Slowly but surely, coffee’s name has been cleared of its bad health reputation. In what is truly a 180, coffee has gone from being a cause of heart disease and cancer to being linked with lower overall mortality risk, and other potential health benefits like protecting against certain diseases. The Mayo Clinic explains that this about face has to do with early research not factoring in a coffee drinker’s other habits — such as smoking and a sedentary lifestyle.
But your cup of joe isn’t in the clear just yet. There is some evidence connecting unfiltered coffees with slight, but significant upticks cholesterol levels. Another potential threat to health comes from consuming too much caffeine, and then there are the health factors associated with what people choose to add to their coffee drinks. It is easy to navigate coffee’s potential pitfalls though, once you know what to look for and manage.
Control your cholesterol
Cholesterol is up first because this can easily be controlled based on whether or not you use a paper filter, or consume unfiltered coffee. (Unfiltered coffees include Turkish and Scandinavian styles, along with coffee made using a French press.) Cafestol and kahweol – The Harvard Health Letter explains – are coffee’s two main cholesterol-raising ingredients, and are classified as diterpenes. These substances make their presence known in the form of oily droplets or exist in the grounds.
When a paper filter is used, cafestol and kahweol get caught and mostly do not pass through to your brew, which is why filtered coffee is not thought to raise cholesterol. If at this point, you’re wondering where espresso falls on the spectrum, it occupies a grey middle ground. Although it has more cafestol and kahweol than filtered coffee, you don’t drink as much of it in one sitting as you do when you make boiled coffee. Less consumption lessens the risk of raising cholesterol.
Consuming more filtered coffees sounds easy, but it runs contrary to what a survey by the National Coffee Association says is happening. “Gourmet” coffee is on the rise in America. In this year’s survey, 34 percent of American adults reported drinking gourmet coffees, compared to last year’s 31 percent. Espresso-based drinks are more popular as well, growing from 13 percent in 2013 to 18 percent in 2014. Non-gourmet coffee on the other hand has fallen to 35 percent from 39 percent.
Take charge of your order
A study published in 2004 in Journal of the American Dietetic Association found that college-aged women were drinking more of these beverages, which the study explained first began to rise in popularity in the mid-1990s. The drinks include an array of coffee options, from iced lattes to espresso-based beverages, cappuccinos, and blended drinks. Laden with added sugar, milk, and cream the drinks are often much larger than a standard cup of coffee, and therefore pour more caffeine into one serving. Unsurprisingly, the study found that drinking the milky, sugary gourmet coffees coincided with consuming more fat on a daily basis, and could cause weight gain.
The gourmet coffee trend not only feeds into consumption practices that can raise cholesterol by drinking high quantities of unfiltered coffee, but incorporate two other issues your coffee can cause: more calories and fat and too much caffeine. Studies have continued to find this remains the case, especially when people venture out to a coffee shop and place an order. “The old days of buying a cup of coffee and putting a packet of sugar in it are far behind us,” Jane Hurley, a senior nutritionist for the Center for Science in the Public Interest told NBC.
The average difference is staggering. According to Pat Fiducia, chief executive for CalorieKing Publications, the gourmet option averages 240 calories compared to just 75 for a coffee with a bit of cream and sugar added. She gave the example of a large Dunkin’ Donuts Frozen Mocha Coffee Coolatta with Cream. In this blended concoction, there are 1,050 calories, 53 grams of fat and 127 grams of sugar. “In perspective, you have had more fat than you need for two days and more saturated fat than is healthy for a whole week,” Fiducia explained.
The 2004 study had one simple swap that can combat this which is to use skim milk instead of cream or whole milk. Hurley went further, saying it may be necessary to pass on the whipped cream and syrups; ordering a smaller size helps as well. Just remember that you control your order, and everything that goes into the drink. You’ll be able to take out a few syrups or customize the order to have a better-for-you option, like no whipped cream.
But let’s say you already pass up Starbucks or the local coffee house in favor of brewing at home. What makes for a healthy cup then? Well, all of that depends on your overall dietary habits. No matter what, you’ll want to cut back on sugar. This sweet, sticky substance has been linked to increased risk of cardiovascular disease and death, as well as piling extra calories on to your daily consumption totals.
Cutting back on how much you put in coffee is one easy way to reduce your overall intake, and will make your drink just a tad healthier. Instead, you could try sprinkling a little cocoa powder or cinnamon into your coffee which could alter the way it tastes, while lessening your granulated sugar dependence. You could also slowly cut back on sugar, removing a teaspoon (or other specified amount) each week, adapting your preferences to a less-sweet drink.
When it comes to adding milk, opinion among nutritionists splits. Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, told Today that for picking a milk in general, she tells adults and children 2-years-old and older to drink skim or 1 percent milk. “Compared to whole and 2 percent milk, skim and 1 percent milk have less of the bad stuff — artery-clogging fat — but the same amount of the good stuff — calcium, protein, vitamin D, potassium and other vitamins and minerals,” Bauer stated.
However if dieting isn’t your top priority, but building muscle is, consider the whole milk route. Alan Aragon, MS, explained in Men’s Health that researchers at the University of Texas medical center in Galveston had found that when whole milk was consumed after weight training, participants increased “muscle protein synthesis — an indicator of muscle growth — 2.8 times more” when compared to those who drank skim.
Coffee does not have to be an unhealthy drink, and ultimately you’ll want to make the changes that reflect your needs but still leave you with a cup you find drinkable and enjoyable. “Coffee has a reputation as being unhealthy, but in moderation and with the right add-ins, it’s actually a superdrink,” says Cynthia Sass, MPH, RD, Health’s contributing nutrition editor told ABC.