Keto Tips for Coffee Shop Mastery

New to navigating the coffee shop? Follow these five tips to keep your coffee low-carb and keto.

Article by Mandy Pagano | 25 Oct, 2020

Article originally published on on 11/11/16. It has been lightly edited for re-publication.

Specialty coffee is A Thing now. Macchiatos, cappuccinos, lattes, and frappés are all the rage. Of course, no list of specialty coffee would be complete without mentioning the notorious pumpkin spice flavoring that goes into everything imaginable come autumn.

Most ketonians figure out relatively quickly that the coffee shop is largely not your friend. All those fancy-pants beverages are loaded with sugar and other ingredients that are decidedly not on the keto-approved list. At the same time, we don't expect people to be hermits and only ever eat or drink stuff they've made themselves from absolute scratch. So what's a ketonian to do at the coffee shop?

The easiest and best answer is to order a plain coffee with a little bit of cream (preferably heavy whipping cream if the shop in question has it). We realize that for a lot of folks that answer is not satisfactory. We can't tell you what to order but we can give you some tips on how to navigate the tricky waters of the coffee shop.

  1. Go in prepared
    • Check out ingredients online, if available, and know what goes into your drink before you walk up to the counter. Most specialty drinks are made with copious amounts of milk, sugar-laden syrups, and a sugary base of some kind goes into almost all blended beverages. That's all before they ever bother to put in the coffee. If you know ahead of time what's in your favorite blend, you can ask the barista to substitute or leave out unfriendly ingredients.
  2. Sugar-free shots are questionable
    • When looking at the nutrition information for the sugar-free flavorings at the two most prominent coffee chains, we found that the average sugar-free flavor shot is not only a minimum of one carb per shot (and many are in the two-to-four carb per shot range), they also contain a whole pile of questionable ingredients. One common ingredient is maltitol, a sugar alcohol that's very high on the glycemic index (52), will raise your blood sugar as well as cause an insulin response, and is notorious for causing serious and intense gastric distress. Another common ingredient is maltodextrin, a sugar derivative that is higher on the glycemic index than table sugar (ranging from 85-105, whereas sugar is 60) and can cause blood sugar and insulin responses. While your best bet is to avoid them altogether, realistically we know people are going to use them. Just be aware that the more pumps added, the higher the carb count. Be very wary of having your barista add more than a pump or two per drink. Also, be aware that the sweetener packets most companies carry are going to have around one carb, minimum, and many are bulked with unfriendly ingredients. That includes stevia packets, so don't be fooled into thinking you can add five of them to your drink without consequence.
  3. Watch for unexpected additions
    • Most specialty drinks (yes, even those labeled as "light" or "sugar-free") are automatically made with a simple syrup (a mixture of sugar and water) or, in the case of blended drinks, a sugary base that is used to keep the drink from icing over and to make it pourable. These additions are usually assumed to be desired when you order, so you will need to specifically ask the barista to leave out any syrups or bases they would normally use to make the drink, and then watch them make it. That's italicized for a reason. Without being accusatory, we need to point out that people are people and the natural inclination is to do whatever is easiest for them. That's not to imply maliciousness. This is just a tendency of human nature. Unfortunately, this mean when an unsuspecting keto customer orders a specialty drink and isn't paying attention, some baristas will add the base ingredients anyway simply to make preparation easier, or maybe they are just forgetful and add it while on autopilot. Whatever the reason behind the addition, you need to be aware that these kind of mistakes can be made if you don't specifically ask for this stuff to be excluded and then pay attention to what's happening to your drink behind the counter.
  4. Substitute heavy cream
    • Milk, even whole milk, is relatively low on fat and high on lactose, which is the sugar present in dairy. One cup (eight fluid ounces) of milk is a whopping twelve grams of carbohydrate, all of which is sugar. Do not drink milk. Now, since it's clear that milk is off the table, let's discuss what you can have in its place. In most coffee joints they will have heavy whipping cream behind the counter. It is generally used to make the whipped topping they put on their drinks. Ask for the unwhipped heavy cream instead of milk in all your drinks. Be aware that the cream carried in most coffee shops is going to contain fillers like carrageenan, and is never carb-free. Heavy cream is around six-tenths (0.6) of a carbohydrate per tablespoon, and while that seems like it wouldn't make a big difference, over a larger serving of cream (which is typical in most specialty beverages) the extra carbs can add up. If your shop doesn't carry heavy cream, you may need to settle for half-n-half. It's not ideal, but it's still better than milk. Again, just be aware that the higher quantity of cream your beverage requires, the higher the carb count will be. Also know that the coconut and almond milks most shops carry is sweetened, so it's going to be out as a replacement. Always ask to see the ingredients panel on the container and scan it for sugar before swapping for dairy alternatives. 
  5. Small is sufficient
    • Everyone wants to go in and super-size their favorite coffee beverage, but before you do consider how those gigantic drinks are made. Take a good look at the lines the coffee shops have pre-printed on their cups. Even if you choose only keto-friendly ingredients, they're filling your cup to those lines with each ingredient, and which line depends on what type of beverage you order. Say you get a brevé (essentially a latte but made with cream instead of milk). Even if you ask for use heavy cream instead of half-n-half, and a few extra shots of espresso, you're still going to have half (or more) of your cup filled with cream. If you've got a small cup and assume half is cream, you're going to have a minimum of one-quarter (1/4) to one-half (1/2) cup heavy cream in your drink. That's somewhere between two-and-a-half (2.5) and five (5) total carbs just for the cream (or more if your barista is a little heavy-handed), all before you ask for any flavor shots or add in a packet of sweetener, etc. Now extrapolate that to your favorite super-sized cup and you could easily be getting all or darned near all of your daily carbs just from the heavy cream in your drink. If this is a daily or weekly habit, you're essentially sabotaging yourself with your coffee. Instead, understand that a little goes a very long way. Order a small and be happy.

After all is said and done, and you've gotten your beverage, make sure to count the carbs. Never assume that just because you chose relatively friendly ingredients your drink must therefore be carb-free. A regular coffee with a splash of heavy cream is a simple, one carb drink that will deliver enough caffeine to keep you going. Keep that tidbit in mind when you go and order wisely.

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