Coffee Talk

down the coffee rabbithole

In addition to caffeine, we love coffee for its deep, complex flavor. But it also has a deep, complex chemistry. It’s nearly as popular as a research topic as it is in our morning cups, and even with such constant attention from nutrition scientists, there is still plenty to discover.

Today I’m focusing on a tiny detail of coffee’s big picture: fat. People don’t often think of coffee in terms of its fats (after all, the label shows that it is fat free!), but there are trace amounts of oils derived from coffee beans. These oils are stripped away when dripped through a paper filter, but remain present in unfiltered coffee – think espresso, Turkish-style, or French press brewing methods. Although these fats are not enough to make a caloric contribution, they have some compelling physiological effects.

The classic example? Compounds in coffee oil have been shown to raise cholesterol (primarily LDL) and triglyceride levels. I’ve found this to be commonly proclaimed by nutrition professionals, but very often unknown among my friends in other fields. I had never heard of it until I was pretty deep into grad school, myself. Leave it to nutrition nerds to balk at your French press!

Of course, in yet another example of the roller-coaster of the accepted nutrition knowledge base, we can also leave it to science to set those nerds straight. More recent research has suggested that in spite of the increase in LDL, coffee oils may not actually be harmful to cardiovascular health because the coffee-induced LDL fraction proves more resistant to oxidation. Simply put, the reason that LDL is considered “bad cholesterol” is because of its susceptibility to oxidative damage, leading to hardening of the arteries. Without oxidation, is LDL still a heart disease risk factor? We’ll need more evidence before we can say for certain, but this finding frames the coffee oil controversy as much less of a black/white issue. Coffee’s compounds that inhibit LDL oxidation also have important implications in the many other diseases with oxidative and inflammatory causes. In fact, the exact same compounds in coffee oil that are responsible for the cholesterol-raising effect have also been identified as protective against cancer.

So, I’m going to once again advocate for my favorite nutrition principles: balance, variety, moderation. I tend to split my coffee-brewing habits between paper-filtered and oil-rich methods, so I thought this could be a fun opportunity to share my preferred equipment. (Disclaimer: I am providing affiliate links to these products, but I have no relationship with the manufacturers or distributors; these are items that I independently purchased, use daily, and honestly recommend.)


This drip machine by Zojirushi is my daily workhorse. It’s slightly pricier than other options, but it is super functional and stylish. I love the sleek compact design, and it has some genius features that I haven’t seen in other products, including a built-in water filter. My other chosen tool is a classic moka pot. I use this from time to time, when I’m in the mood for a fancier latte or Cuban-style turbo-shot.

What kind of coffee do you drink? What’s your opinion on the coffee oil issue?

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