As a Naturopath, I've always been under the impression that coffee plays a negative role on the health of the consumer. I personally LOVE the smell but never really indulged in it, largely because of the jittery mess and insomniac state it left me in.
However over the past couple of years, I've been introducing coffee back into my diet in a way that has surprisingly left me feeling energised (without the shakes), mentally alert (minus the anxiety) and more satiated that I have ever felt throughout the early hours of my day.
How Coffee Supports Your Health
Coffee consumption is now showing to be beneficial for encouraging a healthy microbiome (supporting our good gut bugs), among easing depression and being beneficial for your liver health.(1) Who would have thought?
The important factors are the quality of your coffee (best organic and mould free) and what you are serving it with. Let’s start with the milk.
The Milk Alternatives
If you’ve decided for health or ethical reasons to leave the dairy behind, almond milk or coconut milk are a couple of healthy options to try in place. They do create a different taste and texture than regular coffee (with cows milk), but it’s an acquired taste that you’ll soon appreciate.
When a cafe uses a milk alternative that has nasties added, I can usually tell and my naturopath instinct kicks in to do some detective work. So you can imagine my disappointment when I recently discovered one of my local cafes did the old switch-a-roo on me and started using dairy free milks that are not up to my (admittedly high) naturopath standards. Relax, I'm not talking about Nutrition Republic- they still get my tick of approval :)
There are now many milk alternatives available, but only a few that I can confidently recommend as healthy options. I know it can get confusing and hard keeping up with the latest additions to the market, so when you're next shopping for or ordering a dairy free milk option, watch out for these added nasties:
Sucrose (sugar) consumption is plain and simple detrimental to your health. Table sugar and any products made from sugar, such as lollies, chocolate, syrups, cakes, biscuits, soft drinks, juices, sauces, yoghurts, packaged foods and in this case, added to milk alternatives are included.
Products made with sugar will contribute to the following detrimental health effects in your body:
A dramatic increase in your blood sugar levels, triggering the body to produce insulin. High insulin surges (due to high glucose) over time contribute to obesity, insulin resistance, type-2 diabetes, high cholesterol, triglyceride production and fatty liver.
The high blood glucose levels are followed by a state of low blood glucose levels or hypoglycaemia, due to the over-stimulation of insulin. This leaves the body and brain starved of glucose and can lead to headaches, dizziness, mood swings, shakes, behavioural issues, poor concentration, fatigue and excessive sweating. Initially, the glucose surge also stimulates the happy neurotransmitter serotonin. Over time, this altering of brain chemistry leads to addictions and cravings for more sugar.
The body requires greater levels of vitamins, enzymes, and minerals when it is hit with a sugar load. This leads to nutritional deficiencies, resulting in signs and symptoms in the body. It is common to have a Magnesium deficiency after regular sugar consumption (think stress, insomnia, restless legs, muscle pains, cramps or spasms, anxiety, heart palpitations).
Although to a lesser extent than fructose, sucrose forms Advanced Glycation End Products (AGEs) when it reacts with amino acids and fats. This leads to premature ageing and metabolic debris building up in your joints, organs and skin tissue. Yep, this includes the dreaded wrinkles!
Sugar will damage levels of healthy good bacteria, throughout the gastrointestinal tract. This imbalance leads to many digestive upsets and has a detrimental effect on the strength and function of the body’s immune system. An overgrowth of the yeast Candida albicans is common with high sugar intake.
While on the topic of sweeteners, leave any milks on the shelf that contain the natural sweetener, agave. Dubbed as a low GI healthy alternative, this one can get up to 70-90% fructose - contributing to fatty liver, insulin resistance (therefore PCOS, weight gain and inflammatory conditions) just to name a few.
This additive derived from red seaweed is commonly found in almond and coconut milk to help thicken and stabilise the product. The type of carrageenan which has been approved for the use in food products is also referred to as undegraded carrageenan (unlike it's cancer causing degraded carrageenan counterpart). Carrageenan unfortunately lacks any nutritional value and instead may contribute to health issues with regular consumption.
It is an indigestible polysaccharide (carbohydrate) which disrupts digestion and can contribute to diarrhoea, intestinal permeability (leaky gut) and therefore cause an unhealthy immune response in your body. Animal studies have shown a production in inflammation (a known driver for hormone imbalances) and in some cases, intestinal ulceration and bleeding after long term consumption of undegraded carrageenan. (2)
When unstable unsaturated fats in seed and vegetable oils (such as sunflower oil) are added to products such as milks, any heat during this process can contribute to an altered chemical structure of the fat. Their instability leads to their transformation into a damaging trans fat.
Your body cannot recognise this altered chemical structure and trans fats are therefore toxic. Side effects on consuming trans fats include:
In the cardiovascular system, they promote inflammation and cause damage to the lining of the blood vessels, increase the LDL cholesterol, reduce HDL cholesterol and slow the conversion of omega 3s into beneficial DHA
Linked to age-related macular degeneration, Alzheimer’s disease, compromised immune system, fertility problems with both men and women, low birth weight babies
Avoid milk alternatives containing Maltodextrin, as this is potentially sourced from genetically modified corn. Find out why GM is a health hazard here.
If you have digestive issues such as fructose malabsorption, or do better on a low FODMAP diet due to conditions such as IBS, then restricting coconut milks altogether may be required for better digestion. Particularly an issue for these individuals are milks containing the polysaccharide guar gum (derived from guar bean). Note: Not everyone will have issues with coconut milk and guar gum.
Some other additives such as acidity regulators may cause issues with MSG sensitive individuals. The flavour enhancer MSG can be hidden on labels as 'natural flavours'.
Brands to Avoid
This isn't a name and shame, but instead an eye opener to be mindful of the above ingredients you may not have been aware of when selecting non-daily milk alternatives. If unsure when dining out, ask the barista which brand of non-dairy milks they use and if they can show you the ingredients list of the milk. Try to avoid brands that include one or more of these potentially health-damaging ingredients.
So what about soy? I think you know me better than that by now. Take a peek over here why I will never recommend soy milk as a healthy alternative.
Oat milk contains traces of gluten and I don't recommend straight rice milk as large amounts may contribute to arsenic exposure. If quinoa milk tickles your fancy (it does have a very distinct taste), it is gluten free, however can be common for people who are sensitive to gluten to also cross-react to quinoa (as well as rice).
If you're at home and using coconut milk & cream in recipes such as smoothies, coconut yoghurt and my panna cotta, then using BPA free canned brands such as Honest To Goodness, Global Organics*, Ayam and Spiral* is recommended (you can simply water them down if need be).
In coffee, Pure Harvest Organic Unsweetened Almond and CocoQuench (coconut with a small amount of rice milk) are the best options I've found while buying beverages out (at my fav Nutrition Republic). For whipping up a drink at home, The Broken Head Company Coconut Milk and Nutty Bruce Almond and / or Coconut milks are also free from the above nasties.
*Note: These brands do contain guar gum
If you’re at home, the best option is always making up your own homemade nut or coconut milk.
Don’t like those milks?
For those of you who aren’t crazy on the almond or coconut milk varities, there are always humble herbal teas to try, or really appreciating the taste of coffee through an organic long back or espresso - no sugar, no milk.
For those of you who don’t do so well on caffeine, look for cafes which stock Swiss Filtration Decaf Coffee. Conventional de-caffeination processes are highly chemicalised, however the Swiss Filtration method requires no chemical solvents to get the 99.9% caffeine free coffee. It involves a process of soaking the beans in caffeine-free green coffee extract, followed by the use of activated charcoal to remove the caffeine, afterwhich the beans are dried. Caffeine free and trust me, just as satisfying for the taste buds!
Awareness is Key
It always pays check in and ask questions when it comes to the food and drink you're feeding your body. If you're not sure what milk or coffee your favourite cafe uses, just ask. If in doubt, visit your local Nutrition Republic and know your milk alternative, organic coffee and organic decaf coffee is a healthy choice.
What’s your go to bevvie when out n' about?
About the Author
Kasey Willson is an Adelaide based Naturopath who educates women to take control of their health to experience balanced hormones, thriving digestion and therefore vibrant energy.
You can gain her support through her clinic Aloe Health, essential oil classes, her informative book Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones and her online program, Vibrant Woman Challenge. You can download a free chapter of her book ‘Balanced, The Natural Way To Healthy Hormones’ here.
J K Tobacman. Review of harmful gastrointestinal effects of carrageenan in animal experiments. Environ Health Perspect. 2001 Oct; 109(10): 983–994.