Coffee, Cholesterol, Confusion

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Let’s start with a paradox.

Coffee does not contain any cholesterol – but drinking too much of it can lead to an increase in cholesterol levels. Confused? Worried? Tempted to give up your morning brew and drink green tea forever? Never! Before you panic/roll your eyes/vow to give up your morning brew, please read on.

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First of all, hands up if you can define what cholesterol actually is. Anybody? Nobody? We all know too much cholesterol is bad for our health, but apart from medics and sufferers out there, I suspect many people don’t really know what it is and why it’s our enemy. So here’s the lowdown.

Cholesterol is a waxy substance produced naturally by the liver and found in some foods, often animal products. There are two types, known colloquially as good and bad cholesterol. Our bodies need cholesterol in order to function properly, but too much bad cholesterol leads to a build-up of plaque in the arteries and narrows the space for blood flow to the heart. Bad by name, bad by nature. Good cholesterol is our ally, helping the body get rid of bad cholesterol in the blood.

But why does any of this matter if coffee doesn’t contain cholesterol?

Good question, simple answer.

Coffee contains a molecule called cafestol which reduces the body’s ability to regulate cholesterol levels. This means high levels of cafestol could lead to higher cholesterol levels. Simple as that.

So how can we avoid it?

Coffee and cholesterol

Pic by Mike Kennealy

Cafestol levels vary depending on the brewing method used. The longer the coffee grinds are in contact with the water, the higher the levels of cafestol. Higher quantities of cafestol will also be found coffee made without a paper filter. 

This means cafestol levels are highest using the French press method (the metal filter does not protect against it) and also Turkish-style simmered coffee and Scandanavian-style boiled coffee.

Espresso has lower levels than these methods but higher levels than methods using a paper filter.

But will a switch to filtered coffee methods keep our hearts healthy?

That’s debatable.

It may help reduce cafestol levels, but don’t forget bad cholesterol is also found in milk, cream and sugar, and in the cakes and biscuits we gobble up as we drink our brew. And anybody who drinks alcohol, smokes tobacco, and avoids regular exercise will continue to be at risk from heart disease.

Morning Coffee

Pic by Alisa Anton

To conclude, your morning coffee is one small part of a much bigger problem. Moderation is key.