Is your dairy-free coffee making you sick?

Hands up if you’ve switched to dairy free coffees. Yep, me too.

It all started in my late 20’s when a naturopath told me that I had an intolerance to cow’s milk. It was making me unwell. I’d had a lifetime of post nasal drip, tonsillitis, asthma and recurrent chest infections, along with digestive issues and bloating… all of which have “magically” disappeared after giving up dairy. This was all the evidence I needed – I knew milk wasn’t my friend. But the question remained – what to have in my coffee or chai?

Cue – the “soy latte” era of the 1990s (you know, before almond milk was a “thing”). I thought I was doing right by my body. But although my digestion was better and I wasn’t snotty/gunky/asthmatic anymore, what I didn’t realise was that I was slowly increasing oestrogen levels in my body… I had endometriosis, so it turns out that was NOT ideal. Oops. When you know better, you do better. So I went back to black coffee, but there was a little voice inside my head that still craved a milky, creamy, latte.

So imagine my happiness when the new breed of milks (ahem, sorry… “mylks”) came out in cafes, promising a healthier, soy-free, dairy-free, plant-based, hipster-worthy latte.

Hallelujah, right?

Wrong.

Yes, they’re soy-free. Yes, they’re dairy free. But healthy? Let’s have a closer look at the ingredients of some popular brands.

Are the ingredients in non-dairy milks bad for you?

Example 1 – A well-known hipster-looking brand of almond milk (found in some of the best coffee places)

Sunflower Oil – Not considered by most naturopaths to be a healthy oil, may cause inflammation.

Maltodextrin (From Corn) – A form of carbohydrate that can spike your blood sugar quickly.

Vegetable Gums (418, 415, 410) – May cause inflammation in the bowel in sensitive people.

Sugar was the third main ingredient on the list. This product contained 4.3g of sugar per 250ml – that’s one teaspoon of sugar per latte.

This particular brand’s coconut milk product had even more sugar – 6.5g per 250ml.

No wonder it tasted sweet! But if like me, you’ve cut most cane sugar out of your diet, then this might come as a shock. 2 coffees per day and that’s 3 teaspoons of sugar that you may as well have eaten. Eek.

Example 2 – A fancy, and very nicely packaged brand of Macadamia milk (made in Byron Bay)

This one contains… wait for it… canola oil.

I mean, really? Have we not moved on from thinking this is a healthy choice?

I noticed a while back the same brand had it labelled on their carton as “rapeseed oil,” but now it’s clearly labelled as canola.

Given that canola it a type of rapeseed oil, my concern is that this may have previously been a case of strategic labelling. Like when companies put “dehydrated cane juice” instead of “sugar” on their labels so that it looks like a healthier option. Is it a case of “accidentally” misleading the health-conscious consumer? You decide.

Just an FYI… I scoured the interwebs for research on rapeseed and whether it’s somehow different or better than canola. The gist I got is that canola is a type of rapeseed, and although they might not be genetically modified, and/or as unhealthy as canola, other rapeseed oils are still processed and may be inflammatory. I’m still open to seeing some quality evidence that says this oil is ok (if you have any leads for me, please hit me up in the comments below!).

So was it canola oil in the carton all along? Or was it rapeseed and later changed to canola? I endeavoured to find out. I contacted the company in question via the contact form on their website, to ask if they could set me straight. But I didn’t hear back, which was very disappointing.

Oh – and this brand was loaded with sugar too. It contained four different types of vegetable gums. AND… they don’t even have their ingredients easily accessible on their website! Boo. Three strikes you’re out, I reckon (actually I think that’s four strikes).

Example 3 – A very well known brand of almond milk with a product “made for baristas”

This one looked a lot like Example 1, with only 3.5% almonds, and the addition of cane sugar, sunflower oil and vegetable gums 407 and 418.

Again, there’s a fair bit of sugar in this one – 3.6g per 250ml (that’s almost 1 teaspoon per latte).

My conclusion is that if products are aimed at baristas, they might include ingredients that make the milk creamier for texturing, designed so they are less likely to curdle or split in the coffee, and perhaps give you better latte art. At the end of the day, the companies are trying to get a nut milk to act like cow’s milk when subjected to heat and steam, and to give you a better mouthfeel when you drink it. The ingredients they add to achieve this are not necessarily going to be healthy though.

But before you start stressing out over your daily cup of Joe, it’s not all bad news

I also came across brands without added nasties. A lot of cafes now carry CocoQuench, which is just coconut, rice and water. To be honest, it’s a little high in naturally occurring sugars, but hey – you can’t have everything, right? At least it’s not added cane sugar. If you’re trying to lose weight, deal with a candida issue or stabilise your blood glucose, you might need to be a bit careful, but in cafes, it seems to be the best choice that I’ve found.

If you’re making coffee at home, I’m a huge fan of Nutty Bruce (the unsweetened one has the least sugar). I haven’t seen it in cafes, though – maybe because it’s more expensive, or perhaps it doesn’t texture as well as the other options?

Of course, if you have time, you could make your own almond or cashew milk. At least you’ll know what’s in it then!

Key points to remember:

Being dairy free or vegan is no guarantee of a healthy product.

Hipster packaging is no guarantee of a healthy product.

The only way to be sure what’s in it is to pick up the package and read the label.

If your local cafe isn’t too busy, ask your barista if you can please see the label and photograph it. Or just note down the brand. Then go home and research the ingredients.

Or you if all else fails, could just go back to black coffee…

4 Comments
  • LINDA BURTON
    Posted at 11:24h, 14 November Reply

    Thank you for this article. It is very true and frustrating when you think you are caring for your body. I buy Nutty Bruce because it is fresh and for what is not put into it. I am a fan like you. Just one thing though – if you look at the labels of the original activated almond milk and then the unsweetened – the unsweetened actually has MORE sugar and LESS almonds. The normal one is sugar 1.4/100g with !0% almonds. The unsweetened one says sugar 1.6/100g and only 7% almonds. On the Nutty Bruce website they only show the original one. I have not asked them about this yet but I do intend to. It is a lot harder now to buy the original one as most shops, well around my way anyhow carry only the unsweetened. Thank you for you very interesting blog 🙂
    Linda.

    • Jules Galloway
      Posted at 17:18h, 14 November Reply

      Ooooh, that’s so interesting about the unsweetened one – I will definitely check it out. Thank you! 🙂

  • Bec
    Posted at 17:10h, 15 November Reply

    Thanks for this Jules! I made the switch black coffee for nearly 4 years ago now and haven’t really looked back. I tried almond milk originally a few times at cafes, but they generally were either super sweet, or the texture was all wrong. The best thing about drinking black coffee is that I’m so much pickier about what I drink, and can’t deal with a substandard brew.

    (I do keep the Nutty Bruce at home for the odd smoothie, hot chocolate/ cocao and when it’s warmer, the very odd iced latte. So good!)

  • Kirsty Smith
    Posted at 20:26h, 04 December Reply

    Inside out almond milk is great and found in some of the better cafes. Have you tried that one?

    Also almond co in Melbourne is so good. No nasties and super tasty! Thanks for the awesome article though. I will share

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