How you like your java is highly personal. Between the different types of coffee, methods to brew it and ingredients to add flavor, there are endless ways to prepare a cup of Joe.
You may prefer decaf coffee made with a French press and flavored with non-dairy creamer while another might take their dark roast coffee with two packets of sugar and a splash of cream. Some combinations may result in more nutrient-dense cups.
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Coffee itself is associated with a whole host of health benefits, such as better heart health, performance enhancement and improved cognition. But what you add to your coffee is another story.
The dashes of sugar, splashes of cream and drizzles of flavored syrups can take your cup of coffee from zero calories and sugar to the opposite end of the spectrum. Full-fat dairy products like cream, half-and-half and whole milk are some of the most common ingredients to add to coffee.
While it adds a creamy consistency and delicious taste, cream in your coffee also racks up the calories and fat. But, paying close attention to the ingredients and serving size can help.
As it turns out, having a bit of cream in your coffee here and there probably isn't cause for concern. Here, Tia Glover, RD, a registered dietitian in Washington D.C., helps us break down if adding dairy-based cream to your coffee is really all that bad.
Nutrients in Coffee With Cream
Before you decide to splash cream in your cuppa, it's helpful to know the exact macro- and micronutrients you'll be getting in that mug. On its own, plain black coffee is free of calories, carbohydrates, fat, sugar and other nutrients. You can enjoy it hot or cold knowing it's a zero-calorie drink. Drinking black coffee is pretty rare, though. Approximately 67 percent of Americans add cream and sugar to their coffee, according to May 2017 research in Public Health.
Black coffee has a naturally bitter taste, which is why coffee with cream and sugar is a popular combination — they help balance the flavors in coffee and make it more palatable.
Here's the breakdown of nutritional information for light cream per 1 tablespoon, according to the USDA:
- Calories: 30
- Total fat: 3 g
- Saturated fat: 1.5 g
- Trans fat: 0 g
- Sodium: 10 mg
- Total carbs: 1 g
- Total sugar: 1 g
- Fiber: 0 g
- Protein: 0.5 g
Cream is a component of cow's milk, so it's no surprise that it's a dairy product. It's richer and thicker than milk and has more fat. There are different types of cream you can add to your coffee: heavy cream, light cream and half-and-half.
Nutritionally, the calories in a small serving of cream add up quickly. The same is true for the other nutrients in cream. The total fat and saturated fat, in particular, can be high depending on the serving size.
Cream is also low in sugar and free of fiber but provides a small amount of protein.
Benefits of Coffee With Cream
Adding cream to coffee has its pros and cons. Here are some of the benefits:
1. It Has Some Important Nutrients
Adding cream, milk or half-and-half to your coffee each morning can provide some essential nutrients. There are health benefits of dairy products, and including them in your diet is associated with better bone health, diabetes management and muscle growth.
"The nutritional profiles of dairy products like heavy cream, light cream, whole milk and half-and-half can be a source of confusion and controversy," Glover says. "They are typically high in calories and fat and they contain some natural sugars, but they're also sources of protein, minerals like calcium, potassium and phosphorus and vitamins like A, B12 and D."
2. It's Free of Trans Fats
Another advantage of adding cream to your coffee is that it may be a more nutritious choice than some of the coffee creamer alternatives out there.
Cream is simply the layer of fat skimmed from the top of milk. There is only one ingredient, and it's not heavily processed and laden with ingredients that are high in sugar and hydrogenated vegetable oils, aka trans fats.
Many coffee creamers are hidden sources of trans fats. They're made with partially hydrogenated oils that are associated with an increased risk for diseases like heart disease, stroke and diabetes. If you're trying to avoid trans fats, opting for cream instead of coffee creamer is a safe bet.
Risks of Drinking Coffee With Cream
With its simple ingredients, cream doesn't seem like a big offender. But, as is the case with most foods, having too much of it can have negative health effects.
"There are many upsides to incorporating dairy products in your diet, and adding splashes of cream to your coffee is an easy way to get more nutrients while making your coffee more enjoyable," Glover says. "But, it's also important to recognize the possibility of negative health effects."
Here's what to watch out for if you take lots of cream in your coffee.
1. Dairy is Associated With Health Risks
Many people are conflicted when it comes to dairy and whether to include it in their diet. The protein, vitamins and minerals in dairy products like cream are often a source of praise, but there is also evidence that links milk to inflammation and increased risk of disease.
Milk is often said to help build strong bones due to its high calcium content. But in reality, the research is mixed. Taking in a lot of dairy may harm bone health in some people. For example, drinking three to six glasses of milk a day was associated with higher mortality rates and bone fractures than drinking less than one glass a day in people assigned female at birth, according to an October 2014 observational study in The BMJ.
Another consideration is the increased risk of certain diseases. "Not only are dairy allergies and lactose intolerance common, but high-fat dairy products can also be a contributor to heart disease, diabetes, Alzheimer's disease and some cancers," Glover says.
Regularly drinking milk is linked to an increased risk of breast and prostate cancers, according to the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. There's also concern about the link between high-fat dairy products and the increased risk of heart disease, according to January 2021 research in Scientific Reports.
2. It's High in Saturated Fat
"Cow's milk is an inexpensive and accessible source of nutrition for many people, but the saturated fat content can't be ignored either," Glover says. "Eating foods that are high in saturated fat, including full-fat dairy products like cream, should be done in moderation to avoid health consequences like high cholesterol levels, which raise your risk of stroke."
The American Heart Association recommends getting no more than 6 percent of your daily calories from saturated fat. A person following a 2,000-calorie diet would aim for 13 grams or less of saturated fat per day.
A tablespoon of light cream in your coffee has 1.5 grams of saturated fat. Multiple servings can quickly tally up to more than the recommended amount per day.
"When you're in the habit of putting more than a few tablespoons of cream in your coffee and you have multiple servings daily, it may be a good idea to practice moderation to limit the amount of saturated fat in your diet," Glover suggests.
So, Is Adding Cream to Your Coffee Really That Bad?
Coffee — and how you choose to spruce it up — is a source of enjoyment for many people in the morning. If you take pleasure in your creamy cup of coffee every day, you can likely continue this daily habit with a few mindful adjustments.
Cream is a source of protein, calcium and B vitamins, but it's also a source of saturated fat and calories. Like with many foods and drinks, moderation is key when it comes to cream in your coffee.
"If you enjoy having cream in your coffee in the morning, there is no reason to cut it out completely," Glover says. "Instead, try to be mindful with the amount you are using and make small changes gradually. If you normally add 4 tablespoons of cream to your coffee, gradually reduce it to 3, then 2 and so on."
- USDA FoodData Central: "Cream, light"
- Public Health: “Consumption of coffee and tea with add-ins in relation to daily energy, sugar, and fat intake in US adults, 2001–2012”
- The BMJ: “Milk intake and risk of mortality and fractures in women and men: cohort studies”
- Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine: “Health Concerns About Dairy”
- Scientific Reports: “Intake of dairy products and associations with major atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases: a systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies”
- American Heart Association: “Saturated Fat”