Thousands of people ask it every single month, whether they are about to try and follow a vegan diet or are simply curious.
Obviously, if you usually have your coffee with cow’s milk, then you will know it isn’t vegan. But what about if you leave the milk out? Or if you swap it with a mylk such as an oat or soya?
Coffee is a plant. Choosing non-dairy milk, or just drinking it black, makes it vegan.
Well actually, it can be more complicated than that.
Is My Coffee Vegan?
There are a lot of things which go into whether a product is vegan or not. Take makeup for instance – it can be cruelty-free if not tested on animals, but it can only be described as vegan if it contains no animal by-products such as lanolin or cochineal.
This means that you need to look way beyond the label for verification that it is entirely vegan, and the same applies to your coffee. How much do you know about where it is grown, and the natural habitats of the people and animals who live there?
The coffee bean (the seed which grows in the cherry) is itself vegan. This may be quite enough for you to know. But if you are also concerned about the ethical and eco-credentials of your coffee, and believe veganism is a lifestyle choice as well as just cutting out meat and dairy, then things can get a lot more complicated.
Sun Grown vs. Shade Grown
Coffee beans were once pretty much all shade-grown, but since the 1970s “sun-grown” has become a lot more popular.
This means that they are grown out in the open and fed with huge amounts of water, fertilisers and pesticides. This coffee will, therefore, be all you find in the area, as a monoculture with little other life to speak of, so no trees or bushes and no insects or life for wildlife to feed on.
The soil will usually be unable to accommodate another crop too, so the farmers have to then move on to entirely new plantations altogether. This creates an entire path of devastation.
This lack of biodiversity and declining soil quality can have very detrimental effects on the local natural world, leaving it non-existent.
Shade-grown coffee is the opposite, so biodiversity and coffee culture can go hand in hand.
Many smallholder coffee growers will usually grow their coffee under the shade because it will help the natural ecosystem, which in turn creates a thriving ecosystem and fertile soils in which to grow their crops.
Many of these smallholders may intercrop, so grow other foodstuffs or plants to supplement income. Making an entire growing area suitable for just coffee would, therefore, be ineffective. One popular crop grown alongside coffee is banana trees, which give suitable shade as well as the fruit which they can sell on.
The good news is that 80% of coffee around the world is produced by 25 million smallholders. So, there is a good chance that the coffee you have been drinking is fully vegan, even if you haven’t particularly sought this out.
But just because a farm is a smallholding doesn’t necessarily mean they are being paid what they should be for it, which is another concern. However, a lot of coffee which is bought directly from the supplier will be from a smallholder, and they will also get more money from the sale, with a relationship and strong bond between the grower and sellers. Essentially, it cuts out the middle man, so shopping with smaller roasters will likely really make a difference.
Rainforest Alliance/Bird-Friendly Coffee Beans
The criterion of anything which is certified by the Rainforest Alliance is that is should “conserve wildlife, safeguard soils and waterways, protect workers, their families and local communities, and increase livelihoods.”
This is one of the clearest signs that a bag of coffee is therefore as close to being vegan as it can be. It has looked after the local environment as well as giving us great coffee.
If you want to go one step further, the Bird-Friendly label is the only 100% organic and shade-grown coffee certification available. Developed by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center in the United States, it isn’t as common as the other certification, but brands such as Bird & Wild and Cafeology make some great offerings.
It can be quite surprising to hear that companies such as Nespresso, McDonald’s and Caribou Coffee source their coffee from Rainforest Alliance Certified farms
How To Make Your Coffee More Vegan-Friendly
It is actually quite simple to ensure your coffee is as ethical as possible.
- Ask Where It Is From
If you are in a coffee shop or buying directly from a roaster, ask them about the origins of the coffee before you order. You may be surprised about just how seriously they take it. Listen for keywords such as those above, like ‘shade-grown’.
- Look For Logos
The organic, fair trade and Rainforest Alliance logos show that care has been taken when growing and harvesting your coffee. All three don’t have to be present, but even just one will show that the manufacturer has taken precautions.
- Use A Reusable Cup
It will cut down on waste, which as we all know is polluting the planet. Takeaway paper cups can also destroy ecosystems in the production of the paper, so opt for something made from sustainable material such as bamboo, metal or husk. Check out our top picks.
- Opt For Reusable Methods
- Check Other Ingredients
If you are opting for a sweetener, syrup or even some sugar, check out that ingredients list! Also, look into the companies behind the products.