count (it can range from about 30 to 80 calories per serving), this ingredient is often seen on especially sugary coffee concoctions rather than enjoyed on a simple Americano. The recommendation is to enjoy it as a dessert. For extra creaminess, froth up some whole milk or swap in coconut milk, which has a higher fat content so will froth up better.

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