Coffee & Cholesterol: Is Your Morning Routine Heart-Healthy?

This is a guest post by Dani Stuchel. If you would like to be a guest writer, go here for more information.

You know that fried eggs and bacon every morning probably won’t keep your heart in top shape for the future, but have you ever wondered if your morning cup of coffee is the secret enemy to your heart health? Since the late 1980s, a number of researchers have looked into the link between coffee and cholesterol, all starting when Scandinavian doctors noticed that coffee drinkers tended to suffer from high cholesterol more often than their non-coffee-drinking counterparts. While the research done to date has been informative and the results have proven replicable, no one has stepped in to let the consumer know how their coffee drinking habits may be affecting their heart. That’s where Piki: Eat comes in.

First, we’d like to allay any fears you might have that this article will culminate in a declaration that you should never again start up your faithful coffeepot. Coffee and cholesterol have been linked, but the connection relies on certain methods of brewing and selections of coffee beans. Most of the coffee consumed in the world comes from one of two commercial varieties: arabica or robusta. Both varieties contain two chemicals known as diterpenes, cafestol and kahweol, although arabica beans tend to pack in more cafestol than robusta. Cafestol is, according to researchers, the most potent cholesterol-elevating compound in the human diet. Piggybacking on the oils in coffee grounds, cafestol content ranges from 1 milligram to 7.5 milligrams per 150 milliliters of coffee (a little under 1 standard coffee cup) depending on the brewing method used.

Before we look at the technical aspect of cafestol, let’s explore cholesterol a little. Most of us know what it does, but how much should be found in our blood? According to the American Heart Association, the average adult should have a total cholesterol level of less than 200 milligrams per decaliter (mg/dL) of blood. Between 200 and 239 mg/dL, your health is considered at “borderline risk.” Above 240 mg/dL, you enter the range of “high risk.” While coffee alone is unlikely to push your cholesterol into the top tier of health danger, it may combine with other dietary habits and genetics to create heart problems. So, in short, less cafestol = less risk.

Cafestol, while not your body’s best friend, has one critical weakness. No, it’s not a vitamin supplement or kryptonite. Cafestol’s arch nemesis is…the paper coffee filter.

Thanks to physics, cafestol becomes trapped in the filter and doesn’t ride down the brewed liquid into the coffee cup. That thin layer of paper keeps cafestol trapped up in the coffee grounds and keeps your blood cholesterol levels down. How does this science trick translate to your daily routine, though?

Let’s start by looking at the methods used in the home. The most basic, rudimentary methods of brewing coffee simply boil the grounds in hot water, then serve the finished product in some kind of cup. Completely unfiltered, these recipes result in coffee with the highest levels of cafestol, 7.5 mg. and 5.3 mg. for Scandinavian and Turkish coffee respectively (for a little under 1 coffee cup). Next up the complexity ladder is the French press method. This style, similar to the Scandinavian and Turkish way, involves brewing the grinds directly in the water. The difference is that the French press separates the coffee silt from the coffee brew via a metal filter. While this avoids the awkward coffee-grinds-in-front-teeth scenario, it doesn’t remove any cafestol. Your average French press cup of coffee has around 3.5 mg. of cafestol. Lastly, we look at the ubiquitous drip-brew coffee pot. As long as your faithful countertop model employs a paper filter, the cafestol content of your coffee is negligible. In short, while traditional and haute techniques might offer a gourmet feel, they’re more likely to add to your cholesterol woes.

What about those mornings where you grab your java on the way to the office? While coffee houses abound, it’s certain that almost all of our readers are familiar with Starbucks. One Starbucks medium latte contains 2 shots of espresso. Espresso, another unfiltered brew, only packs 1 milligram of cafestol per cup. Basic arithmetic tells us that’s 2 milligrams of cafestol per medium latte. In comparison to the methods above, it’s not a terrible result, although considerably pricier.

Now that we know what cafestol is and how much of it is lurking in our coffee, one more question looms. How much is this cafestol raising your cholesterol? Based on the research done to date, and some quick calculations in the Piki: Eat lab, your daily Starbucks latte isn’t likely to kill you. One medium latte consumed each day for 30 days, averaging the results of multiple studies, is probably only going to push your cholesterol up an extra 0.50 mg/dL. All in all, that’s not too bad. With more cafestol, 118 mg. (approx. 2 shots) of French press per day (over 30 days) may push your cholesterol up an additional 1.82 mg/dL. Again, this isn’t going to kill you on its own, but if you’re already suffering from (or are at risk of getting) high cholesterol, it’s worth keeping in mind.

The conclusion? Coffee is a great treat, for those who love it, and the methods of making it abound. If you’re keeping an eye on your cholesterol though, it might be worth it to dust off the old Mr. Coffee and give up the Bodum press.

A linguist, artist and curious cook, Dani writes for Pikimal.com’s Eat blog. His particular fascinations in the gastronomic world range from food’s place in society and decoding the advertising we encounter daily to isolating the mysterious je ne sais quoi that makes one product better than another.

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Jennifer

Jennifer has been in the coffee industry since 2003. She started Daily Demitasse to educate and share her experience with other passionate coffee enthusiasts, from a Barista, Cafe Manager, shop Owner and freelancer perspective. When she's not working or blogging, you can find her at Transpire Life.

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