Is Your Coffee Always Vegan? A Closer Look at Morning Brew Choices


Dec. 18 2023, Published 11:10 a.m. ET

Closeup of a young couple drinking coffee together in a café
Source: Getty Images

The Gist:

  • On its own, coffee is vegan — but it does depend how you prepare it.
  • Coffee production has a huge impact on the environment. Can conscious choices really make a difference?
  • Your morning caffeine fix comes with ethical considerations, too.
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For many people, coffee is the lifeblood of their morning routine. But for those following a plant-based lifestyle, there’s something else to consider: Is coffee vegan?

It’s about more than just the ingredients, though. For most proponents, veganism is a lifestyle, and a big part of that is making choices that align with your values. When it comes to coffee, there are several factors to take into account beyond your choice of non-dairy milk.

Large pile of fresh coffee beans with a lush jungle backdrop
Source: Getty Images
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Is coffee vegan?

It depends. It comes from the coffee bean plant, so technically, coffee is vegan. But it gets tricky when you add things like creamer and sweetener to the mix. Many creamers — even ones that are marketed as "non-dairy" — often contain dairy products. There are even some creamers made of collagen, which aren't vegan.

As for sweeteners, vegans will want to steer clear of honey and non-vegan sugar.

If you follow a vegan diet, your best bet is to opt for plant-based milk alternatives like almond, oat, or soy milk when ordering your cappuccino or latte. You can always order black coffee, but the bitter taste takes some getting used to.

Luckily, most coffee shops nowadays stock vegan milk. So, as long as you steer clear of the holiday lattes that are often laden with cream and certain sweeteners, you can rest assured that your coffee is vegan-friendly.

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Is coffee sustainable?

Coffee grows naturally in the shade, but in the ‘70s, sun-grown coffee was introduced as a way to increase yields, as explained by National Geographic. Thanks to the chemical fertilizers and pesticides, all it really succeeded in doing was decimating the environment.

Elderly person walking through a coffee plantation carrying a bucket and a full bag of coffee beans
Source: iStock
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Sun-grown coffee is also extremely resource-heavy, estimated to require about 170 liters (44 gallons) of water to make a single cup of coffee, as per Forbes. (A hard fact to swallow when you consider most of us drink two or more cups a day.)

However, there are ways to make your coffee habit more sustainable, such as looking for various certifications indicating that your coffee beans were produced fairly and sustainably.

The downside to all of this is that some labels like “direct trade” and “shade-grown” are not regulated. So anyone can add them to their labels, and it could mean anything or nothing.

These are the labels that currently carry some clout:

  • Organic
  • Fair Trade Certified (it must say certified)
  • Rain Forest Alliance Certified
  • UTZ Certified
  • Bird Friendly Certified.
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Closeup of coffee beans on a burlap sack with the word fairtrade stamped on it
Source: iStock

Is coffee ethical (and what does that have to do with veganism)?

The ethical sourcing of coffee beans is essential for promoting fairness and sustainability. It also aligns with the core principles of veganism, which advocates for the ethical treatment of all living beings.

Unfortunately, exploitation of farmers, unfair trade practices, and child labor are still a reality. Fairtrade certification ensures fair wages and decent working conditions for coffee producers. Additionally, supporting small, independent farms can help empower local communities.

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So, can vegans drink coffee?

Absolutely. By making informed choices, supporting responsible brands, and using plant-based milks and sweeteners, you can enjoy your coffee knowing that it's more sustainable than the average person's cup of Joe.

By the look of things, a lot of people are already on this bandwagon. According to research from ScienceDirect, there’s a steady upswing in consumer demand for ethical products.

Remember, every sip is a statement, and you can choose to brew a future that's vegan, sustainable, and ethical. So, go ahead and embrace your coffee habit, one ethical choice at a time!

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