Hot Beverages: Healthy or Harmful?

November 21, 2019
| Created by Heather Lieber, RDN, CD

For some of us, a hot cup of coffee is the daily routine 365 days a year. For others, warm drinks only come out as the chilly season rolls in. We know warm drinks get an A+ for the comfort factor, but what about health? Are hot drinks a healthy choice? Let’s dive into the details.

Does Temperature Matter?

Strictly speaking about temperature, does hot or cold influence the nutritional value? The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified drinking very hot drinks as a probable carcinogen. This seems very alarming, but the fine print is that “very hot” is defined as above 149 degrees Fahrenheit. Most drinks in the U.S. are not served at or above that temperature. However, some studies have found mate—a traditional South American tea—being served above 149 degrees has been associated with esophageal cancer. The bottom line? Unless your drink is alarmingly hot and almost scalding your throat, the temperature itself shouldn’t cause any problems.

Coffee, Cocoa, and Tea: Is It For Me?

Coffee beans, cocoa beans, and tea leaves all contain antioxidants. Antioxidants are compounds that protect our bodies’ cells from damage. Fruits and vegetables, nuts, and whole grains also contain antioxidants, but one study found that Americans get about 79% of their antioxidants from beverages and only about 21% from food. Does that mean that coffee, cocoa, and tea are the highest quality sources of antioxidants? Not necessarily. For example, some berries may have more antioxidants per serving than coffee, but most people drink multiple servings of coffee and eat less than one serving of berries. Fruits and veggies pack in fiber and vitamins that we can’t get from most beverages, so don’t forget about them! The antioxidants in coffee, cocoa, and tea can be beneficial, but is not the only solution or magic bullet to getting those benefits in our diet. Focus on a variety of antioxidant-rich foods along with your beverages for the most benefit.

Caffeine: Picking Me Up or Weighing Me Down?

Let’s talk caffeine. It is naturally occurring in coffee, cocoa, and tea, and probably the main reason many of us have coffee ingrained in our morning routine. It has been accepted that up to 400 mg per day can be safe for us without any adverse effects. This is the equivalent of 2-4 cups of coffee, 10 cans of soda, or 1-2 energy drinks. Beyond this limit, research has shown side effects such as shakiness, trouble sleeping, or anxiousness. Caffeine is a stimulant, meaning that it works in our brain to make us feel more alert. This pick-me-up can be very helpful but, like other substances that affect our brain, we can build up a tolerance. This means we will eventually need larger doses to get the same effect.

If you have regular caffeine daily, it’s important to examine why. Are you compensating for another area of wellness you are lacking in? Is caffeine masking the fact that you need to get more sleep, or eat nutritious calories throughout the day for enough energy? Caffeine can be a safe part of a routine, but it’s important to examine our reliance on it and not neglect other parts of basic self-care.

How Sweet is Too Sweet?

Coffee, cocoa, and tea do have antioxidants with health benefits, but those benefits can quickly be overshadowed depending on how much sugar and cream we add.

The common sense answer is that less is more. The less added sugar and cream, the more nutritious that beverage choice is. By nature, warm ciders and cocoas have a significant amount of sugar, so be aware of those.

Did you know that 12 ounce cup of cocoa from Starbucks has 34 grams of sugar, only 5 grams less than a 12 ounce can of Coke? It also has 8 grams of saturated fat while Coke has none. Too many saturated fats in our diet increase our risk of heart disease.

That same cup of cocoa contains 320 calories. Calories add up very quickly as we’re drinking them. Our bodies need calories and we shouldn’t be afraid of them, but calories from wholesome foods are more beneficial than those from added sugar and cream. Liquid calories are also not as filling as solid foods throughout the day.

So…Are Hot Drinks Healthy?

Now that we’ve discussed some of the details, here or some takeaways: enjoy your coffee with a little less cream or sugar than usual, add a new fruit or veggie into your routine, and make sure to get enough sleep. Save rich, creamy, and sweetened beverages for special occasions instead of turning to them every day. Above all, remember sometimes it is okay to turn to a beverage for the comfort factor.  Do you have more questions regarding these topics? Contact a Harmons dietitian at to schedule a store tour or individual appointment.

Happy Sipping!