Can Vegans Drink Coffee? A Vegan RDN Spills The Brew

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Can vegans drink coffee? Generally speaking, yes – black coffees are vegan so coffee that is an option beverage on a vegan diet.

However, there are a few exceptions, and what you put in your coffee could make it…not vegan friendly.

We’ll go over these topics and more in this article written by me (a dietitian who happens to be vegan). Buckle up! It’s going to be an eye-opening read.

Disclaimer: This article is only providing information and is not a substitute for medical or dietary advice. Talk to your doctor about any health or dietary concerns and questions. See our Disclaimers for more details.

This post was originally published on 1/21/22. The updated date is listed above.

Is Coffee 100% Plant Based?

picture of a coffee mug that reads: queen of everything.

Most coffee is 100% plant based-in other words, it is typically vegan friendly.

Coffee beans/grounds are derived from specific flowering plants of the coffea genus(1).

Here’s the Merriam-Webster definition of coffee:

“1. a: a beverage made by percolation, infusion, or decoction from the roasted and ground seeds of a coffee plant

b: any several old world tropical plants (genus Coffea and especially C. arabica and C. canephora) of the madder family that are widely cultivated in warm regions for their seeds from which coffee is prepared

c: coffee seeds especially roasted and often ground
-compare ARABICA, ROBUSTA

d: a dehydrated product made from brewed coffee
-instant coffee
also: a beverage made from this”

Source: https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/coffee

Based on that definition, it’s hard to argue that instant coffee and regular (as well as decaf) beans and grounds aren’t vegan- with at least a couple exceptions. I chat about that in the next section…

Coffee That is Not Vegan friendly

There are at least 3 types of coffees that most vegans would agree are not vegan.

Here’s the quick list (I’ll explain why they aren’t vegan next):

  • Kopi Luwak
  • Black Ivory Coffee
  • Already prepared coffee drinks that use non vegan ingredients

1. Kopi Luwak

Commonly referred to as the world’s most expensive coffee, Kopi Luwak (or civet coffee) involves the use of animals.

Specifically, it uses an mammal called the Asian palm civet to eat coffee cherries(2). The resulting defecated product is then sold at a high price, with one source suggesting about $100 to $600 a pound(3).

Accordingly, for this industry to be successful, the civets must be captured and force fed the coffee cherries.

There have even been reports of civets showing signs of zoochosis (different behaviors noted in captive animals).

You can learn more about cruelty on civet farms in this PETA article/video.

In Summary: Kopi Luwak- not vegan.

2. Black Ivory Coffee (Maybe?)

Black Ivory coffee is another very expensive coffee that involves the use of an animal. This time- Thai elephants.

These elephants are fed the coffee cherries, and then the deposits are used to make a product. The Black Ivory Company states that some of the purchase money supports the Golden Triangle Asian Elephant Foundation as well as those who care for the elephants(4).

So while this one is more controversial, because elephants are used, vegans might avoid them.

You can do your own research and learn more about Black Ivory Coffee.

3. Popular Coffee Drinks Vegans Avoid

Lets face it, many of us don’t enjoy drinking coffee “black” (aka: nothing else added- which is usually vegan).

I personally enjoy a dash of maple syrup in my cup of joe (but that’s just me)!

But here’s the thing, there’s so many already prepared coffee drinks, and they likely aren’t vegan.

If you are going for a Starbucks (or other coffee shop) run, you’re almost guaranteed to be faced with too many options for specialty coffee drinks and add-ins.

Take this list with you because the following drinks are examples of coffee that is not traditionally vegan:

  • Cafe au lait (half coffee, half hot milk)
  • Cappuccino (espresso with steamed milk foam)
  • Cafe Mocha or Mochaccino (expresso, steamed milk, chocolate)
  • Flat White (milky, smooth espresso based drink)
  • Macchiato (espresso with a small amount of steamed or frothed milk)
  • Latte (espresso, steamed milk)

As you probably guessed, these drinks often have dairy milk or derivates of it.

Luckily, vegan options are finding their way into both small and large cafes.

They might include plant based milk, like soy, almond, or oat “milk.”

If you have the option, you could ask to swap the dairy for a vegan options.

While dairy is usually the thing that makes prepared coffee drinks ‘non vegan,’ there could be other animal based ingredients that aren’t 100% plant based – like honey as a sweetener.

Honey is animal derived and thus, non vegan. Many places offer honey as coffee sweetener, but you could substitute a vegan sweetener, such as maple syrup, instead.

What Can Vegans Drink?

There are many vegan friendly coffee drinks!

Firstly, the ever popular brewed coffee only consists of plants and water, so vegans can feel pretty comfortable sticking with that as a plant based option.

Here’s a list of several popular drinks that are typically vegan (note: check the ingredients):

  • Americano (espresso, hot water)
  • Cold Brew Coffee (coffee made chilled)
  • Iced Coffee (cold brew plus ice (although sometimes milk is used, of which, you may be able to substitute a vegan alternative ))
  • Espresso
  • Red Eye (brewed coffee with espresso)
Venn diagram showing what vegan drinks are vegan, may be vegan, aren't vegan.

Is Coffee Creamer Vegan?

One source suggests that about 65% of Americans who drink coffee prefer to add some a sweetener or cream to coffee(5).

Most creamers include diary with the most obvious probably being half and half!

If you are scanning the grocery shelves for a flavored coffee creamer, most of them contain dairy. However, there are also many options that are completely vegan.

How do you know what’s what?

Well, a label that says “vegan” is most likely vegan, but you may want to give the ingredients list a check too.

Here’s a few examples of commonly found non vegan coffee creamer ingredients:

  • Milk
  • Heavy cream
  • Buttermilk
  • Whey
  • Sodium Caseinate
  • Casein
  • Mono and diglycerides (may or may not be vegan)

One more thing, don’t be fooled by a coffee creamer labeled as “non dairy” or “lactose free!” This does not automatically mean vegan, as they might contain milk derivatives or other non vegan ingredients.

Vegan Coffee Creamers

Vegan milk alternatives are often the base of a coffee creamer that aligns with a vegan lifestyle.

They may include the following:

  • Almond milk
  • Oat milk
  • Soy milk
  • Cashew milk
  • Coconut milk
  • Macadamia milk
  • Hemp milk
  • Flax milk

There’s a big debate about which plant powered milk is ‘best’ in coffee.

I’ve heard a lot of buzz around oat milk because of it’s smooth smooth texture.

Some also note that it doesn’t separate in coffee like soy milk sometimes does.

One thing most of us can agree on? There are so many options (and recipes to find online)!

Here some brands that carry vegan coffee creamers (FYI: not a comprehensive list):

Venn Diagram showing which coffee creamer ingredients are vegan, may or may not be, and which aren't vegan.

Other Issues Vegan Coffee Drinkers May Consider

When it comes to coffee, some ethical vegans might also consider:

  • Coffee’s environmental footprint
  • Conditions of the people who produce coffee
  • Health
  • Dietary restrictions

Lets explore each point next.

Environmental Impact

Unfortunately, such a popular beverage takes a toll on the environment in several ways.

For one, pesticides may be heavily used in the production of conventionally grown coffee. Over use of pesticides can spell trouble for the contaminating water, ecosystems, and lives of those living in the area(6).

Secondly, as one of the worlds most widely consumed beverages, more and more forest must be cleared to keep up with the demand. You can read more about the damaging effects of the demand for coffee and deforestation in this article.

Are there some practices that have less of an environmental impact like, shade grown and organic coffee?

Perhaps, but this is a niche market and there may not be as many incentives for workers in this area. Read more about this and more sustainable coffee options via Food Empowerment Project’s article here.

Bottom line: Coffee’s environmental impact is quite large compared to several other beverages. For these reasons, some vegans may reduce, avoid, or pick more environmentally friendly beverages.

Condition of Coffee Production Workers

Human rights issues may come with your coffee.

There have been many reports of slavery on coffee plantations.

It has also been argued that certifications like Fairtrade may not be enough to tackle issues systematic issues like labor exploitation. (7).

For these reasons, vegans (and of course, anyone) concerned about these issues may avoid/reduce consumption, or try to choose more ethically produced coffee.

Health

Those with certain health concerns may avoid coffee whether vegan or not.

Coffee does contain some beneficial antioxidants. And some research suggests coffee may have some health benefits at around 3 cups per day for certain non-pregnant adults (8). However, you do not need to drink coffee to be healthy or get antioxidants!

We still have much to learn about coffee and the benefits/risks, and you should definitely talk to your doctor if there is any reason you should avoid it.

For example (FYI- this is not a comprehensive list of examples), some research suggests coffee may make anxiety worse for those who already have anxiety(9), insomnia or difficulty sleeping(10), and those with high blood pressure(11).

Those who are pregnant may want to avoid coffee all together. ACOG ( the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists) suggests caffeine consumption less than 200 milligrams per day, is not a leading factor in miscarriage or preterm birth, however, we need more research. Coffee may also have a negative effect on growth of the unborn baby(12).

Of course, talk to your own doctor/obstetrician about your own situation, especially if you have any health conditions or are pregnant. Remember: you do not need to drink coffee in order to be healthy!

Also, some medications may interact with coffee, so make sure to discuss this with your doctor and pharmacist.

Finally, drinking coffee with iron rich foods could inhibit iron absorption(13). Some vegans may find it difficult to obtain enough iron in the first place, so keep this one in mind!

Raw Vegan Diet

As far as I understand, raw vegans do not eat food cooked at high temperatures. Therefore, they would probably not consume coffee due to the high heat commonly used for roasting coffee beans.

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In Summary -Can Vegans Drink Coffee?

With a few exceptions, most coffee grounds and beans are vegan. Typically it’s what is added to coffee that makes it non-vegan (ie: dairy, honey).

Do vegans drink coffee? Well, that question gets a bit more complicated. For example, some may avoid conventionally produced coffee due to its negative impact on the environment and coffee plantation workers, or for medical reasons.

Coffee is not an essential beverage, and may have some health consequences for certain individuals with medical conditions or who are pregnant, so talk to your doctor about whether you should avoid or limit it.

I hope this article was helpful! If you have any questions or comments, be sure to leave them below.
And while you’re here, why not poke around on the blog? We discuss other questions like:

Can A Vegan Eat Bread?
Is Oatmeal Vegan?
Is Chocolate Vegan?
Want to keep up with my awesome new articles or podcast episodes?

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3 thoughts on “Can Vegans Drink Coffee? A Vegan RDN Spills The Brew”

  1. Thanks so much for the info! I’ve cut down my coffee consumption quite a bit but when I do indulge, I try to make sure it’s the healthiest option possible and dairy free. I am not a practicing vegan, but try to omit as many animal products as possible.

  2. As a coffee lover, I’ve often pondered whether my favorite beverage aligns with a vegan lifestyle. Your article addressing this topic is really intriguing! I also want to at some point try mushroom coffee.

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