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Cholesterol Worries? Skip the Espresso

Researchers find that the brewing method may play a role in coffee’s cholesterol connection

spinner image close up of an espresso
Rachen Buosa / EyeEm


If you’re looking for ways to lower your cholesterol, you may want to reconsider how you get that morning caffeine buzz.

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A new study appearing in the online journal Open Heart found a greater risk of raised cholesterol among adults — men in particular — who favor espresso, compared with those who drink coffee brewed through a filter. “Coffee is the most frequently consumed central stimulant worldwide. Because of the high consumption of coffee, even small health effects can have considerable health consequences,” the study notes. Among the more than 1,000 naturally occurring chemicals in coffee, three — diterpenes, cafestol and kahweol — are thought to contribute to raised levels of cholesterol in the blood, which increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and may reduce the benefits that other chemicals in java appear to have in lowering the risk of type 2 diabetes. 

Latest study focused on espresso

Earlier research in Norway had shown an association between coffee consumption and raised cholesterol levels, and researchers in the Netherlands had further determined that brewing technique was also a factor. What’s more, a 2019 Swedish study had found that people drinking two to three cups of filtered coffee daily had a 60 percent lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes than those who drank less than one cup of filtered coffee daily. The health benefit was not seen in subjects who drank boiled coffee, in which coarse ground coffee is added directly to boiling water and left to brew for a few minutes.

Rikard Landberg, a professor of food and health at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, who coauthored the 2019 study could not say for certain but suggested that filtered coffee likely reduced cholesterol-raising diterpenes that are found naturally in coffee beans.

The latest study was undertaken, according to the researchers, because earlier studies had not focused specifically on espresso, which is a popular beverage in Norway. Plus, the European Society of Cardiology (ESC) has no “succinct recommendation” on espresso coffee beyond saying that moderate coffee consumption (three to four cups per day) is probably not harmful and may have some benefits. “We had material from a large population-based cross-sectional study that could answer the question regarding the association between espresso coffee consumption and serum cholesterol,” they wrote.

More than 21,000 residents of Tromsø, Norway, had participated in a long-term study that included a survey in 2015–16 that asked about coffee consumption as well as other information about diet, lifestyle and health issues. Blood samples were taken, allowing for cholesterol levels to be checked. 

What the study found

Drinking three to five cups of espresso a day increased the risk of higher total cholesterol among subjects (especially among men), compared with those who did not drink this beverage. On average, blood cholesterol was raised 0.16 mmol/l for men and 0.09 mmol/l for women.

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The researchers also determined that drinking six or more cups of coffee prepared with a French press (or plunger) resulted in an average blood cholesterol increase of 0.30 mmol/l for women and 0.23 mmol/l for men. Among those drinking six or more cups of filtered coffee, women experienced, on average, a 0.11 mmol/l rise in their blood cholesterol, while there was no difference in men, compared with those who did not drink coffee.

Why the difference

The researchers had no clear explanation for the discrepancy between the sexes when it comes to espresso and raised blood cholesterol levels. They suggested that it could be a result of differences in how men and women reported their coffee habit. The survey did not include a specific size for what constitutes a “cup of coffee.” They noted that in Norway, espresso cups tend to be much larger than what an Italian would consider as a cup of espresso. They also posited that espresso included coffee from machines, capsules and mocha pots that may result in different levels of diterpenes, cafestol and kahweol in the finished product.

The researchers added that the type of coffee and grind may factor into the levels of diterpenes, cafestol and kahweol that are being consumed. Arabica beans contain the highest concentrations of cholesterol-raising diterpenes, compared with Robusta beans, they said.

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