Vegan Coffee: Everything You Need to Know

Not ready to give up your morning coffee ritual?

No worries!

Neither was I, so I did as much research as I could to make sure that any time I had a cup of coffee, it was in line with my ethical beliefs.

But beyond just the beans, what about everything else that goes into a cup a coffee?

For instance, milk, cream, sugar and not to mention buying a cup at a coffeehouse.

It's honestly overwhelming, can cause migraines thinking about it, and worse of all it takes a lot of time and commitment for just one TINY part of your life.

You mine as well just give it up altogether - HA!

Who am I kidding?

That's why I put this article together, to make your life easier.

So let's get into it.

Vegan Coffee Beans

​One of the most common asked questions is:

Can vegans drink coffee?​

The short answer is - Yes.

But while the ingredients that make up coffee are vegan, the way in which some coffee beans are grown and processed doesn’t line up with a vegan philosophy.

And since being vegan is a lifestyle, It’s important to take into consideration the manner in which our goods are grown, how they are treated and processed, and how the products and foods we love affect the earth.

That being said, not all coffee is made with the same care and love toward the environment.

So, a better question to ask might be:

How can we as vegans choose coffee that supports the same environment that unconditionally supports us?

There are three important things to look for when selecting a cruelty-free, sustainable, and vegan cup of joe.

1. Shade-Grown Coffee Vs. Sun-Grown Coffee

Coffee naturally flourishes underneath shady canopies of trees at high elevations in tropical and subtropical areas.

Hence, the reason we can (or used to) refer to coffee as a “shade-grown plant”.

However, many coffee plantations now harvest their beans in sunnier conditions, to speed up production and increase revenue.

Although this method might be more lucrative, sun-grown coffee leads to deforestation and a loss of biodiversity.

Why Sun-Grown Coffee Is Not Vegan-Friendly

While shade-grown coffee trees can last for 30 years or more, sun-grown must be replaced every 15 years or less.

Also, sun-grown coffee requires much more chemical input (such as chemical fertilizers, agricultural chemicals, and fungicides) and depletes the nutritional content of the soil.

Because the soil becomes nutrient deficient, this land is unusable for future sun-grown coffee plantations, forcing farmers to clear out entirely new landscapes altogether!

You can only imagine the chaos and destruction this process produces for the many species that rely on the trees and plants as shelter.

In contrast, shade-grown coffee prevents soil erosion, provides a safe-haven for countless animals and doesn’t produce toxic water runoff (from chemical fertilizers, herbicides, insecticides, etc.) that injures or kills wildlife.

2. USDA Organic Coffee Vs. Conventional Coffee

When you see a package of coffee that boasts this label, it means the farmers harvesting this coffee did not use most synthetic pesticides, herbicides, or fertilizers for at least three years.

Coffee that is not processed by organic standards exposes farmers, animals, and the surrounding wildlife to these poisonous substances.

This process isn’t very vegan-friendly because it is harmful to animals, plants, and humans.

Organic coffee treatment, on the other hand, involves much less harmful contamination in the environment and fewer toxic chemical spills.

Not only do some believe that organic coffee tastes fuller and richer, but you can also rest easy (or wake more easily) knowing that your coffee didn’t put farmers or the environment under toxic chemical stress.

3. Rainforest Alliance/Bird-Friendly Coffee Beans

Of all the labels in the world of coffee, these two are my absolute favorites.

Products bearing the Rainforest Alliance seal originate or contain ingredients from farms and forests that follow the environmental, social, and economic guidelines set by the Sustainable Agriculture Network.

This criterion is designed to “conserve wildlife, safeguard soils and waterways, protect workers, their families and local communities, and increase livelihoods.”

This label is the real deal, as it encompasses so many aspects of compassionate and conscious product development.

In more good news, even large corporations like McDonald’s® USA and McDonald’s Canada, Caribou Coffee, Second Cup, Green Mountain Coffee and Nespresso are taking steps to source sustainably produced coffee beans from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms.

In fact, both McDonald’s® USA and Canada now source 100% of their espresso from Rainforest Alliance farms!

Just when you thought coffee couldn’t get more vegan-friendly...

The Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center’s Bird-Friendly Coffee Seal is a bit harder to find but no less amazing than Rainforest Alliance.

While the Rainforest Alliance label promises the safety and quality of just about every aspect of coffee production, this Bird-Friendly label is the only 100% organic and shade-grown coffee certification available!

The beauty of this label is its ability to educate environmentally-conscious coffee drinkers of the endangerment of beautiful migratory birds.

As more and more land is converted into sun-grown coffee plantations, migrant songbirds that migrate from North America in the winter months to tropical ecosystems (in Central and South America) are on the decline.

Do your part and purchase coffee brands that sport this label!​

So Which Coffee Beans Contain All of Those Endorsements?

I'm glad you asked!

I found 3 on Amazon that are Certified Organic, Rainforest Alliance Certified or Bird-Friendly Certified, and are Shade-Grown!

You can, of course, dig deeper and find a brew that fits your pallet but you can't go wrong with any of these 3 choices.

But Wait, I Only Drink Espresso!

Not a problem!

Just as coffee can be processed in ways that vegans wouldn’t approve of, so too can espresso.

To find a great cup of vegan espresso, look for the same labels and attributes as we discussed with regular coffee beans.

Here are some sustainably-grown and environmentally-friendly products to get you started!

Other Vegan Coffee Ingredients

Dairy-Free Creamer

Assuming you are a coffee connoisseur or someone who just appreciates a fresh cup every day, then I don't have to tell you that the beans are just scratching the surface of what constitutes a vegan cup of coffee.

Not even close.

When you think about, there are so many different products being added to the market to make coffee a little bit more enjoyable.

For instance, I can't drink coffee without cream, and if being vegan means I have to drink my coffee black, then it's not going to work for me.

But luckily there are plenty of alternatives, and I'd love to share them with you.​

1. Vegan Milk

Adding a splash of milk can add a little extra flavor to your coffee, but let’s take cow’s milk out of the picture and opt for a milk alternative that’s vegan and cruelty-free.

There are tons of vegan milk alternatives; choosing the right one just comes down to your specific taste buds.

Maybe you like something with a nuttier taste like almond milk, or maybe you gravitate toward nut-free products like rice or flax milk.

There are dozens of dairy and cruelty-free alternatives including soy, almond, cashew, quinoa, coconut, rice, hazelnut, almond-coconut, oat, and hemp milk (to name a few)!

I’ve listed some of my favorite vegan milk brands and flavors, but it’s up to you to find the one that best suits your taste palate and lifestyle.

Substitutes

2. Vegan Coffee Creamers

Making your coffee extra creamy is easy with these vegan, dairy-free creamers.

Not only have I made choosing a vegan creamer easy, but you'll be happy to know that they are also beneficial to your health in a number of ways.

In addition to being vegan-friendly, most of the products I’ve listed below are non-GMO verified, gluten and soy-free, kosher, and low in sugar compared to non-vegan creamers!

Substitutes

3. Vegan Sugar

Can I Add Regular Sugar to My Coffee?

I used to bask in the glory of adding a teaspoon or two of sugar to my morning cup of coffee.

That is until I discovered a disgusting non-vegan ingredient used to make sugar: bone char.

Manufactured from the bones of cattle, bone char is commonly utilized by the sugar industry as a decolorizing mechanism that contributes to sugar’s pristine white color.

Because the FDA prohibits the use of bones in the United States’ meat market, bones must be imported from countries like India and Pakistan.

It’s extremely hard to tell if a sugar product at the supermarket contains bone char or not, as most supermarket brands source their sugar from more than one refinery.

Substitutes

Ordering Coffee That's Vegan-Friendly

Ordering a Vegan Coffee

Ordering a latte or cappuccino at a local coffeehouse sometimes makes me feel…

Well…

A little high maintenance to say the least.

I’ve learned a few tricks that help me order fun vegan coffee drinks that I can feel guilt-free about drinking, yet not feel like I’m wasting the barista’s life reading ingredient labels and asking for vegan substitutions.

To keep things simple, let’s use Starbucks as an example, but know that you can apply these facts about Starbucks to just about any local (less corporate) coffee house!

1. Basic Vegan Coffee

A basic iced or hot coffee is vegan, and if you want to spice that up a little bit, just ask for soy or coconut milk.

Substituting regular milk for a non-dairy vegan alternative usually costs a bit extra (50-75 cents), but really, it’s a small price to pay to enjoy a beverage that fits within the morals of your lifestyle.

2. Vegan Friendly Lattes, Cappuccinos, Frappuccinos (and Everything in Between)

When ordering a latte or fancy frappuccino, you’ll want to be sure to ask for the vegan milk alternative of your choice, and depending on the type of latte you order; you’ll also want to ask (nicely) that the following ingredients are not included:

  • Whipped cream
  • Caramel drizzle (on the Caramel Macchiato and Caramel Frappuccino)
  • Java chips (inside the Java Chip Frappuccino and Double Chocolatey Chip Frappuccino)

Although these ingredients may be sad to say goodbye to, there is a silver lining.

Most clear syrups are vegan, and Starbuck’s mocha sauce is vegan too!

This means you can still look forward to your holiday Peppermint Mocha Latte (with the alterations discussed above) as it is vegan-friendly!

If you’re feeling stuck and aren’t sure what to order, here are a few more coffee drink ideas that are just as delicious as they are vegan.

  • Soy Mocha-Hazelnut Latte
  • Iced Vanilla Soy (or Coconut) Latte
  • Coconut (or Soy) Mocha Latte
  • Soy Mocha Frappuccino
  • Cappuccino with Soy Milk
  • Soy Hazelnut Latte

3. Coffee Drinks That Cannot Be Made Vegan 🙁

Unfortunately, there are some drinks that just cannot be made vegan because of the dairy products in the syrup ingredients.

Here are the drinks you’ll want to avoid:

  • Anything flavored with pumpkin spice
  • Drinks that contain caramel brûlée or white mocha
  • Light Frappuccinos

Coffee Machines and Coffee Makers

Cruelty-Free Coffee Machines

1. Standard Coffee Machines

A standard coffee maker is not the worst appliance one might find in a vegan’s kitchen.

While there are better options for brewing a more environmentally and vegan-friendly cup of joe, again, it’s not the end of the world.

The issue with standard coffee makers is the paper filters that need to be replaced with each use.

Depending on how much coffee you drink, these little filters can add up quickly.

Although most filters are biodegradable, using them on a daily basis isn’t exactly contributing positively to the well-being of the planet.

The solution?

Reusable Coffee Filters, of Course!

Here are a couple of options for converting your coffee maker into a more vegan and eco-friendly device.

2. Is My Keurig Coffee Vegan?

The problem with these convenient single serving cups arises when you consider what they’re made of and how they are affecting the environment.

The K-Cup has been referred to as an “environmental monster” because is 0% recyclable and is made of BPA-infused plastic.

In fact, the total number of K-Cups sold in 2013 could wrap around our earth’s equator 10.5 times!

Needless to say, these cute little cups don’t align with a vegan lifestyle, or indeed, any lifestyle that moderately cares about the well-being of the planet.

K-Cup Vegan-friendly Solutions

The startling reality of K-Cups is indeed unfortunate.

However, there are some great alternatives.

OneCup makes single serving cups that are made from plant-based renewable resources and are compatible with Keurig brewers.

EKOCUPS takes a similar approach, by housing their organic and fair trade coffee in recyclable capsules that are also compatible with most Keurig brewing machines.

EKOCUPS also claims that their cups hold up to 30% more coffee than other single serving brands (for the die-hard coffee fanatics out there)!

3. The French Press - Best Vegan Coffee Maker Alternative

It makes the most sense for vegans to use a french press coffee maker, as it doesn’t require large amounts of paper or plastic to make a simple cup of coffee.

Here are a few eco and vegan-friendly stainless steel french presses to choose from!

Sip and Enjoy

There’s quite a bit to consider when choosing the perfect cruelty-free cup of coffee.

Now that you have all the information, you can make informed decisions based on your vegan lifestyle, budget, and taste.

And remember, coffee means different things to different people.

For some, it’s a wake-up call to get into the office a few minutes earlier.

For others, the simple act of sipping a latte is a leisurely pastime enjoyed only with one’s favorite book in hand.

So, don’t get too hung up on the details and overwhelmed with crazy coffee chatter.

Sip, enjoy, and cherish your next cup of vegan coffee at ease!

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