Wait, Is It Bad To Put Milk in Your Coffee?

Black coffee may be the way to go.

3 mins read

The relationship between coffee and gut health isn’t black and white. While some people might experience heartburn or digestive issues from drinking coffee on an empty stomach, for others drinking that cup of joe first thing in the morning prior to eating or drinking anything else actually offers some health benefits. In fact, there is a misconception that drinking your coffee black irritates the stomach, a top cardiologist explains. 

According to Dr. Steven Gundry, MD, heart surgeon and founder of GundryMD, many people doctor up their coffee with skim, 2%, whole, half and half, cream and even butter, believing it will help “soothe” or coat the stomach. However, doing so may undermine the many scientifically-backed health benefits of coffee. 

Related: Is Drinking Coffee on an Empty Stomach Bad for You?

What Happens When You Put Milk Into Coffee?

Anthony DiMarino, RD, LD, registered dietitian with Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Human Nutrition, explains that mixing coffee with a dairy ingredient is much like any other mixed dish. “It is made of multiple food groups that the body breaks down into its simplest parts,” he says. 

Coffee mainly contributes caffeine, antioxidants, and a small number of vitamins and minerals, while low-fat dairy (skim and 2%) provides some calories, calcium and protein. Higher-fat dairy items provide all the same nutrients as low-fat items, just in differing amounts in regards to proteins and fats, while whole, half and half, cream and butter may provide additional excess calories, depending on everything else you eat in a day. 

According to Dr. Gundry, much of the misconception about the relationship between dairy and caffeine stems from a 2014 “test tube” study published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, which claimed that milk may improve the antioxidant effect of coffee. However, “what happens in a test tube isn’t what happens in your gut, much less the rest of your body,” Dr. Gundry points out. 

“When you drink coffee or tea (or eat blueberries for that matter) you are looking to consume polyphenols which aren’t antioxidants at all, but important prebiotics that our gut microbiome needs to eat to perform properly,” he explains. “Once they’re eaten, they are transformed into bioactive compounds that improve mitochondrial health and even extend lifespan.” 

What happens when milk products enter the equation? Dr. Gundry explains that they “bind tightly to those polyphenols, making them unavailable to be eaten by our gut buddies.” He notes that multiple studies show that blueberries mixed into your yogurt are useless as polyphenols due to this binding. 

“This effect shows why, among cultures that drink tea or coffee, only those who drink it black (or green) derive health benefits,” he explains. The same effects are observed with another polyphenol-rich food: chocolate. “Milk chocolate renders the polyphenols in chocolate useless. Even butter had the same effect on tea polyphenol absorption,” he explains. 

Related: Want to Live to 100? Here Are the 10 Most Important Foods to Add to Your Diet

DiMarino takes the stance that it is “unclear” if adding a dairy ingredient to coffee would actually “cancel out” the health benefits of coffee. However, he does mention that the antioxidant effects of coffee, which can help prevent cancer, could be counteracted by high-fat dairy products, shown to contribute to cancer over time in large amounts. “In my opinion, black is always best. We reap the benefits of coffee and limit excess calories,” he says. 

How to Spruce Up Your Coffee Without Sacrificing Health Benefits

Swap in a non-dairy milk

Even if you don’t follow a dairy-free diet, you should consider subbing nut milk for dairy with your coffee. “Luckily, most nut milks (like coconut or hazelnut) have so little protein that can bind to polyphenols that the effect will be muted,” says Dr. Gundry. However, he notes that oat milk, with 4 grams of protein per cup, may be a different story. 

Related: 10 Best Dairy-Free Milks to Try

Use an MCT-based creamer

Similar to nut milks, MCT oil-based creamers, like Gundry MD MCT Coffee Creamer, will also jazz up your coffee without watering down potential health benefits. 

If you do add dairy, stick to lower-fat dairy

If you are going to add dairy to your coffee, DiMarino suggests opting for lower-fat options. “A small amount of skim or 2% milk would not undue the health benefits of coffee,” he maintains. “Furthermore, they may provide some common shortfall nutrients, such as calcium and protein.

Add artificial sweeteners

DiMarino also suggests adding an artificial sweetener to your coffee, as they “are generally recognized as safe from the FDA and healthcare community,” he says. “Small portions of artificial sweeteners can certainly sweeten up coffee without contributing excess calories from sugar.”

Add spices 

Want to flavor coffee with minimal calories? Open up your spice cabinet! “For example, some cocoa powder, cinnamon and/or vanilla extract would provide a new taste profile without limiting the health benefits of coffee,” says DiMarino. 

Next up: 31 Different Types of Coffee Drinks, Explained