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: to provide a lower-calorie alternative to traditional sugar, which contains 16 calories per teaspoon. Depending on the brand, artificial sweeteners can 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, non-toxic 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 Sasso.
If you drink multiple cups and add multiple sugar packets, the calories can 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 nine 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 two 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. 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 ― 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.