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Coffee and High Cholesterol: Are They Linked?

Coffee is cholesterol-free like all plants foods. But does its consumption affect blood cholesterol levels? Let’s find out!

Coffee is a popular beverage to which various health effects are attributed. Its nutritional value is probably not one of its most remarkable qualities since coffee has hardly any calories and its content in proteins, fats, and carbohydrates is practically zero. The interest in the dark drink lies in the presence of other components and bioactive substances, such as caffeine and natural antioxidants. For them, coffee is attributed beneficial properties, such as improved concentration, physical performance or prevention of certain diseases.


However, coffee consumption cannot only promote beneficial effects. For years, its consumption has been associated with an increase in cardiovascular risk, especially determined by the increase of blood pressure, although the reviews carried out recently do not allow to support this type of affirmations neither in normotensive people nor in those with hypertension already established. On the other hand, it is well known, especially in sensitive people, that high coffee consumption can cause insomnia or excessive nervousness.

What is perhaps not so well known is the relationship between coffee and cholesterol, and the possible influence of this drink on the increase of plasma cholesterol levels.

coffee and high cholesterol: are they linked?

Coffee composition

The principle of active ingredient of coffee that has been studied to date is caffeine, but apart from that, it is composed of more than 1,000 different chemical substances, including amino acids and other nitrogen compounds, polysaccharides, sugars, triglycerides, linoleic acid, diterpenes (cafestol and kahweol), volatile acids (formic and acetic) and nonvolatile acids (lactic, tartaric, citrus), phenolic compounds (chlorogenic acid), volatile substances (over 800 identified of which 60-80 contribute to the aroma of coffee), vitamins and minerals. Other constituents such as melanoidins are derived from the reactions of non-enzymatic browning or the caramelization of carbohydrates that occur during roasting. There are important variations in the concentration of these components according to the coffee variety and the degree of roasting.

Diterpenes: cafestol and kahweol

The coffee effect on blood cholesterol levels has to do with a diterpene called cafestol. Some researchers rate cafestol as one of the most potent cholesterol-raising substances that can be found in the human diet. Together with kahweol another diterpene present in coffee, they are responsible for the cholesterol-raising effect of the drink. Their mechanisms of action are not completely known, but research suggests that they inhibit three liver genes responsible for cholesterol regulation in the body. These are two diterpenes (due to their chemical structure) are present in the oil derived from the coffee beans, although in different concentration depending on the variety. They are extracted by hot water but are retained in the filter paper (not cloth) by more than 50%, so they do not pass completely into the final beverage during the preparation of filter coffee.


Types of coffee and effects on cholesterol

Analytical studies show that the content of diterpenes is similar in coffee beans, ground coffee, and decaffeinated coffee. But differences are observed in varieties: Arabica has a higher content of both substances than Robusta coffee.

The following table shows the number of diterpenes per cup and the effect on the increase in estimated cholesterol levels of different types of coffee:

Type of coffeeAmount of diterpenes in mg (cafestol/kahweol)Increased estimated plasma cholesterol (mg/dL) with a usual consumption of 5 cups daily
Filter coffee (paper filter)0.1 / 0.1<0.4
Instant (2-3 g of soluble coffee in 150-200 ml of water)0.2 / 0.20.4
Italian coffee maker or macchinetta1.1 / 1.42.7
Espresso (coffee maker)1.5 / 1.83.9
Piston-driven coffee machine3.5 / 4.48.9
Turkish coffee3.9 / 3.99.7

Source: Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 1996; 89 (11): 618-623.


Caffeinated or decaffeinated?

Many makers try to sell decaffeinated coffee as a healthy alternative to caffeine-containing coffee. There is a connection between caffeine-laden coffee and cholesterol that should not be overlooked when considering this issue. Caffeine reduces the negative effects of cholesterol.

Therefore, it is likely to have a reduced effect on LDL as would a decaffeinated drink, decaffeinated espresso or a cup of Turkish coffee. It can also protect the body and brain from the negative effects of higher cholesterol levels. On the other hand, caffeine raises blood pressure, which presents a different type of risk for heart disease.

Recommendations

As with any other food or drink, coffee consumption should be moderated. Coffee made with filter paper has the least effect on cholesterol levels, as it removes most of the diterpenes. So, make use of the filter paper. Even so, additives to coffee, such as cream or sugar and other ingredients, can still increase the low-density lipoproteins (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol. Try to avoid additives. One last thing, if you go to Turkey ask for tea.

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