The Real Reason People Are Adding Vanilla Extract To Their Coffee

Countless Americans start their day with a cup of coffee, and if you’ve ever made the morning coffee run for your office, you’ve undoubtedly noticed the myriad ways in which people prefer their cup of joe. In fact, a study from 2017 showed that two-thirds of coffee drinkers add something to their coffee, whether sugar, cream, flavor shots, or spices (via Illinois News Bureau).

University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Ruopeng An who led the study said of these additions, “These add-in items are often dense in energy and fat but low in nutritional value.” So is there a way to add some flavor and sweetness to your morning energy jolt without packing on the calories or unnatrual flavorings and colorings?

Enter a stand-buy you almost certainly have in your kitchen cupboard: vanilla extract. Not only is it lower in sugar than a standard vanilla flavor shot, but real vanilla boasts some impressive health benefits.

The benefits of vanilla extract

Vanilla not only lends that sweet, familiar scent and flavor to your coffee, but it’s also high in antioxidants. Antioxidants are healthful compounds in food that help to scavenge free-radicals in your body that can do damage. Further, just the smell of vanilla can help alleviate stress and boost your mood, and some studies have shown vanilla can even be used as an antidepressant (via Livestrong).

Lifestyle blogger Camille Styles suggests grinding up some vanilla beans along with your coffee beans to get these health benefits and more, like easing stomach aches and joint pain. But for those who don’t grind their own beans, adding some vanilla extract in the place of other flavorings can garner many of the same benefits while avoiding the calories and fat of creamers or sugar.

And before you worry about the alcohol content, no one is suggesting spiking your morning coffee with a whole bottle of the stuff. Vanilla extract is generally about 35% alcohol, and while, yes, that is comparable to some weaker liquors and spirits, recipes call for you to add just a teaspoon or less of the flavoring to your coffee, so you’ll hardly be showing up to work with an Irish coffee in your travel mug.

Americans often drink coffee every day. Overall, coffee consumption in America is on the rise, according to an article in Reuters. About 64 percent of Americans drank at least one cup of coffee per day in 2018, up from 62 percent the year before. That means many millions of folks are starting their day with the dark, caffeinated beverage, most of them at home, though coffee shops are very much alive and well, too. Additionally, more and more folks are reaching for the fancier stuff, as gourmet coffee is rising in popularity.

As to whether drinking coffee every day is good or bad for you, it’s not a black and white issue, according to an article in Time. On top of that, the scientific consensus has changed, evolved, and shifted the years, though it’s a lot better today than it used to be. And overall the outlook is more positive than it is grim — good news for bean juice devotees.

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Having that first cup of coffee in the morning can feel downright magical sometimes, especially if you’re particularly dragging that day. But be careful if you find yourself doing it every day as you can get addicted, as noted by veteran science writer Bart Wolbers. “If you drink coffee every single day then you’ll soon get addicted to caffeine,” he told The List. “The reason for that addiction is that coffee normally binds to the adenosine receptors in the brain — adenosine is what builds up sleep pressure. Over time, however, the body creates more adenosine receptors which are then no longer bound by the caffeine in coffee.” 

So what does that mean in layperson’s terms? “As a result, your energy levels go down and you need coffee just to counter the withdrawal symptoms,” he continued. And those symptoms can include irritability, brain fog, headache, and exhaustion, according to Healthline. In order to avoid that, Fergus recommends cycling your beverages to prevent tolerance buildup if you drink coffee every day.

While adenosine and adenosine receptors play a role in getting addicted to coffee, it’s not all bad news. That’s because according to cardiologist Dr. Steven Reisman, director of the New York Cardiac Diagnostic Center, you can also reap some benefits because of adenosine blockage. “With coffee you will feel more energetic because caffeine increases brain activity by blocking adenosine and increases neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine,” he explained to The List. “This reduces tiredness and increases alertness.”

That’s not the only positive impact that drinking coffee every day can have on your mood, either. According to a study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, researchers found that the people who drank the most coffee were less likely to be depressed.

And in another study, this one in the World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, researchers concluded that coffee drinkers who consumed four or more cups of coffee daily were considerably less likely to take their own lives. Whether or not you should drink that much is up for debate, but the facts still stand.

According to the CDC, nearly half of the American population is trying to lose weight, more of them women than men. If you’re one of the many people that belong to that statistic, your daily coffee habit might just help you drop those unwanted pounds, as noted by cardiologist Dr. Steven Reisman, director of the New York Cardiac Diagnostic Center. “Coffee may also help you lose weight by improving physical performance in aerobic exercise,” he revealed to The List. “It also helps your body absorb and burn fatty acids in the bloodstream.” Honestly, that sounds pretty awesome.

That doesn’t mean that making the decision to drink coffee every day is magic, however — you still have to put in the work, according to registered dietitian Diane Vizthum. “The bottom line is that coffee is one part of your lifestyle,” she shared in an interview with Johns Hopkins Medicine. “Some of the factors that make a bigger impact on your health are eating a balanced diet, exercising, and maintaining a healthy weight. Drinking coffee should just be an addition to those key health factors.”

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Drinking coffee every day is a pretty normal habit, especially if you’re just grabbing one or two cups right after you wake up. But if you’re drinking coffee well into the afternoon, you might find yourself battling some insomnia, as noted by Dr. Becky Gillaspy, a certified health and wellness coach. “You will sleep less soundly if you drink coffee in the afternoon,” she informed The List. “Caffeine has a half-life of six hours. So, if you drink coffee at 2 PM, half of the caffeine from that cup is still in your system at 8 PM.” And if you drink coffee every day at 4 p.m., you’re going to be up even later.

Can You Put Vanilla Extract in Coffee?

The answer is yes and no. There are a few different ways to incorporate vanilla extract into your morning brew, according to one of our reader’s questions. “What would be the best way to use vanilla extract in my coffee?” he asked via email. “No sugar, hot or cold?” A lot of people use vanilla extract in iced coffee if they don’t like the taste of hot coffee, per Dr. Kelly Brogan, author of  The Sensitivity Diet . However, she cautioned that vanilla extract is a “delicious addition” but not one that you have to add every time.

If you do like adding in some extra flavor, Rachael Leopold, RD of The Leopold Nutrition Coaching said it’s perfectly acceptable to use vanilla extract. “I actually wouldn’t drink coffee without vanilla,” she told The List. “But if there are other flavors in the cup like chocolate or cream, this could make you feel nauseated.” Still, some people love drinking coffee with vanilla in it and even claim that it actually enhances their taste buds. But that’s really a matter of opinion.

How much vanilla extract should I put in my coffee?

So if you like adding in some extra flavor, how much vanilla extract should you add in? The answer depends on what kind of coffee you’re making. According to Coleen Skeabeck, a registered dietitian, the amount of vanilla extract you should add in totally depends on the type of coffee you’re making. “Always use a dash of vanilla (1/8 teaspoon) to a cup of brewed coffee,” she explained. “Add 1/2 teaspoon for French press or cold brew.”

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However, if you absolutely love vanilla extract and want to make a more complicated drink, she recommends mixing it with some coconut water — just a dash will do. “Sip on this coconut vanilla coffee enema to nourish your body and ease digestion,” she said.

Can You Put Honey in Coffee?

Honey is a controversial addition to your morning cup of Joe, according to the experts we talked to. “It depends on why you want to add honey,” registered dietitian Julie Upton told The List. “If you want the flavor of honey, I would keep it at less than half a teaspoon per cup.” That’s because while one teaspoon might be too sweet for some people, more than that can really alter the taste of your coffee — not necessarily in a good way either.

But if you’re trying to actually sweeten your coffee and make it taste more like a dessert, you have options. “If you’re choosing to sweeten for taste, vanilla extract and honey are good flavor choices,” Upton explained. “If you want sweetness in coffee for sugar-free reasons, Stevia is a good option.” And she suggested that adding cream or coconut milk is another easy way to add some extra flavor.

However, according to Dr. Brogan, simply adding sugar can alter the taste of your coffee in a major way — probably not in a good way. “Always use 1/2 teaspoon of sugar per cup,” she said.

When should vanilla extract be added?

So what should you do if you want to taste the vanilla in your cup of Joe but you’re worried about drinking too much? Add it before your coffee is brewed, according to Vizthum. “Usually it is best to add vanilla extract just before brewing so that the hot water can dissolve the extract,” she explained. “This way it won’t affect the flavor of your drink.”

Does vanilla and coffee go together?

There’s a lot of proof that coffee and desserts don’t mix, but there are a few exceptions. “I would never drink coffee without adding the vanilla,” Brogan said. “The flavor is so delicious.” However, she qualified, “If your coffee has already been flavored with vanilla extract or another flavor like chocolate or hazelnut, it should not be mixed with milk or other dairy products.”

Still, there are some people who swear by adding milk to their spiked cup of joe. And in fact — you can even make your own versions using just milk and vanilla extract; however, as Leopold pointed out, it’s very difficult to find unsweetened almond milk these days.

As you can see, there is a lot to be said about coffee — and whether or not it’s carefully prepared. If you want to make the most of your drink, make sure that you’re adding in some extra flavor. You can add a dash of vanilla or even mix things up with some coconut water. But regardless of what kind of coffee you’re brewing and how much sweetener or flavor you want to add — remember that anything in moderation is acceptable!

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