Sharon Gerdes
Sharon Gerdes is a certified food scientist and author who writes extensively about dairy’s role in health and wellness. Learn more at

Across the globe, individuals consume an estimated 2.25 billion cups of coffee per day. Coffee contributes a range of biologically active compounds, including many with antioxidant activity. The National Coffee Association reports clinical research documenting that drinking coffee is associated with unique health benefits related to longevity, cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, stroke, liver and kidney health, and mental health.

Some like it black, but coffee with added milk or other dairy ingredients has been shown to boost immunity and reduce stress.

Add milk, hold sugar

Milk-based coffee drinks, including lattes, cappuccinos, and flat white, are increasing in popularity, especially with younger adults, who may not drink plain milk, but readily consume it in their coffee. In its 2022 Fall National Coffee Data Trends report, the National Coffee Association found that lattes and cappuccinos are among the Top 3 most popular drinks for Americans 18 and over.

For those readers who prefer their coffee black, here’s a little primer… A latte contains 1/3 espresso to 2/3 steamed milk, topped with a thin layer of milk foam. A cappuccino has a ratio of 1/3 espresso and 1/3 steam milk, topped with 1/3 milk foam. A macchiato is an espresso drink with a splash of steamed milk and a slight amount of milk foam.

While coffee houses offer added sweetener as an option, most ready-to-drink (RTD) coffee beverages contain added sugar, as do most commercial creamers. The RTD coffee category has shown explosive growth in recent years, and is expected to register a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.69% from 2016 to 2026, according to Mordor Intelligence.

A Starbucks short (8 oz.) cappuccino has 70 calories, including 6 grams of sugar from milk. In contrast, a 9.5-oz. RTD Starbucks Mocha Frappuccino contains 190 calories, with 22 grams of added sugar, 44% of the recommended Daily Value.

According to the study, “Coffee Drinking and Mortality in Ten European Countries — the EPIC Study,” higher coffee consumption has been linked with lower levels of inflammation, insulin resistance, and reduced risk of diabetes. It seems a shame to sabotage those health benefits with a heaping dose of added sugar.

Health boost

A 2023 study, “Phenolic Acid–Amino Acid Adducts Exert Distinct Immunomodulatory Effects in Macrophages Compared to Parent Phenolic Acids,” found that immune cells treated with a combination of polyphenols and amino acids from milk were twice as effective at fighting inflammation as the cells to which only polyphenols were added. 

“We detected the reaction in commercially available iced coffee drinks and in milk added with different concentrations of coffee phenols and then subjected to different types of pasteurization used in the industry,” states Professor Marianne Nissen Lund, Department of Food Science, University of Copenhagen, Denmark. Lund notes that researchers prepared study samples using a ratio of 0.05-0.1% coffee phenols to milk. The milk was low pasteurized jersey skim milk (4.1% protein and 0.1% fat) purchased from a local supermarket.

Nutiani, the B2B wellbeing nutrition brand under global dairy company Fonterra, developed a “Phospholipid Latte” concept that promises to help reduce stress. “Phospholipids, naturally present in milk, are complex lipids and have been clinically proven to help manage the effects of stress, improve abilities to stay focused and positive, and aid muscle recovery and gains,” says Peyton Rudy, global marketing manager, Fonterra. “Packed with coffee extract and scientifically proven stress relieving phospholipids, this latte helps to facilitate stress management and boost energy levels.” 

Dairy or plant creamer?

Adding milk to coffee makes it less acidic, thus reducing heartburn, indigestion, and acid reflux. According to the Perfect Daily Grind, in 2020, 91% of all coffee-based café beverages were prepared with dairy products.
 The barista at my local Starbucks reported a similar proportion of dairy to plant-based creamers. Dairy options range from nonfat milk to heavy cream, with lots of options in between.

In the plant-based creamer category, oat milk has outpaced soy and almond as the preferred creamer. Oat milk’s winning attributes include neutral flavor, creamier texture and better foamability.

A caffeine boost

How much coffee delivers a health benefit, and how much causes the jitters or affects sleep? A  report  — “Coffee consumption and health: umbrella review of meta-analyses of multiple health outcomes” — provides some answers.
 The authors reported the largest relative risk reduction at intakes of three to four cups a day versus none, including benefits for all-cause mortality, cardiovascular mortality, and cardiovascular disease. Positive results also were shown in some studies with any versus no coffee, and also with one extra cup a day.

Caffeine has also been shown to improve athletic performance, with the greatest benefits in less intense, longer duration sports such as swimming, cycling, rowing and jogging. Decaffeinated coffee has shown positive effects on postprandial glycemic and insulinemic responses in healthy adults. Children and pregnant women should limit caffeine consumption. Caffeine levels above 200 mg, roughly 2 6-ounce cups, can increase anxiety. 

A new coffee product, Buzz Lite, bridges the gap between regular and decaffeinated coffee with 10% of the caffeine of coffee, or 20 mg per 8-ounce serving. In contrast, a Starbucks Venti (20 ounces) contains 410 mg of caffeine. 

Whether it’s skim, 2% or whole, adding dairy milk to coffee is a great way for adults to consume the 13 essential nutrients of milk.