Coffee: addictive drug or morning necessity?
That depends on who you ask. But since so many of love to start our day with a hot cup of Joe, it’s worth a few minutes to figure out which kind is the best. Just to be clear: this isn’t an argument about whether or not coffee is good for you. That’s an open question. But for someone who’s going to drink coffee no matter what, what’s the best choice that person could possibly make?
Take a look at how the different types of coffee stack up in four areas:
- Caffeine content per cup
- Antioxidant content per cup
- Potential toxin contamination
- Taste and quality
Some people drink coffee because they can’t get enough of the caffeine. Other people are constantly on the hunt for that smooth, dark taste without the subsequent jitters. Either way, it’s very hard to know which kind to buy, because the caffeine content of a cup of coffee is almost impossible to pin down with any precision. These researchers bought coffee from 20 stores and found that caffeine varied from 58 to 259mg per cup. Compare that to a “moderate” daily dose of around 300mg, and you can see that one “cup of coffee” might deliver about one-sixth or about five-sixths of a moderate caffeine intake – or anywhere in between!
- Robusta coffee has more caffeine than Arabica. What does this mean? Without going into a lot of detail, Robusta and Arabica are two different types of beans. Your bag of beans should specify which type you’re getting.
- Espresso has more caffeine per ounce, but a cup of drip coffee has more caffeine than a shot of espresso, because the volume is so much greater.
This implies that if you want the maximum caffeine hit, the way to go is Robusta beans and a plain cup of drip coffee. On the other hand, if you want to reduce your caffeine intake, Arabica beans and lattes (made with almond or coconut milk, if you’re dairy-intolerant) will stand you in good stead.
There’s also a huge debate over which has more caffeine: light or dark coffee. Only the most dedicated coffee devotees really care about this, so if that’s not you, the answer is: it doesn’t matter. But for the coffee nerds in the house, it depends on whether you measure by weight or by volume.
- By volume, 1 light bean has more caffeine than 1 dark bean. Similarly, 1 tablespoon of light roast has more caffeine than 1 tablespoon of dark roast.
- By weight, 1 pound of dark roast has more caffeine than 1 pound of light roast. This is because roasting the beans makes them lighter and “fluffier:” they take up more space but weigh less. Because each individual bean weighs less, 1 pound of dark roast contains more individual beans than 1 pound of light roast (it will also be slightly larger in volume). The greater number of beans makes up for the lower amount of caffeine in each individual bean.
If you measure your coffee by scoop, then light roast will have more caffeine. If you measure by weight, it’ll be dark.
The bottom line: if you want to control caffeine intake, your safest bet is probably to find a brand and roast you like and stick with it. Caffeine is so variable that otherwise it's extremely hard to predict what you'll get.
Of course, the other option for reducing caffeine is decaf coffee – although the extremely caffeine sensitive should note that even decaf does contain traces of caffeine. Alternately, go for tea, herbal coffee, or a naturally caffeine-free alternative.
Coffee is a major source of antioxidants in the American diet, which is already a pretty sad commentary on the American diet (if more people ate more antioxidant-rich foods like fruits and vegetables, coffee wouldn't be such a critical source of antioxidants in the first place). The antioxidants in coffee have been credited with cardiovascular benefits, skin health, and reduced mortality overall, to name just a few benefits. Unfortunately, though, nobody is really sure which type of coffee has the most antioxidants.
- Caffeine itself is an antioxidant, and the section above just covered how it’s almost impossible to guess the caffeine content of any particular cup.
- Some studies have found that the roasting process brings out higher levels of other antioxidants, making dark roasts more antioxidant-rich overall.
- In general, Robusta coffee has more antioxidants than Arabica.
Overall, the variation is so great that it’s hard to compare any one particular brand or type of beans to another.
Toxins and Mold
Here’s where it starts to get nerve-wracking. An amazing number of people are nervous about coffee because they’re afraid of mold or mycotoxins (toxins formed by mold) in the beans. Or they’ll only drink wet-processed coffee, out of fear that dry processing makes the beans moldy.
The difference in processing methods is this: dry processing is the original way to prepare coffee for drinking. The entire cherries (including the bean and the flesh) are dried in the sun; everything but the bean is later removed by machine. Wet-processed coffee is prepared by soaking it in water, pressing it through a screen, and then either fermenting the beans or scrubbing them to remove the last remnants of fruit. The coffee is then dried in the sun, or sometimes by machine.
What does all this have to do with mold, though? Nothing. Because here’s the secret: even though almost all green coffee beans contain some mycotoxins, the levels are universally below the safety limits.
“The average concentration was 2.38 microg kg(-1). All positive samples showed OTA levels below the limit suggested by the European Union (8 microg kg(-1)).”
Roasting further reduces the toxins by about 50% (or even more, in this study) from already trivial amounts. There is just no reason to go crazy about removing such absolutely minute levels of anything from your food. There is no noticeable effect on human health at such tiny concentrations.
There’s no way to get food utterly free of any possible contaminant. Food is a natural product, and natural products just don’t work that way. But our bodies are strong enough to handle such negligibly tiny amounts of contaminants without a problem. We do it all the time with other foods – for example, there’s a legal limit for rat poop in nut butters. There’s no sense in neurotically trying to eliminate every single atom of potential toxins from the world: it’s just not reasonable. Data from human studies indicate that a normal coffee consumption doesn’t expose you to a dangerous level of mycotoxins.
So if that’s true, why do so many people feel better drinking special mycotoxin-free coffee? Well, one explanation is that they’re simply avoiding the measurable contaminants that actually do exist in low-quality coffee. Cheap coffee is often adulterated with things like barley (a gluten-containing grain) and soy, which could very well cause all the symptoms of “mycotoxin poisoning.” If you switch from Folger’s to a “mycotoxin-free” brand that also happens to be very carefully sourced and produced, you’re probably eliminating all those contaminants, and you probably will feel much better; it’s just not because of the mycotoxins.
Taste and Quality
In general, dark roast has a stronger taste, while lighter roasts let the unique characteristics of the beans take center stage. At very dark roasts, the country of origin is almost undetectable in the final cup, so if you enjoy beans from a particular region, a lighter roast is the way to go.
Of course, higher-quality coffee will taste better: the cheap stuff is often bitter or completely undrinkable. But there are two other reasons to go for quality:
- As mentioned above, cheap coffee is often contaminated with anything from sticks and dirt to soybeans. This is especially true of pre-ground coffee.
- Cheap coffee is typically cheap because it’s picked by slaves and child laborers working under horrifying conditions for almost nothing. Would you want your (current or hypothetical) children to live like that?
Whether you’re a light roast or a dark roast type of person, go for the good stuff (fair-trade, high quality). Yes, it’s more expensive. It’s worth it.
Summing it Up
Remember, this wasn’t about whether coffee is good for you or not. It’s about the best coffee choices assuming that you’re going to be having a cup anyway.
That “best choice” will depend a lot on your personal caffeine tolerance, flavor preferences, and budget. But in general:
- It’s very hard to tell which cup of coffee has the most caffeine; it varies too much by brand and by cup to make a blanket statement.
- The same goes for antioxidants; it’s just too variable to really pull out a clear recommendation.
- You don’t need to worry about getting special mycotoxin-free coffee. Buy high-quality coffee from somewhere reputable, and you’ll be covered. Avoid low-quality coffee that might be contaminated with all kinds of junk.
- Lighter roasts have more variable flavors; darker roasts leave less room for regional variations to show through.
- Fair-trade coffee is the equivalent of grass-fed meat: it’s worth your money.
Nobody needs to drink coffee, and if it doesn’t work for you, leave it. But if you are going to drink it, now you know how to get the best.