Is Coffee Vegan? Shedding [Light] On The [Dark] Side Of Coffee!

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Each month alone, at least 10 million bags of coffee are exported worldwide. And can you believe this number is still going up? That’s how in demand coffee is today!

Hot or cold, coffee is no doubt one of the most popular beverages today. It’s also a known fact that coffee beans are seeds from a coffee plant. So it might sound strange when you hear someone ask, is coffee vegan? But in fact, the answer is… it’s complicated.

To me, the question actually makes sense. With all the modern methods of food handling these days, anything non-vegan can find its way into any type of food.

Keep reading to learn which coffee brands are vegan, and which are not!

What’s In A Coffee?

Don’t worry, I’m not going to bore you with all the compounds found in coffee. To put it simply, coffee powder is just coffee beans grounded. Yes, it’s that simple (or at least it sounds like it). You might not know this, but coffee powders may have other ingredients, too.

That pack of ground coffee you just bought (or are thinking about buying) may have these fillers:

  • Acai seeds
  • Barley
  • Brown sugar
  • Corn
  • Husks/sticks
  • Rye
  • Soybean
  • Wheat
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Surprise, surprise! Well what isn’t a surprise is the looming shortage of coffee sources. That, of course, is one of the reasons why manufacturers may feel tempted to add fillers to their products.

With the steadily growing demand for coffee, and drought in many coffee farms caused by climate change, shortage is highly likely.

The good news is, cases of counterfeit coffee have reached authorities already. There are already testing and placing enforcement procedures in place.

Buuuut… that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Coffee powder is just coffee beans grounded. Yes, it’s that simple (or at least it sounds like it). You might not know this, but coffee powders may have other ingredients, too.

How Is Coffee Made?

After harvesting, coffee beans (or seeds, technically) are dried, roasted using different techniques, then grounded in varying textures. Depending on the manufacturer, there’s at least a dozen of other procedures done in between these, such as grading and fermentation.

Ground coffee is perfect for brewing, but to turn it into instant coffee powder, more processing must be done. The liquid coffee can turn into powder either through freeze-drying techniques or by using hot, dry air.

By the time the liquid turns into powder, a lot of its flavor would have been lost already. To make up for the lost flavor, manufacturers usually add supplemental flavors. This way, instant coffee powder will still have the aroma and taste of ground coffee.

You have now gotten a glimpse of how much work it takes for that cup of coffee to reach your table, but there is more that you should know. Do you know what really goes behind its production process?

By the time the liquid turns into powder, a lot of its flavor would have been lost already. To make up for the lost flavor, manufacturers usually add supplemental flavors. This way, instant coffee powder will still have the aroma and taste of ground coffee.

The Ethical Issues Surrounding Coffee Production

Now this is where the real issue lies. An issue that should not only concern vegans, but everyone as well, regardless of diet preferences.

There are billions of coffee drinkers around the world but only a few are aware of this. Do you know that there are a prevalent cases of slavery and child labor behind coffee production?

The use of chemical pesticides is also another issue. Many countries that contribute to the world’s coffee supply make an unregulated use of chemical pesticides. Uh-oh.

There are billions of coffee drinkers around the world but only a few are aware of this. Do you know that there are a prevalent cases of slavery and child labor behind coffee production?

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Coffee And Slavery

The case of slavery in coffee production is as old as the coffee industry itself. Child labor in coffee farms affects kids as young as 6 years old! Can you imagine kids this young working 8-10 hours a day (or more!) instead of attending school??

Working on coffee farms will require you to be under the sun all day. More dangerously, workers can come into contact with the chemicals (or should I say poison!) around it. What’s worse is they are also often underpaid!

In Kenya, for example, there are coffee farm workers who only earn $12.00 each month. You read that right, EACH MONTH! Well, that is if they even get paid.

Countries with a history of coffee farm slavery and child labor:

  • Brazil
  • Guatemala
  • Honduras
  • Ivory Coast
  • Kenya

There are laws in place in these countries of course. The problem is the enforcing of the laws, especially in poverty-stricken areas where people often don’t have many choices. That goes on both sides of the party.

Many of the slavery cases around the world are fortunately abolished already. However, slavery practices in coffee farms can still go under the radar.

Could you still enjoy your morning cuppa coffee knowing that slavery might had been involved in its production?

Child labor in coffee farms affects kids as young as 6 years old! Can you imagine kids this young working 8-10 hours a day (or more!) instead of attending school

Chemical Pesticides On Coffee Farms

Most countries today have already put a ban against harmful chemical pesticides. So how do coffee farm owners manage to still get away with it? Well just like with the slavery issue, enforcement in some areas is just not strong enough. Also, some stubborn lawbreakers just keep finding ways.

When these lawbreakers manage to find ways, these are the pesticide chemicals that can end up in the poor coffee plant, including the soil and water around it:

1. Generic Name: Endosulfan

Brand/s: Thiodan, Thionex

Toxicity: Class II (moderately hazardous)

Toxic to mammals, birds, and fish. It is not water-soluble and can stay in the soil for years before finally breaking down. This chemical can cause problems in the Central Nervous System, kidneys, liver, and testes.

Between 1993 and 1994, there were over 200 cases of poisoning and 4 death counts linked to coffee containing endosulfan. This report was just from Colombia alone. The scary part is this chemical is only in Class II toxicity level.

2. Generic Name: Chlorpyrifos

Brand/s: Dursban

Toxicity: Class II (moderately hazardous)

Here is the worst: it’s a contact poison! This means a touch is enough to poison you! It can kill birds, bees, marine and freshwater animals, so human deaths under its belt isn’t a surprise. In smaller amounts, it can cause birth defects too.

3. Generic Name: Cypermethrin

Brand/s: Cymbush

Toxicity: Class II (moderately hazardous)

It effectively kills insects, but when birds eat insects that have died from it, they can die too. It is also highly toxic for aquatic creatures. For humans, it can cause adverse reactions when it comes in contact with the skin. Inhalation and ingestion have worse effects.

In high amounts, even just through skin contact, it is a neurotoxin that moves fast and can cause death.

4. Generic Name: Diazinon

Brand/s: Basudin

Toxicity: Class II (moderately hazardous)

Highly toxic for birds and beneficial insects. For mammals, it is mostly only harmful on inhalation, but can cause systemic and neurologic issues.

5. Generic Name: Disulfoton

Brand/s: Di-Syston

Toxicity: Class Ia (extremely hazardous)

The most poisonous of all! For mammals, it is extremely toxic in ALL routes of exposure. Secondary poisoning also happens when birds eat the poisoned insects.

6. Generic Name: Methyl/Ethyl Parathion

Brand/s: Metacide

Toxicity: Class Ia (extremely hazardous)

Very toxic to birds, fish, and most animals. This poison can stay and bioaccumulate in soils. A ban is in place against it in a lot of countries but there are still cases of misuse especially in developing countries.

7. Generic Name: Triadimefon

Brand/s: Bayleton

Toxicity: Class III (slightly hazardous)

A fungicide that prevents coffee rust. Chronic exposure may lead to reproductive issues. It contains copper which can accumulate in soils, and can affect its biological process.

A lot of these are phased out or banned already, but can still be mixed with other pesticides. These chemicals can only reach the coffee beans in minimal amounts. The problem is, if you drink coffee everyday, this “minimal amount” will eventually accumulate.

Another issue is the effect that these chemical pesticides have on the people around the coffee farms. One of the most notable examples was the case in Kerala, India.

For over 20 years, endosulfan was sprayed around the thousands of hectares of cashew plants in the state. The result was a widespread case of disabilities and seizures among the people around the area.

It turns out that endosulfan has caused the children in Kerala to have delayed (or lost) sexual maturity. There were also cases of congenital disabilities, epilepsy, and severe mental and physical disabilities. The most unfortunate part is, there is no amount of money that companies can pay the families to make up for it.

Now if you find yourself wondering what slavery and chemical pesticides have to do with being a vegan, then it’s either you’re not a vegan or you’re just new to it.

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What It Really Means To Be A Vegan

What defines a true vegan lifestyle? If you think vegans are just health nuts then you have so much more to learn.

Vegans care about the welfare of the environment and all the sentient beings in it. It’s about trying to make a difference one food choice at a time. A difference that will save animals and our environment from harm and further destruction.

It’s all about doing an active research. If you’re not up for that, then the vegan lifestyle may not be for you. It takes a lot of reading and asking, but who has ever said that making a difference comes easy?

The sustenance of human life understandably requires the consumption of food. Since the beginning of human race, “food” has included plants and animals. 

However, as the human population continues to rapidly multiply, food resources become prone to abuse and depletion. And is important to understand that humans DO NOT need to eat animal products to be healthy, in fact we are way better off without them.

Unfortunately, along the process, the environment and the animals get the short end of the stick.

The vegan lifestyle is a living proof that humans can be healthy without the need to sacrifice the environment and the sentient creatures in it.

Organic Vs Non-Organic Coffee

The popularity of organic food choices has blown up in the last 5 years at least. Is organic coffee better and healthier?

First, let’s define organic farming. It’s a holistic approach to farming that aims to protect the environment by modifying conventional farming methods.

It follows these rules in general:

  • No pesticides
  • No antibiotics
  • No GMOs
  • No growth hormones
  • Promoting crop rotation
  • Using organic fertilizers only
  • Recycling all resources as much as possible
  • Using renewable resources only

These rules may vary per regulating body or country. For example, some countries may allow pesticides but only through approved substances.

Just to make it clear, organic does not necessarily mean its vegan. However, looking at the practices in coffee cultivation, supporting the organic ones means supporting environment welfare, too.

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Now let’s compare them.

Organic Coffee
Non-Organic Coffee
Has higher antioxidant level
May contain carcinogens and poison from pesticide residue
Helps conserve land and water resources, including its biodiversity
Production often harms the environment
Has Higher chlorogenic acid, which lowers blood pressure
May contain molds
Tastes richer

Organic coffee, obviously, has much higher quality than non-organic coffee. Also because it tastes better too, it’s a win-win. You get to help save the environment in your own little way and get a great tasting coffee to go with it.

BONUS: To learn how to make your very own vegan friendly coffee latte, check out the video below!

How To Choose Your Coffee

Organic coffee is only the beginning. Sustainably-sourced, high quality coffee would have these marks:

Fairtrade

The Fairtrade organization helps ensure that coffee farmers and workers get the proper wage they deserve. Not only does this help the lives of coffee farmers, it also helps them improve the quality of their products.

USDA Organic

To make sure your coffee is organic, it should be certified as USDA organic. Other countries will have their own organic seal so this will depend on the source country.

Rainforest alliance

Another NGO group, Rainforest Alliance works to protect and conserve the environment and the biodiversity in it. This organization works with coffee farmers to also improve their livelihood. With their help (and strict audits), coffee farmers learn sustainable and responsible farming methods.

Shade Grown

To attain the highest quality, coffee must be grown in higher land elevations and ample shades from trees. This way, coffee can naturally grow without the need for pesticides and fertilizers.

When coffee is grown in shades, the environment around it can be safe from harmful chemicals too. Shade grown coffee tastes better too!

Light To Medium Roast

The lighter the roast, the more it retains its antioxidant properties. Be careful though if you’re acidic. Lighter roasts are more acidic and have higher caffeine.

Other coffee certifications you can look for:

If more people will start to support coffee products that are fair to coffee farmers and have higher quality, it may eventually kill off unjust and unethical coffee production. Fingers crossed!

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How To Order Vegan Coffee At Coffee Shops

If you’re a coffee-loving vegan, the idea of going to coffee shops shouldn’t scare you. Major coffee shops can now offer a variety of flavorful vegan coffees. This will of course mean using non-dairy milk and unrefined sugar.

Here are the things you can ask the barista next time you order a cup of coffee:

  • Ask for soy, coconut, or almond milk instead for your coffee.
  • For lattés, ask to use syrup instead of powder, or just skip the powder.
  • Use raw sugar or ask for unrefined ones.

You can ask for vegan options too!

The Best Vegan Coffee Brands

Coffee, just by itself, is technically vegan. This list of vegan coffee brands will be pertaining to coffee that also aligns with the principles of veganism. This means they are ethically and sustainably sourced. Now that’s real vegan coffee to me!

Coffee Brand
Fairtrade (or something equivalent)
Organic
Rainforest Alliance¹ (or something equivalent)
Shade- Grown²
Audubon
Café Mam
Conscious Coffees
✅ (B Corporation)
DOMA
Equal Exchange
Ethical Bean Coffee
✅ (B Corporation)
Grumpy Mule
Higher Ground Roasters
Kickapoo
Larry’s Coffee
✅ (B Corporation)
Pura Vida
Rise Up Coffee Roasters
Salt Spring
✅ (Fair for Life)
✅ (B Corporation)
Wandering Bear Coffee

¹The principles of Rainforest Alliance Certifications are quite similar to Fairtrade.

²Some companies do not label their products as shade-grown. However, conditions that apply to organic coffee farms will mostly require canopy shades too, which makes organic varieties somehow equivalent to shade-grown coffee.

Popular Cafés With Ethical Coffee Sources

Take a short trip to one of the following:

  1. Caribou
  2. Costa
  3. Starbucks (99%)

Do you have a favorite coffee shop or cafe that isn’t on the list? Check here for Rainforest Alliance certified brands, and here for Fairtrade coffee brands.

Coffee FAQs

The following questions are for pure coffees only, before sugar and milk or cream is added. These will not include 3-in-1 and 2-in-1 varieties.

Can vegans drink coffee?

Absolutely! Coffee is the ground seeds of the coffee plant. Its beans or powder form does not contain any additive. Just be careful when choosing your creamer and sugar when you make a cup.

Is Folgers coffee vegan?

Yes it is. However, there is no guarantee that it is ethically sourced. Folgers is one of the giant companies that seems to avoid getting certifications and does not offer organic varieties.

Is McDonalds coffee vegan?

Yes, as long as you order them without milk, cream, or sugar. You might want to use your own bone-char-free sugar and non-dairy milk.

Is Nescafé coffee vegan?

Yes. The Nescafé Mokambo Tradición carries the Rainforest Alliance certification, but the brand does not offer organic coffee.

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Vegan Coffees At Starbucks

Hold up! Before you order any of these, make sure to ask for either soy, coconut, or almond milk. No whipped cream!

  • Café Americano
  • Café Latté
  • Café Mocha
  • Cappuccino
  • Espresso
  • Iced Coffee

Vegan Coffee Drinks: Your Vegan Coffee Options

Ready-to-drink coffees in bottles or cans are so convenient! But you will probably find yourself either holding back or taking ages to check the label. So here’s a list of dairy-free, vegan coffee for you:

Vegan Coffee K-Cups

K-cups are originally a product of Keurig and Green Mountain. They work similar to coffee pods and require a machine too. While the coffee in it is vegan, the single-use plastic container is non-recyclable and will only pile up in landfills.

Here are better, more sustainable alternatives that are reusable and/or biodegradable:

K-cups are originally a product of Keurig and Green Mountain. They work similar to coffee pods and require a machine too. While the coffee in it is vegan, the single-use plastic container is non-recyclable and will only pile up in landfills.

Vegan Coffee Pods

Coffee pods or capsules are also landfill regulars. They are non-biodegradable. The alternative? Reusable coffee pods! There are also compostable single-use pods! I recommend the following:

  • SealPod (reusable) for Nespresso and Dolce Gusto machines
  • WayCap (reusable)  for Nespresso and Dolce Gusto machines
  • Ecopads (reusable) for Senseo coffee machines
  • Lavazza (compostable) for A Modo Mio machines

Coffee pods or capsules are also landfill regulars. They are non-biodegradable. The alternative? Reusable coffee pods! There are also compostable single-use pods!

Vegan Coffee Sachets

Instant coffee is the most convenient and most practical option for a lot of coffee lovers, especially those who travel a lot. Check out the following:

Coffee and Mixes:

Coffee Creamers:

Vegan Bulletproof Coffee

The popular bulletproof coffee is simply coffee with either butter and/or coconut oil in it. It’s a known weight loss coffee that also provides energy and other health benefits.

Coconut oil is fine, as long as it is sustainably and ethically sourced. However, you will need to find an alternative for butter.

Here are some great options to substitute butter with:

  • Organic extra virgin coconut oil
  • Coconut butter
  • MCT oil

How to make your own:

  1. Brew coffee.
  2. Pour it in a blender along with 1 tsp or more of your coconut oil of choice.
  3. Add 1 tbsp or more of non-dairy milk or creamer.
  4. Blend for at least 30 seconds to make it frothy.
  5. Pour into your cup or mug and enjoy while it’s hot!

Conclusion

Coffee is technically vegan, but it may be non-vegan depending on its source and production.

Always look for coffee products that come from ethical and sustainable sources. Remember, your choice of coffee can make a difference for a lot of people.

What’s your favorite vegan coffee brand? Let me know on the comment section below. And don’t forget to share this article in your favorite social media platform!

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