Coffee and Cholesterol

Coffee drinking

Coffee contains many nutrients with a beneficial effect on health: in recent years this has been discovered by plenty of well-controlled and reliable research, including studies that show a correlation between consumption of coffee and life expectancy, due to coffee compounds’ effects for prevention of type 2 diabetes and other chronic diseases, healthier liver, better weight control, and many other health benefits that you’ll find described in more detail here: Espresso and Coffee Health Benefits: Scientific Research.

Having made this necessary premise, we get to the subject of cholesterol. Dr. Eric Rimm, a professor of epidemiology and nutrition at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, referring to research that emerged a few years ago, said: “Five to eight cups a day of unfiltered coffee may actually raise your ‘bad’ LDL cholesterol” (all references are at the end of this article).

What is unfiltered? And LDL? You may well ask. Unfiltered coffee, also known as pressed or press coffee, is not the coffee that people in the UK and the USA generally drink. Typically, it is coffee made with a French press, Greek and Turkish coffee, and Scandinavian boiled coffee.

In American-style, filtered (or drip or drip-brewed) coffee, coffee is brewed by letting hot water quickly go through ground coffee beans in a paper filter, so that the resulting beverage drips through into a cup underneath.

Unfiltered coffee, on the other hand, is made by mixing boiled water and ground coffee beans in a special glass pitcher, then letting the mixture brew for a few minutes.

Thus the coffee beans are left in prolonged contact with the water, and there is no filter to prevent the beans from getting into your cup, but only a mesh plunger that you press down from the pitcher ‘s top to drain the liquid and keep the grounds out of the cup when pouring.

The lack of a filter makes pressed coffee a possible problem if you drink too much of it. Some substances in coffee, oils called diterpenes (and one in particular, cafestol), have been associated with increased both total blood cholesterol and LDL (which stands for “low-density lipoprotein”) cholesterol, aka “bad” cholesterol, which may increase the risk of heart disease.

Cafestol is contained in coffee even when decaffeinated. However, this compound is filtered out in drip-brewed coffee, but not in pressed coffee, in which some of the oils remain in the pot during the brewing. Instant coffee also contains relatively little cafestol.

What does all this mean to you? I think we should always pay attention to research results. Research about the relationship between nutrition and blood cholesterol has been a bit of a rollercoaster, with various positions and hypotheses adopted in the past having later been discarded, for example the idea that dietary cholsterol (namely cholesterol present in food) would raise serum cholesterol (cholesterol blood levels).

Another area yet little understood and still developing is the relationship between total levels of serum cholesterol and its various parts, in particular LDL and HDL (high-density lipoprotein). There was a time when high levels of all cholesterol were considered bad, now HDL is considered “good”. But even more recently, that has changed again in favour of a view that considers more important the overall balance of all these components rather than each element. More recently still, other factors have risen to prominence: we now know that not LDL is “bad”, as there are two kinds of LDL particles, of which only the small are bad while the large ones are harmless.

At any rate, even the research on the coffee-cholesterol association has led to recommendations which are fairly easy to follow for coffee lovers.

They are:

  • filtered, drip, American-style coffee seems safe, unless in exaggerated amounts
  • unfiltered coffee in moderation is also safe, as recommendations generally consider up to 3-4 cups a day acceptable
  • instant coffee also contains relatively little cafestol.

What about espresso and other coffee beverages made with espresso, such as cappuccino? The serving sizes of espresso are so small that medical websites say that there’s less to worry about. In addition, espresso does not appear to contain the amount of diterpenes as unfiltered coffee like French, Greek, Turkish or Scandinavian coffees. Not to mention that espresso is of all coffees the one containing the least caffeine. Moderate consumption is, as always, the best recommendation.

In conclusion, let’s remind ourselves that coffee, as explained at the start of this article, has many confirmed beneficial effects on health. Nutrition is always a question of balance, of weighing benefits against risks. You want to exercise prudence, but also you don’t want to deprive yourself of something good if there is a slim chance of something bad. Moderation is the keyword.

It has been found that the antioxidant effects of coffee by-products are five hundred times greater than those of vitamin C. An extensive review of several scientific studies in the June 2016 issue of Comprehensive Reviews in Food Science and Food Safety, which is published by the U.S. Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), in summary, indicates that the benefits of coffee outweigh any risks. Risks which are only present when you “overdose”, so to speak, on coffee, having more than 3 or 4 cups a day.




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