Instant coffee is convenient when brewing a cup isn't possible. But are you trading good health for ease of preparation?
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Here, Jinan Banna, PhD, RD, an associate professor of nutrition at the University of Hawai'i at Mānoa, discusses how instant coffee compares to regular brew and whether it's OK to drink it daily.
Spoiler alert: Instant coffee is healthy to sip, but before you start stirring up a cup, there are a few things to consider.
Instant coffee can be part of a healthy diet but stick to plain coffee rather than those with multiple additives, such as sugar and palm oil.
First Things First, What Is Instant Coffee?
Manufacturers make instant coffee by brewing regular coffee beans to create a concentrated version. The water is then removed to make the dehydrated dry powder, which you stir into boiling water for your morning cup.
This makes instant coffee quick, easy and perfect when you don't have a coffee maker. Instant coffee generally has a long shelf-life too, which makes it handy when you're traveling, camping or just busy and on the go.
Instant coffee is made by either:
- Spray drying, in which the
coffee extract is sprayed into hot air — this quickly dries the droplets into a fine
- Freeze-drying, which involves freezing the coffee extract and cutting it into small fragments that are dried at a low temperature.
You may find instant coffee sold as coffee granules, such as Folger's Instant Coffee, or marketed as coffee sticks like Nestle Nescafe 3-in-1.
Instant Coffee May Contain Additives
Often, you're getting more than just coffee granules with instant brew. Ingredients including added sugar, fats and chemicals can make instant coffee products, such as flavored 3-in-1 coffee, not so great for your health if you're drinking it every day.
Added sugar doesn't supply any vitamins and minerals the body needs, and the additional calories may contribute to weight gain if eaten in excess, Banna says. Plus, sweetened coffee will spike your blood sugar, which will crash soon after and leave you jonesing for more sugary joe.
Fats, such as palm oil, may also be found in instant coffee, Banna says. The problem is, palm oil is high in saturated fat, and, when eaten regularly, this may increase your risk of heart disease, she says. Think of it like this: if you're sipping several cups of instant coffee per day, even small amounts of saturated fats can add up.
The warning about added sugar, fats and chemicals also applies to premixed coffee drinks. Ready-to-drink coffees (which can also be grouped into the instant coffee category) are available in a can or bottle and often contain added sugar and creamers, such as Starbucks bottled Frappuccino drinks.
Instant Coffee Has Less Caffeine
If you're looking for coffee to support your all-nighter or to wake you up the morning after a late night, instant coffee may not give you the maximum caffeine boost you're craving.
That's because compared to fresh-brewed types, instant coffee has less caffeine.
An average cup of instant coffee contains 60 to 85 milligrams of caffeine per serving, while brewed coffee offers 75 to 165 milligrams per serving, according to the International Food Information Council Foundation.
But an energy zing isn't the only thing you'll miss — you may also lose out on caffeine's other potential health benefits. Indeed, "caffeine intake has been linked to a probable decrease in risk of Parkinson's disease and type 2 diabetes," Banna says.
On the other hand, too much caffeine is associated with various adverse health effects. For example, sipping an excessive amount of caffeinated coffee can raise blood pressure and lead to insomnia, per Harvard Health Publishing.
So, whether you drink instant coffee or another type of brew, taking in a moderate amount of caffeine (400 milligrams daily is safe for most healthy people) is your best bet.
Pregnant people should limit their caffeine intake from coffee and all other sources to less than 200 milligrams per day, advises the American Pregnancy Association. The caffeine you drink passes through your placenta and can affect your baby.
Instant Coffee May Have Fewer Antioxidants
In addition to a caffeine high, you might also enjoy sipping joe for its ample antioxidants, which are associated with lower risks of certain cancers and other chronic diseases.
Thing is, your instant brew may boast fewer antioxidants than other coffee varieties.
A May 2019 study in the Journal of Advanced Research measured the number of chlorogenic acids (CGAs) — which are polyphenols with potential antioxidant activity that scavenge free radicals — in different types of coffee. It turns out that 100-percent instant coffee contained the fewest CGAs while unblended roasted and ground coffee ranked the highest in CGA content.
Here's what that means: If instant coffee has fewer free radical fighters, then, theoretically, it offers fewer potential protective effects.
Instant Coffee May Contain More Acrylamide
The other issue with instant coffee has to do with a potentially harmful chemical known as acrylamide. It can form when coffee beans are roasted, and it's also found in smoke, household items, personal care products and other foods.
Instant coffee may contain up to twice as much acrylamide as fresh-roasted coffee, according to 2013 research in Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny. While researchers found the highest concentrations of acrylamide in coffee substitutes, instant coffee had the next highest level and roasted coffee the least — about half as much as in instant.
And that's a concern because acrylamide is considered neurotoxic and carcinogenic, Banna says. Indeed, acrylamide can accumulate in your system and cause neuropathy (nerve damage or dysfunction), according to a February 2014 study in Nutritional Neuroscience. And overexposure to the chemical is linked to an increased risk of cancer, according to the American Cancer Society.
The European Food Safety Authority in June 2015 published a report in the EFSA Journal, noting that coffee was among the highest sources of acrylamide in food, along with fried potato products. The panel concluded, though, that the amount of acrylamide people get from their diets is not enough to pose serious health concerns.
In other words, you don't get enough acrylamide from instant coffee to make it an unhealthy product.
So, Is Instant Coffee Healthy?
While your instant cuppa comes with a few downsides, these shouldn't deter you from drinking it daily, Banna says.
As long as you choose an additive-free variety, instant coffee is safe to sip. And though it may contain fewer beneficial compounds like CGAs, it still serves up a solid source of antioxidants (and a solid dose of caffeine).
Instant Coffee Brands to Try
If you opt for instant coffee, skip the additives. It's best to drink instant coffee that’s just that: coffee. Try these instant coffee brands that are additive-free:
- Food and Function: "Variations in Caffeine and Chlorogenic Acid Contents of Coffees: What Are We Drinking?"
- Roczniki Panstwowego Zakladu Higieny: "Studies of Acrylamide Level in Coffee and Coffee Substitutes: Influence of Raw Material and Manufacturing Conditions"
- Nutritional Neuroscience: "Acrylamide Neurotoxicity"
- Cleveland Clinic: "Neuropathy"
- American Cancer Society: "Acrylamide and Cancer Risk"
- European Food Safety Authority: "Scientific Opinion on Acrylamide in Food"
- European Journal of Nutrition: "Absorption and Isomerization of Caffeoylquinic Acids From Different Foods Using Ileostomist Volunteers"
- Planta Medica: "The Impact of Coffee on Health"
- Practical Neurology: "Effects of Coffee/Caffeine on Brain Health and Disease: What Should I Tell My Patients?"
- American Pregnancy Association: "Caffeine Intake During Pregnancy"
- International Food Information Council Foundation: "Everything You Need to Know About Caffeine"
- NESCAFÉ: "NESCAFÉ 3in1 Original"
- Journal of Advanced Research: “Contents of chlorogenic acids and caffeine in various coffee-related products”
- Harvard Health Publishing: “Pressed coffee is going mainstream — but should you drink it?”