Will Someone Please Just Tell Me WTF to Put in My Coffee?

But actually…don’t.

June 21, 2021
Photo by Julia Gartland

Recently, Twitter users turned against oat milk (proving that you really never know who will be canceled next!). Citing an almost year-old deep-dive specifically calling out the popular brand Oatly, this article calls oat milk the “new Coke,” stating the company masquerades as a so-called healthy alternative to dairy (and other nondairy) milks, but is essentially sugar water cut with oil, and a “bad” choice when it comes to creamy beverages.

The article compares Oatly’s marketing strategy—its splashiest slogan being “it’s like milk but made for humans”—to Sugar Association ads from the 1970s (“only 18 calories per teaspoon, and it’s all energy”); 1930s cigarette brands (“give your throat a break”); and Coca-Cola’s 2009 “open happiness” campaign, the article launches into a very spooky breakdown of the science behind the oat milk. Essentially, during Oatly’s oat-liquefaction process, enzymes convert oat starch to a high-glycemic-index-ranking sugar, and rapeseed, or canola, oil is used as an emulsifier. The result is Oatly’s particularly velvety texture and non-watery flavor, both of which I personally count as wins when it comes to nondairy milk.

This article (and many, many people on Twitter) apparently do not. Several hundred words later, the article comes to this conclusion: “Is Oatly designed for human consumption? Definitely. Is it healthy? Definitely not.”

Setting aside that fact that a splash of oat milk is coffee is quite different than downing a 20-ounce bottle of soda, why, I ask, in the Year of Our Lord 2021, are we still obsessed with labeling every stupid thing we put into our bodies as “healthy” or “unhealthy”? Considering there are so many foods we can get nutrients from, why do we continue to blame snacks and beverages for not being pure sources of nutritional density? And also, well, what the hell am I supposed to put in my coffee?

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Put whatever the hell you like in your coffee. ”
— nancy E.

I won’t give you my whole spiel on how dangerous it is to prescribe virtue or vice to ingredients. (I will say it ruined my relationship with my body and with eating for about a decade.) And it’s certainly not great when a brand tries to influence people into buying their product by citing health claims, whether proven or inflated—though it should be noted that Oatly is far from the first nondairy, dairy, or general food brand to do this. Pair that with the environmental and labor implications made when purchasing one type or brand of milk, and it would appear that when it comes to making my morning cup of caffeine creamy, there are simply no options.

The Milks Aren’t Alright

Allow me to break down all the reasons literally no milk, from a cow or otherwise, is a perfect option.

Dairy Milk (& Half-and-Half & Cream)

Milk from cows is high in saturated fat (and that is “bad”)! Our tummies can’t digest lactose as we get older. And it may not even be that helpful when it comes to bone health after childhood.

Soy Milk

Soy milk is often sweetened, and sugar is “bad”! (And of course when it’s unsweetened, let’s be real, it doesn’t taste fantastic.) Plus, soy contains compounds that mimic estrogen, which could cause health complications.

Almond Milk

The most common emulsifier used in almond milk can irritate our gut! It’s also kind of...watery? Which is fine for a smoothie, but if I wanted watery coffee I’d just add, well, water.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is very high in saturated fat! (And that’s “bad”, remember?) It tastes best from the can (as opposed to the watered-down, stabilized versions from a carton), but gets weirdly separated when poured into a cup of hot coffee. And, oh yeah, some of those cans contain BPA, which can lead to hosts of physical complications.

Pea Milk

It’s high in protein, mostly hypoallergenic, fortified with plenty of nutrients, and creamy—but I’m just going to speak my truth: Many brands of pea milk taste like their star ingredient, with a slightly chalky aftertaste. It’s easy enough to hide in a smoothie, but in coffee? I just can’t.

Other Nut Milks

Fancy nuts like cashews, pecans, macadamias, hazelnuts, and pistachios all make pretty excellent-tasting nondairy milks. Elmhurst Milked Cashews, Walnuts, and Hazelnuts are simply the nut and water, making for a low-risk, creamy add to a cup of coffee; and Táche, which foams gloriously even with an at-home frother, is the only purely pistachio nut milk on the market (others are cut with additional nuts or seeds), but these milks tend to come with a significantly higher price tag than the rest, and in a smaller carton to boot—nuts are expensive to produce and harvest, there’s no way around it.

And Wait, There’s the Environmental Stuff, Too

While oat milk is actually quite low on the emissions, water, and land-use scale, if the oats used were treated with unsafe levels of pesticides, we have a new can of worms to open. Unsustainable farming practices from dairy to almond to soybean farmers contribute to skyrocketing methane emissions. Producers overuse water in drought-prone areas, contribute to deforestation, and deprioritize biodiversity as product demand grows. Unethical labor practices, both human and animal, continue to crop up the more these industries are looked into. Whew.

After I poured this morning’s coffee, I first decided I would drink it black, even though I had oat and almond milk, as well as cream in the fridge. Wow, do I hate black coffee. I added some oat milk. (To quote Demi, sorry, not sorry.) Then I ate breakfast, crunching on the fat flakes of sea salt I put on my eggs every day. I clicked back onto Twitter to discover people freaking out about a new study, which found that salt is apparently screwing with our immune systems. Ugh.

What milk do you put in your morning coffee? Sound off below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • samxseattle
  • McGill7983
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    Joanne Fox
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    Anna Sunderlage
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Rebecca Firkser is the assigning editor at Food52. She used to wear many hats in the food media world: food writer, editor, assistant food stylist, recipe tester (sometimes in the F52 test kitchen!), recipe developer. These days, you can keep your eye out for her monthly budget recipe column, Nickel & Dine. Rebecca tests all recipes with Diamond Crystal kosher salt. Follow her on Instagram @rebeccafirkser.


samxseattle January 18, 2024
Two tablespoons of half and half
McGill7983 July 25, 2023
This was an enjoyable article and I felt like I learned something about the coffee ‘not black’ options - thank

PS back to buying what’s on sale for creamers 😁
Joanne F. August 25, 2022
I use the unsweetened oat milk - usually vanilla Planet Oat brand. For some strange reason I can’t drink hot coffee black but enjoy it as iced coffee.
kfh August 25, 2022
I'm the same. Though Chobani is my brand. I find Planet oat almost as watery as almond milk. Chobani, I'd consider drinking in a glass, it's that much like dairy milk.
I also prefer my iced coffee black.
Anna S. December 10, 2021
Another thing to consider is that the proteins in dairy bind to the tannins in coffee. This is why dairy tames the bitterness in coffee even if you don’t add sugar. The fat content in dairy improves the mouthfeel of coffee. Long story short, dairy makes coffee taste better in ways no alternative creamer can. An exception to this might be for the acidity-lovers who prefer their coffee “bright,” since dairy will dampen the acidic flavors as well.
Anna S. December 10, 2021
Heavy cream has almost no sugar in it, making it a very low-lactose food. It is an excellent option for lactose-sensitive folks who like dairy. It also requires much less processing than the alternative milks. And cows aren’t all bad when it comes to their impact on the environment depending on the farming practices. Grazing pastures are actually a great way to sequester carbon into the ground and out of the atmosphere. #prodairy
angela November 21, 2021
It's a shame that you have to resort to a crude title like does that add anything to the story?
angela November 21, 2021
It's a shame that you have to resort to
gpabill November 21, 2021
Coffee, like sipping liquor, is made to be consumed neat or maybe with a rock or two on a hot day. For anything else, join the kids at the soda fountain.
B November 21, 2021
said the most self-serious and joyless one...

B October 12, 2021
Heavy whipping cream. Period. A little goes a long way.

Perfect taste.
Perfect texture.
Perfect mouth feel.

The only question is which brand you prefer.
Andrea October 5, 2021
This resonates with me!! I have tried so many things...and you know what? I drink it with a nice splash of half and half or I drink it black. End of story. Unless it's the time and place for whiskey...
Caroline N. September 26, 2021
When I drink coffee I put heavy cream and demerara sugar in it. I don't drink coffee every day, so it's a treat. Put whatever the heck you want in your coffee, or don't, if bitter black stuff appeals to you.
jpriddy September 26, 2021
"Our tummies can’t digest lactose as we get older." Well, that is true for some people, perhaps even most, but not all. Some people never can manage lactose, some gradually become less able as they mature, and some thrive on dairy their entire lives. Cutting a food such as dairy out of your diet for long enough that the good digestive bugs in your gut die out can also create intolerance, but others can ease back in to consumption. (Look it up.)
Jean November 21, 2021
I will be 77 the beginning of January 2022. I go through a gallon of 2% organic (dairy) milk a week, including 1/2 cup in my morning coffee. I’ve been a big milk drinker all my life. Apparently I am one of those lucky people who tolerate/manage lactose.
Marisa August 11, 2021
I use baby powder milk lactose free. It has all the vitamins. Sometimes I put together some pure cocoa or cantina ( mocca)and a pint of cinnamon. Delicious
Marisa August 11, 2021
Wanted to correct caotina. Could not, tried everything...
Meghan August 9, 2021
If it's hot coffee I like it black, if it's iced coffee I like a splooch of half and half and maple syrup (I can't stand cold, plain, black coffee).
j7n August 7, 2021
I add regular whole milk to coffee, and occasionally whipping cream as a treat when I have it. Sometimes I mix coffee with butter, coconut oil and vanillin in a blender. Oat drink is too expensive for what it is: cheap vegetable oil mixed with water. The drink creates plastic waste, which I avoid by buying milk by volume and oat grain locally.

As far as I know an oat seed exists to reproduce the plant, not "for humans". I don't listen to claims about saturated fat. If you look hard enough you will find that fruit, plant oils, concentrated starch, cellulose "fiber" are bad. So there is nothing at all left to eat. An "emulsifier" is a chemical that keeps oil and water mixed. For example lecithin in eggs. It's not the oil.
Leigh June 29, 2021
It depends on my moods. For my mornings, usually black, sometimes with cinnamon, or just a little sweetener. For an evening treat, sometimes a shot of Southern Comfort or cocoa powder with a little sugar or half&half with brown sugar.
Susi June 27, 2021
Bailey's Irish Cream. I mean, if you can't find something that's perfect (newsflash: no such thing) then use what you love. All things in moderation!
montdragon June 27, 2021
montdragon June 27, 2021
nancy E. June 27, 2021
Put whatever the hell you like in your coffee.