Healthy Coffee Alternatives to Try

For many people, the day doesn’t start until they’ve had their hot, steaming mug of coffee. It’s a comforting morning ritual that provides a pleasant on-ramp into the day’s activities -- not to mention an energizing caffeine boost to help wake up your brain and boost your mood.[1] 

The coffee trend isn’t going anywhere, but a variety of healthy coffee alternatives are also becoming popular in the wellness community. Made from herbs, teas, and superfoods, these warming drinks are not just comforting, but come with some extra health benefits, too.

For the record, coffee itself isn’t exactly unhealthy. Coffee has beneficial nutrients and is one of the richest sources of antioxidants in the Western diet. Studies suggest that drinking coffee may even have protective benefits for your liver health, brain health, and blood sugar balance.[2] 

But some people may be more sensitive to coffee’s acidity or its caffeine content. Others may be looking for a drink that offers different health benefits or has a different effect on how they feel. If that sounds like you, or if you’re simply curious to try something new, here are some of the best healthy coffee alternatives to replace your morning ritual.  

Matcha

Matcha is a powdered green tea that’s made from the whole leaf, providing a more concentrated boost of antioxidants and nutrients than you'd get from regular steeped green tea. The fine powder is whisked into hot water until it’s smooth and frothy, giving the drink more richness and body than your average tea as well. You can also add steamed milk or plant milk to bring out matcha’s natural sweetness and creaminess.

Like coffee, matcha will give you a natural caffeine boost to help start your day. But that stimulant effect is also balanced by something else: l-theanine, a unique amino acid that helps promote calm and mental clarity.[3] With caffeine and l-theanine together, you’ll feel more awake and alert, but without all the jitters.

Matcha also packs a lot of antioxidant power, helping to protect cells and tissues from free radical damage. It’s especially high in a beneficial catechin called EGCG (epigallocatechin gallate), which supports heart health and a healthy inflammation response.[4]

Golden Milk

This cozy drink is caffeine-free but full of warming spices to get your blood flowing. The golden color comes from turmeric, a spice that’s known for helping to manage inflammation in the body.[5] It’s typically combined with complementary spices like ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon, all blended into your milk of choice, with a little honey if desired. 

This spice combo is classic for a reason: not only do the flavors blend well, but they have complementary action in the body. All are thought to support healthy digestion, circulation, and inflammation management. Black pepper also greatly enhances the absorption of curcumin, turmeric’s active ingredient.[6] (The fat in the milk helps with this, too.)

The easy way to make golden milk is by adding powdered spices to your milk as it heats, but you can also use fresh spices, boiling and steeping them to draw out their flavor. If you miss the caffeine, you can also add black tea and turn this drink into a golden chai

Chicory Coffee

Looking for a morning brew that’s almost like coffee, but not? Chicory root can be roasted, ground, and brewed in your coffee maker, just like the real thing. It has a similar dark, robust flavor that’s slightly bitter and toasty, which may just hit the spot if you’re craving that coffee taste, but without the caffeine. 

Chicory root is also a good source of prebiotic fiber, including inulin, which supports digestive health and regularity and helps feed the friendly bacteria in your gut.[7] And because inulin slows down the digestion of carbs and the release of sugar into the bloodstream, it may also help support blood sugar regulation.[8]

You can find pure ground chicory coffee, as well as blends that combine chicory with herbs like dandelion and barley, or adaptogens like ashwagandha. You can also find half-coffee, half-chicory blends if you’d rather wade in more gently.

Mushroom Coffee

Mushroom coffee is real coffee, with extra benefits from functional mushrooms. If the words “mushroom” and “coffee” don’t sound like they should go together, don’t worry. These aren’t  the kind of mushrooms you put on your pizza, but the kind that are used in traditional Asian healing. Dried, extracted, and blended into your coffee, they have a subtle, earthy flavor that’s barely noticeable. 

But you may notice a difference in how you feel. Functional mushrooms like lion’s mane, reishi, chaga, and cordyceps are considered adaptogens -- superfoods that can help reduce the negative effects of stress on the mind and body.[9] Reishi and lion’s mane, in particular, have been studied for their potential stress-protective benefits for brain and nerve health.9 The calming effect of adaptogens helps mellow out the stimulant effect of the caffeine.

They may also support your energy. Cordyceps, for instance, has become popular with athletes because of a compound called cordycepin, which is structurally very similar to adenosine, the compound that helps form ATP. Increasing the production of ATP helps deliver energy to the muscles and improve the body’s use of oxygen during exercise, helping to reduce fatigue.[10] 

Functional mushrooms are packed with nutrients, antioxidants, and other other beneficial compounds, including beta glucans, which help support healthy immune function.[11] Chaga, reishi, turkey tail, maitake, and shitake mushrooms are considered some of the best options for immune support. 

You can easily find mushroom-infused coffees that are targeted for certain benefits, such as immune support, brain support, or stress support. You can also make your own mushroom coffee by adding a mushroom extract or powdered blend into your coffee, cocoa, or chai. 

Making the Switch

Giving up an old habit isn’t always easy. If you’re a regular coffee drinker who wants to try something new, give yourself some time to adjust. If your body is adapted to the stimulant effect of caffeine and you switch to something with less or no caffeine, you may experience caffeine withdrawal symptoms. Give yourself a smoother transition by easing off gradually. 

Adjusting to a different taste may also take some time and experimentation. Try out different blends and compare their flavor and the way they make you feel. Experiment with adding milks or sweeteners if that’s your thing. If you’re nervous about making something new at home, go find a health-conscious cafe that will make one for you. When you find the right one, you’ll know.

References

1. Ruxton, C.H.S. (2008), The impact of caffeine on mood, cognitive function, performance and hydration: a review of benefits and risks. Nutrition Bulletin, 33: 15-25. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1467-3010.2007.00665.x

2. “13 Health Benefits of Coffee, Based on Science.” Healthline, Sep 2020.

3.  “What You Should Know About L-Theanine.Healthline, Jan 2021.

4. Wolfram S. Effects of green tea and EGCG on cardiovascular and metabolic health. J Am Coll Nutr. 2007 Aug;26(4):373S-388S. doi: 10.1080/07315724.2007.10719626. PMID: 17906191.

5. Hewlings, Susan J, and Douglas S Kalman. “Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health.” Foods (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 6,10 92. 22 Oct. 2017, doi:10.3390/foods6100092

6. Hewlings, Susan J, and Douglas S Kalman. “Curcumin: A Review of Its Effects on Human Health.” Foods (Basel, Switzerland) vol. 6,10 92. 22 Oct. 2017, doi:10.3390/foods6100092

7. “Chicory Coffee: A Healthy Alternative to Coffee?Healthline, Jan 2018.

8. “Health Benefits of Inulin.” Healthline, March 2020.

9. “What Are Adaptogenic Mushrooms? Benefits, Risks, and Types.Healthline, March 2021.

10. “6 Benefits of Cordyceps, All Backed by Science.Healthline, May 2018.

11. Akramiene D, Kondrotas A, Didziapetriene J, Kevelaitis E. Effects of beta-glucans on the immune system. Medicina (Kaunas). 2007;43(8):597-606. PMID: 17895634.