Guide: Sugar-free and low-carb coffee shop drinks

It can feel daunting to know how to order low-carb or sugar-free at a coffee shop. Whether you are looking for low-carb coffee and tea drinks because of diabetes, following a keto diet, or just overall nutrition, I’ve got you covered.

I had gestational diabetes twice, so I know how hard it is to figure out exactly what you can and can’t have when watching your sugar intake. Below are my suggestions to help you out!

Mug with a latte and cinnamon topping, espresso and a bowl of sugar.
Photo by Burgess Milner on Unsplash

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Overall, these are the ways to modify your coffee-shop drinks to have fewer carbs:

  • Order a smaller size.
  • Ask for lower-carb milks such as coconut or almond.
  • Request fewer pumps of syrup/sauce. Or see if a sugar-free alternative is available.
  • Ask for no toppings such as whipped cream, caramel sauce, or similar.

Below I break it all down for you, explaining what drinks are naturally sugar-free, which ones are low sugar, and how you can modify drinks to meet your diabetic, keto, or otherwise low-carb needs.

Naturally sugar-free drinks

You’re in luck with finding naturally sugar-free drinks at any coffee shop! Both plain coffee and tea have negligible amounts of sugar.

Coffees

You can order coffee drinks like drip-brewed coffee, iced coffee, and cold brew without any worries. An Americano, which is just espresso and water, is also an excellent carb-free beverage choice.

As long as nothing is added to your coffee, it will be sugar-free. This makes coffee a simple low-carb choice.

Teas

It’s a bit complicated to know if the tea you order is sugar-free. When in doubt, ask your barista.

If you order a hot tea that will be brewed using loose leaf or a teabag, it’s a good assumption that these will not include sugar.

Iced teas tend to be a whole other game, and you should always check if sugar is added. In certain regions, the assumption might be that sugar is always added!

At Starbucks, currently, the iced green tea, iced black tea, and iced passion tango tea, all come sugar-free by default. But their iced guava black tea and iced peach green tea both utilize juice and include carbs.

Also, if the tea you are ordering ends in “latte,” that means the drink is milk-based so the carbs from the milk you order will be included. For instance, a chai tea latte, a matcha latte, and a London fog latte all will include carbs.

Where the carbs come from

It’s helpful to understand where the carbs come from in coffeehouse drinks, as then you can adjust as needed.

Coffee and tea themselves don’t contain sugar, so added carbs are coming from milk, flavorings/syrups, and/or toppings.

Milk

Lattes, cappuccinos, macchiatos, mochas, cold blended drinks, cold foam, and similar all contain milk as a main ingredient.

At Starbucks, Dunkin’, Dutch Bros, and almost all coffee shops, the default milk on most drinks is dairy. Most places now carry soy, almond, coconut, and oat milk as alternatives. Many also have options for different types of dairy milk such as skim, whole, and even heavy cream.

All of these kinds of milk contain carbs, some are found naturally in the product while others have sugar added.

What kind of milk to choose can get complicated, and can be complicated by other factors you may have like lactose intolerance or a tree nut allergy, so keep those in mind too.

Starbucks is not as forthcoming on what’s included in their kinds of milk as I would like. But, they do list that their almond milk is sweetened with “sugar” and their coconut milk with “cane sugar.” Their oat milk does not contain additional sugar, but of course, oats are relatively high in carbs anyway. I couldn’t find info on their soy milk.

At Dunkin’ their coconut milk does not contain added sugars, but their almond milk contains “cane sugar.” They don’t have a soy option.

While it’s hard to find out exactly the amount of carbs in the kinds of milk used at Starbucks and Dunkin’, I’d suggest going with almond milk or coconut milk. Those start with a lower amount of carbs so even additional sugar is likely to add a lower overall carb count than oat milk or dairy milk.

But, if you are against added sugars and focus on consuming just naturally occurring carbs, dairy or oat milk will be the way to go.

Many on a keto diet will also opt for heavy cream. This option does have fewer carbs, but you also have to be willing to drink a cup of heavy cream which is not for everyone! If you want to order a latte with this option at Starbucks, ask for your drink to be made with “breve.”

You can also ask the barista if they know the details of the specific milk options carried for that coffee shop.

Syrups and sauces

Added syrups, sauces, and similar are typically what really load up a coffeehouse drink in sugar. Luckily, these are also easy to adjust.

To adjust the amount of syrup when ordering a flavored basic latte, cold brew or similar, simply ask for less syrup. This is typically ordered by saying the number of “pumps” you’d like.

At Starbucks, the pumps of syrup they use for most drinks is based on size and is three for a tall (12 ounces), four for a grande (16 ounces), and five for a venti (20 ounces.)

So, for instance, if I ordered a vanilla latte, and wanted less syrup, I would order a “one pump vanilla latte.”

You can also adjust pumps of syrup/sauces with chai lattes and mochas.

Many coffee shops also offer sugar-free syrups. These are fabulous low-carb options but often aren’t available for all flavors or seasonal drinks.

Some drinks, such as seasonal or more complicated drinks often include syrup or sauce that might not be obvious when you order. In that case, it’s best to ask or check ingredients on the app or website.

For example, a caramel macchiato sounds like it only has caramel as a flavoring, but it actually uses both vanilla syrup and a caramel sauce drizzle.

Another drink with a sneaky amount of flavoring is Starbucks’ peppermint mocha. It actually has double the amount of syrup as a typical drink because the baristas add the number of pumps the size calls for in both syrups. For instance, a grande would include four pumps of mocha sauce and four pumps of peppermint. This drink is literally sugar in a cup. I definitely do not recommend ordering it as-is if you’re a diabetic!

Toppings

This is a sneaky place where more carbs hide. Your standard latte or cold brew doesn’t come with any toppings but many other offerings do.

Whipped cream is the most typical topping, and that includes carbs as it is made at most coffee shops with both heavy cream and vanilla syrup. Feel free to say “no whip” when you order.

Many special or seasonal drinks include extra drizzles such as caramel, mocha, or something unique like Starbucks’ new spiced apple drizzle. You can ask for these removed or for “light drizzle” when you order.

Certain drinks also come with a topping that consists of spices and/or sugar. For instance, the pumpkin spice latte at Starbucks includes a pumpkin spice topping that has cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and clove but no added sugars. But, Starbucks’ cinnamon dolce topping is basically just sugar and cinnamon.

Blended frozen drinks and carbs

Whether you call this a frozen coffee, blended coffee, frappé, or at Starbucks their trademarked Frappuccino, it is delicious but full of sugar.

Unfortunately, these frozen drinks are often going to be the hardest option to modify to be low-carb.

It’s hard to give one-size-fits-all advice on these frozen drinks as different coffee shops make them in very different ways. They usually are made from a mix and making modifications to the base formula may not be possible.

At Starbucks though, you are able to modify the pumps of Frappuccino mix, although this isn’t my favorite option as it is the key to making a Frappucino a Frappucino. At Dunkin’, there is no similar option.

Starbucks now also lets you modify the type of milk when you order. This is not the case in many places.

Your best course of action to cut down on carbs for these frozen coffee drinks is to eliminate or minimize any additional syrups or toppings.

Suggested low-carb coffee shop drinks

Here are my favorite no-carb, low-carb, and modified to be low-carb drinks from coffee shops!

Cold brew
I love cold brew. It’s brewed in a way that makes it less acidic and tastes smoother than other ways of brewing coffee. If you want to add a bit of sugar, flavor with one pump of your favorite syrup.

Iced Pumpkin Spice Latte
Adjusting this fall favorite to low-carb is fairly easy. Ask for one pump syrup, almond milk, and skip the whipped cream.

Or, if you want to make this drink at home where you have ultimate control of the ingredients, follow this recipe to make a DIY pumpkin spice latte at home. You can even make pumpkin spice simple syrup at home and then adjust your syrup portions in your drink accordingly!

Vanilla Latte
This is my go-to drink. When I want to make it lower in sugar, I’ll order it with sugar-free syrup and almond milk.

Mocha
Mochas almost always include whipped cream, so for a low-carb modification, ask for almond milk, one pump of mocha, and no whip.

Caramel Macchiato
I love caramel macchiatos, especially iced ones. But if watching sugars, ask for almond milk, 1 pump vanilla, and light caramel drizzle.


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Text: Sugar-free and low-carb coffee shop guide. Image: Coffee and sugar.

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