Sunday, September 27, 2015

Should you drink your coffee filtered?

Coffee is one of the most widely consumed beverages in the world. Arguably a key reason for this is that coffee has psychoactive properties that we may be hardwired to value, even if subconsciously. For example, it increases alertness; possibly a fitness-enhancing effect in our evolutionary past. Here the term “fitness” in “fitness-enhancing effect” means “reproductive success”, and does not mean having great athletic ability or having shredded abs.

The two most common sources of coffee beans, which are roasted and ground prior to brewing, are the widely favored Coffea arabica, and the "robusta" form Coffea canephora. The arabica form accounts for 80 percent or so of world consumption. The graph below, from a study by Bonita and colleagues (), shows the per capita consumption of coffee in various countries. As you can see, Scandinavian countries are big consumers.

Most people probably drink filtered coffee. However, there are many unfiltered coffee preparation methods that are also widely used. Greek coffee, Turkish coffee, coffee prepared with a French press, and “cowboy coffee” are all unfiltered.

In the photo below (from:, illustrating cowboy coffee, note that the coffee pot is placed near but not over the fire.

What is “cowboy coffee”? This method of preparation has many variations. A simple one involves mixing ground coffee with hot water, and then keeping the coffee simmering on very low fire for a while. It is called cowboy coffee due to its association with coffee drank by cowboys around a campfire.

After brewed, coffee tends to rise and spill out of the pot if heated at a high temperature. To avoid this, one should turn off the fire just prior to the coffee boiling, heat the coffee in a pot on very low fire, or heat the coffee by placing the pot near but not too close to a campfire. The same is generally true for tea.

With cowboy coffee you need significantly less coffee per measure of water, and the coffee ends up with a stronger flavor – if prepared properly. You also keep two key oily components of the coffee, namely the diterpenes known as kahweol and cafestol; its polyphenols, most notably chlorogenic acid; and some of the coffee particles.

Both kahweol and cafestol seem to be associated with reduction in certain types of cancer in humans, and show strong anti-cancer effects in rats (). The same seems to be generally true for chlorogenic acid (). The coffee particles, if ingested, would probably be treated as indigestible fiber and promote colon health. This is usually the fate of indigestible and partially digestible plant matter.

Why is filtered coffee often recommended? Well, unfiltered coffee is believed to promote heart disease. But that is not primarily due to any strong association having been found between unfiltered coffee consumption and heart disease. In fact, the absence of evidence in favor of this hypothesis in long-term studies is rather conspicuous ().

The belief that unfiltered coffee can promote heart disease is due to evidence showing that consumption of 4 cups per day of unfiltered coffee raises total cholesterol by up to 10 mg/dl ().

Only diehard proponents of the lipid hypothesis would look at total cholesterol increase as a marker of heart disease, in part because total cholesterol may increase due to an increase in HDL cholesterol – a much more reliable marker, but of protection against heart disease, particularly within certain ranges. And yes, unfiltered coffee consumption is associated with an increase in HDL cholesterol ().

Moreover, some of the metabolites of caffeine, 1-methyxanthine and 1-methyluric acid, appear to help prevent LDL oxidation; caffeine metabolites also seem to have potent anti-inflammatory properties ().

Some research provides evidence of the importance of moderation in coffee consumption as an important factor in its relationship with health. In this respect, coffee is like almost anything that can be ingested, including water – the dose makes the poison. In a study of 40,000 post-menopausal women in the US reviewed by Bonita and colleagues (), the hazard ratio of death attributed to heart disease was 0.76 for consumption of 1–3 cups/day, 0.81 for 4–5 cups/day, and 0.87 for ≥6 cups/day. Interestingly, the same study reported that the hazard ratio for death from other inflammatory diseases was 0.72 for consumption of 1–3 cups/day, 0.67 for 4–5 cups/day, and 0.68 for ≥6 cups/day.

Frequently you hear about the possible connection between coffee consumption and gastritis. The most widely cited study I could find that looked into this link found no association between coffee consumption and reflux-associated gastritis ().

By the way, if you have gastritis, you should consider getting tested for Helicobacter pylori (), especially if you like eating raw fish.

Stress and coffee consumption may have similar effects in those who test positive for Helicobacter pylori (see, e.g., ). In those individuals, past research has found a link between: (a) stress, coffee consumption, and other purported “stomach irritants”; and (b) exacerbation of gastritis symptoms, stomach ulcers, and stomach cancer.

This discussion on gastritis is largely unrelated to the issue of drinking unfiltered coffee. It is unclear based on the past studies that I reviewed whether coffee filtration has anything to do with any possible connection between coffee consumption and exacerbation of gastritis symptoms caused by other factors.

As a side note, it is important to keep in mind that the acidity of coffee is nowhere near the acidic of gastric acid, which the stomach is uniquely designed to handle.

I may be wrong, but from what I can see, if you drink coffee regularly and it causes no problems for you, drinking unfiltered coffee is not a bad idea at all.