If you currently drink instant coffee some of the time or all of the time, firstly I would say to you… don’t leave this blog until you’ve read at least a few posts here about speciality coffee! I believe that if you switch from instant to fresh, and from fresh pre-ground commodity coffee to freshly roasted home ground speciality coffee, your world will change for the better! You will begin to be able to walk through walls, fly, move things with your mind power. I may be exaggerating, but only slightly ;-).
Coffee is the fuel of legends, but it comes in various types. For me, fueling yourself on instant coffee is akin to eating instant mash instead of proper mashed potatoes, or reconstituted chicken instead of fresh lean chicken breast.
But is instant coffee bad for your health?
While there have been lots of studies linking coffee to positive health benefits, at the same time there has been some talk about a potential link between coffee and cancer, due to a substance called acrylamide which it is thought may be carcinogenic. Acrylamide is present in many foods which have been fried or baked at high temperature, and it’s present in all forms of coffee.
Here’s the thing though, there is far less Acrylamide in coffee according to tests, than in a wide range of foods. The FDA report lists brewed coffee as containing between 3 – 13 parts per billion, while some brands of crisps have up to 2762 parts per billion, some brands of french fries have up to 1325 parts per billion! Even some brands of “healthy oat bran crackers” have up to 1540 parts per billion. There are also much higher levels than in coffee in various bread products, pitted olives, and breakfast cereals – even some baby biscuits & rusks appear to contain far more Acrylamide than is found in coffee.
Other than this, there is of course the question of Caffeine, and as with anything else it just appears that it’s a case of all things in moderation, and depending on your own caffeine tolerance levels. That is it’s not that caffeine is bad for your health per se, but if you consume more caffeine than your system can cope with, then it might cause problems. I spoke about this in a previous post called “The Great Caffeine Conspiracy” in which I did a bit of head scratching regarding the instant coffee industry and their labeling of caffeine.
But this leads me onto something else, specifically about instant coffee and whether it’s bad for your health or not, and that is:
How do you know what’s in it?
But when you buy a jar of instant coffee, you’re buying a processed product, so how do you know exactly what’s in it?
You might think that the massive instant coffee brands are regulated and would have to tell you exactly what is in the coffee they’re selling to you – but it may come as a surprise, that this isn’t quite the case! It came as a surprise to me anyway, which I blogged about in my “The Great Caffeine Conspiracy” post.
I noticed that while some instant coffee brands list how much of random things like fat and salt there is in coffee… they don’t list the caffeine content! So I contacted them, and I really struggled to get an answer, and it doesn’t seem this is because they didn’t want to tell me, it appears that it’s more that they don’t actually know!
It does make sense to me that they wouldn’t know, because it also became evident to me that, as far as I can tell, they don’t actually know what percentage of what beans are actually in their coffee, and since they all have different caffeine contents, it would be difficult to know. This is particularly relevant with Robusta vs Arabica, as most instants are blends, but Robusta can be double the caffeine content of Arabica, and it seems at least some of the brands (perhaps all, I can’t be sure), don’t actually know what the percentage is.
While one major brand told me they couldn’t tell me because it was a secret…
Another big brand replied telling me they can’t tell me because they don’t know.
Then the various brands stared giving me caffeine figures, it seemed like they were making it up! One of them gave me caffeine levels that according to doctors could be a lethal caffeine dose! But then it became evident that this is because they were telling me the figure in Grams, when they meant to say Mg! A bit worrying. Also they all use the word “serving”, and it was like pulling teeth to get them to explain to me what the heck is a serving, pointing out to them that I have lots of different sized cups & mugs.
The impression I got after speaking to the various companies that are behind the big brands of instant, is that we really don’t know what we’re being sold. We don’t know what the beans are, how good quality they are, how old they are when they buy them, what varietals they are, what percentage Robusta and Arabica they are, and so on. They basically just buy huge quantities of coffee beans, roast them in massive roasters, brew it, freeze it, break it up and put it in jars or bags.
Powdered beans mixed with instant…
If you think I’m wrong and you do know what’s in instant coffee, let me ask you something. How do these “Barista style” instant coffees work, which appear to have a crema? How do you get something which looks like a crema, in instant coffee? I asked Nescafe this in respect of their “Nescafe Azera Barista Style Coffee”, and they replied that this is done by mixing very finely ground coffee beans with instant coffee granules…
So, did you know that some of the instant coffee being sold contains not only brewed and freeze dried or spray dried coffee, but also contains ground coffee beans? Not filtered ground beans, but actual coffee grounds that you would usually filter out of your coffee. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, to be consuming ground coffee, but I’m saying that most people are drinking this stuff and having no idea that it actually contains unbrewed unfiltered coffee beans that have been ground to a fine powder, along with their instant coffee.
If we don’t know this about instant coffee that we’re consuming, what else don’t we know??
In case you don’t know how instant coffee is made see my post the difference between instant coffee and freshly brewed coffee. They basically brew huge volumes of concentrated coffee, and then use one of two methods to dry it out, either the freeze drying process or the spray drying process.
What do we know about how clean the vessels are that contain the brewed coffee, how do we know what systems they have in place to stop insects from getting in to the mix and being smashed up into the granules? How do we know if additives or preservatives are used during the process, is it just 100% water that they use when brewing or do they add anything – and the water they’re brewing with, where is it coming from, how fresh is it, is it filtered, what are the PH levels and so on?
The point is we haven’t got the foggiest idea what happens in these massive plants, and we haven’t got a clue exactly what is going into instant coffee.
So for this reason I personally would say that when it comes to the question “is instant coffee bad for your health”, the answer is we can’t really be sure, as we don’t know exactly what it is made from and exactly what it contains, and the same is probably true of all processed foods and drinks.
When you buy freshly roasted coffee beans though, you know exactly what you’re getting – 100% coffee beans. In most cases you will know exactly where the beans have come from, even the name of the farmer, what elevation it’s grown at, the specific process used to process the beans in terms of getting the seed from the cherry and getting it to the point that it’s ready to ship to a roaster.
You’ll know whether it’s Arabica or Robusta, and if it’s a blend you will usually know what the percentage is. You’ll also know what variety of coffee plant the coffee has come from, and you’ll know from the roaster what taste profile you should expect, which gives you the ability to choose coffee beans that you’re going to enjoy, depending on the kind of coffee you like to drink.
So if you currently drink Instant, do yourself a favour – get yourself a V60 (they’re about a fiver) and some filters, and / or an Aeropress, or my favourite manual coffee maker The Oomph, or a cafetiere – and then get some freshly roasted coffee beans, see the list of UK coffee roasters for loads of great small batch roasters all over the UK.
You will then be able to freshly brew your own amazing coffee, and you will know exactly what’s in it, more than that you’ll know where it came from and all the history about it from coffee plant all the way to being roasted and ending up in your kitchen.
My other suggestion would be that while most coffee roasters will grind for you, I would highly recommend that you get yourself a coffee grinder, either a manual one like the Hario Skerton from about £20, or an electric one (I have the Sage Smart Grinder Pro) but if you go for an electric one make sure it’s a burr grinder, and not one with blades, as they slice rather than grind, and coffee beans need grinding, which requires burrs.
The reason to grind your own is that coffee starts to go stale and lose it’s flavour and aroma soon after grinding, so you enjoy it at it’s best when you grind your own. Also this gives you the ability to fine tune your grind, as this can make quite a lot of difference with most brewing methods, to the resulting cup of coffee.
Life is like a box of chocolates, so follow me on Twitter, and that’s all I have to say about that.