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Is What's Hiding In Your Iced Coffee Bad for Your Health?

May 24, 2022 - Katie McCallum

That first sip is likely to be one of the highlights of your day, so it's understandable if you haven't taken a critical attitude to the healthfulness of your favorite iced coffee drink.

You may say you don't want to know ... but you know you really do: Is iced coffee bad for you? Could it be good for you? Neither bad nor good? Both?

"Any form of coffee is going to be rich in antioxidants that may have beneficial effects on your health," says Amanda Beaver, a wellness dietitian at Houston Methodist. "Some studies even show that coffee may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease and type 2 diabetes."

But — yes, there's a but — antioxidants aren't the only thing hiding in your iced coffee.

Some iced coffee drinks are loaded with added sugars

From the sweetened creamers and prepared cold coffee drinks at the grocery store to the syrup and flavor shots that coffee shops add to their drinks, it's easy to end up with an iced coffee that's high in added sugar, Beaver notes.

Nothing is completely off limits when it comes to our diet, even added sugar. But when consumed in excess, these empty calories can lead to weight gain and increase your risk for unfavorable health conditions, such as type 2 diabetes.

So before you sip, it's always a good idea to take note of how much added sugar your drink contains.

"For creamer from the grocery store, flip the package over and look at the added sugar content," recommends Beaver. "If you're ordering an iced coffee drink from a shop, check the store's menu or website to see how many added sugars are in the drink or any of the flavor add-ins you're considering."

As a rule of thumb, the American Heart Association recommends limiting added sugars to:

  • 24 grams per day for women
  • 36 grams per day for men

And believe it or not, a single iced coffee can take you beyond this limit.

"For instance, just two tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk — a popular iced coffee addition — contains 18 grams of added sugar," says Beaver. "Depending on the size of the drink you order and how much of a particular sweetener is used, it's easy to see how the sugar content can quickly skyrocket in an iced coffee drink."

This isn't to say you can't indulge in a sweet coffee drink from time to time as a treat, but doing so frequently could affect your long-term health if you're not careful.

Iced coffee drinks can contain more caffeine than you might expect

Ok, it's probably a stretch to say that caffeine is hiding in your iced coffee. The pick-me-up caffeine provides is likely why you're drinking coffee in the first place.

But the amount of caffeine that may be hiding in your favorite drink could surprise you.

Caffeine should be consumed in moderation. The FDA recommends a daily limit of 400 milligrams.

Depending on your drink size and the way it's prepared, that limit could allow three or four iced coffees a day. More likely, it means cutting yourself off after just one or two.

"One 8 fluid ounce cup of coffee can have anywhere from 80 to 140 milligrams of caffeine, but the average is 95 milligrams of caffeine per cup of coffee," says Beaver. "Notice though, that this is for one 8 fluid ounce cup! Everyone defines a "cup" of coffee differently. For some people, a cup of iced coffee in their favorite mug may actually be the equivalent of two cups of coffee."

Then there's the caffeine content of the strongly brewed iced coffee drinks you can order at a coffee shop.

Here again, it's important to check the menu or website for the drink's total ounces, for its number of espresso shots. Just one large iced coffee at some establishments can easily send you above 200 milligrams of caffeine.

The amount of caffeine matters since it can take our bodies a long time to process it.

"Caffeine can take effect in as little as 15 minutes, but depending on how quickly your body metabolizes caffeine, it takes about four to six hours to metabolize just half of the amount you drank," says Beaver.

This, of course, can have implications on your sleep if you drink large amounts of caffeine or consume it too close to bedtime. (Related: How Long Does Caffeine Keep You Awake?)

How to make (or order) a healthy iced coffee

There's no harm in treating yourself to a sweet-tasting afternoon pick-me-up now and then.

But, here are five tips for making your everyday iced coffee healthier:

1. Know how much added sugar and caffeine you're getting. Whether it's reading nutrition labels and following recommend serving sizes or checking a coffee shop's menu or website, the first step in making healthier decisions is knowing what you're getting in the first place. Keep in mind that sugar has four calories per gram, so even an iced coffee that seems low in calories could still have quite a bit of added sugar.

2. Skip the creamers and syrups. It's true that sugary add-ins are delicious. It's why they exist. But creamers and syrups are full of the empty calories that, over time, can harm your health. Instead, enjoy the sweetness of the natural sugar found in a splash of milk, whether plant-based or dairy. (Related: Oat Milk Vs. Almond Milk (Plus, All the Others In Between): Which Milk Is the Healthiest?)

3. Add creaminess by adding a splash of oat milk. If you miss the creaminess that pre-made creamers provide, Beaver recommends using oat milk in its place. This plant-based milk has a heavier mouthfeel that can mimic the creaminess you might expect in an iced coffee.

4. Don't forget to dilute cold brew when needed. We know, we know: Cold brew is technically cold coffee, not iced down hot coffee. But since this distinction isn't always immediately clear, it's a good idea to always read the recipe or product label of cold brews carefully. If you're making your own iced coffee drink from a concentrated cold brew stock, be sure to dilute it. Otherwise, you'll surely put yourself on track to overdo your caffeine intake.

5. If you don't want to adjust what's in your drink, adjust the size. If you're not inclined to make any of our suggested sugar-cutting substitutions, make or order a smaller sized drink instead. For instance, if you just can't say no to vanilla syrup in your iced coffee, order a smaller size. Need to cut your portion down even more? Drink half today and half tomorrow. Just remember to keep it in the refrigerator.

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