Whether your ideal morning cuppa is bold and buzzy or light and mild, the one thing K-cup coffee pod users can agree on is convenience. Popping that capsule into your coffee maker means you can have your morning pick-me-up ready in just 60 seconds.
While palates may vary, freshness, quality and eco-friendly processes are key factors when it comes to choosing the best K-cup, according to coffee expert Tom Saxon, co-founder of Batch Coffee.
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Saxon, who's been in the coffee business for more than 10 years, says he favors independent roasters because not only does he find their blends to be fresher than larger commercial brands, but many also have more eco-friendly versions of the classic K-cup coffee pods.
We know they're convenient, but how bad are they for the planet? It's estimated that the amount of non-recyclable K-cups in landfills could wrap around Earth 10 times, according to The Story of Stuff Project. But get this: Single-serve coffee pods actually have a lower environmental impact than the conventional drip filter method because they use less energy and waste less coffee, according to a January 2017 study in the Journal of Industrial Ecology.
Plus, many brands these days offer recyclable and compostable options. Read on for the best K-cups, below.
The Best Coffee Pods
- Best Overall: Green Mountain Coffee Pods Breakfast Blend ($26.72, Amazon)
- Best Compostable: Cambio Roasters Light Roast Hazelnut Coffee Pods ($16.74, Cambio Roasters)
- Best Low-Acid: Lifeboost Organic Coffee Pods Light Roast ($15.95, Amazon)
- Best Fair-Trade: Barissimo Colombian Coffee Pods Medium Roast ($14.99, Amazon)
- Best Budget: Caribou Coffee Pods Medium Roast ($32.34, Amazon)
- Best Decaf: Newman's Own Organics Special Decaf Coffee Pods Medium Roast ($45.99, Amazon)
- Best Dark Roast: Starbucks Sumatra Dark Roast K-Cup Coffee Pods ($55.97, Amazon)
- Best Liquid Cups: Java House Cold Brew Coffee Pods Medium Roast ($21.99, Amazon)
- Best Flavored: Dunkin' Caramel Me Crazy ($46.74, Amazon)
How We Chose
We chatted with registered dietitians and coffee experts about the most important factors for choosing the best K-cup or coffee pod. Our top picks are based on the following criteria:
- Flavor and aroma
- Sustainability (we've included recyclable or compostable options only)
- Fair-trade coffee
- Customer reviews
1. Best Overall: Green Mountain Coffee Pods in Breakfast Blend
Green Mountain Coffee Breakfast Blend is a perfect choice for those who want a smooth, refreshing start to their day. It's been described as having a "clean and crisp" taste, and it's made with 100 percent Arabica coffee beans (which have a smooth flavor) that are responsibly sourced.
Its lid has a built-in tab that makes peeling off the lid and recycling your K-Cup pods easier. Plus, this light roast is Kosher-certified, affordable and easily found in most grocery and convenience stores.
Buy it: Amazon ($26.72 for 48 pods); Bed, Bath and Beyond ($34.99)
2. Best Compostable: Cambio Roasters Light Roast Coffee Pods
Cambio Roasters Light Roast Hazelnut Coffee pods deliver the rich, nutty, mildly sweet flavor of hazelnut with a smooth and creamy mouthfeel.
Made from 100 percent Arabica beans, these K-cups are made with coffee that's been expertly roasted by the company's fifth-generation roastmaster.
Offering eco-friendly coffee is part of Cambio Roasters' mission to support people, the planet and profit-sharing opportunities. They donate 20 percent of their profits to the coffee growers, and their coffee pods are even 100 percent compostable. A quick factoid from the company: Recycling four coffee pods per day can save 1,270 coffee pods from ending up in landfills each year! Now that's something to be proud of.
Buy it: Cambio Roasters ($16.74 for 27 pods); Amazon ($16.99)
3. Best Low-Acid: Lifeboost Organic Low-Acid Coffee Pods
These coffee pods may be an ideal choice for people with sensitive tummies.
"Not only are they organic and non-GMO, but they have lower acidity compared to standard coffee," says Aysegul Sanford, recipe developer and founder of Fool Proof Living. Sanford also appreciates the fact that these pods can be easily composted to decompose for sustainability.
To establish purity, Lifeboost's USDA-certified organic coffee beans are single-origin, hand-selected, sun-dried and spring-washed. Tests show these beans are about 27 percent less acidic than standard coffees.
Buy it: Amazon ($15.95 for 10 pods)
4. Best for Fair-Trade: Barissimo Colombian Single-Serve Cups
We love shopping at Aldi because it's affordable and it stocks select brands that suit a variety of dietary needs. Purchasing this Aldi brand instant coffee also means you are supporting the business and livelihood of its coffee growers.
"Aldi brands consider sustainability, which is important," says Lisa Young, RD, author of Finally Full, Finally Slim.
Aldi's Barrissimo Colombian Medium Roast is made with 100 percent premium Arabica beans and no artificial flavors or colors. It is also fair-trade certified, which means it ensures that coffee farmers can earn fair wages. "Buying K-cups that are filled with fair-trade coffee is a good way to know that you're supporting ethical and sustainable harvesting, manufacturing and labor," says Kelsey Lorencz, RD for Zenmaster Wellness.
5. Best Budget: Caribou Coffee Pods
All Caribou Coffee beans are Rain-Forest Alliance Certified, which is a mark that the company is dedicated to sustainable practices. And at about 45 cents a cup, it is definitely a cost-effective choice.
For those who appreciate coffee like sommeliers do wine, this medium roast has a balance of sweet and spicy berry notes and a bitter-sweet chocolate finish. Smooth and full-bodied, this is a solid choice for medium roast coffee lovers.
6. Best Decaf: Newman's Own Organics Special Decaf Coffee Pods
If you want something rich and full-bodied without the caffeine, Newman's Own Organic Coffee has you covered. This organic medium roast brew has a bold, rich taste that's not too strong or too weak, and it doesn't have the aftertaste that many decaf coffee pods come with.
To remove the caffeine, the beans are water-processed, which is also known as the Swiss water process. While caffeine is typically removed using chemical solvents, this method uses water from the mountains to gently remove caffeine, which is said to preserve the flavor.
Buy it: Amazon ($43.99 for 72 pods)
7. Best Dark Roast: Starbucks Sumatra K-Cup Coffee Pods
For those of you who like a familiar brand they can trust, Starbucks offers this earthy, robust K-cup dark roast coffee.
Starbuck's Sumatra Dark Roast K-cup is a full-bodied brew with a smooth, earthy flavor. It's also single-origin and is suitable for those following a Halal diet.
It's also worth noting that Starbucks is committed to 100 percent ethical coffee sourcing in partnership with Conservation International, a non-profit environmental organization.
8. Best Liquid Cold Brew: Java House Cold Brew Coffee Pods
Unlike most K-cup options, this pod is filled with a liquid concentrate instead of ground coffee. That's what makes it so versatile: You can pop these pods into your K-cup coffee machine for a warm brew, or peel open the pod and mix the liquid concentrate with water.
Cold brew coffee offers a smooth and sweeter, less acidic taste than most brewed coffees. Compared to hot, cold brew coffees have a lower concentration of acidic compounds, according to July 2018 article in Scientific Reports.
This smooth medium roast is made with 100 percent Arabica coffee beans.
9. Best Sweet Option: Dunkin' Caramel Me Crazy Coffee Pods
When you wake up craving a bit of sweetness in the morning, Dunkin' Caramel Me Crazy might just be the best K-cup option for you.
Brewing Dunkin's brand-name coffee with decadent caramel flavor makes it feel like you're buying it from the actual cafe without leaving your house. An affordable option, you can enjoy it for less than $1 per cup. Plus, the pod is completely recyclable.
What to Look for When Buying Coffee Pods
Before you choose K-cup coffee pods to add to your cart, take heed of this advice.
"While K-cups are convenient, they can be incredibly wasteful," Lorencz says. Thankfully, there are some brands that have come up with solutions to work against plastic waste with biodegradable, compostable options (such as paper K-cups).
To be sure it's an eco-friendly option, look for "100 percent compostable" on the label.
Fair-trade certification helps coffee growers receive more profits. It also means that the company is supporting ethical and sustainable harvesting, manufacturing and labor practices, Lorencz says.
To further ensure quality standards, look for "B corp certified" on the label. This means a company meets high standards for social and environmental practices, according to B Lab.
Registered dietitian Melissa Altman-Traub, RDN, LDN recommends Arabica beans for getting an optimal flavor.
You may see coffee pods made with robusta beans, which are used more commonly in instant coffees and as fillers. Robusta beans tend to have a distinct taste that ranges from neutral to bitter.
On the flip side, Arabica beans are known for their delightful fruity aroma and sweet flavor when brewed.
"Organic is often a better option," Young says. "Organic means it is grown without [synthetic] pesticides, so look for organic whenever possible."
Another benefit to consider is that organic farming tends to have lower nutrient losses and less of an effect on the environment, according to a December 2012 meta-analysis in the Journal of Environmental Management.
- USDA: Analyzing Caffeine in Selected Dietary Supplements
- Scientific Reports: Acidity and Antioxidant Activity of Cold Brew Coffee
- Journal of Environmental Management: Does Organic Farming Reduce Environmental impacts? – A Meta-analysis of European Research
- The Story of Stuff Project: The amount of K-Cups that have been trashed in landfills could wrap around the planet 10 times.