The History of Coffee Alternatives in the USA

Coffee and coffee substitutes in the USA are a relatively recent phenomenon. Due to coffee prices at the time, coffee alternatives are about as old as coffee itself. It was the rash of "tea parties" in 1773 after the Tea Act threatened Colonial rights and created an East India Company monopoly on the tea industry had an impact on coffee sales: Coffee eventually took tea's place as the primary hot beverage in America. In these times, coffee was mainly consumed for medicinal purposes and was still too expensive to drink every day.

The "coffee crash" of 1881, when unsuccessful attempts were made to corner the market on coffee, wiped out the majority of businesses, and set the ball rolling for coffee trade pricing regulation. The Coffee Exchange of New York began regulating traffic in 1882, creating coffee standards and influencing the quality available to consumers.

Through the progression of wooden to steam-powered ships, to paper packaging, advancements in roasting technology and selling coffee based on its taste instead of by sight, coffee morphed into a beverage which could be accessible to those outside the wealthy class and still taste good.

A magnificent collection published online by Mr. Robert Lewis from The Arizona State University. It is a collection from various newspapers dated as back as the year 1861.

The sheer ingenuity of the people, who yearned for something that if only reminded them at the taste of coffee is stunning. What is equally astonishing though is how little things changed. In fact we still use more or less the same coffee substitutes today as we did than (well, except for a potato coffee substitute, perhaps).

Some examples of coffee substitutes as reported at those days in the newspapers:

SOUTHERN CONFEDERACY [ATLANTA, GA], November 7, 1861, p. 3, c. 1

How to Get the Very Best Coffee at About Ten Cents a Pound.--In these war times it is quite an object to make economical investments in this article, but aside from this, the coffee that you can make from this recipe will be found far superior to the very best you can get anywhere, either North or South, and those who give it a fair trial will be unwilling to go back even to the best Java. Take sweet potatoes and after peeling them, cut them up into small pieces about the size of the joint of your little finger, dry them either in the sun or by the fire, (sun dried probably the best,) and then parch and grind the same as coffee. Take two thirds of this to one third of coffee to a making. Try it, not particularly for its economy but for its superiority over any coffee you ever tasted.

ALBANY [GA.] PATRIOT, December 12, 1861, p. 2, c. 3

A Good Substitute for Coffee--At the present time, when coffee is selling at a dollar a pound the following suggestion from a correspondent of a Southern paper, is worth trying: Many worthless substitutes for coffee have been named. The acorn need only be tried once to be discarded. Corn meal and grits can be easily detected by the taste. Rye is only tolerable. Oakra [sic] seed is excellent, but costs about a dollar a pound, which puts it entirely out of the question. What, then, can we use? We want something that tastes like coffee, smells like it, and looks like it. We have just the thing in the sweet potato. When properly prepared, I defy any one to detect the difference between it and a cup of pure Rio.

Preparation--Peel your potatoes and slice them rather thin; dry them in the air or on a stove; then cut into pieces small enough to go into the coffee mil, then grind it.

Two tablespoons full of ground coffee and three or four of ground potatoes will make eight or nine cups of coffee, clear, pure and well tasted. The above is worthy of a trial.

We have thoroughly tested its qualities, and can perceive no difference in taste from the genuine coffee. One table spoonful of ground coffee to two of the ground potatoe [sic] makes five cups full of a cheap, pleasant and healthy beverage. It is preferable to parch the potatoe [sic] in thin slices by the sun, as the parching or drying will be more regular, and not so apt to burn as when parched on a stove. We regard it as every way equal to Rio, Java, or the Mocha coffee.

THE SOUTHERN BANNER [ATHENS, GA], February 11, 1863, p. 3, c. 4

Okra - A Substitute for Coffee. Mr. Archer Griffeth, of Ala., gives us the following directions for preparing okra seed as a substitute for coffee. He expresses himself as highly pleased with the beverage: Parch over a good fire and stir well until it is dark brown; then take off the fire and before the seed get cool put the white of one egg to two tea-cups full of okra, and mix well. Put the same quantity of seed in the coffee pot as you would coffee, boil well and settle as coffee. Directions for Planting and Cultivating.--Prepare a rich spot as for cotton, by bedding 3 1/2 feet. About the 10th of April open the ridges and sow the seed, and when up, chop out to 12 inches in the drill and cultivate the same as cotton. it will grow 6 to 8 feet high and will yield abundantly--one acre of good land producing ten bushels of seed. The seed will be dry in July. Since writing the above, we have tried some of the okra coffee prepared by the above directions, and find it better than pure Rio and almost equal to old Java.--Try it.

However, ever since 1895, when C.W. Post decided to visit a health sanitarium run by J.W. Kellogg (yep, that is the guy would later go on to invent the cornflakes) coffee alternatives were not to be “fake coffees” in taste, as much as healthier alternatives to coffee too. Inspired by Kellogg’s fixation on the benefits of whole grains, Post left the sanitarium determined to invent his own grain-based food product. Post took aim straight at the most beloved beverage in America: Coffee. He combined toasted wheat, bran, and molasses to create “Postum”, a powdered breakfast drink mix that offered the benefits of whole grains instead of the supposed evils of “over-stimulating” caffeine. Post went into business in 1895 selling a cereal-based, caffeine-free coffee substitute called “Postum”.

Whereas coffee alternatives were created until than due to the lack of coffee availability, coffee was soon to be demonised for “harming our health”. Similar to “Rosemary's Baby”, Mr. Post took aim at the “evil effects of coffee” on our most precious and sensitive cause in life – our children.

Many parents, on special occasions, let their children drink Coke, Pepsi, or other sugary drinks. Interestingly, most parents would never consider letting their kids drink coffee. The reason why one caffeinated beverage is allowed, and the other forbidden? Because everyone knows, of course, that “drinking coffee stunts the growth of children”. In fact this is just another “invention” from Mr. Post (a truly innovative guy).

postum coffee alternative

Mr. Coffee Nerves, Postum's musket (who deviously disrupted his victims' lives by making them irritable and jittery, or causing indigestion in the best case) could convince a child to up and run away from home in the less fortunate cases. “Postum” soon became the breakfast staple in many American homes.

caffeine substitute

Of course, we know today that drinking Postum would make even a cat run away, and in some “households” we would love give our kids Postum to make them finally leave home.

It was not only the children who were at “risk”, the holy husband – wife relationship too was not spurred out by the delicate and caring hands of Mr. Post.

coffee substitutes

Years later, coffee and its benefits are still hotly debated. Anyone who is a heavy coffee drinker must have wondered at one point after their coffee break “is coffee bad for me?”. The answer to that billion cups a day question is actually very personal. It depends on how many cups of coffee one drinks daily. What kind of coffee do they drink, is it black, flavored, sweetened etc? What is the physical and mental health of the coffee drinker (is she pregnant, do they suffer from sleep deprivation). With 300 contributing chemicals in green beans, and over 850 after roasting – coffee affects people differently!

A quick search on-line about the healthy or unhealthy benefits coffee yield would be enough to scare you even if the only thing you ever had was coffee flavored liqueur (in which case, you should really be scared). There are no shortage of research papers showing that drinking coffee has been shown to deplete vital vitamins and minerals, including vitamins B and C, calcium, zinc, iron (anemia) and just about every essential mineral and vitamin in the human body.

Furthermore, caffeine intake can decrease calcium absorption and put you at risk for osteoporosis, to mention just a few 'issues' with coffee. The caffeine in coffee has not been spared either. Studies upon studies show that caffeine can have several negative effects, such as temporary insomnia, nervousness, restlessness, irritability, stomach issues, rapid heartbeat and muscle tremors (according to the Mayo Clinic).

No wonder than that “I gave up coffee” is a refrain of the health conscious. But should it be?

The idea that coffee is a dangerous, addictive stimulant springs mostly from 1970s- and 1980s-era studies that tied the drink to higher rates of cancer and heart disease, explains Dr. Rob van Dam, a disease and nutrition expert at Harvard School of Public Health who has examined coffee and its health effects. According to van Dam, that old research didn’t do a great job of adjusting for a person’s cigarette habit or other unhealthy behaviors.

No one is suggesting you drink more coffee for your health (well, that is arguable actually). But drinking moderate amounts of coffee is linked to lower rates of pretty much all cardiovascular disease, contrary to what many might have heard about the dangers of coffee or caffeine.

The same holds true for breast cancer, where associations were statistically not significant. It’s true that the data on lung cancer shows an increased risk for more coffee consumed, but that’s only among people who smoke. Drinking coffee may be protective in those who don’t. Drinking coffee is associated with better laboratory values in those at risk for liver disease. In patients who already have liver disease, it’s associated with a decreased progression to cirrhosis. So which is it, is coffee good or bad for you?

Unless you suffer from coffee or your doctor prescribed it for you, moderate drinking is the key. Try to inject some variety into your drinking habits. Luckily, there are several alternatives to caffeine that can enhance energy and promote good health. However, it is important to remember that if you are a daily caffeine drinker, any substitute will take time to work as your body deals with caffeine withdrawal. Caffeine is very strong and rivals most other energizing products. With time, the body will get used to the lack of caffeine and embrace the other choices.

Health Boosting Caffeine Free Coffee Alternatives


Coffee made from date seeds is traced back through the centuries to the Saharan desert and Middle Eastern cultures. It offers a unique blend of delicious coffee taste with the added health benefits derived from the seeds of the palm date fruit. A delicious and healthy coffee substitute that is growing in popularity.

Date seeds coffee is an energizing, healthy and delicious coffee substitute. The date seed is rich in minerals, ions, vitamins and antioxidants. In addition to their nutritional content, date stones are believed to heal heartburn, improve the immune system from free radical attack and aid in digestion - to mention just a few of the date seed's health benefits. Modern research have shown that the Date Seed could be used as a medicinal food in treating renal stone, bronchial asthma, cough, hyper–activity and weak memory.

Ishrud et al. [2001] showed that date–pits contain glucomannan, which helped to normalize blood sugar, relieved stress on the pancreas, and discouraged blood sugar abnormalities such as hypoglycaemia and prevented many chronic diseases. Furthermore, Rahman & Al–Kharusi, 2004 showed in their research that Date–pits contain amino acids and hormones that could help improve memory.


One of my personal favorite coffee replacements is a good peppermint tea. It has no caffeine but peppermint tea has a refreshing and invigorating energy to it that is perhaps more subtle, but definitely more easy to work with, than the jittery jolt of the strong caffeine in coffee. Peppermint tea is good to reduce stress level, aides in weigh-loss by reducing appetite, helps to reduce fever and associated pain and discomfort, provides relief from excess gas, nausea and motion sickness and of course the fresh breath – you might even want to give some peppermint tea to your closest friends and colleagues :-) A warm cup of peppermint tea can be a great coffee alternative for people who need something to get them going in the morning.


Like peppermint tea, ginger tea is both energizing and great for improving digestion. It makes a great coffee alternative as a strong ginger tea can really wake you up if you’re tired and improve your mood if the day isn’t going that well. The health benefits of ginger root oil can be attributed to its digestive, expectorant, antiseptic, analgesic, anti inflammatory, stimulating and aphrodisiac properties to mention just a few.


Coconut water is a clear, milky liquid that comes from green, young coconuts. Coconut water is naturally sweet, contains bioactive enzymes and is chock full of rehydrating electrolytes, which makes it a good replacement for sugary sports drinks. In deed coconut is considered as one of the wonder trees known to man. Not only the fruit but the whole palm is reported to be of many uses. Coconut provides coconut water and the flesh inside the nut. The water and flesh supply us with essential nutrients that can keep our stomachs full and give us energy to increase endurance – best served fresh and ice cold.


For centuries, people around the world have turned to chamomile herbal tea as a cure-all for a multitude of physical and emotional health concerns. For anyone feeling a little tense as coffee lets go of its grip on them, chamomile tea can be a relaxing and soothing drink. Caffeine-free like ginger and peppermint tea, chamomile tea has been shown to help relaxation, reduce tension and improve sleep. Feeling anxious? Chamomile tea can help! In fact it seems to be good for caffeine withdrawal headaches.


Yerba mate has been used as a base for herbal medicines in South America for centuries, and the plant’s benefits and therapeutic properties have recently been verified by a number of scientific studies. Yerba Mate provides a wealth of nutrients however unlike the other alternatives we mentioned here, Yerba mate is exploding with caffeine for those who can't start the day without a cup o' caffeine. It is also packed with nutrients and is widely known for not having the heavy "crash" that coffee can bring.