Spoiler alert: Synthetic coffee flavors and oils disguise beans past their prime.
Credit: Robert Ingelhart

Crème brulee. King cake. Chocolate caramel brownie. In theory, it sounds like consuming these treats in flavored-coffee form would be a much healthier alternative to indulging in the real thing. Plenty of brands you’ll find on supermarket coffee shelves make tempting flavors such as these, often capitalizing on the season (pumpkin spice or eggnog coffee, anyone?). They smell incredible, don't usually have any extra calories, and often taste pretty good, too—yet these coffees are hiding a dark secret. If you’ve been sipping your flavored coffee in blissful oblivion until now, you might want to sit for this (and put your cup down, too).

Flavored coffee is made of cheap—and often old—coffee beans sprayed with synthetic flavoring and bathed in oils to get the flavor to “stick.” (Ever made flavored coffee at home and noticed the oily residue in your coffee maker afterward?)

“If it was a simple flavor like vanilla, theoretically, they could be using a natural product,” says Andy Pollard, owner of Folklore Coffee in Conrad, Montana, who learned his trade at American Barista & Coffee School in Portland, Oregon. “But looking at flavors like bananas foster or toasted marshmallow, how are you going to make those with a natural flavor? It’s really cheap and easy to make them in a lab.”

When you’re drinking the flavored stuff, not only are you getting bad coffee—the synthetic flavors also often contain a bizarre mix of chemicals. That can include a long list of things you can’t pronounce, as well as manufactured additives like propylene glycol, which is also used in aircraft de-icer. (Yet before you majorly freak out, know that propylene glycol is actually a common ingredient in packaged foods like dressings, cake mixes, dried soup mixes and more, and is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, in small amounts.)

Most companies use an apparatus like a cement-mixer drum to add very concentrated flavors to cheap coffee, and the coffee beans act as a sponge, soaking up the flavor. That’s why you don’t see any powders or liquids inside a bag when you open it.

Even if you can get past the synthetic chemicals and oil, the age of flavored coffees might still turn you off the stuff forever.

“The most important determinant of flavor in coffee is freshness—how much time has elapsed from when it was roasted to the time you’re actually enjoying it,” explains Nick Selman, CEO and co-founder of Javaya, an online marketplace where customers can buy roasted-to-order coffee beans. Smaller craft roasters will always print the roasting date on the bag, but it’s harder to find if you’re buying a bag of coffee from Amazon, bargain stores, or even Starbucks.

“That coffee can be weeks, to months, to likely years old,” says Selman. Since coffee hits its peak flavor between day 3 and day 14 after roasting, it’s pretty much a guarantee that coffee older than a month is going to be stale—yet when the taste is masked with intense fake flavorings, you might not be able to tell. When you start talking in terms of coffee, that’s years old (and enough to make you want to pour your cup down the drain.)

Selman says to look at it this way: “Would you buy romaine lettuce from TJ Maxx?” he asks. “Coffee is produce, too.” Even though shelves of delicious-smelling flavored coffee at bargain stores like this can seem like a steal ($5.99 for a bag?), the old cliché is true: You get what you pay for.

Now, we’re not saying that all companies making flavored coffee are employing these gross methods. Selman says it’s possible to find coffee roasters making decent flavored coffees by using higher-quality ingredients and natural flavoring additives. To spot these better-quality beans, pay attention to the price.

If you decide you want to give up flavored coffee (and we wouldn’t blame you), don’t lament over the loss; instead, train your palate to enjoy the nuanced flavor of coffee itself. Next time you’re in a coffee shop, tell your barista what flavors you like, and see if he or she can recommend an option for you. Different beans from different parts of the world all have inherent taste characteristics, says Selman. For example: East African beans lean fruity and floral, Central American beans taste sweet, and Brazilian beans skew earthy. This flavor wheel from the Specialty Coffee Association can help you distinguish, and hone in on, your flavor preferences.

Another thing to know: Darker roasts don’t always equal stronger coffee. In fact, darker roasts can end up being rather stale and tasteless, eliminating some of the best qualities from coffee, says Pollard. The industry as a whole is moving toward lighter roasts because they better showcase coffee’s inherent flavors.

Selman compares developing a taste for craft coffee to developing a taste for craft beer. “You have to learn try new things and learn about it,” he says, “and never be afraid to ask someone who’s serving it to you, ‘How do I appreciate this?’”