Coffee shops are one of my favorite places to hang out (oh, yeah, and I work in one!). But, the endless beverage choices can be confusing, especially if you are visiting a coffee shop on a regular basis and do not want to order something that is terrible for your health and will leave you with a sugar-crash and a stomachache. Should I order a mocha with coconut milk? A latte with sugar-free hazelnut flavor? A soy cappuccino? A skim caramel macchiato with no whip cream? Maybe I’ll just get a cup of coffee because it’s too confusing…
This is a guide I’ve written to hopefully clear up some of the misconceptions when it comes to coffee drinks and break down what to order if you want a healthier choice.
Forget the Misconceptions
For some reason, there still seems to be this strange idea that ordering a giant mocha with whipped cream is suddenly healthier if it’s made with nonfat milk or a vanilla latte is better when made with sugar-free vanilla. This is a complete misconception! Don’t be one of those people who is naiive enough to think ordering a “skinny” pumpkin spice latte suddenly makes this a healthy choice. If you order a pumpkin spice latte or a white chocolate mocha, realize that it is a treat, not a healthy beverage you can/should order every day, regardless of the milk choice or the sugar-free flavoring.
Whole vs Skim and Low-fat
Let’s talk about milk. If you choose to consume dairy, should you choose whole milk, reduced fat milk, or skim milk? My belief when it comes to food in general is that everything should be consumed as close to its whole form as possible, so when it comes to milk, organic whole milk is a better option than skim milk or reduced fat.
The concern about whole milk has been its relatively high amounts of saturated fat. We now know that fat is not the enemy; fat keeps us feeling full and helps us absorb fat-soluble vitamins, especially healthy fats (mono and poly-unsaturated). There is also new research that shows that saturated fat found in whole milk may not be such a bad thing, either. Organic whole milk also contains a lot of beneficial omega-3 fatty acids, as opposed to conventional, non-organic whole milk.
When it comes to skim milk and low-fat milk, not only is the excess fat skimmed off of the whole milk, but so are the healthy fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E and K that are found in milk fat. Some brands fortify the low-fat milk, adding these vitamins back in, but they may not be easily absorbed anyway without the presence of the fat in the milk. Another negative is that fat-free milk is also quite watery and has a blue-ish tinge, so many brands often add powdered milk solids back in to give it the appearance of regular milk that we are used to. To me, this is enough of a deterrent to choose whole milk, simply because it has the least amount of processing.
Conclusion: if you choose to consume a dairy milk, choose whole, organic milk if possible.
Soy vs. Almond vs. Coconut Milk
I’m not going to discuss the benefits/drawback to consuming dairy or not today, but if you choose not to consume dairy, you have a wide variety of milk alternatives available to you. Almond, soy, coconut, cashew, hemp– It can quickly get overwhelming!
I would recommend staying away from soy milk if possible, since some studies show it may interfere with hormones. Also, unless it’s organic, it is most likely genetically modified, which I also recommend staying away from since the health effects of GMOs are not really known.
The key when it comes to non-dairy milks is to choose the option with the least amount of sugar and excess additives. A lot of coffee shops now offer almond and/or coconut milk as a non-dairy, non-soy alternative. If you choose these options, try to choose the unsweetened versions if possible. You may ask the barista to use whichever option has less sugar added. When you’re out at a coffee shop, you are limited to the options that that particular coffee shop offers, so simply make the best choice you can at that time and move on. I am personally wary of how many additives and sugars are in the cartons of store-bought almond and coconut milk (unless you purchase a cleaner brand), so I tend to simply order whole milk–but this is your choice; there are benefits and drawbacks to both.
First of all, do not order sugar-free! These syrups are loaded with chemicals and artificial ingredients that are even worse for your health than ordinary table sugar. Artifical sweeteners confuse your brain/body because you are consuming something that tastes sweet but has no calories, making your body want to eat even more sweet, sugary food. So, instead of satisfying your craving for something sweet, they make you want even more of the sweet stuff. There is also a chance that these artificial sweeteners are linked to serious health problems, such as cancer, but this research is inconclusive. The best thing in this case is to stay far away from these chemical sweeteners.
The sugar-free flavors are the worst, but the sugar-filled ones aren’t great either. My favorite thing to do when I want a latte with a bit of sweetness is to use honey or real maple syrup. You don’t need to add much to get a sweet taste, and honey and maple syrup are both natural sugars that also have health benefits like antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals (you just don’t want to overuse them–they are still sugar). I also like to add spices to enhance the flavor of a latte, such as cinnamon, nutmeg, cardamom, or pumpkin pie spice. The combination of a little honey and cinnamon should totally kick your craving for a sugar-filled drink.
Some days, you just really need a vanilla latte. So, I say, order a vanilla latte. But go full-fat (whole milk) and real sugar (vanilla rather than sugar-free vanilla). It’s not exactly a healthy beverage, but it will satisfy your craving and then you can move on to healthier choices throughout your day. Ordering a skinny or sugar-free version may leave you still not feeling satisfied, and you may end up ordering that blueberry muffin and another latte later that afternoon.
What to Order
So after all that info, what the heck should you order? I used to be a vanilla latte girl all the way, until I realized that every time I drank one I felt disgusting afterward. All that milk and sugar is heavy on the digestive system and can cause you to crash shortly after. My other downfall was making coffee at home, and then topping it with flavored, store-bought coffee creamers. I tried to find creamers with less additives and chemicals, but I was so hooked on that sugary vanilla flavor in my coffee every single morning.
Finally, I trained myself to stop the sugary coffee drink habit in the mornings. You simply have to cut these sugary drinks out of your diet for a while, and shortly you will notice that you no longer crave them. Now, my default order is an Americano–simply hot water with shots of espresso–topped with a dash of half and half (preferably organic, if possible). Once I started drinking these on a daily basis, I stopped having cravings for sugary lattes and coffee creamers. Every once in a while, for something special, I will order a full-fat latte with honey or maple syrup, maybe some spices, or even plain. It’s amazing how your body stops craving sugar once you train it to. Now vanilla coffee creamer or a flavored latte tastes almost disgusting; it’s simply too sweet.
To kick your sugar cravings, I would recommend ordering either Americanos, drip coffee, or plain lattes, especially if you are visiting a coffee shop on a regular basis. Americanos and drip coffee have the added benefit that they aren’t filled with milk, so you don’t have to worry so much about all of the different milk choices. You can top them with a little half and half, whole milk, coconut milk, or even some steamed milk of choice if you want that fluffy texture (coffee with steamed milk is called a cafe au lait). Then, save the mochas and flavored lattes for your days off or when you go out to coffee with a friend and want a special treat. I’m definitely not telling you to never order these things again, but simply to get your daily coffee habit under control so that it is not detrimental to your health, and save the sugary drinks for every once in a while.
I hope this article helps you navigate your local coffee shop with more confidence and the ability to know which drinks are better choices than others. Let me know if you have any questions or comments on this topic!