Exploring the relationship between oils in coffee and cholesterol
Despite the wealth of scientific research documenting the many health benefits of coffee over the past several decades, claims have emerged in recent years about a link between the oils in coffee and cholesterol.
While brewed coffee itself is cholesterol-free, recent research has apparently suggested that the oils in coffee can affect how the body metabolises and regulates cholesterol.
So, how accurate is this information? How concerned should you be? And is there a way to extract less of the oils from coffee if this claim is accurate? I spoke with two coffee researchers to find out more.
You may also like our article on coffee, health, and wellness.
What is cholesterol?
Cholesterol is a lipid (a fatty substance) which naturally occurs in both humans and animals. For humans, around 80% of cholesterol is produced by the liver, but we also intake cholesterol from the food we eat – mainly animal-based products.
The liver combines cholesterol with triglyceride fats to make lipoproteins, which then circulate throughout our blood. Although it often carries negative connotations in a nutritional context, cholesterol actually plays an important role in maintaining normal organ function, especially in the brain, nerves, and skin.
But too much of a particular type of cholesterol (low density lipoprotein or LDL cholesterol) can result in several health problems, including an increased risk of heart disease.
Chahan Yeretzian is the head of the Coffee Excellence Centre at the Zurich University of Applied Sciences.
“Cholesterol isn’t inherently ‘bad’ – our bodies need it to build cells and produce vitamins and other hormones,” he says. “Coffee doesn’t contain cholesterol, but it affects how our bodies produce cholesterol, therefore it affects the levels of cholesterol in our bodies.”
This is because of the oils present in coffee. Research from the Institute for Scientific Information on Coffee found that two compounds found in coffee oils – cafestol and kahweol – can raise cholesterol levels.
“Cafestol and kahweol are two specific compounds that belong to the family of coffee oils,” Chahan explains. “They are also known as ‘diterpenes’.
“Cafestol in particular affects the cholesterol levels in blood,” he adds. “It’s the most potent cholesterol-raising compound identified in the human diet.”
However, there are some benefits to consuming these compounds. A 2002 study from the Food and Chemical Toxicology Journal concluded that both cafestol and kahweol have been found to have anticarcinogenic properties in animals – meaning they can prevent or delay the development of cancer.
Extracting oils from coffee
Anja Rahn is a senior scientist at the Wageningen Food Safety Research institute in the Netherlands.
“Lipid (or oil) content in coffee varies between arabica and robusta, as well as between coffee varieties and origins,” she tells me. Generally, arabica contains around 60% more lipids than robusta, but this can depend on the variety.
It’s inevitable that when brewing coffee, some of these oils will be extracted and consumed. However, this largely depends on the extraction method that is used.
“Espresso has the highest lipid yield per volume,” Anja explains. “This is because it’s a more concentrated beverage compared to filter coffee. The finer grind size and higher brewing temperatures also extract more compounds from the coffee.
“Turkish coffee has the second highest levels of lipids, with around half of the yield of espresso,” she adds. “This is because Turkish coffee also requires a finer grind size and higher brewing temperatures, but a higher volume of liquid is extracted, so it’s a less concentrated beverage.”
In general, full immersion brewing methods (including Turkish coffee) are more likely to extract more of these oils. This is because the coffee grounds are in contact with the brewing water for the entire extraction period.
As a result, some studies have indicated that full immersion brewing methods extract more oils, and are therefore associated with slightly higher cholesterol intake. This is most likely because higher levels of oils (including cafestol and kahweol) are extracted in full immersion brewing methods compared to pour overs.
However, Chahan points out that there is no direct link between coffee consumption and the increased risk of heart disease, as there are many other unaccounted variables which could also add to the risk.
“Coffee consumption does not directly increase the risk of heart attacks and strokes,” he says. “There are indications that moderate coffee consumption can actually reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
“This could be because coffee is more than just cafestol,” he adds. “Other compounds in coffee may neutralise or even reverse the negative health effects of consuming more lipids in coffee.”
So, can you reduce the levels of oils in coffee?
Although cafestol only makes up between 0.4% and 0.7% of the total weight of arabica coffee, some consumers may still want to reduce their intake. But is this possible?
“Cafestol isn’t water-soluble because it’s an oil,” Chahan tells me. “But if coffee is extracted at very high temperatures (such as when using a moka pot) or if the grounds are poured into the cup and consumed, then the intake of cafestol can increase.
“Research has shown that drinking Turkish coffee can lead to higher levels of cholesterol as more lipids are extracted,” he adds. “However, when drinking filter coffee, there is usually no increase in cholesterol levels because there are very few of these oils in the liquid.”
For consumers who are concerned about the difference in intake, Anja recommends drinking filter coffee, as percolation brewing extracts less of these oils. To do this, consumers can use brewing devices like the V60 or Kalita Wave.
“Filter coffee is technically a less efficient extraction method than immersion brewing,” Anja explains. “This is because the filter acts as a physical barrier, the grind size is coarser, and the brewing temperature is lower.” Ultimately, this means that smaller volumes of oils will be extracted from the coffee.
Paper filters also help to minimise the levels of extracted oils, especially when compared to metal and cloth filters. This is because paper absorbs more oils than cloth, whereas metal allows the oils to pass through into the liquid.
Anja tells me: “If you do prefer more oils in your coffee, you can use a metal filter to increase the yield of lipids.”
The roast profile can also affect the levels of cafestol in coffee.
“Longer roast profiles can decrease the levels of cafestol in coffee,” Anja says. “So coffees roasted for espresso will have lower levels of cafestol, but the finer grind size and smaller concentrations will extract more cafestol.”
For coffee drinkers who are conscious of this, opting for medium to dark roasts could help.
Considering the health benefits of coffee
Although cafestol and kahweol are known to influence cholesterol levels, these oils also have a number of significant benefits on wider human health.
“Most research in this field focuses on oils in green coffee, which are used in the pharmaceutical industry,” Anja explains. The nutraceutical properties of coffee byproducts (including husk and silverskin) are believed to have a number of health benefits.
But it’s not just coffee oils – there are many compounds in coffee which have positive effects on health. A study from the scientific journal Nature found that caffeine is one of 24 compounds that can help to regulate the production of enzymes in the brain.
Based on decades of research, it’s evident that coffee can be enjoyed as part of a healthy lifestyle. It’s recommended that coffee drinkers should sensibly regulate their consumption to mitigate the likelihood of raising their cholesterol levels.
Anja tells me that a balanced lifestyle is essential to experience the many positive effects of coffee.
“Your body makes cholesterol naturally, so the main thing that consumers need to do is live a healthy lifestyle and avoid drinking very high volumes of coffee.
“Coffee isn’t a necessity, but many people enjoy it around the world,” she concludes.
It’s clear from this article that while there is a link between the oils in coffee and cholesterol regulation, this is a very minor concern for many. For those who need to be more aware of their cholesterol, however, there are a number of ways to reduce the amount of cafestol and kahweol you consume.
However, at the same time, it’s worth noting that consuming a reasonable amount of coffee actually has a number of notable health benefits, including helping to mitigate Alzheimer’s, diabetes, heart disease, and other serious medical conditions.
But for those who want or need to be more aware of their cholesterol levels, there are various ways to reduce the levels of oils extracted from coffee, thereby minimising the risk of higher cholesterol.
By having a more mindful approach to coffee consumption, we can make sure that it’s enjoyed as part of a balanced and healthy lifestyle for many people around the world.
Enjoyed this? Then read our article on exploring alternative coffee beverages.
Perfect Daily Grind
Disclaimer: we are not a medical publication. No material in this article is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek medical advice from a qualified healthcare professional.
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